The Russell Simmons Silence Breakers: Facts About Sexual Trauma
In a powerful interview on CBS This Morning, a group of women told their stories about enduring sexual assault at the hands of media mogul Russell Simmons. These women’s stories illustrate many hard truths about sexual violence in the workplace and the complexities for black women, in particular, to come forward.
Sexual assault is most often committed by people known to, and often trusted by, their victims.
Alexia Norton Jones: “What was going through my mind more than anything was: Why? Was just a why. Because I liked Russell. I would have just kissed him; I would’ve made out with him. He didn’t have to attack me.”
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.
Sil Lai Abrams: “I did not want to come forward. It was the last thing I wanted to do. Everyone said, ‘Don’t do it, it’s going to ruin your life.’”
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. 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.
Failure to disclose sexual assault immediately does not mean it never happened.
Sexual misconduct in the workplace leads to long-lasting economic and professional consequences for victims, whether or not they come forward.
Drew Dixon: “I’m not trying to take anyone down; I would’ve been taken down by this if I had said this when I was 24 years old.”
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 drive survivors to withdraw from their work, move, or change jobs, potentially at great economic or professional cost. And when workplace sexual misconduct drives survivors out of highly-specialized fields that they are deeply invested in, the career loss can result in “profound grief.”
Black women are subjected to both racism and sexism — a double bind that puts black women are higher risk for sexual violence.
Research shows that:
- Black women experience “forcible rape” at a prevalence that is 50 percent higher than white women and Latinas;
- As many as six in 10 black women report being subjected to coercive sexual contact by age 18; and
- Black women experience sexual harassment at work at three times the rate of white women.
Black women survivors are coping with gender-based and race-based trauma.
Sil Lai Abrams: “The next day I called him up screaming, and I attempted suicide. He knew. And I told him why: that he had ruined my life and that I had nothing.”
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.
Institutionalized and internalized racism prevent black women from reporting to authorities.
Drew Dixon: “Black people have very few heroes to spare. Not many of us get to the level of success of a Russell Simmons, which is why I was so proud of him.”
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.”
When sexual violence is perpetrated by black men against black women and girls, many factors 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 prevent disclosure.
Black women’s “culture of silence” around sexual assault is a rational response to a racist society.
Alexia Norton Jones: “I felt like no matter what I said, nobody was going to hear us.”
Rape of black women was for centuries both widespread and institutionalized, and the legal system — itself often weaponized by white people — offered little protection for black rape victims. In fact, there was a time in U.S. history in which 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 less severe than those of people who sexually assault white women: 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.
Russell Simmons, with the support of other powerful men such as 50 Cent, has launched a targeted campaign to silence his accusers.
Drew Dixon: “He is a media mogul. He has millions of followers – I have like 1000. He’s using all of that muscle to try to drown out our voices.”
In instances of acquaintance sexual assault against black women, fear of retaliation by the perpetrator and the community they share with the victim can prevent disclosure.
Additionally, claims of racial disloyalty are core parts of the playbook used by predators to prevent accountability and healing for black women. It is another form of bullying that can make victims hesitant to take any action, including accessing mental health treatment.
Most rapists are repeat offenders.
Sil Lai Abrams: “He’ll say ‘yes we had a sexual relationship.’ But he cannot address the fact that I was too drunk to consent.”
Drew Dixon: “This is violently tackled and raped – while saying no and fighting and crying.”
Alexia Norton Jones: “This is predatory rape.”
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.
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.
Leading news publications point toward a pattern of predation, spanning decades.
1983: Simmons allegedly rapes Sherri Hines:
In a 2017 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Hines states that Simmons raped her in 1983 at his office in New York: “The next thing I knew, he was pinning me down and I was trying to fight him and he had his way…I left crying.”
1988-1989: Simmons allegedly assaults Lisa Kirk and rapes Toni Sallie:
In a 2017 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Lisa Kirk alleged that Simmons followed her into a nightclub bathroom circa 1988 and attempted to assault her.
Also in 2017, Toni Sallie told The New York Times that Simmons raped her in his Manhattan apartment in 1988: “He pushed me on the bed and jumped on top of me, and physically attacked me. We were fighting. I said no.”
Sallie also told The New York Times that Simmons attacked her, grabbed her by the hair, and chased her into a women’s restroom at a music conference in 1989: “To this day, Ms. Sallie said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable in a room full of men.’”
1990: Simmons allegedly rapes Alexia Norton Jones:
Jones told Variety that Simmons raped her in his Manhattan apartment in 1990. She stated: “It was such a fast attack. He pulled my dress up. I must have said no seven to 10 times.”
1991: Simmons allegedly rapes Keri Claussen Khalighi, Jenny Lumet, and Tina Baker:
Keri Claussen Khalighi told The Los Angeles Times that Simmons forcibly penetrated her and forced her to perform oral sex on him in 1991, when she was 17 years old.
Jenny Lumet told The Hollywood Reporter that Simmons raped her in 1991. She wrote: “There is so much guilt, and so much shame. There is an excruciating internal reckoning. As a woman of color, I cannot express how wrenching it is to write this about a successful man of color.”
Tina Baker told The New York Times that Simmons raped her in 1991 when he was her manager. She told The Times: “I didn’t sing for almost a year.”
1994: Simmons allegedly rapes Sil Lai Abrams and sexually harasses Tanya Reid:
Abrams told The Hollywood Reporter that Simmons raped her in 1994. The day following the rape, she attempted suicide.
Reid told The Los Angeles Times that in 1994 she encountered Simmons at a hotel where she worked and he repeatedly called her and verbally harassed her. She said: “I remember this very, very clearly, the exact words he said on the phone. He wanted me to come upstairs so Brett could hold me down and he could [perform oral sex].”
1995: Simmons allegedly sexually harasses and rapes Drew Dixon:
Drew Dixon told The New York Times that while she was working as an executive assistant at Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings in 1995, Simmons would talk graphically about how she aroused him, ask her to sit on his lap at staff meetings, and regularly expose his erect penis to her. That same year, Dixon alleges that Simmons raped her in his Manhattan apartment.
1996: Simmons allegedly attempts to rape Natashia Williams-Blach:
Williams-Blach told The Los Angeles Times that in 1996, after taking her to a yoga class, Simmons attempted to force her to perform oral sex on him.
2005: Simmons allegedly exposes himself to Erin Beattie:
Beattie, a massage therapist, told The Los Angeles Times that while giving Simmons a massage in 2005 he exposed himself to her and asked her to touch him.
2014: Simmons allegedly gropes Christina Moore:
Moore told The New York Times that Simmons groped her in Miami in 2014. She stated, “I felt assaulted.”
2016: Simmons allegedly rapes Jennifer Jarosik and sexually harasses Amanda Seales:
Seales told The Los Angeles Times that in 2016 Simmons “used vulgar language to ask if they had ever had sex” at a business meeting.