“Why doesn’t she come forward?”
“Why didn’t she call the police?”
These are all quotes I have heard for years in my clinical work and research with victims and survivors of sexual violence, as well as in my work with youth and adults who have sexually offended.
None of this is new for me when I hear responses to a survivor’s disclosure. The #MeToo movement became global in revealing the stories of sexual harassment and violence survivors. #MeToo started as a movement initiated by Black women as an outlet to speak their truths years before women in Hollywood came on board.
During that time, people became more informed about the prevalence of sexual violence — nearly one in four women and one in 10 men have experienced sexual violence. 75% of victims report some form of retaliation or intimidation after their disclosure. Less than 8% of rapes are falsely reported.
Despite this knowledge, blame is often placed on survivors and attention is diverted away from the actions of those who offend.
As I reflect on my clinical work, I can easily count the few Black girls and women victims and survivors who have come into trauma treatment at various places I’ve worked. However, many more women in my personal life have disclosed their sexual abuse to me.
Approximately one in four Black girls will be sexually abused before age 18 and one in five Black women are survivors of rape. For every Black woman who reports a rape, at least 15 Black women do not report to police; though two-thirds report to informal systems, such as family and friends.
For Black women, there are a number of reasons they do not report — fear of retaliation from the person who harmed and their community, shame, loyalty to their race in cases of intraracial sexual violence, and due to other experiences of oppression in their lives. Coming forward could mean insults, name-calling, and threats to physical safety.
Even when Black women do report, trials take years (disrupting their lives) and do not guarantee convictions. In Detroit, 81% of untested rape kits are those of Black women.
Again, we know this isn’t new information as we’ve witnessed high-profile incidents. We saw how long it took for R. Kelly to be arrested and charged for alleged crimes against Black girls and women. We saw how Harvey Weinstein’s power and authority in the industry kept women silent, including actress Lupita Nyong’o.
From 2013 to 2014, Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw sexually assaulted at least 13 Black women while patrolling low-income communities. Those victims had prior criminal charges. Black women and girls often do not report because they are not believed. They are not the “ideal” victim. They are labeled as destroying their community for seeking accountability, justice as they define it (and can be anti-carceral), and personal healing.
Recently, I attended the hearing for Senate Bill 73, a measure in the Colorado legislature to eliminate the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault. The measure passed the legislature on Tuesday and was sent to Gov. Jared Polis for his signature.
Survivors told their personal narratives of incidents of sexual abuse, including some who endured years of childhood abuse. Many noted it took them decades to share their story. The room was so silent, yet their voices were powerful as many discussed how years of treatment aided in getting them to this point of sharing publicly.
Who was missing in that room? Black girls and women. I wondered, where do they get to tell their story? Do they hold it in, contributing to intergenerational trauma? Do they die with these secrets?
We know from the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) literature that a survivor’s lifespan is reduced by 20 years if they have six of more ACEs. As we’ve seen with the “strong Black woman” trope, Black girls and women are often taught to protect others at the risk to their own health and well-being.
Sexual violence removes a person’s autonomy and choice. Therefore, trauma-informed care reinforces the importance of survivor empowerment, voice, and choice.
The survivor has the choice to report or not report to law enforcement. Engage in restorative justice or not. The survivor has the ownership of their own narrative and how they want to proceed with their healing.
There are many Black-women led survivors organizations that offer culturally informed materials for Black survivors and promote trauma-informed practices for survivors, including Black Women’s Blueprint, Girls for Gender Equity, and Project Nia.
As we strive to prevent and end sexual violence, we must start by interacting with survivors in a supportive, empathetic, and trauma-informed manner. Believe victims and survivors. Believe Black girls and women. They are listening to your words and their lives are at risk.
Apryl Alexander is an associate professor in forensic psychology in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver.
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