I am an American woman who has never experienced sexual assault, rape, or coercion. Bully for me, right? This detail of my life is only notable because, among women in this county, I am in the minority. The Department of Justice reported in 2015 that there was an average of 321,500 reported cases of sexual assault in a five-year period (2010-2015), which works out to one person every 98 seconds.1 This staggering number points to a crisis Americans have been reluctant to talk about. Enter the #MeToo movement.
In October 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano urged women to use “#MeToo” if they had been victims of sexual assault or harassment. Milano wrote “if all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” While she was specifically referring to the alleged predatory actions of film producer Harvey Weinstein, the national response was mind-boggling. Facebook disclosed the hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts in the first 24 hours. Twitter reported it was used 825,000 times in the first two days after Milano’s tweet.2 Even though advocacy groups have long known about the discrepancy between reported cases and actual incidents (it is estimated only 15.5% to 30% of cases are reported3), the #MeToo viral campaign has done exactly what Milano wanted. With those two words, we are finally getting a better picture of how many women (and men and children) are affected by sexual violence.
But here’s the rub: the #MeToo movement wasn’t started by Alyssa Milano. It began in 2006 with Tarana Burke, a black activist, as a quiet signal of solidarity and support among young women of color who survived sexual assault. When Milano adopted and popularized #MeToo in October, she wasn’t aware of its history. And for all the good the recent popularity of the movement has done to expose the scale of the problem, it risks becoming yet another example of how black and brown women occupy the nation’s blind spot when it comes to sexual violence.
Unfortunately, the women that are most likely to be ignored are the most vulnerable. It is well documented that women of color in general and black women, in particular, have different experiences than white women with sexual violence: prosecutors are less likely to pursue criminal charges against the assailant when the victim is black; and jurors are more likely to believe a white survivor’s assailant is guilty than a black woman’s. This is if the case even makes it to court. In 2000, the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed the Philadelphia’s Sex Crimes Unit (or “The Lying Bitches Unit” as former unit detective Roscoe Cofield termed it) for burying nearly 2,000 cases of assault on low-income black women between 1995-2000.4
With the deck stacked against them, it is no surprise only 17% of black survivors will report their assault (compared to 44% of white survivors).5 The tendency of the larger society to ignore, or worse, blame black women survivors for crimes against them can be summed up by another trending hashtag: representation matters.
Black women’s vulnerability to sexual violence, along with the bias they face in the legal system and the court of public opinion, are complicated and differ in every state. Even so, historians can trace significant connections between slavery and the lingering negative stereotypes of black female sexuality. Black women are often portrayed negatively using the pervasive tropes like the “angry black woman,” the aggressive jezebel, the welfare queen, and the asexual “mammy” or matriarch. Each stereotype is used to undermine the victim’s character and frame the way sexual violence is interpreted by society at large and even how the women themselves react to it.
White women are and have been portrayed as the epitome of self-control, modesty, and purity, but black women were considered the polar opposite. For a good portion of American history, they have been considered promiscuous, seductive, and sexually predatory, often as a foil to white women. This characterization can be traced back to the sixteenth century when European travelers to Africa “discovered” natives wearing little clothing. According to these conservative explorers, nude equaled lewd.
These and other stereotypes of Africans were used to paint them as subhuman and animal-like in intellect and sexual appetite and therefore deserving of being captured as slaves. During slavery, this same ideology was used to justify the rape of black women. Of course, slavers didn’t think of it as rape under the rationale that they couldn’t rape someone who always wanted to have sex. Black women’s “insatiable” sexuality made them “unrapeable” and undeserving of protection.
These ideas were mirrored in the rape laws of the 1800s. In many cases, rape was only “rape” if the victim was a white woman. Black men accused of raping white women faced castration, lynching, or incarceration. White men faced no legal sanctions for the same crimes against black women. Additionally, according to the legal system in the South, there was no such thing as “rape” among slaves. For example, an 1859 case involving the rape of a 10-year-old enslaved girl by an older black man in Mississippi was overturned because, as the defense attorney argued “the crime of rape does not exist in this State between African slaves … their intercourse is promiscuous.”6
Even the asexual mammy figure—the overweight, pitch-black, middle-aged or elderly domestic worker—was used to deny acknowledgment of sexual violence against black women. In creating this image of the unattractive, matronly, asexual black female body, sexual violence was hidden under the cloak of undesirability. This image gradually morphed into the “strong black woman” matriarch stereotype (along with the “angry black woman”) that allegedly destabilizes gender roles and emasculates men, forcing them to leave their nuclear families.7
After slavery and Jim Crow segregation ended, these characterizations changed slightly, but the idea that black women’s sexuality is deviant, aggressive, and pathological is cemented in the way the public pictures them. Examples of this abound in popular culture; the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia even has a permanent exhibition dedicated to the topic. But because these stereotypes persist into the twenty-first century, they continue to have devastating (and sometimes deadly) effects on black women in America.
As the nation has this long-overdue conversation about rape, coercion, and harassment, we must not forget the women who started it in the first place. Black and brown women have been tweeting #MeToo for over ten years. They have been fighting for even longer against a history that says their rapes don’t matter. It is time that we, as a nation, start to listen to their voices.
- Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2014 (2015), accessed February 28, 2018. Return to text.
- Cassandra Santiago and Doug Criss, “An Activist, a Little Girl and the Heartbreaking Origin of ‘Me too’,” CNN, October 17, 2017. Return to text.
- Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, “Fact Sheet: Reporting Sexual Assault: Why Survivors Often Don’t,” accessed February 28, 2018. Return to text.
- Toni Irving, “Decoding Black Women: Policing Practice and Rape Prosecution on the Streets of Philadelphia,” NWSA Journal, 20, no. 2, (Summer 2008), 114. Craig R. McCoy, “From An Old Report, 4 New Charges,” Philadelphia Inquirer (June 23, 2003), accessed March 1, 2018. Return to text.
- Jennifer C. Nash, “Black Women and Rape: A Review of the Literature,” Brandeis University Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, (June 12, 2009), accessed February 27, 2018. Allante Adams, “Why Are Black Women Less Likely to Report Rape?” City Paper (June 9, 2015), accessed March 2, 2018. Return to text.
- Carolyn M. West and Kalimah Johnson, “Sexual Violence in the Lives of African American Women,” National Online Research Center on Violence Against Women (March 2013), accessed March 1, 2018. Return to text.
- Nash, “Black Women and Rape,” 11. Return to text.