When White Men Rape

by Bobby London

Two weeks ago much of the world mourned the loss of rock musician and cultural icon David Bowie. TIME Magazine honored Bowie by putting him on the cover page of their weekly issue, and a street in Austin, Texas was renamed after him. Amongst the mourning, conversations turned towards the fact that Bowie had once had sexual relations with 14-year old “groupie” Lori Mattix. The same people who have been posting about how the Huxtables are forever tarnished were sharing apologisms about David Bowie, with the narrative that “no one's perfect”, or that “the times were different.” New York Magazine, whose infamous July issue depicted dozens of Cosby’s victims on the cover, shared numerous articles honoring Bowie following his death. This got me thinking closely about the psychology of rape culture and why society continues to celebrate and award known rapists.

When white men rape, histories are rewritten, their careers continue to flourish, and their legacies remain unstained even into death.

It must be noted that neither Cosby nor Bowie considered themselves rapists. Part of rape culture feeds off of the predatory nature of male entitlement. We’ve been sold on the idea that anyone would be so lucky as to sleep with these powerful, rich, and famous men… So how could it possibly be rape?

Bill Cosby has openly admitted to using Quaaludes, a popular narcotic in the 1970s, to drug his victims. Quaaludes, as Hugh Hefner once charmingly mentioned to former girlfriend Holly Madison, were known as “thigh openers” during this time. Hefner, another sexual predator, happens to be close friends with Cosby and lives in the home where several of Cosby’s alleged sexual assaults on young women took place. Including the assault of a 15-year-old who stated that in 1974 Cosby forced her to drink beer and then took her to the Playboy Mansion where she was raped.

Hefner claims an event such as this would never have been tolerated in his home. But again, this is the same man that referred to narcotics as “thigh openers.” Not to mention that throughout the years, Holly Madison and several other Playboy Bunnies have shared similar experiences of being manipulated and coerced into fulfilling the sexual desires and other demands of Hefner. And yet, because we live in a patriarchal rape culture, Hefner is not seen as a rapist. Instead, the women are thought to be naïve for thinking that they wouldn’t or shouldn’t have to live under the sexual, emotional, and physical rule of a famous older man. After all, it’s Playboy and the Playboy Mansion. What did they expect?

The Playboy Mansion has become a symbol for gendered power dynamics in American culture. We see it as perfectly acceptable for an older man to lure young women onto his property with promises of fame and fortune—along with the unspoken rule that there will be sexual favors performed in exchange. So when women do leave and speak out against the mental abuse, trauma, and coercion they’ve experienced there, they aren’t seen as victims. Instead, they are seen as gold diggers who knew what they were getting themselves into. Their stories aren’t believed or validated. Rather, they have been viewed as scantily clad opportunists: cheap women trying to continue to profit off of a powerful man’s hard work.

As we begin to deconstruct rape culture, we must question what we understand both consent and sexual assault to mean. We must also look at how the women who speak out against the abuse are treated, when they have less power and/or racial and economic privilege than their attacker.

In our culture, youth is fetishized and sexualized. But it happens even more so in the entertainment industry, where younger is better, and barely legal is legal enough. When we hear that David Bowie “devirginized” a 14-year-old “groupie,” we’re supposed to think “How cool! Her first time was with David Bowie.” And then perhaps feel envy that our first sexual experiences were less glamorous and less memorable.

Except a grown man having sex with a 14-year-old child is rape. Calling said 14-year-old a groupie, or saying that she wanted “it” is not a sign of consent, but an example of how little consent is valued and understood in rape culture. You would think that one does not need to explain that a child cannot consent to sex with an adult. That even if upon reflection, the victim still believes sex was consensual, it does not mean that rape did not occur, because women in our society have been forced to internalize and adhere to rape culture.

In these incidents of famous men committing acts of pedophilia and rape, society has continued to embrace and reward predators. Woody Allen—a prime example—molested his seven-year-old adopted daughter, and also had a sexual affair with the then teenage adopted daughter of his long term partner Mia Farrow. It feels wrong to even call it a sexual affair. Soon Yi, who had experienced abuse and trauma from an early age, was only a young adult at the time, and Woody Allen was supposed to be a father figure to her. Farrow and friends of Farrow often spoke of being afraid of Allen, citing his connections to New York teamsters and status within Hollywood. He continues to be celebrated as a brilliant director, creating movies with A-list actors and major film studios. In 2014, the Golden Globes gave him a lifetime achievement award, followed by a standing ovation from the audience.

Even to this day, Woody Allen remains untouchable. And when he dies, his life will be commemorated much like Bowie’s has been—with articles praising his body of work; reflecting on how much we as a culture will miss him; and as with all “heroes”, how imperfect yet endearing he was. Imperfect, because when white men are rapists, it is seen as a flaw—not a desirable one, but an accepted one nonetheless.

However, when Cosby dies, we can be sure that he will be remembered as the man who let the entirety of the Black community down. White America still views the fictional Huxtables as the only example of a positive black family—one of the few times we’ve seen a Black husband and wife raise a family together without having to struggle. White America believes that Cosby was the father figure that we, as fatherless children, never had.

But Cosby is no leader to the Black community. He actually despises us. And as someone who grew up in a nuclear home with two loving parents, I didn’t need the Huxtables to know that Black love and the Black family exists. So now that Cosby is an accused serial rapist, I feel no allegiance to him, and see no reason to defend him or his legacy.

Let him be exposed for the rapist that he is. Let's condemn him in the media, dishonor his name, and take away whatever accomplishments or honorary titles he may have been given. But also, let’s just not forget to do the same for David Bowie, Hugh Hefner, Woody Allen, Roman PolanskiJimmy PageJames Franco (who, within the past couple of years, attempted to arrange a hotel hook-up with a 17-year-old girl), Bill ClintonBen RoethlisbergerJerry SanduskyTerry RichardsonGerard DepardieuDonald TrumpBryan SingerJerry Seinfeld, and the many other white men of power and fame who continue to rape and sexually abuse women and girls with impunity and protection.

We often use the words “allegation” or “alleged” when discussing these men’s crimes, since this is proper and protective protocol employed by the media, but this is often used as a dismissive tactic toward victims. Whenever someone is raped—whether their rapist was famous or not—we question the validity of their claim. It is easier for people to give the rapist the benefit of doubt than it is for them to believe the one who has been abused.

For example, Dylan Farrow courageously wrote an open letter regarding the sexual abuse and trauma caused by Woody Allen. The letter was published in The New York Times under Nicholas Kristof’s column where he prefaced her open letter with a disclaimer stating, “It’s important to note that Woody Allen was never prosecuted in this case and has consistently denied wrongdoing; he deserves the presumption of innocence.”

When we intersect and factor in race along with privilege, we see that when a rapist is white—especially if his victim was a person of color—it is more difficult for his accuser to seek justice, or even believed. We need to have an intersectional approach to deconstructing rape culture; one that includes race, gender/gender nonconformity, class, documentation status, body type, mental and physical abilities, and age. And while all rapists deserve to be punished, not all rapists will be. Especially when you consider race, class, and other variations of privilege.

We must continue to have these uncomfortable conversations and be honest with ourselves about the people we admire and, most importantly, the people we love. Rapists benefit from silence and are protected by doubt. We must understand that we all perpetuate rape culture and have internalized it as well. We must ensure justice and support for all victims.

We must hold all rapists accountable.

Photo: Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Bobby London is co-host of On Resistance Radio on 90.7 FM KPFK and a Los Angeles based writer and journalist. You can find her writing on ThisIsBobbyLondon.com and on CounterPunch.org.

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