Read an Excerpt
Was It Sexual Abuse?
I just didn't think that adults had sex with children.
Darlene, who as a preteen was raped
repeatedly by a brother-in-law
If you are reading this book, you might have found at some point in your life that you were on your own, searching for the words to name what was happening to you. Or for the courage to get away, or the power to make it stop. You may have figured that it happened to everybody, because it had become so routine in your life. You might have even expected it, felt your body respond to it. You might have carried the secret for years, or maybe you're still carrying it today.
Without enlightenment, we struggle, we are on our own, in the dark, trying to understand why we're "evil, all the time," as one sister said to me. Or why our families may get together and laugh easily but rarely come to terms with deep, deep troubles. For many of us, we have buried sexual abuse so deep into our psyches that we would never connect it to today's physical illnesses and pain, our depression or addiction, our inability to hold a job, get out of debt, find satisfaction in a relationship, nurture our children, or simply say no to people or situations that do us harm.
But knowledge, as does faith, helps to light the way. Knowledge clears the fog of ignorance so that we can see what's real and true, even if it's ugly. It helps us see how our families enable and even encourage abuse. And it helps us learn how to hold abusers accountable, or at the least not be intimidated by them. Knowledge helps us understand how abuse has affected our lives and what we can do to untangle those effects from the life we want to live. And it helps us see our experience within the context of our culture and the larger society.
All About Power
Sexual abuse, simply put, is when a person in power or authority uses you or forces you to perform for his or her sexual gratification. Sexual abuse can range from noncontact flashing and use of explicit pictures and language to touching and kissing to digital and penile penetration. It is a crime, which often stems from a sickness.(1) And it is a violation of your body, your mind, and your spirit. It is perhaps the nature of the crime that leads us to believe that what happens behind closed doors should stay there, but it is often in the shadow of silence that problems like depression and addiction develop, enabling abuse to continue for generations.
The power of an abuser can be physical or assumed. Clergy members and teachers have power in their positions as spiritual and educational leaders. A friend of the family has power because he is an adult and because he has connections to the parents that a child does not have. The power of a boss or coach stems from that role of authority. A babysitter's power and authority are inherent in her position as a caregiver and substitute for parents. A cousin may not be bigger in size but may seem to have more household clout because of the way he commands his elders' attention and respect. The term incest can mean sexual relations between family members, regardless of age. Throughout my book I will use the terms child sexual abuse and sexual abuse, which more specifically describes adults' illegal sexual contact with children.
I will focus on the sexual abuse of children and abuse committed by family, informal family, and friends because we are more likely to be abused as children than as adults, and, contrary to the "stranger danger" warnings that many of us remember from childhood, we are most likely to be abused by someone we know.(2) It is in these instancesin a tangle of confusion, fear, embarrassment, and shamethat the silence is most pervasive. Most abuse is committed by adult males against younger females, though women are known to abuse, children are known to abuse, and boys and young men are also abused.(3) I will refer most often to instances in which women were abused in childhood by adult males, but I have included a chapter (Chapter 6) on the specific challenges of boys who are abused.
If you have ever been sexually abused, then you should consider yourself a survivor in recognition of your fortitude, no matter the negative impact, no matter what harmful ways you have found to cope with your experience. Anyone who has been sexually violated and has lived to tell about it, including myself, I will refer to as a survivor. I give a nod to the noted feminist scholar Traci C. West, who uses the term victim-survivor to remind readers "of the dual status of women who have been victimized by assault and survived it." She notes: "Black women are sometimes denied an opportunity to have their victimization recognized."(4)
A survivor once wrote to me: "Is it abuse if you don't have sex?" The answer is: Absolutely. We might dismiss or minimize our experience of abuse because it was "only touching" or "it happened only once" or "it was a long time ago." But abuse has many forms and faces, and each can be devastating in its own way. You can determine if what you experienced was abuse by asking yourself these questions:
• Was I touched or kissed in a way that made me feel uncomfortable?
• Were words with sexual overtones used to describe my body?
• Were words about sexual acts used in my presence?
• Was I made to view sexual acts?
• Was I made to pose for sexual photos or movies?
• Was I forced to touch someone else's genitals or breasts?
• Was I made to put my mouth on someone else's genitals or breasts?
• Was I raped or penetrated?
• Was the person who did this in a more powerful role than me (bigger, stronger, older, in authority)?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you were most likely sexually abused. The "Help Yourself" exercise at the end of this chapter focuses on the symptoms that can help you acknowledge past abuse. Together these questions and the exercise can help you be clear and sure. It doesn't matter how long ago, or how often, though more severe abuse has been linked to more severe health-related problems.(5) One episode is enough to cause a lifetime of damage. There need not be a threat or physical violence, merely a touch, innuendo, or some other sexual act that makes you uncomfortable. And without some form of therapeutic help, it is difficult to simply "get over it," as many survivors are told to do, or have tried to do. Shirley, who is in her seventies, still vaguely remembers being abused by her mother's husband, a man whom she refuses to call "father." She was about three at the time it started. Whenever she speaks out about it, she finds that through her testimony, she heals a bit more: "My daily life is not fraught with fear. But the triggers, they take me back to where I was. Triggers like what's happening with the Catholic Church and all those priests, or somebody might touch me when I'm not expecting it. I've not done all my work in healing. I've done it in segments over the years. And I've learned to tell my story. I've just tried to get functional. That's good enough for me."
How Big Is Yhis Problem?
