Sexual Violence in the Lives of African American Women

This Applied Research paper reviews the sociohistorical context of Black women’s sexual victimization, the characteristics of Black rape survivors and their experiences, and the risk factors that elevate Black women’s vulnerability to rape and consequences thereof. Culturally sensitive techniques to promote resilience are offered.

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VAWnet Summary:

Sexual Violence in the Lives of African American Women by Carolyn M. West and Kalimah Johnson (March 2013)

In Brief:

Historical Overview: Throughout much of U.S. history, the rape of Black women was widespread and institutionalized. The legal system offered little protection and stereotypes about Black women's hypersexuality were used to justify limited social support for Black rape victims. Black women developed a culture of silence and engaged in anti-rape organizing to cope with their victimization.

Characteristics of Black Rape Survivors: In community samples, 34.1%-65% of reported childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and 12% reported commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). In student samples, 11.2% of high school girls and 14.2% of college women reported rape. In national studies, approximately 1 in 5 Black women had been raped in their lifetime. Black women who were low-income, HIV-positive, bisexual, or incarcerated were at elevated risk. Most rapes were intraracial and involved someone known to the victim: family member, intimate partner, or acquaintance. Perpetrators used physical force, coercion, or substances to gain compliance.

Risk Factors: Poverty and revictimization were both risk factors and consequences for adult sexual violence. Being poor increased the likelihood of being raped and being raped increased the likelihood of becoming more economically disadvantaged. Among CSA survivors, 27% were raped during adolescence and 42% were raped in adulthood. Adolescent risk-taking (e.g., drug use, running away) and risky sexual behaviors (e.g., prostitution, alcohol use) increased the probability of adult rape.

Physical and Mental Health Consequences: Survivors reported both immediate and long-term physical and sexual health effects: bruises, black eyes, genital injuries, and sexually transmitted infection, which may be caused by risky sexual behavior (e.g., multiple sexual partners, less condom use). Mental health problems included posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal ideation, pain-related health problems, and low-self-esteem.

Culturally Sensitive Responses: All professionals should strive to learn more about African American history, sexual assault, and historical trauma. Mental health professionals can conduct comprehensive interviews that document sexual victimization and survivors' homes, schools, communities, and workplaces and work to create a path to recovery that is best suited to the victim's needs. Legal professionals should be trained to recognized commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC) and endeavor to investigate sex crimes that involve marginalized Black women (e.g., those who are low-income, transgender, suffer from mental illness). Medical professionals can screen for sexual and physical victimization and document genital injuries.

Resilience: Service providers can use a strengths-based approach to help survivors heal: educating community members about sexual assault, encouraging them to use their social support network or to participate in activism, and promoting holistic healing practices.

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This Applied Research paper and In Brief may be reprinted in its entirety or excerpted with proper acknowledgement to the author(s) and VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, but may not be altered or sold for profit.