The nation is now aware that Jada, a 16-year-old from Houston, was allegedly drugged and raped at a high school party and was then subjected to shaming on social media when a video and pictures of the incident went viral. Since then, Jada has been accused of being sexually promiscuous (repeatedly referred to as a "thot" on Twitter) and worse yet, made to endure the humiliation of others mocking the pose of her limp, unconscious body after the attack–which became known as the #jadapose.
My personal reaction to this incident was one of horror and sadness–not only because the incident occurred, but because of the way (presumably) young people on social media initially responded to it. In my conversations with women around the country, I am constantly hearing stories of rape–in all its forms. Perhaps my disappointment in this case was the weight of seeing the young face of "another one." Maybe it was a function of my own fears as a mother of two girls, or maybe it was the empathy I felt as a survivor of sexual abuse myself.
You see, my first sexual encounter happened without my consent. While I was much younger and more powerless than Jada, who has come forward and publicly challenged her attackers, I remember quite vividly the feeling of being mocked by those who accused me of lying or of seducing my own attacker (as if a 7-year old can be "sexy" in any way, but I digress). I remember being threatened with more harm if I told anyone. I also remember how lonely I felt when it became painfully clear that few people actually believed me, or that many of the adults in my life seemed to feel that protecting my older, male attackers was more important than vindicating my honor. I can only imagine how that feeling might be amplified by social media, and so I write this with the full intention of helping us heal.
That said, let me first establish the following:
Rape is not funny–not even a little bit. The mockery of Jada's limp body was not only tasteless, but lacks a fundamental understanding that sexual victimization is a traumatic, violent experience. To suggest that someone can "ask for it" or know "what she was doing before she came"–as one of Jada's alleged attackers stated–is to ignore the fundamental truth about rape being ultimately about the absence of consent. If she did not give it–throughout the entire act–it is rape.
Rape happens to Black girls more frequently than you think. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the percentage of Black offenders increased from 18% between 1994-98 to 27% between 2005-10. Black females have a higher rate of sexual victimization than their White and Latina counterparts–and these statistics are just a reflection of the cases that are reported.
Rape victims are usually assaulted by someone of their same race. This is largely because 78% of assaults are made by someone known to the victim–a friend, intimate partner, family member, friend or acquaintance. However, it was certainly not lost on Twitter that at least one of Jada's alleged attackers identifies as White. While comments on that matter have lived in the same comedic spaces as other memes about Jada's perceived sexual history, the painful legacy of the south's "peculiar institution of slavery" has left an imprint on our collective consciousness, particularly with respect to the perceived availability of Black female bodies to White men.
Having stated all of that, I am still left with the question of why our society continues to have such a hard time responding to the rape of Black girls. The internalization, and public reflection, of the idea that Black female bodies are for public consumption render it difficult for people to accept that Black women have a right to decide when, and with whom, they share their bodies. The degradation of Black feminine identity as "thot," "ratchet," conniving, emasculating, unladylike, and undeserving of healthy relationships extend beyond memes on social media.
These ideas live in our public consciousness and feed implicit (subconscious) ideas about the inferiority of Black femininity. These ideas were born of the institution of slavery, during which enslaved Black women and girls were routinely violated by those who treated their bodies as property. However, they are perpetuated by a popular culture that reinforces these ideas. Today, we are left with the perception that Black females are hypersexual and more inclined to indiscriminately engage with multiple sexual partners, that they are not worthy of "love" and that they "ain't loyal." Basically, when society thinks that "she's gotta have it," it becomes increasingly difficult to develop social norms and public policies that protect Black females from sexual victimization.
The hashtags #IStandWithJada and #IAmJada are now amplifying the voices of those who understand that sexual assault has no place in our society. However, we must do more than just build social media campaigns. Social policy on public safety needs to recognize that a gun is not the only threat to our children's physical wellbeing. The rape/sexual assault of Black girls is an epidemic, as are the sexualizing gazes of the public, and it has been this way for too long.
To show empathy and solidarity is important to our healing process, but Jada–and other girls who have experienced sexual violence–need to know that our communities will no longer tolerate the disregard and violation of their bodies.
This is a call to action.
Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
No! The Rape Documentary by Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is an author, social justice scholar, and co-founder of the National Black Women's Justice Institute. For more information about Dr. Morris' work, visit http://moniquewmorris.com or follow Dr. Morris on Twitter @MoniqueWMorris.