Because of fear, shame, and cultural baggage, most of us keep this violation to ourselves, making sexual abuse one of the least-reported crimes in the United States.(6) Statistics vary widely, depending on the type of research and the size of the study's sample, and even what behaviors are considered abusive. About 87,000 children were sexually abused in 2001, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, which tracks confirmed cases of abuse. But chronic underreporting means that no statistics truly reflect the extent of abuse in our country. These widely quoted numbers from surveys of adults looking back on their childhoods reflect how prevalent the problem is: About one in four women and one in six men report that they were sexually abused as children.(7)
Using these estimates, among African Americans, that translates to about 3.3 million women and 1.9 million men eighteen and older who have reported a history of sexual abuse.(8) If it were considered a disease, experts would have labeled sexual abuse an epidemic long ago.
Comprehensive research on sexual abuse is relatively new; major studies on the issue have been produced only in the last twenty or so years. And not surprisingly, research that focuses on Black Americans' experience is rare; few studies examine the role of race and culture in survivors' experiences. One noted exception is the work of Gail E. Wyatt, a clinical psychologist and professor at UCLA. I will refer regularly to Wyatt's pioneering in-depth studies exploring the impact of abuse on the lives of Black women. "We're certainly not the only group that's silent regarding abuse," says Wyatt, who has written several books on abuse and sexuality. "But we're the only group whose experience is compounded by our history of slavery and stereotypes about Black sexuality, and that makes discussion more difficult."
• Blacks are sexually victimized in childhood at the same rate as Whites. In one survey, they reported being more severely abused with greater force.(9)
• Family members and acquaintances account for 93 percent of sexual assaults against people under age eighteen.(10)
• In estimates of cases known to child protective agencies or community workers, girls were sexually abused three times more often than boys.(11)
• Sexual abuse before age eighteen increases a woman's risk of becoming HIV-positive more than any other factor in her life.(12)
Abuse is debilitating. Its impact on behavior is lifelong and potentially deadly. For children, abuse can stunt their psychological and emotional development. E. Sue Blume writes that abused children experience "a course of development (emotional, interpersonal, sexual) that is shared, every day, with premature sexuality, lack of safety (even terror) and deformities of many life skills. The child victim's entire view of herself and the world will be clouded by the effects of her abuse."(13)
Most research into sexual abuse focuses on the psychological effects: Survivors are more likely to experience depression than women who weren't abused, studies show; the longer the abuse lasts and the more violent, the more severe the problems.(14) However, no study can truly reflect the range of experiences and their related effects. One woman who was propositioned but never touched by her mother's boyfriend spoke of an enormous sense of shame that she was somehow enticing him. We will explore the impact of abuse, and the silence that often follows, in the next two chapters.
Many psychological problems can lead to or complicate physical problems, such as reproductive disorders. Abuse also affects women's sexual choices: Survivors are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior that leads to disease and pregnancy. In one study, 66 percent of pregnant teens reported a history of abuse.(15) Sixty-six percent of all prostitutes were sexually abused as children, and 66 percent of sexually abused prostitutes were abused by fathers, stepfathers, or foster fathers.(16) Another recent study showed that sexual abuse before age eighteen increased a woman's risk of becoming HIV-positive more than any other factor in her life.(17)
Ultimately, as a society, we all pay for sexual abuse through public and private money spent on crisis intervention, child protection services, medical treatment, foster care, and the criminal justice system. Other directly related costs include those for mental health care and counseling, substance abuse treatment, and social services programs for indigent clients and the mentally ill. Among secondary costs, consider simply the cumulative lost time from work that can be linked to survivors' history of sexual violation. Studies have shown that it is far cheaper to provide prevention services than to pay for intervention and treatment.
All acts of sexual abuse should be reported immediately to your local police, rape crisis center, or social service agency, and the survivor should get immediate physical and mental help. By law, adults whose work puts them in contact with children are supposed to report signs that a child has been abused (see Chapter 5, "Protecting and Saving Our Children") to the authorities. In some states, every person with a reasonable suspicion must report or face fines or even jail time. Adult survivors who want to take legal action against their abusers may do so by pressing criminal charges or filing a civil lawsuit. Whatever the judicial outcome of the abuser's case, that person must receive professional treatment as well. We will explore treatment for survivors and reporting abusers in Chapters 4 and 7.
Why Is This Our Problem?
Sexual abuse spans all racial, gender, economic, and social boundaries. At least one study shows that abuse is more common among children in lower-income families.(18) Because African Americans are disproportionately poor, it may seem that Blacks are at a disproportionate risk for being abused. But it should be noted that abuse is more likely to be reported among low-income families because they tend to be in contact with public agencies and authorities more than others, and may be observed more. Also, those who tend to report suspicions of abuse, such as teachers and doctors, may be more likely to suspect abuse in lower-income families. That means that the problem goes virtually undetected in those families whose race or ethnicity, money, status, or social standing insulates them from people who might otherwise turn a trained eye to warning signs.
Abuse is our problem because while studies show that Black children are victimized just as often as White children, survivors report different reactions to their experiences. And we must remember that in addition to the trauma of sexual violation, survivors must also deal with the trauma of being born and raised in a racist and sexist culture.(19) Wyatt's study comparing experiences of rape includes some significant differences:20
• Black American women were more likely to have withheld reports of attempted rape from authorities.
• Black Americans were significantly more likely than Whites to blame their living circumstances for placing them at risk for victimization.
• Black Americans tended to be the victims of repeated assaults slightly more often than Whites.
• Black Americans were significantly more likely than Whites to have heard sexual and racial stereotypes regarding which kinds of women are likely to be raped.
In another study, Blacks reported that they were more likely than Whites to be abused severely in terms of the sex acts involved, and the abuse was more likely to be accompanied by force. They were less likely to be abused by a father and more often abused by their uncles.(21) I will show in detail in this and the following chapters some specific ways that Black women were affected.