While others were blasting the Oklahoma senate for approving a zygote-rights bill, the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for holding a birth control hearing without a single woman testifying, and Virginia for trying to pass a law requiring women who want an abortion to undergo an unnecessary, invasive vaginal ultrasound, I was inundated with the XXL and Too $hort debacle.
If you haven’t heard, earlier this month the 45-year-old rapper Too $hort shot a video exclusively for XXLmag.com in which he advises middle school boys to eschew the age-appropriate ritual of “trying to get kisses from the girls” in favor of “[pushing a girl] up against the wall or [pulling] her up against you while you lean on the wall,” inserting a spit-covered finger into her underwear and rubbing her “general area down there” to “watch what happens.”
In two statements last week, the magazine and website’s editor in chief, Vanessa Satten, said she’d ordered her online staff to remove the video after she viewed it, apologized “to anyone who was offended” and, amid several petitions calling for her to be fired, suspended several unnamed employees for what she described as an awful judgement call. Too $hort, who will release his 19th album next week, also apologized for what he believed to be his usual satire gone terribly wrong.
Despite her attempts to end the debacle, several petitions calling for Satten’s dismissal have garnered more than 49,000 signatures to date. ColorofChange.org, which was instrumental in MSNBC’s dismissal of Pat Buchanan, launched the most extensive petition effort.
We Are the 44%, a new coalition of black and Latina female activists, writers and educators—including 2008 Green Party vice presidential candidate Rosa Clemente, seminal hip-hop feminist Joan Morgan, and “Decoded” co-author dream hampton—has issued a public statement that (rightfully) cites the video as “part of the larger issue of sexual assault against our women and children, particularly Black and Latina girls.” An excerpt:
Too $hort’s video specifically targeted adolescent students. This group is consistent with the appalling statistic that 44% of sexual assault survivors are under 18 years old (visit the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network website: www.rainn.org/statistics). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reports that 1 out 5 women in the United States have been raped in their lifetime. Because Too $hort’s video blatantly promoted sexual violence against girls, and because boys are also being advised to develop irresponsible, abusive and ultimately criminal behavior compelled, the all-women coalition decided to take pointed actions.
Besides the “immediate” firing of Satten, the coalition has five demands:
Too $hort, along with the professionals he hires to support his recording and touring career, must participate in education and sensitivity training on the topics of sexual assault and rape.
Too $hort must donate to local and national anti-sexual violence organizations that service Black and Latina girls.
All Harris Publications leadership, management, and staff members participate in education and sensitivity training on sexual assault/rape.
Harris Publications improve and make public its editorial policy so that the promotion of sexual violence is not encouraged or accepted under any circumstances.
Harris Publications create premium space for the promotion of anti-sexual violence content (articles, creative work, etc.) on its websites and in all its publications, on a permanently and quarterly basis. Additionally, that Harris Publications permanently set aside, on a quarterly basis, two full pages for use by the coalition to highlight its work and that of its member organizations.
I know many of the people involved in and allied with We Are the 44%. And given my long history in what was once known as hip-hop journalism, I also know a few folks who currently make their living writing, editing and shooting video for XXL-branded properties. For me, this debacle has been extremely painful. When I read the transcript of the video, I was sure that condemnation of it would be unanimous. I figured that everybody knew that a video by a 45-year-old black man encouraging middle school boys to “turn out” girls by pushing them against walls and touching their vaginas—without explicit consent—constitutes a how-to for the sexual assault of girls and the increased criminalization of black and brown boys. Sadly, based on several phone calls, aggressive emails and nasty comments I’ve received from select former colleagues, I was wrong.
The weakest criticism I’ve heard is that people protesting the video’s content haven’t seen it—as if a transcript of the video that XXL and Too $hort haven’t themselves contested isn’t enough.
In their reflexive defense of Too $hort and XXL, some have claimed that critics are “out of it,” that they’re “too stupid” to understand Too $hort’s satirical legacy and are essentially too square, old and—wait for it—feminist to take a joke.
I’m genuinely confused about how teaching boys to commit sexual violence could ever be material for public mockery. Even in the long cultural tradition of African American gallows humor (see the late, great Bernie Mac threatening to slap a child’s head “down to the white meat”), certain material is radioactive. Tall tales of sexual exploration and related freak-nastiness isn’t off limits. Children potentially raping other children certainly is.
I’ve also heard that critics of Satten are targeting her because she’s white. It’s a hollow charge given that she has been the editor in chief of XXL for four years. Her race isn’t relevant. What the petitions are calling for and what I asked for in a piece I did for Ebony.com is transparency, accountability and some assurance that those within the culture of XXL understand that sexual violence by and against children isn’t fodder for poorly executed jokes.
Besides the firing of Satten, I agree with the demands of the We Are the 44% Coalition and encourage other hip-hop sites and publications to take stock of their own policies about content that crosses the line between genuine adult humor and old men pimping children for clicks.
Now, as the headline promises, here are five things hip-hop sites can learn about sexual violence:
1. Sexual violence is a hip-hop community issue.
Under drug war policies, women are the fastest growing prison population in this country. More than 50 percent of female prisoners say they were sexually assaulted or abused before they were incarcerated, compared to 10 percent of men. In other words, there’s a link between sexual assault, resulting drug use, racist policing of said use, and imprisonment. Last I checked, hip-hop culture was anti-prison. So if you’re anti-prison, you should be anti-rape, right?
2. You don’t have to do all of the work.
Instead, support the work of people who fight sexual violence and the exploitation of girls of color. A few off the top of my head: GEMS (Girls Educational & Mentoring Services), A Long Walk Home and Men Can Stop Rape.
3. You should set and enforce professional standards before someone makes a mess.
For a viable example, check out how ESPN handled the Jeremy Lin “chink in the armor” affair. With revealing quotes from ESPN editors, The Poynter Institute analyzed how the phrase “chink in the armor” made it anywhere near the name “Jeremy Lin” on its properties. Within the explanation, we see that ESPN’s editorial board discussed other outlets’ Lin-related racism at its monthly meeting and sent a memo to staffers warning them to be hyperaware of potentially offensive language. While the memo didn’t prevent a mobile editor and on-air personality from using the shopworn cliche, it did establish a clear line about what would and would not be tolerated.
With an issue as complex as sexual violence, particularly through the lens of pop culture, it’s easy for folks who are inundated with explicit material to become desensitized. Establishing what is taboo—with the threat of unemployment—lessens the likelihood that someone will become so numb that they have such a lapse in judgement.
4. Loving women such as your mother, daughter, wife or sister doesn’t absolve you from participating in rape culture.
Because accusations of sexism have dogged hip-hop for so long, many people are resistant to hearing about the very real ways it can contribute to a culture that condones and encourages violence toward women. (This includes exalting actual pimps, running photos of women’s body parts without showing their faces in mainstream magazines, and shouting down adults within the culture who question some of this behavior.) Instead of dealing with the issue, I’ve seem some folks point to how they take care of the women in their lives. That may work for artists. It doesn’t work for alleged journalists.
5. Some people are going to be angry—and they should be.
Women and girls who have been sexually assaulted are very, very often in pain. When you publish material that seems to condone what happened to them, you blame them or you trivialize that experience via slang like “running a train,” you contribute to that pain. If you’re faced with a woman—be she a reader, critic, activist, artist or coworker—who is upset about it, don’t shut her down with petty debates about the true meaning of lyrical content or double standards (“Hollywood gets to do it! Why can’t we?”). Just listen. Then do better.