“I was supposed to attend my five-year reunion at Spelman. I didn’t make it. That was the week that I was raped. In my Washington, D.C., apartment. On my bed. By two men with a gun who accosted me on my doorstep. I was 26 and forever changed.”
I wrote those words 17 years ago for a cover story in Emerge magazine. A lot has happened since that night.
The article won a first-place award from the National Association of Black Journalists. I wrote the 2003 book, I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse. In the years that followed, I spoke to audiences large and small about sexual violence in more than 100 venues, in more than 20 states and in Costa Rica, Venezuela and Brazil. And I’ve learned far more about rape than I ever wanted to know.
But when my then editor, the legendary journalist George Curry, first asked me to write that article about rape in the African-American community with the revelation of my own attack as the hook, I was reluctant. To tell my story, people would know what happened to me. In detail. After writing it, there would be no taking it back. What happened to me was violent and brutal. It was worse than your worst nightmare.
Would I feel ashamed?
Stigmatized for life?
Nearly two decades later I can honestly say: None of the above.
Today thousands of people have read my story. Thousands more have heard me tell it. And now, as special guest editor of the “Ending Rape 4Ever” series on EBONY.com, I’m again honored to have the opportunity to raise awareness and to promote the elimination of rape from our community—forever. I said it in the Emerge article and I am saying it again; I am committed to breaking the silence. One out of every six women in this country has experienced a rape or attempted rape. Rape is personal to a lot of us.
ENDING RAPE 4EVER
“Great, a space across the street from my apartment building,” I thought as I drove up. Usually, street parking filled up by 8 or 9 p.m., and I would have to park behind the small, two-story apartment building where I lived. It was always too dark and spooky back there for my taste. Pleased at my good fortune, I parked and walked toward my building, thinking about the exercise video I was going to play and the dishes that needed washing.
I jumped slightly when I saw two brothers. “Funny, I didn’t notice anybody walking when I parked,” I thought once I had crossed the street. Then I reminded myself that I didn’t have any reason to be afraid of two men just because they were Black. I didn’t give them a second thought. But as I reached my doorstep, one of them jumped up behind me and said something I didn’t understand. I turned around to the barrel of a gun pointing at my head. It took me a second to focus. My eyes bulged as I started to look at who was on the other end of the gun.
“You better not look at me,” he spat out.
“Ending Rape 4Ever” will take a searing look at the painful subject of sexual assault in the African American community. Over the next eight weeks, we’ll bring you meaningful and enlightening content that will focus on the problems—and the solutions. Rape is a grave societal ill that unquestionably touches us all on some level, women—and men. To stop rape, however, we believe that we all have to own the fight against it.
The time is now for the Black community to collectively decide that rape is not merely a Black woman’s issue, nor is it just Black woman’s problem. We can’t keep referencing a woman’s style of dress or behavior when it comes to sexual assault. We all have to ask ourselves the fundamental basic question that truly ending rape in our community ultimately begs: Who is teaching Black boys and men not to rape?
(And who is teaching them to?)
Official statistics about rape (for women of all races) are conservative because it’s impossible to know how many people never report their victimization. When this article was first published, I reported: “…according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, sexual assaults have decreased by more than 50 percent over the last 20 years.” I was egregiously wrong.
Thanks to Corey Rayburn Yung, an associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, that grossly inaccurate information has been discredited. In his recently published study of 210 police departments, he found significant irregularities in rape data. Over a period of 18 years, many police departments have systematically undercounted incidents of rape—hiding the truth from the public and the federal government.
In his study, Yung “conservatively estimates that 796,213 to 1,145,309 complaints of forcible vaginal rapes of female victims disappeared from official records from 1995 to 2012.” Contrary to the decreasing rate of rape being touted by officials, Yung documents that during this time some jurisdictions experienced some of the highest rates of rape since authorities began keeping track in 1930. Police manipulate rape statistics because of political pressure and widespread belief of rape myths ingrained in the culture of law enforcement.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Data compiled data for the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by interviewing individuals directly, not from police. According to this survey, approximately 1.3 million women in this country reported having been raped within the year prior to the survey.
The survey also states that about 22 percent of Black women have experienced rape in their lifetime and 41 percent have experienced sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime.
That translates to one out of five Black women having been raped and nearly half of Black women having been sexually victimized in other ways. How is it that we act like we’re not in the midst of an epidemic crisis?
NO MORE DENIAL
My heart was pounding hard and fast. I felt weak, as if all the wind had left my body. It struck me then that this is what it felt like to have your life threatened. I handed over my purse.
“You can have anything you want,” I squeezed out of my burning, deflated lungs.
