“I vaguely remember him coming to my room when I was 7 years old; it seemed like I was dreaming at first but then … he kept coming to my room night after night. He just started out laying in bed with me but then after a while he would touch me… down there. As I got older he would make me have sex with me. I told my mom what was happening with Bill (her boyfriend). She got mad and told me I was lying; she even washed my mouth out with soap. I was so scared that I never told anyone after that. I finally left my house when I was 17 years old.”
Robin, age 30 yrs old
Does this ring some similar bells with you? Did this send a shiver up your spine? Sexual abuse is not just something that happens in other cultures or communities but is happening right now in the African-American community. According to RAPE, ABUSE & INCEST NATIONAL NETWORK (RAINN) statistics derived from the US Justice Department, an American is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes in our country and it’s not just girls/women getting assaulted it also includes boys/men. The sexual assault of boys/men, (about 10% of the victims) is still not readily discussed or acknowledged as it is with girls/women but is beginning to come to the forefront.
According to the EBONY Sex Survey conducted last year 41% of the 8000 women who responded to the survey acknowledged having experienced sexual assault before the age of 18 years old. The majority of perpetrators of these sexual assaults (13%) were extended family members with another 13% of the perpetrators being immediate family members. Only 6% of these perpetrators were strangers or non-familial. This means that those committing sexual assaults are people that we KNOW! However, less than 39% of sexual assaults in this country are reported to law enforcement (US Dept of Justice).
Before we get into what some of the longstanding consequences are for survivors, we need to understand what is meant by sexual assault and rape. Sexual assault is often used interchangeably with rape, sodomy and sexual abuse, however, sexual assault is a more general term describing unwanted sexual interactions. Rape is defined as forcible compulsion; an act of sexual intercourse with a person against their will and consent, whether their will is overcome by force or fear resulting from the threat of force, or by drugs administered without consent or when, because of mental deficiency he/she is incapable of giving consent or when he/she is below the arbitrary age of consent (aka Statutory Rape). Sexual Abuse on the other hand is similar to the previous definition; however, the difference is that penetration is not required. Rather, all that is required is “sexual contact” – touching of intimate or sexual parts, either directly or through clothing. Each category gets further defines as first, second or third degree which is not necessary to go into for the purposes of this article as each state legally defines these degrees differently. Sodomy is the third major term, and is also defined in three degrees. This term is used when the assault involves penetration to areas other than the vagina (e.g. rectum). These terms would be used if a perpetrator were charged with a sexual offense.
Cultural History of Rape
There is a rich cultural history in the community surrounding slavery and rape. Our ancestors who were brought over from Africa during the slave trade were routinely treated as sexual objects by their masters. Black men were and continue to be feared due to the idea of their “supposed” overwhelming sexual appetite and prowess; Black women were seen as loose and amoral. These images of who Black men and women were thought to be by their White masters led to continual sexual assaults as a way to CONTROL and have POWER over the slaves. In addition, families were also split up on a routine basis and thus the idea of the family constellation that was so prevalent in our African history, through the years of slavery was whittled away. Sexual assault is very interwoven into the fabric of the African-American community, yet the community does very little to take a stand against it when we now have not only the hard won right but the power to bring perpetrators to justice, and seek the counseling that is needed to heal ourselves. Unfortunately, rape has also become a weapon during times of war as a way to degrade and humiliate the enemy through the rape of their wives and children; the underlying idea – CONTROL and POWER, is a sad commentary on man’s inhumanity to man.
Sexual Assault Before the Age of 18 years old:
A large number of women and men have experienced sexual assault prior to the age of 18 years old and some even before the age of 13 years old. In the African-American community, few survivors of these traumatic events ever report the incident to the police or even to their families. Some who have told a parent and/or adult guardian have had either of two experiences: the first experience was a feeling of being heard and taken seriously where action was taken by that adult to bring the perpetrator to justice or ; the second experience, which is unfortunately more the norm than the exception, where the child was made to feel as if she had done something wrong resulting in the child being kicked out of the house, getting beaten or just being told that they were liars.
Those that have survived being abused have a lot of thoughts and feelings about what has occurred especially if the abuse was repetitive and lasted for a number of years. Abuse that occurs early in ones life can cause intense emotions to arise. As a child experiencing such adult interactions, children have no context for which to understand what is happening to them. Survivors who do not seek counseling to resolve these issues can have longstanding problems in their adult lives such as: problems with intimacy, confusion around their sexual identity, depression, eating disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, difficulty getting and/or maintaining relationships and a number of other issues. It is still difficult for African-Americans to acknowledge that they may have problems in the psychological area and to seek help to deal with these issues. Counseling is seen as “airing dirty laundry” to outsiders and is frowned upon in the community.
