April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Every year during this time, there are campaigns across the country that highlight the dangers of acquaintance or “date” rape. There are silent marches and “Take back the night” events on college campuses around the country, and generally a heightened focus on the epidemic of sexual violence among adult women in the United States. Although organizations that fight this scourge have been observing April as a month to raise awareness since the 1980s, it wasn’t named an official month of observation until 2009, when President Barack Obama made an official declaration.
As an advocate who fights sexual violence against women and girls, I am always keenly aware of April’s activities; but as a survivor of child sexual abuse, I am also always deeply disappointed at the lack of focus on child survivors. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67 percent of reported sexual assault victims are under 18 years old, and 34 percent of all victims are younger than 12. In fact, while the national statistic for women who will experience rape in their lifetimes is 1 in every 5 (pdf), for girls (under 16) the number is 1 in every 4.
I want to talk about this.
I want to talk about this because as much as I appreciate the efforts to raise awareness and promote prevention of campus acquaintance rape, at times it can feel as if the message is that sexual violence is most likely to occur at a keg party in your freshman year of college as opposed to in the supposed safety and security of your home when you’re 5 years old or while you’re disarmed at a family friend’s house in the sixth grade.
I want to talk about this because I am a survivor. A three-time survivor. That latter fact is important because it took me a long time to say or think or write those words. I am a survivor—but there are layers to survival. I am also a black woman who was a black girl trying to navigate what survival—in the sense of continued existence—meant at 6 years old and at 9 years old and at 12 years old in a community steeped in silence and choking on its own complicity. There aren’t enough conversations about what that child does, whom that child turns to and where that child rests those worries.
Child sexual abuse is a pandemic.
The statistics are staggering. If there were an infectious disease that had the same statistical occurrence as sexual violence against girls, there would be a national state of emergency declared. Imagine a breaking news story that said, “This just in: New infectious disease will infect 1 in every 4 girls in the next year.”
Imagine if it were boys.
Imagine if it were men.
I want to talk about this and keep talking about it because the children cannot. The black community and other communities of color have a long history of being silent about the abuses that ravage our families and, many times, of being protective of the family for several reasons—fear and shame being two of the most prevalent.
Chris Rock tells a joke in his 1999 stand-up film Bigger & Blacker about every black family having that one “molester” uncle. In the routine, he mocks the practice that many folks have experienced in which an older family member warns about leaving children around one particular family member because of that relative’s predatory tendencies. Rock also jokes about a child relative being blamed once the uncle molests him because the child was warned to stay away, and the child being told by a parent to “walk it off.” It’s a funny bit—but mostly in that way that you have to laugh to keep from crying. I shudder to think of the number of people who could directly relate to that routine.
Overall, statistically, Native Americans have the highest rate of sexual assault in the country with a probability that nearly 27 percent of Native woman will experience rape in their lifetimes. Black women follow that with a probability of 22 percent—or 3,186,000 being raped over the span of their lives. Pair this information with the recently released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study “Lifetime Economic Burden of Rape Among U.S. Adults” (pdf) that framed the cost of sexual assault for an average American citizen. The study concluded that rape costs the “average” American citizen $122,461 annually. The study considers four factors: short- and long-term physical- and mental-health treatment, lost work productivity, criminal justice and property loss. The study is based on data from reported and adjudicated cases of rape in the United States in 2014.
It’s fascinating to see the case for fighting against rape being framed in terms of economics and prohibitive cost because this is a language that could activate and motivate many in law enforcement and government. However, after reading this study, I couldn’t help thinking of the interconnectedness of the economic burden of rape and the economic reality of black families and, thus, black children and child sexual abuse.
In 2014, there was a jarring report, “The Wealth Gap for Women of Color” (pdf), released by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, that said that African-American women have an average median wealth of $100. The other part of that statistic is that single black women with children have a median wealth so low that it averages out to zero. The poverty rate for African-American children age 6 and younger is 45 percent, compared with 14 percent for white children. The point is that there are scores of children who are victims of sexual abuse every year who don’t have the means to spend $122,000 on their treatment and recovery, and they don’t live in households with parents who can afford it, either.
Those children, especially the girls, are also faced with another burden: revictimization. In 1986, famed feminist researcher Diane E.H. Russell conducted one of the first studies on the idea of revictimization. That study concluded that 63 percent of the women participating who had been molested before age 14 were assaulted again during adolescence (after 14) and/or early adulthood. Subsequent studies over the last two decades have supported this study, concluding that girl survivors of sexual assault are anywhere from two to 11 times more likely to be sexually assaulted as adults.
What does this all mean for little black girls?
It means that we have a widespread problem in our community that not enough people are talking about. Sexual assault doesn’t start on college campuses. Surviving sexual violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it’s often layered with social, cultural, economic, gendered and racial factors that affect victims differently—especially if they are black girls or young women of color. I implore folks, this month and next month and at every opportunity you have, not just to pay attention to these numbers but to start conversations. We have to ring the alarm for our girls until they can ring it for themselves.
Tarana Burke is Senior Director of Programs for Girls for Gender Equity, a girls advocate, writer, and style blogger. She is working on a film about the trajectory of healing from sexual violence. Follow her on Twitter.