They ordered me to open the door, but I couldn’t get the key to work. That lock always jammed. My hands were shaking. I was talking out loud. “I know it’s this key next to the silver one.” After several of my futile tries, one of the men said, “It better open this time.”
I stopped struggling with the lock and surrendered to God. This time the key turned. They rushed me up the stairs to my apartment. Once inside, they told me to lie on the floor, then they walked around spouting questions.
It’s rare for me to bring up sexual assault in a room full of women, even in the most casual of conversations, without hearing in response someone’s own story of victimization.
Immediately after my article was published, it started to become clear to me how common rape is, how many walking wounded are among us. One of my co-workers at the magazine got a call from a college friend who saw the new issue. She said the reason she was always so angry during their time at an HBCU in North Carolina was because she had been raped by a football player and when she reported it, campus authorities’ response was to protect the assailant.
Years later, I was on a majority white campus in Pennsylvania to speak about sexual violence when a Black professor told me about two Black students who disclosed having been raped by the same student. They refused to report him because they couldn’t face the possibility of sending a Black man to jail.
In I Will Survive, I explore this very thing. “The oppression of Black men is given priority over the oppression of Black women. African-American women survivors end up doing what’s best for Black men without regard for what’s best for themselves. Black women are less likely to report sexual violation than other women for many reasons, including sexist victim-blaming and centuries-old racist stereotypes about Black sexuality. It all adds up to a tenacious conspiracy of silence.”
Because of my years of work interacting with service providers, activists and survivors, I can rattle off endless examples of tragic assaults followed by zero accountability.
Evelyn C. White, author of Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships, writes there is a “great sense of racial loyalty that exists among Black women. Black women, because of racism, are very, very aware and understanding and empathetic toward the African-American men who sexually assault us.”
I don’t blame or judge any survivor for the decisions she makes. I can’t. Each person must do what’s best for her, whatever will give her the best chances for healing. But does the social and cultural status quo have to make justice so unattainable (only three out of every 100 rapists end up in jail says the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics). And must victims feel so powerless (less than 50 percent of rapes are reported to law enforcement reports the U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey). Must Black women be shunned, embarrassed or shamed for telling the truth about a Black male rapist?
That’s what must change.
“Anybody else live here? Anybody else have a key? You supposed to call anybody when you got home?”
They led me to my bedroom, sat me on my bed and continued asking questions about my belongings, reminding me not to talk so loud. “You better not be lying,” one said.
Then I was ordered to lie face down on my full-size bed. They tied my feet to the bottom corners of the bed, and my right arm to the upper right corner. When one asked me for something else to use to tie my left hand, I told him where my belts were. Then they wrapped thick duct tape around my head, covering my eyes and mouth.
“Are they doing this so they can shoot me? Maybe they just want to make sure they have plenty of get-away time.” My thoughts raced. What was about to happen hadn’t occurred to me. Then, with a knife from my kitchen, one of them spliced up the back of the right leg of my black stretch pants. Then it became clear.
“I’m about to be raped.”
The hour that followed was the worst of my life. But I survived. Nearly 20 years later, I’m still here. As a survivor, I am often reminded of what I know. Sexual abuse is something no one chooses. There is a complexity to this struggle. The emotional wounds are profoundly deep. But the truth I focus on is the simple fact that in surviving there is often a lot of light—a light that can and does shine community-wide.
As I noted in my book, I will affirm here again, “…sexual violence is an insidious, persistent reality in the world, in our country and in the African-American community. But there are so many strides being made against this tragedy all the time. There are individual triumphs of healing. There are victories by community activists and organizations. There is sanity. There is courage. There is love. There is life. There is transformation.”
“Ending Rape 4Ever” aims to spark a deeper conversation and provide a space for the Black community to become better informed about sexual assault, as well as offer up practical information that can lead to positive change—like moving forward with your own healing or stepping up to educate the boys in your life about redefining masculinity and healthy relationships. We were set to launch this series next Monday, exactly two years since the site sparked criticism and debate with its controversial coverage on Genarlow Wilson, the 17-year-old Atlanta teen convicted of “aggregated child molestation” for receiving oral sex from a 15-year-old girl. But today’s disturbing trending news about a viral video of a Black teenager drugged and raped, and given the horrible hashtag #jadapose, reminds us that the community conversation about sexual assault is urgent as ever. Over the past two years, we have hosted a robust offering of articles featuring Black thought leaders on the subject of rape and the notion of rape culture. Now with the launch of “Ending Rape 4Ever,” EBONY.com is excited to fulfill a commitment to readers with this jarring and comprehensive look at the impact of sexual assault on our people.