HBO produces excellent television. Their series and movies are extremely good – imaginative, well-written, and superbly cast. They also make informative and artful documentaries. Last week I watched one of these called “On the Record” which deals with accusations of sexual assault levelled against Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records and one of the most revered figures in the hip hop community. Simmons is also a highly successful entrepreneur, having started lucrative fashion lines and co-produced highly popular films such as “The Nutty Professor” and “Dude, Where’s my Car?” His net worth was estimated at $345 million in 2011. He is a huge success story and an icon in the American black community.
His stellar record remained untarnished until the L.A. Times published an investigative report on Dec. 13, 2017 in which five women accused Simmons of sexual misconduct, including one rape. The New York Times simultaneously printed a story in which four more women accused Simmons of inappropriate conduct, with three more rape allegations. The #METOO movement had empowered these women to come forward. Simmons, like so many other powerful men, denied everything. “On the Record” includes several of Simmons’s accusers, but primarily focuses on one, Drew Dixon.
Dixon is a bright, capable and talented woman who turned her passion for music into a successful career in the 1990s. She started out working as a receptionist at a few record labels, but made sure to insert herself into as many meetings as possible. It became clear over time that the outspoken Dixon knew talent when she saw it, and in 1992 she was hired by Simmons to work in the A&R department at Def Jam. A&R stands for artists and repertoire – the division of a record label or production company that is responsible for talent scouting and overseeing the artistic development of songwriters and musical artists. Dixon proved her worth in short order, earning the company massive revenue and the notoriety and legitimacy which come from winning industry awards.
Simmons and Dixon had to work closely and things were strictly professional between them for her first few months at Def Jam. Things took a turn one night when the two colleagues were out at a bar after work. Simmons grabbed Dixon as she came out of the washroom, threw her into a closet, and began kissing her. She managed to get out of that situation, but then the real harassment began. According to Dixon, Simmons came into her office every couple of weeks and propositioned her while exposing himself. She always delicately rebuffed his advances (he was her boss after all) and he always apologized later.
This was the point in “On the Record” when several other African American women joined the conversation and made two points clear. Firstly, it was understood by black women in the record industry that men were going to harass and sexualize them at work. Smart women had to figure out how to flirt just enough to keep the man’s ego intact, but not so much as to make themselves vulnerable to rape. If you didn’t play the game perfectly you were likely to be assaulted and/or fired.
Secondly, there is a lot of pressure brought to bear on black women by their culture not to complain when they are sexually harassed or assaulted by black men. Society at large perpetuates the stereotype of black men as aggressive sexual predators. Black women who report such crimes are considered traitors to their race, according to the African American women in the documentary. Tarana Burke, founder of the #METOO movement, put it this way, “Black women’s need, and our duty, we feel, to protect black men is definitely a hindrance to protecting ourselves.” Perhaps the most graphic and poignant quote on this subject came from Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black author. She said that when it comes to being raped by a man of her race, every African American female is tacitly taught, “Your responsibility to muffle your screams is greater than his responsibility not to do it in the first place.”
Dixon had been working for Simmons a couple of years when one night after drinks he offered to order a car to take her home. He suggested she come up and wait in his apartment. Dixon had reservations, but she figured she had proven to be a sufficiently valuable asset to Def Jam that, despite Simmons’s repeated sexual advances, he would not do anything to her for professional reasons. She also thought that they were friends. Simmons said there was a CD of a new artist that he wanted her to listen to. The CD was in the stereo system in his bedroom, so Dixon went in to get it. No sooner had she got the CD out of the player than Simmons walked into the room naked but for a condom. He proceeded to forcibly rape her and somewhere in the process she blacked out. Evidently many people in traumatic situations do the same as a coping mechanism. Dixon came to some time later and found herself naked in the bathtub with Simmons, having no idea how she got there. She then reports he said to her, “So now that you and I are f**king, Drew, we can hang out and f**k all the time.” She left the tub, found her clothes, and in a daze made her way home. After gritting her teeth for another few months at Def Jam, Dixon resigned.
Siu Liu Abrams, who had been Simmons’s administrative assistant and friend in the early ‘90s, told a very similar story. They were out socializing one night and she came up to Simmons’s place to crash on the couch because she was too drunk to get home. Simmons came on to her as soon as they entered the apartment and she refused, reminding him that she was in a committed relationship. She alleges that Simmons responded to this by saying, “Siu Liu, we are friends. That is your pussy. I would never take anything from you that you didn’t give me.” She later passed out on the bed, and when she came to she saw him walking towards her wearing nothing but a condom. When he had finished with her, he simply called his driver to take her home as if nothing had happened. Abrams was sufficiently devastated by the rape that she tried to OD on sleeping pills later that night. The doctors barely saved her.
Dixon then went on to work at Arista Records for Clive Davis and had much success there as well. After four years, Davis retired and an esteemed black record producer name L.A. Reid took over. Reid almost immediately began sexually propositioning Dixon. She repeatedly said no as politely as she could, but that just made him angry. Dixon brought both Kanye West and John Legend in to audition, and each time Reid said no and dressed her down in front of the A&R team. Dixon came to understand that he would only sign her talent if she slept with him. It was a simple quid pro quo. She could not endure this kind of treatment again, so she left the industry completely. Dixon closed off her love of music and her creativity and went to study at Harvard Business School.
It took years for these women and 18 others to come forward with their allegations. Black women have been horribly abused and freely raped since the time of slavery. According to Crenshaw, this has led to a perception that, “You can’t really rape or abuse a black woman because there’s nothing that they won’t do.” Additionally, white women, who are cast as demure and sweet, are often not believed when they cry rape. What chance then does a black woman have? Russell Simmons stepped away from Def Jam and all his other businesses in the wake of these accusations. He vehemently denies any wrongdoing, but has relocated to Bali which conveniently does not have an extradition agreement with the U.S. As for L.A. Reid, he left Sony Epic in 2012 amidst complaints of sexual misconduct, but has recently secured $75 million in financing to begin a new label. Neither man has been charged, due to insufficient evidence.
