Nate Parker, Rape Culture, and Toxic Masculinity

Photo: Mark Mann
Nate Parker Credit: Mark Mann (via Deadline)

Over the past seventy-two hours, the Internet has been abuzz over Nate Parker’s involvement in a seventeen-year-old rape case.  Journalists have offered up public investigative reports, bloggers have written posts that included links to court documents and telephone transcripts where Parker’s early sexual life has been laid bare for judgment. Thousands of people on social media have either vilified the actor-director-writer or defended his actions.

By now, most of us know the facts about this case. In 1999, like many undergraduate and underage students, Parker, a student-athlete at Pennsylvania State University, and his roommate, Jean Celestin, were drinking and partying. They ended up engaging in sexual intercourse and raping an inebriated woman simultaneously. The Court did not find Parker guilty of rape because he proved legally that he and the young woman had engaged in consensual sex before and after the alleged rape.

What was also at stake was Parker’s claim that she was conscious during the act. Celestin, however, was found guilty of raping the freshman. He appealed the ruling and like far too many rape victims, the woman did not continue to pursue the case.  He later won his appeal.

The criminal complaint she filed provides disturbing evidence that helps to explain her inaction. In harrowing and detailed language, she described how both Parker and Celestin harassed and stalked her on campus. Her grades suffered. She withdrew from school, became anxious and suffered insomnia. Her college did very little to assist and protect her from the abuse.

As a history professor who studies systems of oppression against women and black people, I am aware of the political nature of interracial sexual assaults. I also know that voluminous studies have indicated that women have disproportionately experienced various forms of sexual abuse from men, especially those from their same racial groups.

Scottsboro Boys and Attorney Samuel Leibowitz

In this case, the victim was white and she filed a complaint about two black men who raped her, one of whom was a wrestler. Because of the intricacies of racism, I was reminded of the Scottsboro Boys case from the 1930s. The legacy of anti-black racism in this country creates a milieu where black people are forced to consider the race of rape victims when black men are involved.  Typically, we do so because of the historical practice of white women who had been engaged in consensual sexual relationships with black men who falsely claimed they were raped when their relationships were revealed publicly.

This time the evidence is damning to Parker and Celestin. Our social justice movements, especially Black Lives Matter, have made terms like “intersectionality” more common and prioritized feminism and the eradication of gender inequality. The rape victim’s “whiteness” is far less problematic than the dehumanizing treatment she received from Parker and Celestin post-assault.  She experienced a campaign of terror.

Those of us who are committed to intersectional liberatory politics refuse to accept a discourse that condemns rape victims as “hoes” or allows excuses for drunk girls who “let” guys ‘run trains’ on them. In his memoir, author Nate McCall wrote about how he and his friends thought of “running trains” on local girls as a “hood rite of passage for black teenage boys.” What we understand clearly is that this act is rape. Women, who are confronted with the fear of rape since girlhood, know that their physical isolation from other women in sequestered spaces where men predominate is dangerous, scary, and can lead to their sexual violation.

When youthful naiveté, alcohol, and toxic masculinity collide, there are no winners, only losers. In the Parker case, one of his roommates confessed in court that Parker asked him to join in the sex assault with an obviously sedated woman who was slipping in and out of consciousness. He left the scene of the woman’s assault because he believed it was “wrong.” After fleeing, the other roommate did not report Parker and Celestin to authorities even after he confessed his displeasure about how the victim was treated by his roommates. His behavior illustrates what toxic masculinity does to men. It renders them unwilling to view women as full human beings. It silences otherwise intelligent beings into mute witnesses to perversion. Toxic masculinity creates the landscape for men who were “alleged” to have raped a woman, and later found guilty of rape (Celestin), to not stop their abuse and intimidation of their victim.

Penn State–home of Jerry Sandusky, who was found guilty of molesting scores of young boys and men— protected student-athletes like Parker whose role there helped the reputation and financial status of the school. Sports and athletes mattered at the university. Rape culture was something leftist academics and feminists discussed; it was not a term understood and embraced by most Americans in 1999.

