There is a belief within our community that African-American men do not sexually abuse their children. There is a belief that African-American females do not get sexually abused, unlike their Caucasian female counterparts. Simultaneously it is common to witness African-American men ages 18 and older who are “dating” (which often includes sexual acts) young African-American girls as young as 13 or 14. Many African-American girls hit puberty early, some as young as 8 (but the average age is about 12), which may make them appear older than they are. If you thought back to your middle school experience, ages 11-13/14 (or even now elementary school) did you hear about girls who were having sex or performing oral sex on boys? What were your thoughts about those girls? Did you call them nasty, hoes, bitches, thots, etc? Have you read the book or seen the movie “Color Purple” by Alice Walker? (If you haven’t its a great but sad read about a 14 year old African-American girl sexually abused by her father which leads to a pregnancy)
As you look at the statements above can you see the link-the disconnect? In the above statement I’ve given you examples of African-American girls being sexually victimized (“the color Purple, men over 18 “dating” girls as young as 13), acting out their abuse (engaging in sex acts in elementary school and middle school) without the emotional or developmental ability to handle these encounters, and the statements they hear which make it difficult for them to disclose (“black girls don’t get abused, black men don’t sexually abuse their children-this one I recently heard on a podcast). I want to make it clear that black girls are sexually abused, not unlike their Caucasian counterparts, from trusted adults such as their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, ministers, priests, rabbi’s, coaches, mentors, teachers, etc. Its a hidden epidemic within our community, surrounded by a cloud of secrecy and shame-“don’t put our business out there in the street” is a statement most if not all African-American families have spoken.
As a therapist I have worked with survivors in various capacities for years, from group homes and foster homes to girls on probation who are pregnant (or who have recently had babies) or who are in gangs. When learning about their history there is a slew of child traumatic events-physical abuse, crime filled neighborhoods, physical assaults, neglect, death, parent incarceration, parental substance abuse, abandonment, and the common thread with all of these clients was sexual abuse before they were 7 years old. Sexual abuse includes touching, penetrating, or engaging in sexual acts with a minor (under age 18) and/or for minors with the age descrpeancy 4 or more years. The biggest feature of sexual abuse is the power differential between perpetrator and victim. [click here to get a more detailed description].
These girls, who I saw as children or as teens showed the lasting effects of their trauma. They were angry, they didn’t have female friends, they moved from relationship to relationship or desperately clung on to their boyfriends (they were usually at least 4 years older than them, in gangs or engaged in criminal activities themselves, and some had been physical with these girls). Their families had written them off as a problem, wanting nothing to do with them. They reacted strongly to the slightest incident whether it was a change of schedule (that always ended up in a verbal assault towards the staff member) or if someone looked at them wrong verbal threats often leading to real fights would ensue, these girls seemed unable to control their anger. In therapy when trying to process incidents they often talked about how angry the incident made them and would talk about having to protect themselves and not let anyone “think they can fuck with me”. I want to also say these reactions that I witnessed in these girls I have also seen in girls not under the protection of social services as well as in adults who have children that I work with at school due to their “behavior problems”.
These examples I’ve shared of these girls are very common and expected survival adaptions in child sexual abuse survivors, constantly being on guard for a threat to their safety. It’s simple neuroscience at play. Charged with having to protect themselves, because there was no one there to protect them, they lash out to any perceived threat. They will not get caught up again. They will not be hurt again.
Sexual abuse in childhood is insidious and affects the neurobiology of survivors. These girls learn to adapt to stressful situations by either exploding in anger or numbing out entirely. As they grow into adulthood many struggle with relationships with men, fluctuating between indiscriminate sex or not wanting to be touched at all. They see everyone and everything as a threat to their survival. This is not on conscious awareness level but if you think about the times you’ve blown up at someone because they said or did something only to reflect back later and realize your reaction was not based on what someone said or did but rather how the encounter made you feel, you can start to understand how survivors experience their day to day life.
Trauma has a way of making survivors feel like they are stuck in the past-never fully being able to stay in the present. They become fearful and anxious about their body sensations (such as a racing heart when becoming angry or scared) or someone brushing up against them by accident (the touch making them burn all over), that’s their body reacting to their heightened and sensitive stress response cycle-from a time in their early years were they were powerless and harmed.
Neuroscience has showed that neurons and hormones are impacted by trauma, changing in specific ways and thus affecting all parts of a persons physiology. We now know that childhood abuse, specifically sexual abuse, creates a host of long term health issues such as obesity, diabetics, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia, just to name a few. Science has even began to see that sexual abuse in childhood actually affects sex hormones thereby making survivors predisposed to hitting puberty early (think about those young girls who are “dating” older boys or who get cat called as they walk down the street-you may think your “hollering” at an adult but she just might be 11 years old and your cat calling is extremely frightening).
In part two of this blog I will talk about how to help the survivor cope. How to help them feel more in control over their emotional response and not be a slave to them. To help survivors not fear and learn to discern what’s happening in the present in their body. To increase trust in themselves and others again. And finally how they can love themselves.
“You aren’t your past, you are probability of your future.”
“Turn your wounds into wisdom.”
By Oprah Winfrey