Sexual violence has always been racialized (as well as gender-biased), and there is no one narrative that can fully capture the diversity of experiences. I reject the idea that there is a "universal womanhood" and universal experiences that all women share. Aside from the fact that these universal ideals exclude non-cisgender women, they ignore complexities of race and class discrimination, which many of us cannot afford to do.
I don't believe in trickle-down effects, and mainstream American rights movements have always been just that. Especially in feminist movements, more marginalized groups of women have been overlooked, while being promised that effects gained by the largely middle class, married White women activists would spread to those groups. Time and time again, the intersectionality of race, gender, and socioeconomic status (and so many more axes) are ignored in these movements and we are delivered empty promises.
Much pushback after highlighting race in issues, especially sexual violence, is due to the fact that White women have expressed that this is somehow demeaning their experiences. This is entirely false; recognizing that women of color experience more sexual violence and silencing than White women is not demeaning the traumatic experiences of White women. It is important in any situation to examine and understand how this situation manifests differently for different people. Still, the sexual assault of a woman of color isn't any more heinous than that of a White woman.
Breaking down the statistics of sexual violence by race, you will find that women of color experience higher rates of sexual violence than their White counterparts. While it is believed that as much as 60 percent of sexual violence goes unreported, in public discourse of sexual violence, the statistics put forth are those averaged out between all groups of women. Thus, the intersectional lives of women of color are ignored.
Overall, one in five women will have been raped in their lifetime, and 44 percent will experience sexual victimization other than rape. Government data show that one in three Native women, one in six Latina women, one in five Black women, and seven percent of Asian women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. However, new data show that the rates of sexual assault for women of color are drastically higher -- women of color are overall less likely to report their assault to authorities. Black Women's Blueprint found that close to 60 percent of Black women experience sexual violence before age 18, a number that has risen 20 percent in 7 years. Generally, 60 to 80 percent of women of color report experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime. In smaller Native communities, that number is sometimes 100 percent. Although statistics on transgender people are scarce, they have a rape prevalence of 50 percent, and that number is higher for trans people of color.
Women of color are not seen as legitimate victims of sexual violence due to historically persistent stereotypes about our sexualities - Black women are Jezebels, Asian women are generally submissive, Dragon Ladies, Geishas, or China Dolls, Latina women are "spicy" and curvaceous Mamis, and Native Women are Pocahotties, ready to cater to any man (especially a White male who will "save" her from her "savage" culture).
Institutionalized racism embedded in this nation hinders women of color from seeking and receiving adequate post-assault care. We aren't seen as able to be victims of sexual violence because we are believed to be sexually unhinged and belonging to naturally violent cultures. These ideas are borne of colonization, in which generations of Europeans freely took advantage of our bodies in their conquest; we were just collateral to them. Although colonization exists today on a smaller scale than in the past, these negative stereotypes have persisted and are major obstacles for women of color.
Men of color, especially Black and Latino men, are criminalized more than White men. Women of color are too often made to choose between seeking justice for ourselves and not sending men of color into a broken system that will further demonize them by strengthening the prison-industrial complex. Family and community are very central in communities of color, and the burden is all too often placed on women of color to protect the men in our communities at high personal costs.
If we're going to claim to fight for the rights of everyone, we need to make sure that we are constantly fighting for various minority groups. Sometimes that means decentering ourselves and centering other groups of people who are often silenced. We need to examine the ways in which we contribute to this silencing of others and let them speak for themselves and the lived experiences of which we are unfamiliar. It is past due for the intersectional lives of people of color, non-cisgender people, and other marginalized identities to be fully recognized and respected by those outside of those communities.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Read all posts in the series here.
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