The legacy of rape culture some seventeen years later is that Nate Parker still centers his pain and not that of the woman who was violated that night. Even as I attempt to use language that honors her abuse, and also fulfills the legal exoneration of Parker, I struggle with the right descriptor to employ. The American grammar book on rape does not lend itself to those who choose to center women’s abuse as opposed to the lives of their abusers. What is even less capacious than our language constraints in American rape culture is how the medicalization of rape is neither recognized nor respected as a condition of rape.  The medical exam that some rape victims undergo is the extent of their medical experiences legally. It is a procedure meant to document and store bio-material from the sexual encounter.  All rape victims deserve ongoing medical care.

Yet, according to a Variety magazine interview with the victim’s brother, his sister was unable to cope with her life post-rape and exam. She became paranoid, depressed, used mind altering drugs to self-medicate like many mentally ill persons, and was suicidal. Her psychiatrists described her as suffering from PTSD because of her rape.  She eventually committed suicide in 2012, while residing in a hospital for the mentally ill.

In light of his maturation, Parker is still ignorant of rape culture. Just last week, in a New York Times interview that touched on his 1999 rape case, Parker stated, “I talked about it publicly and I never sought to hide it. It was the most painful thing I have ever had to experience. I can imagine it was painful for a lot of people.” A week later, Parker’s Facebook post once again focused on his pain.  His critics lambasted him for prioritizing his agonies and not the young woman’s pain, especially in light of her suicide.

James Brown with his third wife Adrienne and daughter Diana Brown

Parker joins a number of high-profile black male celebrities whose abuse of women is well-known. Miles Davis and James Brown have been canonized in American music despite well-known acts of abuse towards the women in their lives. Bill Cosby is currently under litigation for the sexual abuse of women dating back decades. R. Kelly maintained a successful singing and production career after his marriage to a fifteen-year old girl and the release of pornographic material of him engaging in sex with a teenager.

Perhaps Parker can and will be forgiven.  To do so, he must not focus on himself and the difficulty the rape case had on him, especially in light of the woman’s suicide. Pragmatically, he will need to end his professional relationship with Jean Celestin, the man convicted of raping the woman, and do reparative social justice work around rape culture. He has to comprehend that having sex with a woman under the influence of alcohol is not the environment for determining consent—ever.

FotorCreatedUltimately, I cannot decide whether or not you should support Parker’s film. What I do know is that Nat Turner’s story is also contained in books that interested parties can purchase and borrow from libraries. These include Patrick Breen’s The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt and Kenneth Greenberg’s Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory.  The literary history of Nat Turner reaches back to the 1830s. Turner’s story has never been a hidden historical event.

The more pressing issues that the Parker and Celestin rape case reveal are three-fold.  First, the impact of toxic masculinity is detrimental to gender equality and our humanity. “Running trains” on girls and women is rape.  Like all rape cases it is predicated on power and control.  Second, consensual sex should always be clear to all parties involved.  Finally, scholars and researchers must do more research on the biological consequences of rape. Perhaps these are the lessons we should take away from sexual assaults in the era of Black Lives Matter.

Deirdre Cooper Owens is an Assistant Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY. She holds an M.A. in African American Studies from Clark Atlanta University and a Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Los Angeles where she also received a certificate in Women’s Studies. Her forthcoming book, Mothers of Gynecology: Slavery, Race, and the Birth of American Women’s Professional Medicine, is under contract with the University of Georgia Press. Follow her on Twitter @dbcthesis2002.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Comments on “Nate Parker, Rape Culture, and Toxic Masculinity

  • Avatar

    A most thought provokingly disturbing and amazinhly written article exposing the dehumanizing horrors of rape in an ever celebrated, male dominated culture. Cheers to Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens for giving voice to the countless women silenced in the deep abyss, the deafening chasm that is rape culture.

    • Avatar

      This is a WHITE male dominated society. This culture has elevated black women over black men. Black women know this because everytime a black woman is angry at a black man, the first thing that come out of her mouth is to tell the white man. I’m not buying what you are saying , lady.

      • Avatar

        And I’m not buying your stance, Mr! Actually, I find it pathetic to read a black man’s whining about being oppressed by everyone around him: white men, white women, black women. That’s a tired boyish excuse: man up, change your tune! Who bore you? A black woman! Who fed you? A black woman! Who stayed up late at nights when you were sick: a black woman and I bet, no black man to be around. So, are you really gonna sit behind your screen and feel oppressed by black women when they do nothing but standing by your ungrateful asses?

