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Black Women, Sexual Assault, and Criminalization


April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and we must recognize that the impact of sexual violence on Black women cannot be overstated. Beth Richie, in her book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America's Prison Nation, writes, “In the end, Black women in vulnerable positions within disadvantaged communities fall so far from the gaze that is now sympathetic to some women who experience violence that they have virtually no right to safety, protections, or redress when they are victimized. At best, they are relegated to the status of undeserving. More often, those Black women with the least privilege, who live in the most dangerous situations, are criminalized instead of being protected or supported.”


Black women are disproportionately at risk of sexual violence. Nearly 1 in 5 Black women are survivors of rape, and 41% of Black women experience sexual coercion and other forms of unwanted sexual contact.


For every Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 do not report. Many survivors do not report their assault for a variety of reasons, including shame, humiliation, fear of retaliation, racism, historical failure of law enforcement to believe and protect Black women, and fear of unjust harm to Black partners. But Black survivors who do report sexual assault or violence are less likely to be believed than their white counterparts.


Additionally, there is a connection between sex abuse and the eventual criminalization and incarceration of Black women and girls. Girls in the juvenile justice system have typically experienced overwhelmingly high rates of sexual violence. Of women in prison—44% of whom are Black—86% have experienced sexual violence.

Why are Black women disproportionately at risk of sexual violence?


Black women and girls have been stereotyped as promiscuous and hypersexual for centuries, and that stereotype continues today. The “strong Black woman” stereotype means that we are less likely to be seen as victims. Our mental health and well-being are minimized or disregarded. Our trauma remains unacknowledged and unaddressed. And we are left unprotected by the very organizations and institutions responsible for such protection—such as schools, medical and mental health providers, our communities.


What are the consequences?


Sexual trauma is frequently associated with PTSD, depression, substance misuse, suicide ideation and attempts, and other adverse health effects. For black women, the added effects of sexism and racism can heighten depressive and PTSD symptoms. When trauma is unaddressed, it leaves us more at risk of interaction with law enforcement and the legal system because often how we express our trauma does not conform to traditional clinical symptoms. As a result, we are criminalized instead of receiving the treatment and care we need and deserve.


What can we do?