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Why Katy Perry's 'Innocent' American Idol Kiss Isn't OK – Even Though the Contestant Said It Was

Sarah Schuster
The judges of American Idol

“American Idol” is back with judges Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan and Katy Perry, and while the singing competition’s aired auditions are known for being wacky and even humorous, one audition is catching public attention for a different reason. It’s starting a conversation about our reactions to different forms of sexual assault.

Before his audition even began, Benjamin Glaze, a 19-year-old from Oklahoma, revealed to the judges he’d never been kissed before. “Come here, bud,” Perry said, waving him over to the judges’ table. When Glaze only kissed her on the cheek, she told him to kiss her again. This time, she turned her face, so his lips landed on hers.

With his guitar in hand, Glaze fell down, and although he was smiling (he even jokingly asked, “How was it?”), he did appear uncomfortable during the rest of the audition.

All three judges said no to Glaze’s audition, eliminating him from moving on to the next round.

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While Richie and Bryan both laughed at the bit — Richie going so far as approaching him and saying, “That was a major deal… your first kiss was Katy Perry” — not all viewers were amused by the “innocent” kiss. In the trail of the #MeToo movement, many thought the meant-to-be-funny but unwanted kiss was distasteful and should be considered sexual assault.

“Serious question for the # movement: how do you feel about @KatyPerry kissing Benjamin Glaze without his consent on @AmericanIdol? If @LionelRichie had done the same to a 19-year-old girl, would that not be considered sexual assault? Is there a double standard going on?” one Twitter user wrote.

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In an interview with the New York Times published Wednesday, Glaze told reporters the kiss did make him uncomfortable. He was planning on saving his “first time” for his first relationship.

Would I have done it if she said, ‘Would you kiss me?’ No, I would have said no… I know a lot of guys would be like, ‘Heck yeah!’ But for me, I was raised in a conservative family and I was uncomfortable immediately. I wanted my first kiss to be special.

Some took his comments to prove the kiss was in fact, non-consensual, and therefore a form of sexual assault. But on Thursday, Glaze disputed this interpretation, taking to Instagram to explain how he really felt about the kiss.

The way certain articles are worded is not done by me, and my true intentions are not accurately represented in every article you read about the situation. I am not complaining about the kiss, I am very honored and thankful to have been apart of American Idol… I do not think I was sexually harassed by Katy Perry and I am thankful for the judges comments and critiques. I was uncomfortable in a sense of how I have never been kissed before and was not expecting it.

So, of course, some people went the other way — blaming the media for taking the kiss “too far” and making a big deal out of nothing.

So, in the age of #MeToo, where does this leave us? If someone is able to brush off a non-consensual kiss, is it not considered sexual assault? Does sexual assault only count if the person affected feels like it was assault?

Jaclyn Friedman, activist and author of “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,” compared the issue to drunk driving.

“While we culturally agree [drunk driving] is both immoral and illegal, it’s not because every time someone engages in drunk driving, another person is hurt,” she said. “We’ve decided that as a culture it’s too high a risk.”

Thinking about it that way, the outcome doesn’t change the act. While for some a kiss can just be a kiss, for others, it’s not. The fact that some people make it home safe after drinking and driving doesn’t make the act OK — just like the fact that some people feel unaffected by what could be considered sexual assault or harassment doesn’t make those acts OK either.

Everyone is different. What one person can brush off might be traumatizing for another. That doesn’t make one person’s reaction “better” or more right. Glaze is allowed to feel how he feels — but his feelings don’t make Perry immune to criticism.

It reminds me of how my views on catcalling drastically changed after getting assaulted in the street.

I was never someone who felt upset or scared when I was catcalled. Like some women I know, it was easy to brush off. It was funny, sometimes even flattering. While I would never minimize another person’s reaction, to me, at that time in my life, it wasn’t a big deal.

Then, walking to an internship I had in college, a man exposed himself to me, followed me for about five blocks and then grabbed my ass before running away. It all happened so fast, I didn’t realize just how far I’d been followed until I drove by the area later that year.

After that, my sense of safety on the street changed. Every time I walked by a man, I averted my eyes and started walking faster. I stopped rolling my eyes and brushing off catcalls, I recoiled from them. Although the panic subsided after a few weeks, even today I catch myself feeling followed when no one is there. Feeling a little more scared of the same acts that before this experience, barely affected me at all.

While past experiences can influence how someone responds to sexual assault, it’s also important to consider the power dynamics of this situation. Glaze was a 19-year-old about to perform in front of judges deciding his fate. This, Friedman pointed out, is already an unfair power dynamic. As someone who is still trying to pursue a career in music, it’s not a stretch to think Glaze benefits more from swallowing it and treating it like it was nothing. Friedman said it reminds her of many #MeToo stories that came out of Hollywood, when a young actress might stay quiet about a sexual act that made her uncomfortable, because of the potential impact it could have on her career. 

And of course, the layer above all of this, was that the kiss was aired and promoted on national TV. By treating an un-consensual kiss as a stunt, Friedman said, “they’re saying it’s cute and funny to trick someone into doing something sexual with you that you said you didn’t want to do.” Normalizing this, especially on a “family-friendly” show, sends the wrong message about the importance of consent.

Looking at Perry’s fans defending the kiss, some comments are eerily reminiscent of what is often called “victim blaming” in conversations about rape.

“He went up to the desk of his own free will, kissed her on the cheek and went back for another kiss fully aware of what he was going to the desk for.. everyone is just reaching..”

“He was the one going across to kiss her, doesn’t matter where you kiss a person on the body all physical contact.. She moved her head forward he was the one doing the kissing…”

Treating people with respect, and seeking consent before engaging in a sexual act, should always be the standard. Period. To live in an equitable, safe and fair society, consent must be the norm. American Idol missed an opportunity to educate viewers when it decided otherwise.

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