    • Avatar

      “Voice to the silenced”, you mean a voice to all the innocent men convicted in the courtroom of society? In the court of law, a man needs to be proven “guilty”, not proven “innocent”. The only crime where a man is automatically assumed guilty before trial is rape. Even if a man were found over a dead body, hands covered in blood, he would still be innocent until it was “proven” otherwise. Did you present new evidence in the article that hadn’t been given to the court? Does a woman committing suicide prove everything she said as truth or does it speak to her mental instability? If the man is innocent, what rape culture is he perpetuating? I’d be all for castration as a punishment in cases that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt a man or woman guilty of rape. But having been on the other side of a false allegation, the punishment comes before any verdict and stays with you even after “proven innocent”. Those are the silenced voices.

  • Avatar

    A most thought provokingly disturbing and amazingly written article exposing the dehumanizing horrors of rape in an ever celebrated, male dominated culture. Cheers to Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens for giving voice to the countless women silenced in the deep abyss, the deafening chasm that is rape culture.

  • Avatar

    Professor Owens, I thank you for this insightful, probing essay.

    -Mark Higbee, Eastern Michigan University

  • Avatar

    Thank you!

  • Avatar

    As a survivor of sexual violence, I (like many) am very sensitive to hearing about incidents of rape — and in particular rape culture on both sides of the divide. Unfortunately, rape is a word that has been abused almost as often as those who actually perpetuate the abuse. If the accounts from a recent article written by The Daily Beast are accurate, ( then your narrative presented here is filled with harmful inaccuracies that blur the real facts surrounding this case and may inadvertantly do more harm to those who are actual victims compared to those who for their own reasons simply allege victimization.
    A few of the contradictions I find between TDB account and the one you’ve detailed here 1. You say right off the bat that Nate Parker and his roommate, Celestin, “raped” the woman. Yet, a court found Nate Parker not guilty. That means he was “accused” of rape only. 2. You correlate the alleged rape as the ONLY reason the woman’s life fell apart and eventually led to her suicide. But you fail to mention that the woman had a history of depression before meeting Nate Parker, and the night of the alleged assault while she was fuming at a bar over being stood up by Parker that she was mixing Prozac with heavy alcohol consumption — a dangerous and self-harming act bartenders who worked there said was the kind of behavior she regularly engaged in. 3. You say she failed to pursue charges on appeal which is also inaccurate. She wanted to still pursue but the legal system did not. 4. You further fail to mention that in her testimony the woman says she wanted to have sex with Nate just not with his friend(s). That’s why Nate was acquitted and Celestin initially was. 5. You say one person left because he didn’t want to participate in the “rape” but that’s not true either. What he said in testimony is that he didn’t think “it was right.” BIG difference. He also said he saw the woman reach for Celestin before he began to have sex with her and before he walked away. 6. Finally, while the young men did out the woman, it was only in an attempt to get other people to come forward with information about her so they could save themselves. If they were my sons being accused of something so awful, I would have done the same thing, although I would certainly not have condoned any bullying or abuse by them or others.
    Those are just a few of the many issues I have with what I consider your over-zealous prosecution of Nate Parker and Celestin. Yes, an allegation was made. But did everything add up in her story? NO. The problem remains that neither you nor I were there, so all we have is conjecture…and a legal system that weighed all the facts of the case, and for once, determined that a white woman crying rape against two young black men with no criminal records didn’t get an automatic pass in believability.
    Maybe we’d all be better served to turn our collective ire towards the adult entertainment industry that push false narratives that women (often visibly high) like group sex with strangers and/or kinky violent sex. How many 19 year-olds back then hadn’t seen Girls Gone Wild and believed that type of outlandish behavior was acceptable? Too many, I’m sure.
    Especially by today’s standards, what Nate and Celestin did could easily be categorized as an despicable act of treatment to a woman who was obviously already in pain long before that night. But roguish behavior does not automatically equal criminal behavior. Therefore, we should not treat it as such.
    On this one, I choose to believe that in cases where there is reasonable doubt, then the accused should be acquitted, as Nate Parker and subsequently Celestin eventually were.

