Breaking the Silence:  Believing and Supporting Black Survivors of Sexual Violence

Jun 12th, 2019

By: Meredith Varsanyi, Training Program Coordinator

In 2007 Tarana Burke began the “Me Too” campaign as a way to empower women of color who experienced sexual abuse.  Ten years later, the #MeToo hashtag exploded on Twitter without immediate credit to Burke and her decades of advocacy work for survivors of color.  Many advocates of color were quick to point out that not crediting Burke reaffirmed that Black women were being silenced and again left out of the movement (Garcia, 2017).

For Black women of color, sexism and racism are both used as tools of oppression.  Therefore, our efforts to prevent sexual violence must properly address the unique barriers women of color face when reporting their experiences.  African American girls and women 12 years of age and older experienced higher rates of rape and sexual assault than Asian, Latina, and white females from 2005-10 (DOJ, 2013).  Also, 40% of human sex trafficking survivors in the U.S. are African American (Banks, Duren, & Kyckelhahn, 2011).  Black women experience intimate partner violence, including sexual abuse, at a rate 35% higher than that of white females and at about 2.5 times the rate of women of other races; however, black women are less likely to report their assault or use social services, such as therapy and counseling, or go to the hospital to obtain a forensic exam (Feminist Majority Foundation, 2013).

The victimization of Black women has a unique socio-historical context as there is a long history of oppression, slavery, and sexual violence against Black women in the United States.  In the 1800’s some laws about rape were race specific, as in legally, only white women could be raped (West & Johnson, 2013).  These racist legal and social foundations along with historically negative stereotypes, such as the lustfully promiscuous “Jezebel,” promote the idea that Black women are unable to be victimized due to their perceived hypersexuality (Women of Color Network, 2014).  From a young age, Black girls are perceived as needing less nurturing, protection, support and comfort, and being more independent than white girls (Epstein, Blake, & Gonzalez, 2017).  Women of color may also be cautious to report due to experiences of systematic racism from law enforcement, the legal system and other institutions that assist survivors (Nash, 2005).  Enforcement of these stereotypes shifts the blame from institutions that have a history of discrimination to the survivor, pressuring them into silence.

To help survivors of color gain access to the resources they deserve, it is imperative to provide an intersectional approach to all prevention efforts.  Understanding the dynamics of power and oppression and working to respond to inequities faced by all marginalized communities is an important piece of advocacy.  The national Women of Color Network (WOCN) created a toolkit aimed to help advocates better identify and reach underserved populations.  We encourage you to check it out here.  Additionally if you self-identify as a woman of color or an allied professional or member of the community, consider joining the Maryland Woman of Color Network (MWOCN).  The MWOCN focuses on creating more opportunities for woman of color, breaking down barriers to service delivery, and influencing meaningful change at all levels for women of color.  For more statistics on African American women and sexual assault, or to request a training to learn more about underserved populations, please visit our website. Black women and girls matter, and they cannot be left out of our efforts to prevent sexual violence.




Banks, Duren and Kyckelhahn. (2011). Characteristics of suspected human trafficking incidents, 2008-2010.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics

Epstein, R., Blake, J. J., & Gonzalez, T. (2017). Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of Black girls' childhood. Georgetown University Law Center

Feminist Majority Foundation. (2013). Women of color and reproductive justice: African American women.

Nash, Shondrah Tarrezz (2005). Through black eyes: African American women’s construction of their experiences with intimate male partner violence. Violence Against Women 11(11):1420-40.

U.S. DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2013). Female victims of sexual violence, 1994-2010.

Women of Color Network. (2014). Communities of color: African American women.

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