Broken in Silence: Black Women, Sexual Trauma, and Oppression

I understand trauma as a therapist, I also have my own personal story of grief and loss, but I cannot imagine what it is like to live every day afraid for your life, your partner’s life, your parent’s lives, or your children’s lives.  To live in a constant state of fear, to feel misunderstood, and to be the target of both direct and indirect racism, is an experience I will never know.  But I am committed to doing more, adding my voice, and to broadening the scope of my lens in a way that contributes to the solution, not the problem.

Having worked with women who have experienced sexual violence, I cannot help but notice the parallel between systemic violence that our culture has both perpetrated and maintained on black Americans to the experience of so many of the sexual assault victims I have worked with over the years.  The abused women I work with are from diverse backgrounds, ethnic groups, are different ages, come from different socioeconomic status, and many talk about the shared experience of feeling as if they are trapped in a prison, with walls that are only visible to them and to the perpetrators that take no accountability for having put them there.  This seems relevant to me, as I see the ongoing images of abuse, incarceration, and murders of so many black Americans that are streaming daily.

Many of the women of color I work with, describe living with multiple wounds.  They may be coming to see me for issues related to physical or sexual violence, but they also discuss the added experience of feeling invisible to the world around them.  Women of every ethnic background can be blamed for their own victimization, because a tilted culture tends to align with perpetrators who portray themselves as the victim in order to justify their crimes. But for black women, this lack of acknowledgement seems particularly poignant.  It is the lack of acknowledgment, and lack of justice that puts black women at risk of additional injury.  Many victims do not report their assaults to the authorities in fear that they will be blamed for their perpetrator’s crimes, and also because they fear that those who tried to protect them will also be blamed.  Fearing retritubion, many choose silence.

  • For every black woman who reports rape, at least 15 black women do not report.

  • One in four black girls will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18.

  • One in five black women are survivors of rape.

  • Thirty-five percent of black women experienced some form of sexual violence during their lifetime.

  • Forty to sixty percent of black women report being subjected to coercive sexual contact by age 18.

  • Seventeen percent of black women experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner during their lifetime. *

I am hopeful that the Black Lives Matter revolution will bring both attention and help for black women who have not only been victims of oppression, but also victims of sexual assault.  There is a worldwide reckoning that is continuing to unfold, and it is only through our deliberate, collective action, that black women are a part of it.  Here are three things from the American Psychological Association that you can do now to support black women from further violence:

  • Become an informed ally:  Learn more about the relationship between colonialism and sexual violence.

  • Center black women in your advocacy: Contact your elected officials…ask them what they are doing specifically to improve the sexual violence experienced by black women.

  • Support organizations that work on behalf of black women in your area.

*Data provided by the American Psychological Association: In the Public Interest:  Black Women, the Forgotten Survivors of Sexual Assault (February, 2020).

Clear Reflections

What can you do to become an ally for black women survivors of sexual assault?
What can you do to advocate for black women in your community?
What are three organizations in your area that are working on the behalf of black women?  How could you support the work that those three organizations (or businesses) are doing to promote awareness to these issues?

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