    • Avatar

      Who needs proof when an accusation can suffice?

      • Avatar

        Read the transcripts and evidence, Nate Parker claimed ‘she put herself in that situation’ and was contradicting himself in recalling what happened that night and trying to bully and shame the girl into thinking she ‘asked for it’. He and his friend treated her like their slave that night and now he wants to cash in on a movie about how terrible slavery is. Support movies by other talented African American writers and directors, not two men who abused and dehumanised another human being.

      • Avatar

        True. Is is politically correct for a woman to accuse a man of anything and he is guilty automatically. In addition, the woman is not held responsible for her perjury.

    • Avatar

      Well said.

    • Avatar

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and review of the available evidence about the Parker et al case from 1999.

    • Avatar

      Desiree C.,
      Thank you for pointing out inconsistencies in the two articles. Even though we can all appreciate a Dr. Cooper Owen’s analysis, it is important make sure we thoroughly examine every aspect of this case.

    • Avatar

      Wow!!!! Very good response… clear, to the point, factual.

  • Avatar

    “Ultimately, I cannot decide whether or not you should support Parker’s film.” I made a decision to pull it from my Race Onscreen syllabus. I will not support rapists nor encourage my students to do so.

    • Avatar

      But Parker is NOT a rapist, according to a jury, Dr. Monti.

      Certainly you are aware of the phenomenon, which dates back to the original “The Birth of a Nation” film by D. W. Griffith and beyond, of white women crying rape to cover their own tracks, resulting in the lynching of the unfairly accused Black man? The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, which resulted in the destruction of the Greenwood District popularly known as Black Wall Street, resulted from such a hue and cry over a white woman crying rape because somebody brushed against her in a crowded elevator.

      How often does a jury ACQUIT a Black man of accusations of rape involving a white woman in racist America?

      • Avatar

        Do you think Dr. Monti cares?

      • Avatar

        Well I don’t know, Diego. But I will say this:

        “Intersectionalism” is often a reactionary front for a superficial, neoliberal identity politics that ultimately serves the interests of the white supremacy and patriarchy it purports to critique, by dividing oppressed people against each other.

        This is on full view right now, as some self-professed Black feminist intellectuals have piled onto the white nationalist lynch mob against Nate Parker and his film on Nat Turner’s rebellion, “The Birth of a Nation”.
        Facts matter more than your ideological and academic pet theories. Evidence matters. Jury verdicts matter.

        A jury in white supremacist AmeriKKKa found two young Black men not guilty as a white woman cried rape … not a normal occurence. Yet you “Black feminists” have joined the hue and cry. What if Nate was your own son?

        Many Black men have been falsely accused and convicted of “rape”. For most Black men in racist AmeriKKKa, the separation between a jury and a lynch mob is a distinction without a difference. This is real, and your “critical theory” garbage is not, I don’t care how many Ph.D.’s you get off of it.

      • Avatar

        You said that! Thank you for echoing my sentiments exactly.

      • Avatar

        Apparently, nobody here knows much about Division 1 sports and it’s protection of its athletes. It’s a culture in which Black athletes can get away with anything short of murder. The fact that he was acquitted by a jury means nothing. Just google Baylor Athletics and what you will see is just the tip of the iceberg….

      • Avatar

        I guess that means that George Zimmerman and every other racist cop that murders are innocent too, just because the broken system says so.

      • Avatar

        Exactly! If a Black male celebrity hurts a woman, and is not punished for it, then for Black folks that’s when the justice system did it’s job. If Nate Parker’s vicitm was Black they would still defend him.

      • Avatar

        Murder trials and rape trials have disparate burdens of proof, so you comparison is beyond faulty. In addition, does that mean that we have to be skeptical of every acquittal? Is that also true in reverse? Are we supposed to be wary of Darren Sharper’s conviction because the Central Park Five were falsely imprisoned for rape? I am not about to debate on guilt, but please use sound arguments to support your views.

  • Avatar

    Nate Parker’s trash behavior is & was the problem
    His answer to the inquiry & statements concerning are even worse. He was not prepared to answer because he didn’t think anyone would ask.

