Black Survivors and Sexual Trauma

Culture, Equity, Safety, Survivors

Black women are subjected to both racism and sexism — a double bind that puts black women at higher risk for sexual violence. Research shows that:

Sexual harassment leads to long-lasting economic and professional consequences for victims, whether or not they come forward.

An estimated three out of four sexual harassment cases are never formally reported. When they are, 75 percent of victims report experiencing some form of retaliation. In addition to the barriers that prevent survivors of other sexual traumas from reporting, survivors of work-related sexual misconduct also legitimately fear for their careers, promotions, and even their safety.

Sexual harassment (and sexual assault in the workplace) often drives survivors to withdraw from their work, move, or change jobs, potentially at great economic or professional cost. And when harassment drives survivors out of highly-specialized fields that they are deeply invested in, the career loss can result in “profound grief.”

Sexual assault is most often committed by people known to, and trusted by, their victims.

Rape victims’ stories tend to be true: only two to eight percent of rapes are falsely reported (the percentage is the same for other felonies). Research also shows that one in three women and one in six men experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Of women who are raped, over half (51 percent) are raped by an intimate partner and 40 percent are raped by an acquaintance.

It often takes time for survivors to report to anyone, let alone to the authorities.

The vast majority of sexual assaults are never reported to authorities: RAINN estimates that out of every 1,000 sexual assault cases, only 230 are reported to the police. And for every black woman who reports rape, at least 15 do not report. (However, two-thirds of survivors eventually disclose sexual assault to informal systems, usually family, friends, or romantic partners.)

There are many reasons why survivors do not disclose traumatic events until long after they occur. Failure to disclose sexual assault immediately after the event does not mean it never happened.

Because of the complex ways in which sexual assault and related coercion and abuse exploit power and control — and, thus, undermine victims’ self-confidence and self-esteem — many victims struggle to disclose an assault, and may even have trouble admitting to themselves that it happened. Victims often blame themselves for the encounter and convince themselves — or are convinced by the abuser — that an assault was not what they thought it was.

Forgetting, not thinking about, and even misremembering an assault can be necessary to help survivors cope.

Especially when abuse is perpetrated by someone on whom the victim is or was dependent, the survivor must adapt day-to-day because they are stuck in that relationship. One way to adjust to that situation is to think or remember less about the abuse, or to reframe it.

In addition, disassociation or intoxication during an assault, as well as disbelief afterward, often prevent survivors from reconciling what happened even to themselves. Furthermore, gaslighting by perpetrators, a victim’s own self-blame, co-morbid mental health conditions, and doubt about whether it is worth the toll of coming forward and navigating the criminal justice system also prevent survivors from disclosing their assault to others.

Ongoing and even “friendly” contact with a perpetrator is common.

Because most perpetrators of sexual violence are known to their victims, ongoing contact is often necessary. And, as was the case with Simmons, an abuser or harasser may have actual or perceived power over their victim, and therefore, the victim may adopt adaptive strategies, such as maintaining friendly contact, in order to avoid retaliation. This is especially likely when the abuser or harasser is an extremely powerful “rainmaker” with outsized influence over others so “the rules” generally do not apply.

Most rapists are repeat offenders.

Once a few stories became public, other women came forward to allege that Simmons committed sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to attempted or completed rape. This fact does not diminish the victims’ credibility in any way.

Most rapists are repeat offenders: a survey of men whose self-reported sexual acts met legal definitions of rape or attempted rape, but whose actions went undetected by the criminal justice system, found over 60 percent were repeat offenders against multiple victims or the same victim. Eighty percent of respondents admitted to raping women who were intoxicated by alcohol or drugs.

After one victim comes forward, others assaulted by the same perpetrator may follow.

It’s not uncommon for one survivor to come forward first before others do: for all the aforementioned reasons, most victims will continue to doubt themselves and assume they will be doubted if they report, unless others come forward to make a complaint about someone. Survivors who do choose to report to authorities most often cite a sense of obligation to protect others as an important reason for their decision.

Traumatic memories are vivid for victims, while peripheral details are often forgotten.

The moment of impact in a head-on collision. The joke your friend was telling before the surprise IED blast. The difficult birth of your youngest child. The big boss appearing naked before you, wearing only a condom.

Scientific research shows traumatic events of all kinds are often cemented in a person’s memory. And current research shows that memories of sexual assault are even more vivid than memories of other sorts of traumas, such as car accidents.

