Russell Simmons is the latest powerful man to be brought to heel under allegations of sexual assault. The business mogul who co-founded Def Jam Recordings, produced the Def Jam comedy and poetry sets, brought us the unforgettable Baby Phat clothing line, and created the RushCard is one of the most recognizable figures in hip-hop. Just as legendary as his brands and businesses is the entrepreneur's personal evolution. The older you are, the more versions of Russell Simmons you’ve seen. He was a music producer to Run-D.M.C., the pioneering hip-hop group that included his brother Joseph (Reverend Run) Simmons in the ‘80s. He produced films and movies in the ‘90s, establishing himself as a jack of all trades in entertainment. The early 2000s saw him transform into the Jay-Z-esque business mogul with his clothing line and other ventures. In the second half of the new millennium, Simmons is known for morphing, once again, into a clean-eating vegan committed to spiritual enlightenment and holistic living — exactly what you would expect from someone who, as of 2011, had amassed a fortune of $350 million. And it is this version of Simmons that seems most at odds with the two sexual assault allegations levied against him this week.
Earlier this month actress Keri Claussen Khalighi claimed that Simmons forcibly removed her clothes and forced her to perform oral sex in 1991. Then on Thursday, writer Jenny Lumet said that after pursuing her for years, he locked her inside of a car, took her back to his apartment and had sex with her without consent. In a statement, Simmons revealed that he is stepping down from his companies and committing himself to continued “personal growth, spiritual learning, and above all to listening.” Words like personal growth and spiritual learning are intended to suggest that Simmons is on a path heading even further away from the bad things he’s done in the past, not that he’s retiring with his fortune to do more of the same leisurely activities he has enjoyed in his free time. The statement is a call to still see Simmons as one of the good guys.
In a cultural commentary piece for The Atlantic, writer Spencer Kornhaber highlighted the fact that Simmon’s public “piety” is what motivated both Khalighi and Lumet to go public with their experiences. Kornhaber quoted Khalighi saying, “what I’ve experienced privately is not matching what they are saying publicly and hypocrisy to me is repugnant.” And according to the writer, the tone of Lumet’s essay in The Hollywood Reporter (where she shared her account with Simmons), was to “pierce Simmons’s high-minded PR.” Kornhaber referenced a part of one of Simmons’ books where he talks about relentlessly pursuing women he was attracted to until he “wore [them] down,”under the illusion of romance. In other words, despite Simmons’ own self-perceptions, people need to know that Simmons is not the good guy, after all.
While I applaud both of these women for coming forward and sharing their experiences in a climate that is only inclined to support or believe women sometimes, and appreciate the care that Kornhaber took to suggest a reclassification of Simmons, I wonder how this speaks to rape culture and toxic masculinity as a whole. In the same way that we’ve moved away from the myth of the rapist in the bushes, it’s worth examining how attempts to align men like Simmons’ character with their history or likelihood to commit sexual assault might be less important than focusing on their actions and faulty perceptions of what is acceptable behavior.
There was something in Simmons' statement about Lumet’s account that it worth revisiting. It included the language that, “her memory of that evening is very different from my own.” This position — in addition to the fact that Simmons sent her hundreds of balloons while trying to get her romantic attention for years — is a reminder that even our cultural connotations of "good guys" is rooted in patriarchal bullshit that places chivalry and entitlement over the feelings of fear, resistance, and intimidation that women may feel.
As infuriating and inadmissible as Simmons’ excuse may be, I know why he chose it. He is relying on the same tired myth that good guys don’t commit sexual assault, and bad guys do. There are certainly cases where bad men set out to intentionally prey upon women in ways that are violent and abusive. However, it’s equally paramount to remind men like Simmons, who have been socialized to think that their version of courting women is endearing, that they can be just as dangerous.