The statistics are daunting: 22% of Black women and girls will be raped at some point in their lives. For every 15 Black women who are assaulted, just one reports her rape. While there are a number of reasons why any victim of sexual assault do not report their abuse, for Black women and girls, there are unique barriers to both reporting their assault and seeking help.
A new documentary, On The Record, explores many of these issues. The film focuses on the allegations of sexual harassment and rape made against music mogul Russell Simmons by former music executive Drew Dixon and others. Among other issues, the documentary highlights the enormous pressure that many Black women feel to not report Black men for sexual assault.
Of course, this is not the only reason why a Black woman or girl may not report their rape. Misogynoir — which we discussed in last week’s blog post — also plays a role. According to a report from Georgetown University Law Center, “adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers.” In addition, Black girls are often viewed as being more knowledgable about sex, and less in need of protection from predators as compared to their white peers. This false belief can be traced as far back as the 1600s, when European travelers to Africa were shocked by the way that African women dressed, and continued through slavery in the U.S., where slave owners justified their rape of enslaved women by claiming that Black women have insatiable sexual appetites.
These stereotypes play out in disturbing ways, as Black women and girls are rarely seen as victims of sexual abuse. In R. Kelly’s 2008 trial for child pornography, one juror stated that he voted to acquit Kelly because he did not believe the testimony offered by Black women because of how they dress and act. In 2015, Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted of multiple counts of rape; he specifically targeted Black women with the expectation that no one would believe his victims.
There are other reasons why Black women and girls may not report their abuse to the authorities. The relationship between the Black community and law enforcement is fraught with abuse and mistrust, with issues such as police brutality, mass incarceration, and over-policing of Black neighborhoods. Black women do not have the privilege of ignoring this reality when deciding whether to seek help and protection from law enforcement. For good reason, many Black women and girls do not trust the system — and may avoid reporting their sexual assault for that reason.
Related to this, many Black women are under pressure to not report Black men and subject them to the legal system. According to a national study, 91% of Black women are sexually assaulted by Black men. 75% of those attacks are by someone known to the victim, such as a family member or friend. Under these circumstances, Black women and girls may face both internal and external pressure not to report their attackers. It may even be seen as a betrayal to expose a member of their community to the police, as there is often a strong imperative to protect Black men after centuries of oppression and discrimination.
As a society, we must work to help ensure that Black women and girls are able to receive the help that they need if they are sexually assaulted — regardless of whether they chose to report their abuse. At Blackburn Center, we serve ALL victims of sexual violence and other types of crime and abuse. In addition, there are organizations that specifically focus on sexual violence within the Black community, such as:
To learn more about the subject, read:
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde