Psychology Benefits Society

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:

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that:

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:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

References:

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

 

Additional Resources:

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

SisterSong: https://www.sistersong.net/

 

Biography:

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

Image: Photo by Clarke Sanders on Unsplash