Sexual assault remains silent epidemic

| April 3, 2013
(Photo: Glenda Otero / SXC)

(Photo: Glenda Otero / SXC)

By Zach Burgess
Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune

It is not talked about much within the African American community—the sexual abuse of women.

A study conducted by Black Women’s Blueprint found that 60 percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18. Furthermore, more than 300 African American women nationwide participated in a similar research project conducted by The Black Women’s Health Imperative seven years ago, that found that the rate of sexual assault was approximately 40 percent.

The universal nature of this suffering could translate into an amplified threat for black women and girls to experience depression, PTSD and addiction—common symptoms experienced by many survivors of rape.

“It’s a darkness I would not wish on my worst enemy,” said an African American woman, a rape survivor, who wished not to be identified. “But, what are you supposed to do? You tell your mother or an adult and for the most part… people think you are lying and fabricating a story. I’m sorry—love should not be that blind for a man. For me it was my mother’s boyfriend.”

The Department of Justice estimates that for every white woman who reports her rape, at least five white women do not report theirs; and yet, for every African American woman who reports her rape, at least 15 African American women do not report theirs.

There are many reasons why black women may choose not to report incidences of sexual assault. Survivors of all races often fear that they will not be believed or will be blamed for their attack, but black women face exceptional challenges.

Historically, law enforcement has been used to control African American communities through brutality and racial profiling. It may be difficult for a black woman to seek help if she feels it could be at the expense of African American men or her community. The history of racial injustice (particularly the stereotype of the black male as a sexual predator) and the need to protect her community from further attack might persuade a survivor to remain silent. Unfortunately, there still is not enough research to fully understand the scope of violence against black women and the barriers they face in receiving adequate support services.

“No race, ethnic group or economic class is spared from sexual violence or the myths and misinformation that complicate the healing process for survivors. But in addition to our higher victimization rate, African Americans are less likely to get the help we need to heal,” said Lori S. Robinson, author of “I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing From Sexual Assault and Abuse” to Forbes Magazine.

The movement to end sexual violence in the lives of black women in the U.S. is intimately connected to the civil rights movement. Yet, the issue has not been effectively discussed in the black community.

Robinson points out that in studies of black women’s sexuality conducted by psychologist Dr. Gail Elizabeth Wyatt, half of the women who had experienced childhood sexual abuse never told anyone and less than five percent ever got counseling.

“African American women are raped at a higher rate than white women, and are less likely to report it. We have suffered in silence far too long,” she said.

Rosa Parks is remembered as the NAACP organizer who sparked the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and helped give birth to the Civil Rights Movement, but she was an anti-rape activist long before the boycott.

“Decades before radical feminists in the Women’s Movement urged rape survivors to ‘speak out,’ African American women’s public protests galvanized local, national and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity,” said Dr. Danielle L. McGuire, author of “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).”

Filmmaker and activist Aishah Shahidah Simmons, speaks out on the issue of sexual violence. Her groundbreaking film, “NO! The Rape Documentary” was a part of her own healing process as a survivor of sexual assault.

She said, “It’s mandatory. ‘NO!’ saved my life. I have my own stories of child sexual abuse and rape. ‘NO!’ was my cultural activism. In ‘NO!’ the women’s stories were different, and yet similar to my own. Getting involved in this movement has healed me.”

In addition to her anti-rape activism, Simmons recommends the tools she uses on her healing journey, which include therapy with a licensed clinical psychologist (or a licensed social worker), Vipassana meditation and the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness “so you don’t become the very entity that you are trying to fight,” she said. She also emphasized the importance of community,.

“Find community that will not re-victimize you. Connect online to survivors who are doing this work. Faith communities are important, but they are not a substitution for therapy,” she said.

Simmons acknowledges that African American women face barriers to finding the healing resources they need.

“Because of the history of racism and sexism in America, in many instances, you are already presumed guilty,” she said to Forbes Magazine. “It is assumed that we are always wanting, willing, and able. Sometimes women call the police and the police decide a rape didn’t occur because of their race. You wonder if you will you be treated with respect. If your community is held hostage by the police, how can you trust the police? Where do you go?”

Through the filmmaking process, she discovered that racism played a significant role in survivors’ reactions to rape.

“There was a level of trust with perpetrators because (as in the majority of all rape cases, regardless of race/ethnicity), the women I interviewed were raped by acquaintances. They would ask, ‘How do I come forward?’ because they were advocating against racism in their communities and didn’t want to send another black man to jail. We are trained as women not to betray the black race.

“This country has a virulent history of racist violence perpetuated against black women, yet we have tried to protect black men from racism. Like black men, black women have been horribly impacted by white supremacy. Yet, there is often not the same outcry in our communities when a back woman is raped,” Simmons said.

Forbes Magazine contributed to this report.

Zack Burgess is the enterprise writer for The Tribune. He can be contacted at and followed on Twitter @zackburgess1.

Fort Wayne Sexual Assault Treatment Center addresses local problem 


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