Trends in the disclosures of victimization
As someone who has served as a peer and youth mentor, as well as an advocate for women and girls in various settings, including domestic violence and rape crisis centers, I have noticed some disturbing trends in the disclosures of victimization. One trend that emerged is that the majority of black women I encountered had been sexually abused as children and did not address the abuse until adulthood. The realization that child sexual abuse is more common than I ever imaged it could be, confused and angered me. I was compelled to dig deeper because clearly something is just not right. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014), an estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. Recent statistics have displayed the alarming rate in which black girls have been abused.According to preliminary findings by Black Women’s Blueprint, “60% of black girls experience sexual assault… by the time they reach 18” (Black Women’s Blueprint, n.d.) and for every black woman that reports her sexual assault there are at least 15 black women who do not report their experiences of abuse (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010). I personally have known and worked primarily with women and girls, but this is happening to boys as well and it is talked about even less when it comes to male survivors. “Approximately 22 percent to 29 percent of all CSA (child sexual abuse) victims are male” (Putnam, 2003 p.270). The reluctance for boys to report abuse, coupled with the fact that males are rarely asked about childhood sexual abuse by mental health providers may explain why boys are underrepresented in psychiatric samples (Putnam, 2003). It is deplorable that there are so many perpetrators out there who have gone unpunished and unknown to the people who share their homes and communities. Not one of the women who disclosed her victimization to me was abused by a stranger; each knew her abuser, as a neighbor, teacher, family friend or even a parent. Understanding that the perpetrator is typically someone close to the survivor helped me see why so few children report.
That realization became evident when I thought about the accounts of victimization from the women I have known and worked with. They all experienced a profound sense of betrayal and distrust growing up because of the unfathomable violation of being assaulted by an adult that they knew and once trusted. Suddenly, the world that was once safe, fun and bright became a dark, dangerous and stressful place. These women did not know whom they could trust, and they generally did not feel that they could tell anyone what had happened to them. Without treatment or help to escape the abuse, they were left to deal with these extreme emotional and physical assaults that no child should ever have to endure. The repercussions of childhood sexual abuse can be devastating for survivors. They are at risk for a myriad of both short and long-term symptoms of psychological distress (Effects of CSA on Victims, n.d.). “Childhood sexual abuse has been correlated with higher levels of depression, guilt, shame, self-blame, eating disorders, somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, sexual problems and relationship problems” (Hall & Hall, 2011 p.2).
Child sexual abuse in the African-American community
Child sexual abuse is certainly not unique to the African-American community; it is a widespread issue that can be found in every racial and ethnic group. But as I think about the people that I have encountered and the heartbreaking stories that they have shared, it is still baffling to me that this is an issue that African-Americans are reluctant to discuss and/or aggressively address. When we look at the black community, the prevalence of children being sexually abused is somewhat of a conundrum, because we have attributes of a collectivist culture. Collectivists sacrifice the interests of the individual for what is in the best interest of the group because the group (e.g. family, tribe or state) is the principal element of reality, Realo’s study as cited by (Power, Schoenherr, & Samson, 2010 p.208). “In collectivistic cultures, people are considered “good” if they are generous, helpful, dependable and attentive to the needs of others. This contrasts with individualistic cultures which often place a greater emphasis on characteristics such as assertiveness and independence” (Cherry, n.d.). Many African Americans believe in the African proverb that exemplifies our collective culture, “It takes a village to raise a child.” So I would think that the same village would serve to protect children and hold perpetrators responsible for their crimes. We know that communities of color tend to work together for the greater good of the community, and yet there are these trends of sexual violence against children that are not being sufficiently addressed. The reason the black community seems to be plagued with this issue, despite our collectivist culture, is unclear. I believe it is most likely related to a convoluted web of systemic oppression, intergenerational transmission of abuse and personal culpability.
We also have to recognize the influence of the systems in place that do not allow for true healing or treatment of black youth. When black children have been victimized and they exhibit maladaptive symptoms of their abuse, they tend to be labeled and stigmatized for their actions. This phenomenon is demonstrated by the “school-to-prison pipeline” that has become more and more prevalent in our nation’s school systems. The American Civil Liberties Union describes the school to prison pipeline as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems”(School-to-Prison Pipeline, n.d.). Many of the children that are affected by this institutional trend are students of color that have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect (School-to-Prison Pipeline, n.d.). Very few take the time to look past the overt behaviors and really examine the covert pain that emanates from a history of abuse; which unfortunately places black youth in the predicament of getting punishment or remediation rather than receiving effective help to heal.
Defending against abuse
So what can be done? We must first teach kids to be aware of what actions and behaviors are inappropriate instead of teaching them to beware of a stereotypical “bad guy.” The stranger danger concept may risk allowing children to let their guard down around anyone who does not fit into that rigid box. Children will be cautious of people they do not know which can help keep them safe, but it also means that when someone they know harms them it makes it harder to understand that a crime was even committed. We also need to take steps to instill more accountability and openness in the community. For collectivist cultures in particular, the village that raises the child can be used as the best defense. Multiple groups of people in a young person’s life can work to protect them from violence and oppression. “A large body of theory and empirical research suggests that intervention at the neighborhood level is likely to prevent child maltreatment” (Daro & Dodge, 2009 p.70). If the community knows the signs and then holds anyone accountable that they see being inappropriate with a child there would be a lot more people being brought to justice. In terms of openness, as true in the larger society, the black community as a whole needs to be aware that there are people with mal intent towards children in our community as well. It is difficult to think about and hard to imagine but the fact is they are out there. So if children reports abuse, believe them, support them and allow them to get help. Furthermore, those who the child may disclose to need to provide a caring and nonjudgmental approach when handling the situation. The reaction of the first person the child tells about the abuse can determine the trajectory of that child’s healing process. If it is a negative response they may never tell anyone or reach out for help again. Unfortunately, I believe this is what may have happened with the black girls and young women that I have encountered. I think that all of these factors have added up to produce generations of hurt young people who never felt the freedom to report their abuse. The deafening silence around this issue has been ignored for far too long.