This is the point that I find so infuriating. 20 women have independently come forward to testify to Simmons’s sexual misconduct and, in several cases, rape. How does this not represent sufficient evidence? Is it feasible that for some reason they all got together and conspired to bring Simmons down? Why would they do so, especially considering that the majority of them are African American and therefore face incredible pressure from their race to stay quiet? These accusations range from 1988 to 2014, clearly indicating that Simmons is a serial rapist.
I suspect the reason these many testimonials are not sufficient is because law enforcement, and the patriarchy in general, still believe that most women who report rape are lying. I recently read an article published last August in The Atlantic entitled “An Epidemic of Disbelief”. This piece, written by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, is an investigation into the huge backlog of rape kits in the United States that sit untested in warehouses all over the country. Hagerty convincingly argues that this is due to systemic apathy resulting largely from widespread lack of belief in the victims’ stories.
Before getting into the specifics of Hagerty’s article I would like to take a moment to describe the process of collecting a rape kit. The alleged victim first removes all of her clothes and puts them in an evidence bag, leaving her naked and vulnerable under a flimsy hospital gown. Next, very close pictures are taken of the areas where she was violated, meaning she has to expose her most intimate parts to strangers. Then her pubic hair is combed and pulled, which is evidently quite painful, and internal and external swabs are taken of all areas where she was defiled. This means she is being penetrated again in her vagina, mouth and/or anus depending on where the assailant entered her. This process generally takes from two to four hours.
Imagine enduring this after having just been raped. I applaud the women who go through this often traumatizing procedure for their courage and stamina. They understand that the evidence they are providing may prove crucial in catching and convicting their assailant, so they push down their feelings and allow themselves to be poked, prodded, swabbed, and photographed in exactly the same places where they have just been violated. Now imagine how furious these women must feel when they find out that this evidence is often not even processed let alone used in an investigation.
The incredible backlog of unexamined rape kits in the States first came to light in Detroit in 2009. An assistant prosecutor named James Spada had noticed that Detroit police often had difficulty providing the evidence he needed to successfully prosecute cases. He decided to have a look at the city’s main evidence lock-up and was directed to an off-site warehouse. He was appalled by what he saw there – windows were broken, birds were nesting in the rafters, and evidence boxes were piled haphazardly throughout the cavernous space. He came upon one particular area which housed rows and rows of steel shelving lined with white cardboard boxes. His police escort told him these were all rape kits, and readily responded “of course” when asked if they had been processed. Spada was unconvinced by the officer’s reply and began checking the kits himself. It turned out that none of them had even been opened, and doing a quick calculation in his head, Spada estimated that there had to be about 10,000 of them. It turns out there were 11,341 untested rape kits in the building, some of them spanning back 30 years.
Similar numbers of unopened rape kits have been found in countless large cities in the States since them. The federal government began handing out special, one-time sums of money to local law enforcement all over the country in an effort to help speed up the processing of these kits. Several cities, including Detroit, have been very good about compiling cases and trying suspects, but most of them have done little with the money. Hagerty suggests in her article that the reluctance to process these kits and open investigations is like, “…a mole on the skin that hints at a hidden cancer just below the surface. The deeper problem is a criminal justice system in which police officers continue to reflexively disbelieve women who say they’ve been raped.” Even when cases are opened, odds are very much against a conviction. “In 49 out of every 50 rape cases, the alleged assailant goes free”, making rape “…by far the easiest violent crime to get away with.”
Cleveland provides a perfect example of the prevalent disbelief of rape victims. Their prosecutor’s office hired a research team from a local university in 2015 to pore through police files and other records connected to untested rape kits in the city. A random sampling of cases found that notes from many police investigations barely filled a single page, that in 40% of cases detectives never contacted the victim, and that in 75% of cases they never interviewed her. Half of the investigations were closed in a week, and a quarter in a day. It is hard to know what to do in the face of such indifference, but I think this systemic disbelief or at least ambivalence towards women who come forward with rape accusations goes a long way to explain why so many women are hesitant to do so. What’s the point in coming forward if at best almost nothing will be done about it, and at worst you will end up being discredited or even blamed for being raped in the first place?
My research revealed that rape kits in Canada are processed promptly. The problem up here is accessibility. Nurses who compile rape kits are specially trained – they need a high degree of professionalism and must remain emotionally unattached from their patients because they will almost certainly be required to give forensic evidence. There can be no question of them feeling sorry for the women they serve. Kits and trained personnel are available pretty well everywhere in Ontario and Quebec, but in Saskatchewan and Manitoba only urban hospitals have them. Rural facilities in those two provinces and all hospitals in Alberta must request kits specially from the RCMP when the need arises. Facilities exist in abundance in the southern half of B.C., but are few and far between up north. Newfoundland has a generous 36 sites that can deliver kits, while Nova Scotia and P.E.I. have only three and one respectively, which advocates assert is woefully inadequate.
The stigma and shame attached to rape go a long way towards explaining why so many women don’t report it, but so too does the dismal record of the justice system in following up on their claims. I had many encounters with cops during the five years I worked at a prison, and I understand they deal with horrible people and proficient liars on a daily basis. It is hard for them not to be cynical. The skepticism their job breeds, however, should be reserved for suspected criminals and not alleged victims. In every violent crime other than rape, it is. The Black Lives Matter movement has put a spotlight on the need for law enforcement to receive training on how to deal with people of colour. I would argue that equally pressing is their need to rethink the way they perceive and treat women who have been raped, and how they investigate their cases.