Male Entitlement, Sexual Violence and the Case of Cyntoia Brown

When Cyntoia Brown was sixteen years old she shot and killed 43 year-old Johnny Allen. In her own words, she executed him. Brown ended up in that room with a man more than twice her age because her abusive ‘boyfriend’ Garion McGlothen prostituted her. In between raping her and getting her high, he also choked her and threatened her with guns.

Allen waxed lyrical to her about his career as a sharp shooter in the army, after he had driven her to his empty house and showed her his gun collection. She has never denied what she did, stating that she thought he was reaching for a gun and so she killed him in self-defence.

After being judged fit to be tried as an adult in Tennessee, she was held for two years waiting for trial. In 2006, it took a jury six hours to convict her and she was sentenced to life. She will be sixty-nine before she is eligible for parole. To put it bluntly, a child victim of sex trafficking shot a child sexual abuser after he had raped her and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Does that sound like justice?

This crime is only part of the story and Brown is only one small part of a much wider, more insidious cultural narrative. It can’t have escaped your notice that we are living through what is hopefully a momentous social shift in attitudes towards sexual violence. Social media campaigns including #YesAllWomen and #MeToo have highlighted to the world the injustice, inequality, abuse and harassment women face on a daily basis. This is, undoubtedly, a powerful moment for survivors of sexual violence.

However, cases like Brown’s draw our attention to the continued emphasis on the actions of survivors, rather than the wider patriarchal culture of misogyny in which their abuse is facilitated and their ‘crimes’ sentenced.

How can anyone argue that the root cause of Cyntoia Brown’s crime was not male entitlement?

A documentary following Brown’s case reveals - perhaps in order to mitigate her actions - her family’s history of ‘mental disorders’ including ‘homicidal thoughts’. The question is why it wasn’t enough to say that a child, unable to consent to the sexual abuse she had just endured, shot and killed the man who harmed her whilst in fear for her life.

The man who wilfully picked her up and took her back to his home was an estate agent. A man with a life and a reputation to uphold who still felt able to pick up an underage girl for sex. How can anyone argue that the root cause of Cyntoia Brown’s crime was not male entitlement? The entitlement of McGlothen, who picked up a child and exploited her for his own financial gratification and the entitlement of Allen who picked her up for his own sexual gratification.  

The most frustrating part of any discussion around sexual violence is ‘why did you stay?’ What I want to say is why aren’t you listening? If a man is prepared to choke you and beat you, to rape you and prostitute you, he is more than prepared to kill you. All women intrinsically understand the nature of male escalation, you can see it in every woman who laughs uncomfortably at an unfunny joke, who ignores men in nightclubs getting gropey because they fear the repercussions of telling them to fuck off. These actions are all part of a much bigger picture and a spectrum which ends in cases like Brown’s.

These cases highlight the systemic inequality faced by women in the criminal justice system, particularly in cases of domestic and sexual violence where an almost wilful disregard for the impact of abuse continually prevents access to justice. This case also speaks to wider questions about the utility of sentencing young people so harshly. To put it in context, if you feel a person is capable of adult reasoning when committing a crime but is too impulsive or immature to drive a car or drink, there may be a problem with your definition of responsibility.

There is a reason we speak of survivors, not victims, of sexual violence

It is not enough for us to say that women and girls like Cyntoia Brown should have sought help from authorities sooner. It is abhorrent to place any blame on them for choices which were never freely given by the men who abused them. Nor is it fair to say that violence is the answer, but reasoning here should suggest that in a circumstance when you are being abused, terrorised, and objectified on a daily basis, rationality doesn’t even come into it. Not even close.

There is a reason we speak of survivors, not victims, of sexual violence. To survive the invasion of your body, to survive the seismic shift in your reality when you realise that people are willing and able to hurt you, is painfully difficult. There are casualties along the way. Your will to survive becomes real, tangible not something romanticised and theorised about in mindfulness books designed to reduce your stress levels.

We have instant access to global events, can find out about cases like Brown’s at the search of a hashtag. Just because this case took place in Tennessee rather than Teesside, doesn’t mean it is any less relevant to women in the UK.

Justice is justice, wherever you are.

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