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Terry Crews and the Discomfort of Masculine Anxiety

The responses to the Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor’s personal testimony in D.C. in support of a sexual-assault bill reveal the persistence of narrow definitions of manhood.

Actor Terry Crews is interviewed in New York in April
Actor Terry Crews is interviewed in New York in April (Richard Drew / AP)

On Tuesday, Brooklyn Nine-Nine star and former NFL linebacker Terry Crews testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee to advocate for H.R. 5578, the bill often referred to as the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights. In a stirring, vulnerable account, Crews detailed the profound impact of the sexual assault he first alleged last October in a series of tweets.

“The assault lasted only minutes, but what he was effectively telling me while he held my genitals in his hand was that he held the power,” Crews said (without naming Adam Venit, the William Morris Endeavor agent against whom he has filed both a police report and a lawsuit in conjunction with the alleged groping incident). “That he was in control.” (Venit issued a general denial of Crews’s claims, and Crews’s lawsuit was eventually rejected by prosecutors per the statute of limitations.)

In his testimony, Crews shared that he had chosen to leave the Expendables franchise to “take a stand” in the wake of his lawsuit against Venit, a high-powered agent who represents the likes of Adam Sandler and Sylvester Stallone: “The producer of that film called my manager and asked him to drop my case in order for me to be in the fourth installment of the movie, and if I didn’t there would be trouble,” Crews said, noting that he chose to leave the production largely because producer Avi Lerner has been protecting Venit. The actor went on to share other ways his account had already been minimized, and reiterated that sexual abuse is neither laughable nor uncommon:

I was told over and over that this was not abuse. That this was just a joke. That this was just horseplay. But I can say that one man’s horseplay is another man’s humiliation. And I chose to tell my story and share my experience to stand in solidarity with millions of other survivors in the world. That I know how hard it is to come forward. I know the shame associated with assault.

Since the first few days after The New York Times and The New Yorker published their watershed investigations into the alleged predations of Harvey Weinstein, Crews has lent his voice—and his stature—to the subsequent outpouring of #MeToo narratives. The actor is not new to addressing toxic masculinity; he has been advocating against men’s allegiance to harmful gender roles for years. His 2014 book, Manhood: How to Be a Better Man—or Just Live With One, traced the actor’s experiences with living alongside an alcoholic father, admitting to a pornography addiction, and slowly abandoning the “Marlboro Man” ideal of masculinity. But now he has named himself as an affected party rather than just an enthusiastic ally.

Amid the broader national reckoning, his voice has taken on a new resonance. Crews has championed the women at the forefront of campaigns to change Hollywood’s culture of gender discrimination, shared the specifics of his own alleged assault, and outlined for others the psychological effects of abuse, especially as it affects male survivors. In doing so, he has addressed the pervasive culture of silencing that can keep survivors of all genders from sharing their stories and pursuing justice (whatever that may look like). And Crews’s commitment to excavating his own trauma on a national stage, an undertaking that can be equal parts cathartic and retraumatizing, crucially helps broaden the woefully narrow profile of victims whose stories are most readily believed.

It is difficult to overstate the visceral impact—and rarity—of seeing a black man, one as statuesque and imposing as Crews, step forward to identify himself as a survivor of sexual assault and reject external demands that he bury his shame. Crews has spoken at length about the tenacity of shame, the way it embeds itself more deeply in survivors’ psyches with each dismissal of their accounts. He has acknowledged that his race and size render his story unbelievable to some, that those same factors kept him from responding to his alleged assailant with violence for fear of being stereotyped as a “thug”—or facing violence at the hands of police.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the days since Crews shared his Senate testimony, a number of his peers have taken to the internet to discredit his experiences—and his manhood. Most notably, rapper and actor 50 Cent (née Curtis Jackson) posted (and then deleted) a bizarre meme featuring Crews shirtless, with the words I got raped / My wife just watched superimposed onto the image, as well as another photo of Crews with a rose in his mouth, with the words Gym time inexplicably in the top right corner. The photos also included a strange, tone-deaf caption in which 50 Cent suggested he would have responded to a similar situation with gun violence rather than the trepidation Crews recounted: “👀LOL,What the fuck is going on out here man? Terry: I froze in fear,😆they would have had to take me to jail. 🤨get the strap.” Both in the comments of 50 Cent’s post, and on Twitter, men insisted they could never stand silent or motionless in the face of another man’s unwanted provocations. Some, like Russell Simmons, who has been accused of rape or sexual assault by more than a dozen women, responded to Jackson’s post with all the concern of a laughing emoji.