Male and Female Survivors
The vast majority of reported sexual assaults are made by females. As stated previously, males are even less likely to report sexual assaults than females as our culture – the larger culture and the African American culture – are not open to looking at this as a problem. Female survivors are given the majority of services which aid in pushing male survivors further into the closet of anonymity.
The consequences of unresolved feelings about being assaulted are similar. Both genders have feelings of shame and guilt, however, for men there can be a different twist in how the assault manifests itself. For men who have been assaulted by men, there tends to be confusion around their sexual identity, which can continually be a question long into their adulthood. The idea of a man being sexually assaulted by a woman brings about laughter and ridicule. YES! Men can and have been assaulted by women. Because of how boys are socialized in our society (that female advances are wanted always), there is no room for them to tell or acknowledge unwanted sexual advances from women. In addition to the socialization factor and the cultural factor of machismo, boys are left with no outlet to deal with these very confusing feelings. Many times I have heard clients state that they had sex when they were 8 or 9 years old with women who were in their 20’s and older. In fact they boast about what “studs” they are or how much they had their “mack” down. After helping them get in touch with their real feelings and give perspective to the situation, they realize that actually what they experienced was abuse.
For women it is important to understand that relationships especially are affected. Women who as adults are in abusive relationships (Domestic Violence) are likely to have experienced some type of abuse in her history. This should not be shocking. These women who have come from violent (physical, emotional, sexual) households equate it to love as they have never had modeled for them a healthy relationship. In addition, having experienced such an environment, especially if the woman was the directly (i.e. suffered beatings, molestations, etc) affected by the violence in the environment, her self esteem could be impaired among other things which could impact on her ability to choose and appropriate mate. Abusive environments are something that she knows and understands and thus would unconsciously seek out people who could replicate the environment that she has come from.
For both men and women, shame and guilt are the foremost prevalent emotions carried with a feeling of responsibility for having caused the situation. First, YOU ARE NOT TO BLAME!!! It seems really simple to see these words on the page and think to yourself that you aren’t to blame but emotionally you FEEL that you are, especially if the environment that you were in during the time of the incident was not supportive and unsafe.
A quick note on those who perpetrate these crimes. First, not everyone is a pedophile. Pedophiles are persons who see children as viable sexual partners and companions. Rapists are persons who force others to engage in unwanted sexual acts. Exhibitionists are persons who like to expose their genitalia to others. There are other types, however, these are the top categories.
A large number of perpetrators have been found to have experienced some form of abuse at early stages in their lives; have poor interpersonal skills and sometimes can have difficulty with performing sexually. This is not to say that those who are abused become perpetrators, however, for some this is the path that is chosen usually not by conscious choice. This statement is not an excuse for their abhorrent behavior however look at this as a contributing factor in conjunction with others. The understanding of why some people offend and some do not is a complex discussion that is not for this article.
Being sexually assaulted or raped at any age is a violation of one’s soul. Unfortunately, more often than not, these experiences occur at early ages where children do not have the understanding of life to deal with these issues. Early childhood abuse, if not dealt with in a supportive, nurturing fashion can have long standing consequences in adulthood. For children to come forward and tell of abuse is a brave, and oftentimes anxiety producing experience. This is especially true if the person who is reported to be the perpetrator is someone that is in a trusted position in that child’s life ( i.e. father, mother, brother, close family friend, teacher, etc).
It is important to listen to your children when they say things to you. Sometimes it may not be “ So and so is touching me.” It may be, “I really don’t want to go back over to So and So’s house. I don’t like it there.” It is important to explore the issue with them without being angry and judgmental. This may be the one and only opportunity that you can show your child that you are open to what he/she has to say.
For survivors, it is important to know that you are not alone and there are people who can help you. Take a look at your life and see if it is where you want to be. Think about the following:
- Are you using substances or alcohol (more than socially) to deal with your feelings of anxiety and/or depression?
- Are you having difficulty getting or maintaining relationships?
- Are you having problems being sexually intimate with partners/spouses? OR are you very sexually promiscuous whether you are in a relationship or not?
- Have you tried to hurt yourself due to feelings of overwhelming sadness and hopelessness?
- Do you cut (razor, knife, sharp instrument) yourself to make yourself feel something?
- Are you continually questioning your sexual orientation (bi, straight, or gay)?
These thoughts can apply to a number of different issues other than abuse; however, if you are a survivor then these are especially pertinent. Remember there is help for you, it is up to you to ask!