Sexual Violence in the Lives of African American Women: Risk, Response, and Resilience

This paper synthesizes information on African American female victim/survivors. It addresses historical context, survivor traits, risk factors, health consequences, culturally sensitive responses, and resilience of survivors.

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VAWnet Summary:

Sexual Violence in the Lives of African American Women: Risk, Response, and Resilience by Carolyn M. West with contributions from Jacqueline Johnson (October 2006).

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 ('Jezebel' stereotype) were used to justify limited social and legal support for Black survivors. Black women developed a culture of silence and engaged in activism in order to cope with their victimization.

Characteristics of Black Rape Survivors: In studies of sexual violence among Black women, rates have ranged from 18% in national surveys to 67% in a community sample of low-income women. Most rapes are Black-on-Black assaults, committed by acquaintances and intimate partners, and involve a range of sexually abusive behaviors, including forced oral sex, gang rapes, and attacks by armed assailants.

Risk Factors: Poverty and multiple victimizations (e.g., a history of childhood sexual abuse that involved physical force) were consistent risk factors for rape in adulthood.

Mental and Physical Health Consequences: Many survivors will experience some degree of acute or chronic mental or physical health disturbance. Black survivors reported fear, anger, anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal feelings, preoccupation with the rape, and low self-esteem. These mental health problems can be exacerbated if survivors endorsed the Jezebel stereotype. Rape can contribute to physical and sexual health problems (e.g., unintended pregnancies, vaginal infections, painful intercourse, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV).

Culturally Sensitive Responses: Researchers can conduct longitudinal studies, & oversample ethnically diverse women, and collaborate with advocates, survivors, and community members. Victim Advocates and Counselors can begin to have ongoing dialogues that take into account the intricacies of rape and other forms of oppression, develop culturally sensitive policies, practices, and education programs, and help survivors find vital services (e.g., emergency housing, assistance with employment). Legal professionals can consider concerns about racial loyalty to African American men and the historical legacy of discrimination in the criminal justice system when they conduct interviews and legal proceedings with Black survivors. Medical professionals can screen for sexual and physical victimization and document genital injuries in Black rape survivors.

Resilience : The goal is to break the culture of silence. This can be accomplished by conducting comprehensive assessments, which consider a broad range of sexual and physical violence in the lives of Black women, and help survivors develop strong social support systems. With culturally sensitive and appropriate services, African American women can be both sexual assault victims and resilient survivors.

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