Jackson, and the many others who mocked Crews, communicated their allegiance to an idealized masculinity that they imagine as impervious to assault. (Jackson has since insisted his post was a joke, but even so, its purported humor would only stem from the “surprise” of a strong man’s victimhood.) Crews imparting his experience of assault placed him squarely outside that moving goal post, rendering him “weak” and “emasculated” in the eyes of people—most often men—who refuse to untether masculinity from displays of Herculean strength or aggression. For his part, Crews responded first with love for 50 Cent’s music, then by saying he “proved that size doesn’t matter when it comes to sexual assault.” Friday morning, Crews tweeted a response to the misguided questions he’d received in the wake of sharing his story: “Why did you just let it happen? I didn’t. Why didn’t you beat him up? (Sigh),” the tweet ended.

There is a seductive allure to Jackson’s logic, the idea that only “weak” men “allow” themselves to be victimized. It is the same logic that animates victim-blaming rhetoric most often directed at women, but with an added valence of patriarchal posturing. When Jackson (or any other man) suggests that Crews only froze in fear when targeted by a predator because Crews is uniquely weak-willed, the detractor is insisting on his own imperviousness to harm. Because he is a man, he is strong. Because he is strong, he cannot be overpowered. But victimhood is not just the domain of the weak. Sexual violence does not select against “strong” people (and even if it did, Jackson’s comments would still be reprehensible).

Jackson is far from the first to mock Crews for speaking out. In a March interview with BuzzFeed News, Crews noted the controversy that now surrounds him in Hollywood: “I walk in the room, and the room is split right down the middle,” he said. “It just divides right there. It’s kind of like lightning.” While not everyone in the camp Crews identifies as unsupportive speaks of the actor in terms that are as vulgar as Jackson’s, their irritation with Crews’s accounts still functions to discredit both his stories and his masculinity.

The logic of male imperviousness also serves to distance Strong Men(™) from the “weaker” sex. If strength is a hallmark of masculinity, then Jackson’s insistence on his own immunity to harm is also a feverish attempt at denouncing femininity. It is common, when naming sexual assault as an issue that disproportionately affects women, to be met with a barrage of trolls lambasting female advocates for supposedly overlooking male survivors. And so often, the men who decry female advocates’ efforts do not support male survivors when the time comes to do so. The invocation of the male survivor is more often rooted in disdain for women’s organizing than it is in any real concern for the livelihood of the boys and men who must contend with the effects of sexual violence on their lives.

In the days since Crews’ testimony, the silence from other men—men whom Crews has explicitly said he hopes to comfort and embolden with his actions—has been deafening. Meanwhile, the men who mock Crews are participating in the theater of masculine performance to the detriment of their own—and other men’s—healing.

Crews’s testimony also comes in the same week that celebrities in the worlds that he and Jackson both inhabit have thrown their support behind a man whose life represented a far different model of (black) masculinity. Just hours after Crews spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee, 23-year-old Philadelphia rapper Lil Uzi Vert tweeted his plans to establish a foundation for the family of the slain rapper XXXTentacion, whose list of alleged abuses included beating his pregnant ex-girlfriend so badly that she may still be in danger of losing vision in one eye. Uzi’s tweet also included a call for other celebrities to assist his endeavors; thus far, Nicki Minaj, Lil Yachty, and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie have all pledged their support. XXXTentacion, who brought his fans tremendous comfort and his alleged victim deep pain during his short life, attracts sympathy from his peers with ease. To rally behind a “controversial” dead man, even one accused of heinous abuses, may be shocking to some, but it is hardly without precedent. To support Crews, however, a man forsaking the comfortable façade of patriarchal force for a revealing vulnerability, would be to admit complicity in valuing the masculine veneer.

In his testimony, Crews deftly noted that part of the appeal of the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights is the distance it gives victims from the immediate trauma they have faced. “It gives survivors the right to receive information, including access to police reports, rape-kit results, and access to sexual assault counselors,” he said. “And by requiring that rape kits and forensic DNA evidence be retained for the duration of the statute of limitations, this bill gives survivors the right to have time to distance themselves from the immediate trauma before making the difficult decision to report the assault to law enforcement.”

While law enforcement has an unfavorable track record with addressing (even perpetrating) sexual assault—and a worse one yet with treating black people as humans—the core of Crews’s concern still rings true. To acknowledge the fact that survivors deserve to process their traumas on their own terms is to recognize that sexual violence affects those who experience it differently. Crews’s process may not be the same as that of every person he testifies alongside, but his efforts add depth to the chorus. “I have to say, the silence is deafening when it comes to men talking about this issue,” he noted in his testimony. Amid that absence, Crews’s voice is as valuable as it is clear.