'Real' Victims

Anna Holmes recounts Charlie Sheen's rap-sheet:


In 1990, he accidentally shot his fiancée at the time, the actress Kelly Preston, in the arm. (The engagement ended soon after.) In 1994 he was sued by a college student who alleged that he struck her in the head after she declined to have sex with him. (The case was settled out of court.) Two years later, a sex film actress, Brittany Ashland, said she had been thrown to the floor of Mr. Sheen's Los Angeles house during a fight. (He pleaded no contest and paid a fine.) 

In 2006, his wife at the time, the actress Denise Richards, filed a restraining order against him, saying Mr. Sheen had shoved and threatened to kill her. In December 2009, Mr. Sheen's third wife, Brooke Mueller, a real-estate executive, called 911 after Mr. Sheen held a knife to her throat. (He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation.) Last October, another actress in sex films, Capri Anderson, locked herself in a Plaza Hotel bathroom after Mr. Sheen went on a rampage. (Ms. Anderson filed a criminal complaint but no arrest was made.) And on Tuesday, Ms. Mueller requested a temporary restraining order against her former husband, alleging that he had threatened to cut her head off, "put it in a box and send it to your mom." (The order was granted, and the couple's twin sons were quickly removed from his home.) "Lies," Mr. Sheen told People magazine.

The privilege afforded wealthy white men like Charlie Sheen may not be a particularly new point, but it's an important one nonetheless. Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are endlessly derided for their extracurricular meltdowns and lack of professionalism on set; the R&B star Chris Brown was made a veritable pariah after beating up his equally, if not more, famous girlfriend, the singer Rihanna. Their careers have all suffered, and understandably so..

I find that last paragraph less than convincing. I think had the photos of Rihanna not been leaked, there would have been a very different response. I also think that Sheen is being derided plenty, and that Spears and Lohan are only vaguely analogous. So I'm not clear that Sheen's status as a wealthy white man is a particularly salient point.

What I do think is salient, and quite damning, is Holmes coldly laying out the gentleman's extensive and profligate history, and then asking why we seem not care. This seems right:

The women are of a type, which is to say, highly unsympathetic. Some are sex workers -- pornographic film stars and escorts -- whose compliance with churlish conduct is assumed to be part of the deal. (For the record: It is not.) Others, namely Ms. Richards and Ms. Mueller, are less-famous starlets or former "nobodies" whose relationships with Mr. Sheen have been disparaged as purely sexual and transactional. 



The women reside on a continuum in which injuries are assumed and insults are expected. "Gold diggers," "prostitutes" and "sluts" are just some of the epithets lobbed at the women Mr. Sheen has chosen to spend his time with. Andy Cohen, a senior executive at Bravo and a TV star in his own right, referred to the actor's current companions, Natalie Kenly and Bree Olson, as "whores" on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program on Tuesday. Arianna Huffington sarcastically tweeted that Mr. Sheen's girlfriends "symbolize modesty, loyalty and good taste." Mr. Sheen's own nickname for Ms. Kenly and Ms. Olson -- "the goddesses" -- is in its own way indicative of their perceived interchangeability and disposability. 

It's these sorts of explicit and implicit value judgments that underscore our contempt for women who are assumed to be trading on their sexuality. A woman's active embrace of the fame monster or participation in the sex industry, we seem to say, means that she compromises her right not to be assaulted, let alone humiliated, insulted or degraded; it's part of the deal.

Let me push this a step further and argue that men who assault women are likely quite aware of this dynamic. It is too much to say that only "certain" women suffer from this sort of bullying. But I don't think it's too much say that bullies, of all stripes, try to pick their targets. Isolating the victim is parcel to the abuse. In that sense, the victims Holmes details are pre-packaged--our societal mores have already made pariahs of them, thus enforcing a kind of isolation long before the victimizers arrives. 

More than that, this is always the test for injustice. I wish I could remember who, but in the Michael Vick discussion, someone mentioned victim categories. So "real victims" are people with no agency--babies, dogs, perhaps hate-crime victims, kidnapped children. But fake victims are people who are seen as somehow contributing to their fall--the HIV positive, the prison-rape victim, the porn star who's assaulted. The notion is that you had agency, and you employed it in such a way that endangered your person. Thus you are responsible ultimately for your fate.

Charlie Sheen's victims fit snuggly into that latter category. I suspect he is at least partially aware of this.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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