Traumatic events are processed differently than peripheral information about traumatic events. With extreme emotional arousal at the time of a traumatic event, people experiencing trauma often become narrowly focused on what is happening, and therefore more likely to remember it. In contrast, they will have less clear and complete memories about other aspects of the traumatic event, such as the day of the week or the clothes they were wearing.

Likewise, traumatic memories often come to mind as involuntary and intrusive thoughts or ruminations replayed and rehearsed over an entire lifetime. Extraneous details and information, on the other hand, do not re-appear as intrusive thoughts or ruminations, so they become easily forgotten, especially as time passes.

Even so, traumatic memories — like all memories — are not like a videotape with complete and perfect replay. In general, survivors of trauma remember “pieces, as opposed to complete storylines.” Distortions and some forgetting of details, especially peripheral ones, can occur over time.

Black women survivors are coping with gender-based and race-based trauma.

For any survivor, the consequences of sexual trauma are serious: Large, epidemiologic studies show that sexual traumas, in particular, are most frequently associated with PTSD, depression, substance misuse, suicide ideation and attempts, and other adverse health effects. And when a traumatic event such as sexual assault is perpetrated by someone close to the victim, that trauma has more severe mental health consequences as compared to trauma perpetrated by a stranger.

For black women, the combined and compounded effects of sexism and racism can heighten depressive and PTSD symptoms. Additionally, there is evidence that sexual trauma experienced by adult black women can result in more symptoms of PTSD with a greater severity of symptoms than when the trauma happens in childhood.

Since slavery, sexual violence and stereotypes have been used as tools of oppression and have devalued black women in our society.

White men routinely sexually assaulted black women during and after slavery in the United States to engender fear in black women and assert dominance over black men. This institutionalized rape of black women, coupled with demeaning stereotypes formed centuries ago that persist to this day, have made a lasting impression on our society as a whole. This legacy has led to the minimization or rationalization of sexual violence when it is perpetrated against black women, especially when perpetrated by acquaintances.

In addition, black women are stereotyped as promiscuous, even from a young age. A Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality study found that “adults often view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like [than their white peers],” and that “negative stereotypes of black women are mapped onto black girls,” resulting in harsher treatment and a lack of empathy for black girls.

Institutionalized and internalized racism prevent black women from reporting to authorities.

For every black woman who reports rape, at least 15 do not report. The complexities preventing black women from disclosure to authorities include “racial loyalty, personal experiences of racism and oppression, a perception that racism is more threatening to the cultural group’s well-being than sexism, and prior negative experiences with the legal system.” Moreover, law enforcement has historically failed to protect black women; for example, a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Baltimore Police Department engages in biased, and potentially unlawful, discrimination against women victims of sexual assault in that majority black city.

When sexual violence is perpetrated by black men against black women and girls, many factors — including the black community’s fraught relationship with law enforcement and the criminal justice system — may make the victims hesitant to take any action that could potentially harm the perpetrator. In instances of sexual assault by an acquaintance, fear of retaliation by the perpetrator and the community they share with the victim also prevents disclosure.

Black women’s “culture of silence” around sexual assault is a rational response to a racist society.

For centuries, rape of black women was both widespread and institutionalized, and the legal system — itself often weaponized by white people — offered little protection for black rape victims. In fact, through the 19th century, rape laws were “race specific” and did not recognize black women as victims.

Even today, evidence shows there is a double standard regarding black women’s perception and treatment as victims. For example, the penalties their assailants suffer are typically less severe than those of people who sexually assault white women: one recent study found prosecutors filed charges in 75 percent of the cases in which a white woman was attacked, but when the victim was a black woman, prosecutors filed charges just 34 percent of the time.

In response to institutionalized racism and internalized racism, many black women have developed a “culture of silence” to cope with their victimization. More specifically, some black women adhere to the “Strong Black Woman” expectation, which requires them to display inner strength and minimize the impact of their rape. This cultural perception of strength impacts black women’s ability to seek help, to have their adverse experiences taken seriously, and to take the time needed to heal and recover from sexual trauma.

Few black survivors of sexual violence seek mental health services, thus exacerbating the lasting health effects of trauma.

Low rates of outpatient mental health use in general by black Americans, combined with a general distrust of the mental health profession and concerns about “betraying” one’s race when the perpetrator is also black, contribute to a lower likelihood that black women survivors will seek out treatment. This is especially the case in the immediate aftermath of an assault when processing trauma in a quality-care setting can promote greater resilience over time.