    Sure, he may be able to defend himself but the fact he hid behind having sisters,mothers,wife & daughters sounds like an excuse.
    Brian W. In comments does a better job of defending Nate Parker than Nate Parker

  • Avatar

    Notwithstanding the Nate Parker case, lets talk “rape culture”. Rape is a very serious offense that somehow has evolved to where politicians and others seek to exploit the tragedy of real victims for personal gain. For example, Joe Biden sent a letter to the young lady in the Stanford rape case but remained silent on the Brian Banks case, and so on. Rape culture or lynch mob culture if you prefer, is when the self-righteous indignant remain silent when privately funded Innocence Project statistics show that 57% of those released by the Project’s efforts were for false rape charges. And those are the lucky ones who had physical evidence in state funded cases. In none of those cases do the media report the name of the false accuser or show a picture. However, the name and picture of the falsely accused are blasted in the media repeatedly. In England when a woman files false rape charges she is imprisoned. In the US the media and commentators on this thread remain silent.

    On the one hand we claim to see “justice” (a euphemism for vicarious revenge conducted on our behalf by the state), and on the other hand we believe that the purpose of a trial is to ratify the prosecutor’s charges. So if someone says they were raped, and a judge and jury concludes that what was presented in court does not fit the charge, then we are outraged. Something went wrong. On the other hand, when innocent people are found guilty, we hurl insults, call them names, and remain silent after they spend 15, 20, 30 years for something they did not do. In many cases, the innocence do not receive a penny, and those do get some money must get permission from the state to sue! How can anyone who purport to be in favour of victims’ rights remain silent over those statistics? After all, those men are victims of the state and the lynch mob mentality that is alive and well in America.



  • Avatar

    For those of you still shaming the victim by saying she didn’t have her story straight, exactly how do you do that blacked out? Also, there were two entitled athletes who most likely believed themselves beyond reproach as so many do. Third, Nate invited his friends in. How is that in ANY way appropriate given her KNOWN condition? It was a disgusting assault based on the idea they would never be caught. Stop shaming the victims and start supporting. The boys probably got “their stories straight” before court and did everything to do to discredit her which looks like it’s working for many of you. It is a crime and Nate’s verdict does NOT prove innocence. Get some real experience in the court system dealing with this crime before you get on your high horse. The system is broken. 99% of these cases don’t ever reach court because of “lack of evidence” of consent. It’s one persons word against another’s. In this case 2 against 1. If it reached court you can almost guarantee guilt on the defendant side because prosecutors won’t try a case they don’t think they can win. Only in our mysogynistic world so full of inequality to the genders would anyone think of blaming a victim in this case. Shameful. She’s dead.

  • Avatar

    This piece was all over the place, throwing in hype inducing rhetoric (intersectionality, liberatory, running trains as a rite of passage, etc.) and tabloid-type sensationalization (Jerry Sandusky, Miles Davis, R. Kelly, James Brown, Scottsboro Boys, etc.) undermining what is a serious subject and should have been a serious treatise. It is an opportunity missed, to me.

    Talk about misogyny in the Black community, if that is Nate Parker’s pedigree. Talk about sexual predators on college campuses, especially among athletes. That would be sufficient for any serious discussion. Not sure how the celebrity piece fits, other than all are men, unless the theory is that a preponderance of male celebrity’s are also rapists. Why is mention of the Scottsboro Boys even here. Why was the author even reminded of that case? Because white women have historically falsely accused black men of rape after consensual sex? Where’s the parallel? Especially, since the author suggests that the victim in the Parker case could not have given consent. The article did not attempt to retry his case, factually. Thus the discussion of the circumstances surrounding the accusation, trial and decision, comes off biased. And aimed to sway the reader’s consumption of Parker’s film.

    All of this is sad, to me. Much more focused substance would have informed us better. There was a victim here. No one should deny that. At least that person is due the respect of being heard properly, even after her death.

  • Avatar

    As a fellow survivor, I hear a lot of pain in these comments. I pray for healing for all those in need.

  • Avatar

    This is why no discussion of racism should disclude a discussion of misogyny. Because Nate Parker believing his crime was so inconsequential that it could survive the close scrutiny that being the face of BOAN would bring IS AN EXAMPLE OF MISOGYNY. He didn’t even seek to distance himself from Celistin. He included his name in the credits. That’s the kind of toxic masculinity mindset that can happen when social justice movements allow patriarchy to run rampant.

