In 2016, the YouGoodMan hashtag jump-started an entire movement for black men to create a digital space for ourselves to address our struggles with mental illness. After rapper Kid Cudi announced on Facebook that he was checking himself into rehab to get a handle on the suicidal urges and tumultuous “pool of emotions” that comprised his everyday life, black men rallied behind the hashtag not only to unveil their own struggles, but to create a community of transparency, healing and refuge.
A little over a year later, we find ourselves in the midst of another hashtag-driven revolution. The combined might of Me Too and Times Up have emboldened waves of sexual misconduct victims to expose their assailants. And among the stomach-churning exposés was the news that actor Terry Crews was allegedly groped by William Morris Endeavor executive Adam Venit. In his police report, Crews said that Venit made “overtly sexual” moves with his tongue before brazenly squeezing Crews’ genitals at a party. Following this incident, Venit was suspended from WME for 30 days.
But in stark contrast to the droves of black men who identified with the unveiling of Kid Cudi’s inner demons, Crews stood virtually alone following his own revelation. From the male contingent, there was no outpouring of similar grief. No sanctuary to be found. No brotherhood to be had.
While women collapsed into each other’s virtual arms as they wept publicly across multiple social media platforms, Terry found not only his sexuality questioned, but his manhood.
“A person’s sexuality is not the issue when it comes to conversations about assault. Assault is the issue.”
On her popular daytime television show, Wendy Williams dismissed Crews’ bravery as “just talking” and then asserted that bringing such allegations against a powerful white man would derail his career. Russell Simmons, who’s currently embroiled in his own controversy, pleaded for Crews not only to “give the agent a pass” but to ask that Venit be reinstated ― as he eventually was.
Crews was also forced to address an onslaught of homophobic attacks on his sexuality. After a Twitter user labeled him a “faggot” for coming forward, Crews retorted, “Being sexually assaulted makes me gay?” and admonished the black community for allowing “this mindset” to “go unchallenged” for so long.
For far too many, sexual assault of a man by a man is synonymous with a homosexual victim. After mustering the courage to report his sexual abuse, Iowa native Caleb Byers recalls being demoralized by a “really direct and insensitive” line of questioning by his local police department: “Are you sure you’re not just gay? Why didn’t you push him off?” His case was eventually dismissed due to insufficient evidence.
The sexuality of the victim should not determine the magnitude of the crime. A person’s sexuality is not the issue when it comes to conversations about assault. Assault is the issue. And assault is the only crime, no matter whom it happens to. When we question a victim’s sexual preferences after an attack, not only are we criminalizing homosexuality, but we’re devaluing the severity of the actual crime.
“We often assume that men ― especially those built like Terry Crews ― can’t be sexually assaulted. But if they are assaulted, the preservation of both their manhood and their heterosexuality requires their silence.”
Unfortunately, our responses to sexual misconduct are governed by the prism of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in which men are meant to be sexually dominant, not sexually dominated. We often assume that men ― especially those built like Terry Crews ― can’t be sexually assaulted. But if they are assaulted, the preservation of both their manhood and their heterosexuality requires their silence. This creates a culture of outward skepticism and internalized shame in which black men especially are deterred from revealing their abuse.
A 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report asserts that 1 in 6 men has experienced some form of contact sexual violence during their lifetime, with 14 percent of men experiencing sexual assault before the age of 18. But because so many men fail to report their assaults, specific data about the sexual abuse of black men and boys is hard to come by.
As Crews noted, there are cultural dynamics within the black community that deter black men from coming forward. The well-documented schism between black men and law enforcement contributes to an aversion to engaging in any kind of voluntary interaction with police. How can the sentinels of a broken criminal justice system be entrusted to protect the same lives they disproportionately persecute?
As for instances of child sexual abuse, a strict statute of limitations may serve as a deterrent to reporting these crimes. In New York, for instance, victims have only until the age of 23 to report and persuade prosecutors to file criminal charges against their abusers. This can force the victims to act before they’re emotionally prepared to do so or give up any hope for justice.
But most notably, in order to survive in American society, black males of all ages are conditioned to be “strong black men.” We’re encouraged to avoid sensitivity and revel in sexual conquests, even when our maturity level isn’t up to discerning consent. The “strong black man” narrative often drives a corrosive misogynoir in which we frequently dismiss the agency of black women and reduce them to possessions or epithets. When we’re in turn treated the way too many men treat women sexually, our entire identity comes into question.
“Black men can no longer afford to be silent victims or silent bystanders.”
In a world in which our masculinity is as much armor from an unjust society as it is a target because of it, having our manhood called into question might feel like a death sentence. But failing to accept our vulnerability and find the capacity to heal is actually the death sentence. The internalization of our emotions and experiences that we think is making us strong is, in fact, weakening us and encouraging a culture of silence in which assault against men, women and children can thrive.
There are services that provide support tailored to men and boys who have been sexually abused. Organizations such as 1in6 and Male Survivor facilitate healing and discourse through support groups, access to therapy and other resources. But these initiatives are less effective than we need due to their restricted locations, limited funding and lack of multicultural competency to cater specifically to men of color.
So we must heal the pain in our own communities. Black men can no longer afford to be silent victims or silent bystanders. When did we stop checking on our brothers, our cousins, our friends? When did we stop asking, “You good, man?”
Silence and inaction have wreaked enough havoc on sexual assault victims. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to the black community as a whole, to erect sanctuaries where honesty, belief, encouragement and healing can be fostered.
Terry Crews is not the only black man who has been sexually assaulted, despite being one of the only black men we’ve heard from. There are nameless others who’ve yet to come forward. They deserve the safety net of a brotherhood of their own.
Jay Connor is a writer, consultant and co-host of “The Extraordinary Negroes” podcast.