This is the third post in OSU’s fall blog series on sexualized violence and race. Today’s post is offered by Kishundra D. King. She is both a crisis counselor who works with Black women and children survivors of abuse and a researcher who studies the same topic with respect to psychology and religion. Kishundra is someone who has a lot to offer growing understandings of the way that race and systemic racism exacerbate the harm of sexualized violence. If you would like to look back on the other posts in this series, you can read my post here, and Regina Shands Stoltzfus’s excellent contribution here. As always, if you have a story or perspective or question on the topic that you would like to share, leave a comment for Kishundra or send OSU a message.
— Hilary

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When I was four, my dad touched my private areas and kissed me like a grownup…I couldn’t tell anyone. It would ruin my family.” – an eight year old Black girl

 

Stories like this are not uncommon. As a crisis counselor, I am continuously struck by the amount of sexual abuse reports made by children and the disproportionate amount of Black girls who can’t even conceive of reporting out of fear for ruining their family or the Black community in general. Unfortunately, secrecy and child sexual abuse is not limited to Black children. In fact, most of the Black women that I have counseled experienced sexual violence during childhood, which they consider is the determining factor of why they must seek counseling services.

Most people know that child sexual abuse will impact these individuals in a major way. Pamela Cooper-White, a specialist in psychology and religion, suggests that children lack the cognitive and emotional development to grasp what’s happening during an episode of sexual abuse, but their adulthood is still impacted.[4] These effects include a plethora of challenges and intrapsychic struggles: post-traumatic stress disorder, fear, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, difficulties in interpersonal relationships. Black women report being severely abused with great force during childhood that resulted in long-term effects and negative life experiences. Their untold stories that they hold deep within is what prompts my research in Black child sexual abuse.

In my review of Black child sexual abuse literature, I found that there are limited resources that acknowledge child sexual abuse in the Black community. Perhaps, this is because many people think that Black child sexual abuse is not particularly distinct for the broader conversation about child sexual abuse. However, I would argue that race nuances the issue of child sexual abuse in a variety of ways – ramifications of reporting and long-term effects, in particular.

The sources that I found articulated two ways of understanding Blackness, child sexual abuse, and why Black children tend to not report sexual violence and abuse, and these can be understood in terms of (1) a psychological understanding of the individual and (2) sociological understandings of why Black children tend to not report sexual abuse. To clarify, child sexual abuse, for my purposes writing today, is generally defined as the intentional touching of, penetration of, intrusion upon, exposure to a perpetrator’s genitals, sexual exploitation, or any other sexual act intended for sexual gratification between a child and an adult.

In general, research in sexual violence indicates that sexual abuse affects a child’s psychological development and overall well-being. The psychological understanding of why a Black child might not report sexual abuse is based on the individual’s understanding of themselves which impacts their reasoning behind reporting or not reporting. According to Safeguarding Black Children: Good Practice in Child Protection, “it is important to recognize that racism plays a substantial role in how black children understand what has happened to them and affects their ability to disclose details about their experience.”[1] In essence, the author understands racism and child sexual abuse in light of how Black children perceive their value. Racism already forms Black children’s experiences and how they view themselves as valuable according  to white cultural ideas. So, if child abuse occurs, having already experienced through racism the message that one is less valuable, Black children are less likely to report. Although this is a useful way of understanding Black child sexual abuse, in my opinion, it is only a partial understanding of the greater picture because of the “it takes a village” idea commonly espoused in Black communities, which leads me to consider sociological approaches to engaging Black child sexual abuse.

Sociological ways of understanding why Black children typically refrain from reporting focuses on the child’s hesitance to report based on how reporting would impact others and what it would mean for their community. Many scholars have focused exclusively on the Black community and the culture of silence around sexual abuse. Most conclude that the lack of reporting in Black children is due to victims knowing their perpetrators and the risk they take when reporting. Not only do Black child victims risk not being believed, they risk jeopardizing someone else’s future with their report, which violates a quasi Black code of ethics,“ be your brother’s keeper.” This ethic serves to protect Black men from the White supremacist justice system, because by encouraging the Black community not to report to the police – regardless of the type crime –  it protects Black men from facing racially weighted criminal charges and, ultimately, keeps Black men out of the legal system where they are repeatedly treated unjustly and are too often wrongly killed.[2]

This is not to say that Black men are the only individuals responsible for completing child sexual abuse in Black children. This is to simply acknowledge that “sixty percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of Black men before reaching the age of 18, according to an ongoing study conducted by Black Women’s Blueprint.”[3] In other words, many Black children find it their duty to protect their perpetrator based on this ethic and the reality that racist violence is commonly perpetrated against Black men through the U.S. legal system. If the sexual abuse occurs in religious communities, such as the Black church, there is an additional layer of guilt and shame that  prevents them from reporting.

From this cursory review of Black child sexual abuse as well as its long-term effects, we have a general sense of why Black children tend to not report sexual abuse, and we might initially respond by brainstorming ways to increase the likelihood of reporting in the Black community. However, we are still left asking how we help survivors of Black child sexual abuse heal (during their childhood or adulthood) and how we prevent future abuse – from a societal level and from a communal level.  Empathic listening, being familiar with all the signs of abuse, and being an advocate for the abused are all great starts, but that’s only the beginning. Learning more about Black child sexual abuse specifically is needed to get at its cause and begin the necessary work of dismantling.

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[1] Claudia Bernard, “Child Sexual Abuse in the Lives of Black Children,” in Safeguarding Black Children: Good Practice in Child Protection, Claudia Bernard and Perlite Harris Ed., 102.

[2] Cherise Charleswell, Role Reboot – Life, Off Script, “Sexual Abuse And The Code OF Silence In The Black Community,” 2014, Accessed September 20, 2016.http://www.rolereboot.org/culture-and-politics/details/2014-09-sexual-abuse-code-silence-black-community/

[3] Charleswell, “Sexual Abuse.”

[4] Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar, 2012.