Our super-productive regular contributor AJ McKenna addresses the careless reporting surrounding Katy Perry’s recent onstage incident while performing in Rio. A female fan groped her – touching her boob, grabbing her ass, and sashaying down KP’s body ’til their face was basically in her crotch – yet some outlets made jokes referencing “I Kissed a Girl.” When will the double standards surrounding sexual assault finally stop?
I really don’t like Katy Perry. She’s engaged in pretty much every behaviour that pisses me off, from making fun of trans people to cultural appropriation to making the phrase ‘cherry chapstick’ almost as much of a clichéd innuendo as ‘fifty shades of (whatever)’ in the mouths of office bores everywhere. Yes, ‘I Kissed A Girl’, the faux-lesbian pop ditty which launched a thousand boring cover versions by ‘serious’ indie boy groups who resolutely refused to flip the genders on said song because God forbid someone might get the impression a pop singer is gay (and which established a precedent for boys doing po-faced covers of pop songs by female artists which led directly to Ryan Adams taking a big shit all over Taylor Swift’s 1989). Basically, I know she’s problematic and she really ain’t my fave.
But you know what else is problematic? Sexual assault, and reporting sexual assault in a way that trivialises it. Like this report in the Telegraph, or this report in Pink News, on Perry getting more than she bargained for from a Brazilian fan during an audience-participation bit in her recent Rock in Rio gig. Sure, Pink News, ‘Katy Perry kissed by a girl, did not like it’ is one way of framing the headline for said story. But viewing the video of what the website refers to almost euphemistically as ‘an awkward three-minute exchange’ it becomes clear that this is a little bit more than a peck on the cheek. This is a somewhat-unhinged fan repeatedly groping and necking on with the singer without her consent, and eventually grabbing KP’s bum as she’s ushered away from the stage (leading Perry to retaliate by slapping said fan’s butt – an act which has, incredibly, incensed some of the people who live in the bottom half of the internet more than the events which precipitated it).
Now, I’m no fan of saying ‘what about the men?’, but it’s worth asking whether the magazine would have thought the events quite so chortlesome if the fan in question had been a dude. The idea of a big, hairy fella (and no, I’m not talking about Russell Brand) pawing at the ‘Fireworks’ singer without her enthusiastic assent doesn’t sound quite such a laugh, does it? So why do we think it’s less of a big deal – why, indeed, do we victim-blame KP for ‘not liking it’ – when the assailant is a woman?
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I recently went public on my personal blog about being sexually assaulted by another woman thirteen years ago, back when I was presenting as male. This isn’t really the time or the place to rehash that particular experience, but one thing I’ve learned from trying to deal with it is that our culture has a real double standard when it comes to dealing with sexual assault. In the UK, that double standard is actually codified in law, with rape being defined as a crime which can only be committed by a man – meaning that, however traumatised you may feel if your attacker was a woman, legally speaking the crime they committed was only (not that there’s any such thing as only, but…) sexual assault – something I wrote about here.
But the double standard hits hard on a lot more levels than the legal. It’s something that can hit you when you do something as simple as a Google search. Try putting ‘lesbian rape’ into your search engine sometime and marvel at how many of the results are the kind of porn lapped up by men who use sites whose names end in ‘chan’. And be very wary of searching anything about cis women raping trans women – the top results you’ll find will link to transphobic hate painting all trans women as rapists.
It’s hard to get a statistical handle on the exact number of women who have been raped or sexually assaulted by other women, but it’s a topic that is, increasingly, being discussed. I, personally, know a number of women, both trans and cis, who are survivors of assault by other women. It’s this background against which Katy Perry’s assault occurs, and this is why it’s incredibly irresponsible for a magazine aimed at the LGBT community to trivialise that assault: because when a magazine makes light of an incident like this, it’s telling the readers that their own histories of abuse and assault are trivial too. And that is going to have real world costs in encouraging survivors not to report being assaulted – and in creating a climate where people who carry out these assaults will know they can get away with it.
This is not about Katy Perry being kissed by a girl and not liking it: this is about how we, as a culture, treat victims of sexual assault, whatever they look like and whether their attacker conforms to our expectations or not. Forty years ago, the idea of a guy grabbing a handful of KP’s ass while she was performing would have been considered a bit of harmless ‘boys will be boys’ slap-and-tickle. We have, thankfully, moved on somewhat since then. It would be nice to think that we could move on further.
AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012, and she performed her spoken word show, Howl of the Bantee, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. AJ previously served as So So Gay‘s Deputy Editor. She is about to embark on the Apples & Snakes tour, Public Address III, which is being directed by Hanna Silva. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.