  • Avatar

    My experience has been different. A black woman falsely accused me of rape then the racist system put a black judge in place to take the race card out when it was very much a racial case.

    In 1989, a woman tried to rob and kill me in my home. She used a knife from my kitchen. I disarmed her, threw her out. Three days later I was arrested. While in jail, my private attorney informs me that her story is full of holes AND that she had tried to rob and kill before. The constitution states that it is wrong to arrest and detain someone is without probable cause when the charges are procurred by perjured testimony AND that that testimony is collectively know to be perjurous to police, prosecutor and judge PRIOR to an arrest. It was a coordinated effort to act under the color of law. I would later sue for constitutional rights violations 4,5,6,8,& 14.

    My mistake was telling my attorney, Ali Talib, that I would sue them. I was held for 4 months while the police lived in my house planting evidence, destroying files, creating a crime scene and stealing property. Meanwhile, I was in several “staged” hearings where I was presented faked discovery documents none of which were in affidavit form including the most important one ……the Affidavit for Probable Cause. That Affidavit was signed by the prosecutor ( Carol Orbison ) and not by a judge in clear violation of State and Federal law. No on one would sign it because it is inherently unbelievable. It doesn’t pass the common sense test. The case # is 49G069001CF007921 The presiding judge was Z. Mae Jimison. She was a black woman thrown in the mix because white judges obviously didn’t want to touch it. Strangely, I went to college with the judge. She was their chosen puppet though.

    I sued via Federal District Court ( Misc 90-134 ) and Appelate court, 7th District

    After the Federal and Appelate Courts. I rode a bus to the us Supreme Court and filed a Petition for A Writ of Certiorari , pauper and pro se, asking for a review of the 7th circuit Courts decision. The clerk did not file my suit but tossed it in the trash and mailed me a phony decision. I HAVE PROOF THAT I FILED IT BUT THERE IS NO OFFICIAL RECORD. HELL, I EVEN HAVE PICTURES OF MY TIME THERE AND THE BUS TICKET. The case # is 91-7923

    I have everything scan and on file and wil send you anything you ask for.

    The government has invaded and manipulated my entire life. I thought I could write 22 certified letters to every employee at a black newspaper in Indianapolis, The Indianapolis Recorder but the letters were all “lost”. It was covered up by the inspector general, the FBI said “get a Lawyer” and Evan Bayh, who is presently running for senator never responded. I even suspect that some letters from representatives were sent from people other than them. I have sent requests, certified mail, return receipts for an investigation to every president and atty general since 1990 ( including Obama and Lynch )

    I repeatedly called the Indianapolis Star and exhausted the entire resources of the Marion County and Indianapolis Bar Association trying to get a story written and obtain representation, respectively. I offered all 3 organizations written proof as I am offering you. No one even wanted to examine my documentation. Isn’t that incredible? No interviews, no questions? No interest? Only the FBI has that type of power.

    I was involved in a strange car accident, suffered medical malpractice at the hands of Dr. Bryan J Roy and sat through the sham of a malpractice proceeding with no defendant and no witnesses. I am watched always. For some reason, the only place I get some peace is at the nursing home I perform at. But everywhere else is tainted. Former friends and family have been isolated from me. The worst determinism you can imagine. I still find it incredible that this government can effectively isolate someone in a sea of people.

    If the government can isolate me like this for 26 years, what is it doing to the less educated? I was arrested and falsely jaiiled then denied civil redress by the same powerful people responsible for my problems.

    Officers involved were Det. Robert Flack, Officer Buchanan, C. Mosier, J. Lapadat and Russ Bartholomew. Prosecutors involved were Carol Orbison and Maureen Donahue. Judges involved were Z.Mae Jimison and Toni Cordingly.( who had cancer at the time and was involved without her knowledge. I’ll explain in detail later. )

    I would like to get on TV, radio or whatever media that can expose the REAL cause of mass incarceration

    There is a common agenda by this government to cover up their wrong doings and the totality of circumstances I have to offer precludes any hypothesis to the contrary.
    Edwin Jones 317-709-6995

Comments are closed.