Last week, the Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation produced a report entitled “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story.” The report shines a necessary light on the sexual victimization of girls, particularly girls of color, and outlines in their own words, how “in a perverse twist of justice, many girls who experience sexual abuse are routed into the juvenile justice system because of their victimization.”
On the day of the report’s release, I had an opportunity to sit down with eight formerly incarcerated women. Some had spent time in federal prison. Others had given the majority of their adult lives to state-level incarceration. Lord knows these women were beautiful and brilliant. And wounded. One of them, a middle-aged woman with a dark chocolate complexion, described "hustling on the streets” since the age of 11, when her reactions to the ongoing and extreme victimization in her own life became criminalized, launching her toward the distinction of holding the longest rap sheet of any woman in her state.
Though obscured by old scripts that cast them—in real life—as Mammies, Jezebels, and Sapphires, these women professed a resounding desire to dismantle the house that racialized sexism built. For them, shedding the physical and metaphorical shackles that prevented their full inclusion in the “American Dream” was less about how many shots were fired at them by law enforcement, and more about the ways in which their desperate attempts to respond to the victimization in their own homes and communities placed them among more than a million women who were in federal or state prison between 2003-2013.
News of the report had yet to reach this group of sisters, but that did not prevent them from passionately calling for a greater focus on domestic violence and sexual assault, particularly for women and girls who are in contact with the criminal legal system. We were all clear that sexual violence and assault is a critical pathway to criminalization for Black women and girls. The Human Rights for Girls report noted that “The most common crimes for which girls are arrested — including running away, substance abuse, and truancy — are also the most common symptoms of abuse.” However, sometimes the criminalization includes being arrested as a child for prostitution, even though there is no such thing as a child prostitute. Sometimes the criminalization manifests through the threat of arrest if a woman declines the sexual advances of a so-called peacekeeper (remember the case of Daniel Holtzclaw?). Sometimes–as a woman in our circle revealed from her own experience—the criminalization is a result of killing an abusive partner to escape the trauma of being "tortured," or not wanting "to be raped one more time."
While this woman’s reaction to the trauma she experienced was severe, so too is rape. So too is the constant feeling of unsafety that plagues too many women and girls who are expected to take their abuse like women—who are expected to shut up when a powerful man tells them to do so or hide in shame from the suggestion that their quest for wholeness may be perceived as a "distraction” to the racial justice movement.
I am so happy to see movement toward the removal of flags that symbolize the hatred and oppression of nonwhite people in this nation from public domains, but I will be even happier when our lawmakers and advocates make serious strides toward assessing and undoing the policies and practices that perpetuate structural racial, gender, and sexuality oppression.
The sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline, as the new report calls it, is about so much more than whether we can make a correlation between a girl’s sexual victimization and her risk of incarceration. It is about how long we will be content with placing the freedom and safety of our women and girls in a perpetual "wishful thinking" basket of humanity.
In an earlier article for EBONY.com, I wrote that a failure to engage in this question about the role of domestic violence and sexual assault in the criminalization of Black women and girls could have serious repercussions. Interrupting school-to-confinement pathways and mass incarceration requires that we come to terms with the truth about the victimization of our girls and women. We can’t hide behind a façade that the only pain in our communities is being inflicted by law enforcement. Taking the “Vegas” approach to family matters is killing us; what happens in our homes can’t stay in our homes.
REMINDER: Racial justice is gender justice.
Our girls and women not only matter, too.
We matter, period.
Recognize the distinction, and live it because this radical act of self-love is the blank page upon which a new script begins.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is a social justice scholar, author of Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century, and a forthcoming book on the criminalization of Black girls in schools. Follow Dr. Morris on Twitter @MoniqueWMorris.