Black Women, the Forgotten Survivors of Sexual Violence
This article is part of our blog series on Violence Against Women and Girls by the APA Committee on Women in Psychology.
By Jameta Nicole Barlow, PhD, MPH (Member, APA Committee on Women in Psychology)
The year was 1944.
Recy Taylor was walking home from a church meeting in Abbeville, Alabama with two other churchgoers when she was terrorized by seven white men in a green Chevrolet truck, snatched by them, taken to a secluded area and assaulted and raped, being told to “act like you do, with your husband or I’ll cut your damn throat.” (as told by Recy Taylor in McGuire, 2010).
According to McGuire (2010), the NAACP sent their best investigator, Rosa Parks, to what was her father’s hometown to explore what happened. Her efforts resulted in the formation of the Committee for Equal Justice, which later became known as the Montgomery Improvement Association.
In fact, “the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, often heralded as the opening scene of the civil rights movement, was in many ways the last act of a decades-long struggle to protect [B]lack women, like Taylor, from sexualized violence and rape.” (McGuire, 2010; digital location 186).
The social movement widely described as the Civil Rights Movement, emerged out of Black women demanding control over the bodies and lives, Black men being killed for protecting Black women, or ultimately, the fight for Black women’s bodies and agency and against white supremacist rape and assault.
Eight decades later, Black women still need protection from sexual violence, despite the Civil Rights Movement. According to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community:
For every Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 Black women do not report;
One in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18;
One in five Black women are survivors of rape;
Thirty-five percent of Black women experienced some form of contact sexual violence during their lifetime;
Forty to sixty percent of Black women report being subjected to coercive sexual contact by age 18; and
Seventeen percent of Black women experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that:
More than 20 percent of Black women are raped during their lifetimes—a higher share than among women overall;
Black women were two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than their White counterparts. And, more than nine in ten Black female victims knew their killers; and
Black women also experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse—including humiliation, insults, name-calling, and coercive control—than do women overall.
The struggle to protect Black girls and women remains. Unfortunately, Black women remain vulnerable to sexual violence due to what we call intersectionality, the systematic oppression Black women experience based upon their race and gender. These institutionalized practices and policies prevent their equitable enforcement. Because of what is known as the “Strong Black Woman” archetype (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2009), the dangerous single story told about Black women that uplifts their strength, perseverance and survival and minimizes their emotional wellbeing, tenderness and humanity, Black women are rarely protected. In fact, Black women are rarely protected while:
playing video games with their nephew – Atatiana Koquice Jefferson, a 28-year-old Black American woman, was shot and killed in her home by a white American police officer in Fort Worth, Texas, while she played video games with her nephew #SayHerName;
hanging out with friends at a park – Rekia Boyd was shot in the back of the head and killed by Dante Servin, an off-duty Chicago detective;
knocking on a door to seek help after a car crash – Renisha McBride walked to a neighborhood in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, where she knocked on the door of a house owned by Theodore Wafer who shot her with a shotgun suspecting a break-in #SayHerName;
being served a warrant and holding a toddler – Korryn Gaines was shot and killed while holding her son by a SWAT team in Baltimore County, Maryland, where they were serving her a warrant for a traffic violation #SayHerName;
giving birth to a child – Kira Johnson experienced severe medical negligence during her routine C-section causing massive internal bleeding and her eventual death in Los Angeles, California #BlackMamasMatter, representing the high rate of maternal mortality among Black women, where Black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers;
sitting on the floor with their child in a crowded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program office – Jazmine Headley was violently separated from her one-year-old child by four police officers and arrested because of her encounter with a security guard and not having a place to sit;
drinking milk from a school cafeteria – An eleven-year-old girl with special needs was body slammed by a cop simply for taking milk from the cafeteria.
and unfortunately, so many more experiences of violence affecting Black women with disabilities, queer and trans Black women, as well as lesbian and bisexual Black women.
