Does Rape Have a Color? Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Bill Cosby and the Racial Politics of Sexual Abuse

Woody Allen Bill Cosby R Kelly

What, me worry?

Like so many over the past weeks, I have been following the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen conflagration that re-exploded in the media on February 1 with Ms. Farrow’s open letter to the New York Times. In the letter, Farrow accuses Allen in graphic and heart-wrenching detail of sexually abusing her when she was seven years old. This information wasn’t new since Maureen Orth at Vanity Fair had covered the story extensively when it first broke in 1992, but Farrow’s letter triggered new interest in the case, even beyond that of Orth’s November 2013 follow-up interviews with the entire Farrow clan.

Apparently unable to stay silent amidst the firestorm, Allen followed Farrow’s letter one week later with a denial in the form of a Times op-ed, which then garnered yet another response from Farrow in The Hollywood Reporter.

In between a number of great thought pieces have been published on how and why these allegations have resurfaced, and what they mean for other cases involving celebrities, child abuse, rape and assault. Gawker’s Tom Socca and Slate’s Amanda Hess have drawn particular linkages from the Allen case to the sexual allegations against Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. These cases have been received far less attention in the media than has Allen/Farrow’s situation.

Socca speculates that the world is just not ready to view the jolly, Jello-hawking Cosby as a predator, while Hess thinks it’s in part also about the type of victims involved. She explains that in all three cases, it’s much easier to support innocent children and teens (Dylan and R. Kelly’s victims) than young adult women, who were “aspiring actresses and models,” who hung out with Cosby and hoped some of his star power would jumpstart their careers.

Here, I offer a few historically-minded thoughts. First, much of the backlash against Farrow, and the other victims of Cosby and Kelly, is rooted in America’s “rape culture,” which itself has a long history. As The New Inquiry’s Aaron Bady so eloquently puts it, Allen’s “good name” is the one at risk in a rape culture, and we simply don’t extend the same high bar of “beyond a reasonable doubt” to victims like Farrow. Indeed, in a rape culture, we only have to be a little bit nervous about Farrow’s claims to render her, at the least, a fraud, a liar and a charlatan, and at worst, a whorish fame-monger.

Second, Hess’s point about the young age of the victims in these cases raises some interesting historical thinking on the relationship between victim support and age of consent laws. The women’s suffrage movement in the United States had a long and complex involvement with the campaign to change the age of consent for sexual intercourse. They were working against a system in which female children as young as Dylan Farrow was in 1992—seven—could agree to sex. Reformers like Helen Hamilton Gardener wrote extensive arguments about the degradation of society and the vulnerability of young women to help change ideas about the law. Ultimately the campaign was quite successful, in part, because it appealed to conservative ideas about childhood innocence, and female purity and morality. In some ways then, modern consent law is a product of the continued equivalence of women and children. And as feminists know, protective legislation can be a double-edged sword. Not only do consent laws blur the lines between what a child is versus an adult woman, but they can complicate cases of rape and abuse—is a 16-year old really more capable of consenting to sex than a 15-year old, by virtue of being one year older?

Finally, like a rather somber Carrie Bradshaw “I couldn’t help but wonder” about the class and racial implications for all three of the cases in question. It’s easy for many to spring to Dylan Farrow’s defense, either as a cute, tow-headed seven year-old or as an adult white woman because she is a sympathetic figure to other white Americans. On the other hand, it seems that the Cosby and Kelly cases color (no pun intended) our response in a different way. Are we ignoring these crimes because we are collectively “ghettoizing” black-on-black sexual violence?

Certainly in R. Kelly’s case, the Village Voice and reporter Jim DeRogatis have pointed out that the media has basically given him a pass, in part, because his victims were black teenage girls. As DeRogatis explained it to the Voice: 

Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are “bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,” plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of. Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar, makes this point : one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different.

Meanwhile, white Republican America has long embraced “Dr. Huxtable” because of his comforting middle-class-ness, and his continued railing against black hip-hop culture and black vernacular language. Yet, like Kelly, he’s still a black man, and his victims were black women. Perhaps we can’t stomach the thought of Cosby as a rapist because society doesn’t really care about the women he attacked, and considers it an issue for the black community to handle.

History might also be able to explain our collective cultural myopia. Nineteenth-century white perceptions that blacks were “oversexed” would have made both the Cosby and Kelly stories seem standard on both perpetrator and victims’ sides. Billing black men and women as crazed, primitive, sexualized beings was a part of everyday rhetoric both before and after the Civil War. American culture into the mid-twentieth century was rife with racist historical tropes like the “Hottentot Venus” and the black male rapist who stalks white women. These stereotypes long served as another way to marginalize black Americans and justify perpetration of white-on-black sexual violence and lynching.

Moreover, sexual violence within the black community was ignored or prosecuted for the wrong reasons, as scholars like Diane Miller Sommerville and Danielle McGuire have explored. Sommerville notes that in Reconstruction-era America, whites often “countenanced black-on-black rape, even when the victim was a child, excusing it as a byproduct of slavery” and blacks’ general lack of “virtue” (Rape and Race in the Nineteenth Century South, 153). She explains that a long tradition of “universal white sexual access to black females, coupled with  longhheld beliefs about the innate licentiousness of black women” made it easy for whites to believe that black women simply couldn’t be raped (155).

It seems that some of these nineteenth-century beliefs about race, gender and rape may be lurking in society’s perceptions of the Cosby and Kelly allegations. Recent history tells us that white dismissal of black-on-black sexual abuse and child abuse was part of a longer historical trajectory of separating, isolating and otherizing black sexuality.

Rape is always rape. But history tells us it also has a color.

Comments

  1. Very well done. I also wonder about the fact that Dylan Farrow has access to the press in ways that black women, who are far less privileged than she is, have. I cannot image one of R. Kelly’s victims, for example, being able to post an open letter in the New York Times.

  2. Interesting assessment. I am curious to know whether intraracial politics also complicate the African-American womens’ experiences. For instance, do taboos against “airing dirty laundry” or “‘siding with whites’ in emasculating and criminalizing the black man” serve to further silence the black females? Historically, these ideas were manifested in the myth of the black matriarch and the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas issue. Beverly Guy Sheftall and Johnetta Cole have dealt with these concepts.

    • Hey K McCray,
      Good question. I know that Elsa Barkley Brown’s work on African American women in the Reconstruction South from the anthology the Black Public Sphere (Negotiating and Transformng the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom) and Hannah Rosen’s Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South argue yes on that issue. Both are really great insights into the subject, though obv. Brown’s is a fifty page or so article and Rosen’s is a full book. Rosen’s chapter on a race riot in Memphis is fascinating and disturbing at the same time. Both highly recommended. Thanks for checking the site out!

      rr

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