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The Cardi B Memes Show How Little We Understand About Sex Work and Violence

We’re used to men committing criminal acts. When women do it, they’re punished even more for playing against type

Cardi B rocketed to fame on the back of her larger-than-life Instagram account, and now the app has come back to haunt her. In a video from around three years ago, the Grammy Award winner talks about drugging and robbing men during her days as a stripper: “I’d drug n****s up and I’d rob them.” The clip has since reappeared online, and with it has come a slew of quick-draw reactions.

A predictable backlash ensued alongside the hashtag #survivingcardib, aligning her actions with those of R. Kelly, whose legacy of abuse allegations was recently detailed in the Lifetime series Surviving R. Kelly.

Others compared her to Bill Cosby, accused of drugging and raping dozens of women over decades, and found guilty of multiple charges of assault against at least one.

In a classic Notes app apology, Cardi B responded with a statement explaining that she did what she had to do to survive because she had limited options. She does not glorify this past, she says, and she feels blessed to have risen above.

Far be it from us to become scolds about meme culture, a perfectly legit way to work through an uncomfortable story and tease out some hard-to-admit truths. But in Cardi B’s case, the online discourse highlights our limited understanding of intersectionality, privilege, violence and sex work, and I think we could all learn something from it.

1. This does not make Cardi B a sexual predator

If we take her at her word, she implies that the sex itself was consensual and conscious. The drugging and robbing was after the fact. That does not make it okay or cool or glamorous or even legal, but it’s a world apart from sexual assault. In no universe is using sex as a lure to drug and rob someone the same thing as using power to drug someone and rape them.

Rap and hip-hop culture have long discussed criminal acts as an unfortunate but necessary part of a certain kind of hardscrabble existence — but it’s important to note that Cardi isn’t glorifying her past. As she notes, “I’m a part of a hip-hop culture where you can talk about where you come from, talk about the wrong things you had to do to get where you are,” she wrote in her statement. “There are rappers that glorify murder, violence, drugs and robbing. Crimes they feel they had to do to survive.” She notes she isn’t proud of it and acknowledges many women aren’t as lucky as she was in their ability to transcend it.

Rappers and hip-hop artists with criminal records or criminal pasts are numerous. Damien Scott, editor of hip-hop mag Complex, weighed in to Associated Press that compared to the street cred enjoyed by male artists with far worse crimes, Cardi B’s claim is tame:

The difference here is this is Cardi remembering crimes she committed in her very formidable years, and while they are crimes … to me they’re not on the degree of criminality as raping somebody. She claims she would drug men and rob them — is that bad? Extremely bad. However, on the scale of what’s acceptable in rap and what has been acceptable in rap, to me that’s on the tame side.

These are things that male rap artists traditionally, historically, have been able to use to tell their story (like), ‘I used to do X-Y-Z, but now I rap.’ That’s a stable of many rap origin stories. I can name so many rappers who have legitimately said on record and in an interview, ‘Oh man, I was going to continue selling drugs but my manager or my friend or my boy who raps told me I should focus on this because I have a gift. I used to rob and steal, I used to be a stick-up kid, but I figured that after I got arrested the last time, I should find a legal hustle.’”

By way of example, the recently deceased rapper XXXTentacion bragged about beating and punching his pregnant girlfriend, and in his death was remembered as an incredible talent who had a bad childhood and was trying to change his life.

2. Cardi B became a stripper to escape poverty and domestic violence

Rappers who glorify abusing or raping women rarely gain anything financially from the alleged crimes, even if they do boost their image from the boasting. In contrast, Cardi B said she began stripping to survive and escape poverty and the financial dependence on an abusive relationship.

3. Women of color are not treated as victims by the criminal justice system, but offenders

Women of color who are abused and victimized and caught up in crimes related to their victimization are often not seen as victims, but offenders, in the criminal justice system. For all the discussion we have about Black Lives Matter and black men who face extreme brutality at the hands of the police, less discussed is the fact that women of color also make up the lion’s share of female arrests compared to their white counterparts. They comprise only 6 percent of the population, but over 45 percent of female arrests. For women of color, being abused is often a pipeline to prison because of the intersection of sexism and racism unique to them, such as when girls who are trafficked are arrested as prostitutes.

Some 86 percent of women in prison are victims of sexual violence or domestic violence. Some 60 percent are incarcerated for crimes that qualify as “defensive measures” against that abuse. In other words, trying to conflate Cardi B using stripping and illegal measures to escape domestic violence with raping a woman for no financial gain — an abuse of male power and entitlement — is patently disingenuous.

4. Black women are disproportionately targeted for abuse

Some 22 percent of black women have been sexually assaulted, compared to some 18 percent of white women, according to the ACLU. Nearly half (40 percent) experience domestic violence. They are killed more than any other ethnic group, over twice the rate of any other race. To add insult to injury, the ACLU notes, they are “less likely to be believed and supported,” and viewed as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers.” We project onto them a greater sexual knowledge and a greater ability to take care of themselves.

But the discourse comparing Cardi to Cosby and R. Kelly suggests that a black woman who turns to stripping to escape poverty and domestic violence is anywhere near on par with a successful black comedian using his power and prestige to rape women he pretends to mentor. It demonstrates precisely the double standard and fallacious assumptions that ensure such marginalization and abuse. In other words, if the problem is already that black girls and women face far more severe punishment than ever fits the crime because of misogyny, racism and rape culture, imagine the backlash had Cardi B actually glorified her actions.

5. Male violence is normalized; female violence is outrageous

That point has been made around the internet, but also by brand management expert Eric Schiffer, who told Chicago Sun Times that Cardi B would’ve faced “potentially greater heat on her than men” had she boasted about her crimes. We’re used to men committing criminal acts. When women do it, we are harsher and more judgmental for them playing against type.

6. That doesn’t mean what she did wasn’t fucked up

As Maiysha Kai notes at the Root, Cardi B’s actions are fucked up, but they’re not rape, and to claim so is intellectually dishonest and distracts from “the very real spectrum upon which sexual violence exists and ignores how gender dynamics are often and undeniably at play.” Cardi’s behavior is inexcusable, but it is not, she stresses, a #MeToo moment. Kai notes:

Does Cardi’s purported past desperation speak to heteropatriarchal standards that often compel women — marginalized women, in particular — to use whatever means necessary to get ahead? Absolutely. It was also a deeply disturbing revelation to hear from a so-called feminist and self-made star, because while we have sympathy for the struggle behind the hustle, really, this ain’t how any of that works.

So what is the conclusion?

No thinking person condones Cardi B’s behavior. Any thinking person ought to see it as part of a horrible cycle of victimhood and predatory behavior that is unthinkable to most, and unfortunate to everyone. What it tragically reveals is a complex intersection of class, race, gender and deeply uncomfortable truths that lead some women to make choices that most people have never even been confronted with. Choices no one would advocate for or defend, but choices it would be utterly disingenuous to conflate, misinterpret, or confuse with the very same actions by men — and a stacked system that necessitates women even consider those choices in the first place.