While not directly related to sexual violence, these stories are emblematic of the daily bias and institutionalized gendered racism Black women experience when dealing with various systems such as criminal justice, education, and health care. Age or vulnerability doesn’t protect us either.
Many people are working hard to change these inequities by developing effective policies and practices. We already have policies to address sexual violence such as the Violence Against Women Act, but partisan politics are currently preventing its reauthorization. What we don’t have is a critical mass willing to enforce these policies, center Black women in the narrative, and act. But change can start with you. Here’s what you can do:
Become an informed ally. Learn more about the relationship between colonialism and sexual violence. Consider reading more books by Black women scholars who are writing about the daily lived experiences of Black women, including sexual violence. #CiteBlackWomen is a good start.
Center Black women in your advocacy. Contact your elected officials and share this data. Ask them what they are doing specifically to improve the sexual violence experienced by Black women. It may be helpful to explain how institutions contribute to gendered racism. Ask them to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
Support organizations that work on behalf of Black women in your area. This may require you doing some research, talking with Black women and allowing them to tell you what they need.
Black women should not be the forgotten survivors of sexual violence. The year is 2020. Maybe this will start another movement that will result in sustainable change for Black women experiencing sexual violence.
Beauboeuf-Lafontant, T. (2009). Behind the mask of the strong Black woman: Voice and the embodiment of a costly performance. Temple University Press.
Institute for Women’s Policy Research (July 13, 2017). Violence against Black women – Many types, far-reaching effects. Retrieved from: https://iwpr.org/violence-black-women-many-types-far-reaching-effects/
McGuire, D. L. (2010). At the dark end of the street: Black women, rape, and resistance–A new history of the civil rights movement from Rosa Parks to the rise of black power. Vintage.
National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community (October 2018). Black women and sexual assault. Retrieved from: https://ujimacommunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Ujima-Womens-Violence-Stats-v7.4-1.pdf
Africans American Policy Forum: https://aapf.org/privateviolence
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): https://www.aclu.org/blog/racial-justice/race-and-criminal-justice/legal-system-has-failed-black-girls-women-and-non
American Psychological Association (APA): https://www.apa.org/pi/about/newsletter/2014/11/child-sexual-abuse
Black Women’s Blueprint: https://www.blackwomensblueprint.org/
Black Women’s Health Imperative: https://bwhi.org/publications/
Feminist Women’s Health Center: https://www.feministcenter.org/
Institute of Women’s Policy Research: https://iwpr.org/violence-black-women-many-types-far-reaching-effects/
Maryland Coalition Against Campus Assault: https://mcasa.org/assets/files/African-American-Women-and-Sexual-Assault1.pdf
National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community: https://ujimacommunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Ujima-Womens-Violence-Stats-v7.4-1.pdf
National Organization of Women: https://now.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Black-Women-and-Sexual-Violence-6.pdf
National Resource Center on Domestic Violence: https://vawnet.org/material/sexual-violence-lives-african-american-women-risk-response-and-resilience
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network): https://www.rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline
Jameta Nicole Barlow, PhD, MPH, a Charlottesville, Virginia native, is a community health psychologist and an assistant professor of writing in the University Writing Program, as well as an affiliate faculty member in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and in the Milken Institute school of Public Health’s Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at the at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. Dr. Barlow utilizes decolonizing methodologies to disrupt cardiometabolic syndrome and structural policies adversely affecting Black girls’ and women’s health, as well as intergenerational trauma. She has spent 22 years in transdisciplinary collaborations with physicians, public health practitioners, researchers, policy administrators, activists, political appointees, and community members in diverse settings throughout the world. Dr Barlow serves on the APA Committee on Women in Psychology and is a 2015 AcademyHealth/Aetna Foundation Scholar in Residence Fellow as well as a 2016 RAND Faculty Leaders Fellow in Policy Research and Analysis. Learn more about Dr. Barlow’s work at www.jametabarlow.com