These days, stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape allegations against powerful men seem to dominate the headlines. Everyone from Hollywood bigwigs to senatorial candidates have been accused of one or more of these crimes. New accusations hit the news daily, filling our newsfeeds and airwaves. In 2016, whenever I saw a celebrity trending, I worried they’d died. Now when someone famous trends, I wonder who they raped.
The salacious stories of well-known men being called out for their criminal and abhorrent behavior certainly has tongues wagging. But to what end? Will all this notoriety mean more women will be believed when they report these crimes? Will more people believe Black women, in particular? I’m not optimistic that it will.
But before I go any further, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to defining these crimes.
Sexual Harassment is legally defined as bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors; unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature; can also include offensive comments about a person’s sex or gender identity. (Source: E.E.O.C.)
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Sexual Assault, is contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Some forms include attempted rape, fondling or unwanted sexual touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts like oral sex or penetrating a perpetrator’s body, or penetrating the victim’s body (also known as rape).
While Rape is a form of sexual assault, not all sexual assault is rape. The F.B.I. defines rape as penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.
Now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s look at some numbers. According to statistics provided by the United States Bureau of Justice, the F.B.I., Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the following are true as of April, 2017:
- 1 in 3 women, ages 18-34 have been sexually harassed at work;
- 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime;
- 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will experience attempted rape in their lifetime;
- In 8 out of every 10 rapes, the victim knows the perpetrator (80%); and
- 1 in every 7 sexual assault victims is under the age of six (6).
These are just a few of the statistics which illustrate how pervasive sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are in the United States, where every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted.
With all the current hoopla about famous men committing these sex crimes, I fear that the sheer volume of girls and women victimized by men who aren’t famous will be lost in the fray. I’m especially worried for Black girls and women, 20% of whom will be raped in their lifetime.
Now that these crimes are front and center, will our (Black girls’ and women’s) cries finally be heard? Will our stories finally garner as much sympathy as white women’s stories?
I’m not hopeful. The fact is, we’re rarely heard or believed. And when we are, we rarely get justice, even in some of these high-profile cases.
For example, of all the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein accusers, the only one he publicly denied was Lupita Nyong’o, the only famous Black woman to come forward. (See SuzyKnew’s coverage of Ms. Nyong’o’s story here.)
More recently, HBO’s “Girls” creator and star, Lena Dunham came under heavy fire for her defense a writer-producer on her show accused of rape. Murry Miller, a white man, was accused of rape by Black actress, Aurora Perrineau. Dunham initially defended him when the allegations were made public. Ironically, she did so after publicly voicing her opinion that alleged assault/rape victims should ALWAYS be believed.
Then there’s R&B crooner, R. Kelly. (Insert hard eye roll and heavy sigh, here.) Allegations of Kelly’s sexual assault and rape of young girls go back decades. His sick predilection for young girls is well-documented, yet he not only enjoys his freedom, his musical career actually flourishes! That’s because his prey aren’t just young girls, they’re young Black girls!
Trust and believe that if even one of the girls Kelly (a Black man) raped were white, he’d be singing from a prison cell. But since his many (and there are so many) victims are Black girls, he’s out here, free as a bird, touring and making millions.
The saddest part about R. Kelly’s continued success is that his biggest fans are Black women. Our own sisters are the ones buying his records and going to his concerts!
Good God, misogynoir and patriarchy have done a number on our psyches, haven’t they? I mean, seriously. The demographic who should be calling for his prosecution the loudest are the main ones lining his pedophiliac pockets. Ugh!
When it comes to Black women and sexual harassment, I have just two names for you: Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. In 1991, when Hill (a Black woman) famously accused then United States Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (a Black man) of sexually harassing her while he was her boss at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (E.E.O.C.), not only did she have to undergo hours of degrading Congressional hearings, she was excoriated by the public. She was threatened and publicly humiliated. In the end, Thomas was appointed to the highest court in the land, where he still serves to this very day.
Had Hill been a white woman, I’m sure Thomas’ nomination would have been dead in the water faster than lightning. But again, the words of a Black woman were disregarded in favor of a man’s career and reputation. Thankfully, Hill has gone on to have a successful career in academia, the law, and as a published author. And the current laws about sexual harassment in the workplace are largely a result of her brave testimony. But Thomas still got a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.
I know that all women, regardless of race, are sexually harassed, sexually assaulted and raped at alarming rates. And I know that our patriarchal, misogynistic, rape culture-infested world with its toxic masculinity makes it too easy for these crimes to flourish unchecked. But I also know that the responses to Black women who report these crimes are far less sympathetic than those responses given to white women. In a world dominated by white supremacy, if white women are rarely believed, you know Black women aren’t taken seriously.
It’s almost as though folks don’t want to believe that we can be harassed, assaulted or raped. It’s kind of like that outdated thinking that sex workers can’t be raped … as if their very existence negates the possibility that these crimes can be committed against them. Too often, it’s the same for Black girls and women.
We need to address how we handle the reporting of these crimes, in general, and by Black women specifically. To treat us differently is to de-value our humanity.
No woman (or man; or girl or boy) deserves to be sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or raped. And Black women’s claims about these crimes need to be taken seriously. Our very lives depend on it!
Photo Credits: Sisterspace.com, PlannedParenthoodAction.org, Woman.ng