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Posted under: Opinion

Russell Simmons, Rape And The Myth Of 'Toxic Feminity': What Black Men Can Do To Be Part Of The Solution

Black solidarity must include Black women and girls who are sexually abused.

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Co-written by Robyn L. Gobin, Ph.D.

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“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman, the most unprotected person in America is the Black woman, the most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

— Malcolm X

What Is Solidarity?

Amidst the spotlight shining on police brutality against Black people in the U.S., we are living in a time where Black solidarity is so important psychologically. In fact, in many circumstances, such solidarity is truly a matter of life and death, given the very public, brutal, state-sanctioned murders of Black people.

During this time, there is the additional need for another type of Black solidarity. One that remembers and holds dear that Black women and girls are part of the Black community. And as such, it will never be okay to sexually abuse, sexually assault, sexually harass or rape Black women and girls.

Even if you’re a Black man.

Myths About Sexual Assault

In June 2020, Russell Simmons spoke on The Breakfast Club. As someone with multiple Black women saying he has sexually assaulted them, Simmons said this:

But I want my daughters to have proper boundaries, because toxic femininity is when one perhaps may not put up those boundaries and may regret it later. So I want my daughters to know how to say no, and I want my daughters to put up boundaries and be strong and be leaders.

As Black feminist trauma psychologists who use cultural betrayal trauma theory and other frameworks to research the impact of violence in the Black community, we would like to break it down. 

Toxic Femininity, how Simmons described, is not a real thing — Toxic Masculinity, however, is very real. Toxic Masculinity is a cultural expectation that men prove their manhood by being aggressive, violent, emotionally tough and domineering. A facet of Toxic Masculinity is to create a mirror term, like Toxic Femininity, that degrades Black women and girls, while simultaneously taking the focus off your own and others’ alleged sexually abusive behavior.

This notion of Toxic Femininity makes Black women and girls responsible for Black men’s sexually abusive behavior. The truth, however, is more straightforward: Black men are responsible for their own behavior, with rape not being an inevitable by-product of Blackness or maleness. At the same time, Black women and girls are never responsible for Black men’s behavior — no matter what they say or don’t say, do or don’t do, wear or don’t wear. Black women and girls have been and continue to be sexually abused at alarmingly high rates because of people and cultural norms that perpetrate and condone such abuse — not because of anything they’re doing wrong.

As such, having sex with someone who is unable to give consent for any reason, including intellectual disability or being “not coherent” due to intoxication, is not sex at all. It’s rape. There are no exceptions or misunderstandings that change this fact.

With this comes many no-brainers. It’s never acceptable to sexually abuse children and teens, rape someone who is unconscious, sexually harass a co-worker, sex traffic anyone, or use your power or authority to coerce someone into sleeping with you.

But what about this: “Even if sexual assault does sometimes happen, what if all these Black women and girls are publicly trying to take down Black cultural icons like ‘Uncle Russ’?” 

Well, we know that over 90% of sexual assault allegations are true. We also know that passing a lie detector test does not prove that a person did not commit sexual assault. In fact, lie detector tests are inadmissible in court in most states because they are scientifically invalid and unreliable. We also know that sexual assault does happen. A lot. 

So, we must ask ourselves, “Why can we be so invested in the narrative that Black women and girls who say they’ve been abused are trying to cause trouble?”

The Good Black Men

Oftentimes, there is something missing in all our discussions of sexual assault in the Black community, including within the defenses of indefensible behavior: 

Many Black men do not sexually abuse anyone in any way and do not condone such behavior. 

What about all those Black men? What can they do? 

First, we would suggest not taking advice from a prominent Black man who has multiple women saying he violated them.

Instead, we suggest listening and learning from the alleged victims, and Black women survivors more generally, who have insight into what sexual abuse is actually like.

Next, you can learn from credible sources, such as the MeToo Movement, the Center for Institutional Courage, Set The Expectationresearch done by and with Black people and others that can provide factual information about sexual assault and its impact.

Lastly, from us to all the many Black men who respect Black women and girls and don’t think violating them is OK, here’s what you can do:

  • Listen and support the Black women and girls in your lives when they tell you they’ve been violated.

  • Care — and communicate that you care — about what the other person or people are feeling when you’re being sexually intimate with them. 

  • Understand that sexually abusing Black women and girls happens within the context of a culture — both within and outside of the Black community — that degrades them. 

  • Recognize power dynamics that exist between you and the Black women you work with. As such, be intentional about not abusing your power.

  • Call out all forms of behavior that perpetuate rape culture, such as cat-calling, for what they are: Attempts to control Black women and girls by sexualizing them in public.  

  • Know that your capability of not sexually abusing anyone is the same capability that all Black men have — including those who rape. 

  • Do not provide excuses for Black men who rape. 

  • Continue to be part of the solution to end Black male perpetrated sexual violence against Black women and girls. 

Today, in a time where Black solidarity is so desperately needed, we hope we all can throw out the silent oath of secrecy we have and replace it with true solidarity that, by definition, includes the needs of all of us — including Black women and girls.

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Jennifer M. Gómez, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development (MPSI) at Wayne State University.

Robyn L. Gobin, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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