Black womanhood = criminal perversion. This equation leapt to mind in wake of allegations of harassment claimed by Daniele Watts, a Black actress handcuffed and detained in Los Angeles earlier this month after a public display of affection with her White boyfriend. Though questions have swirled about what actually took place, that Watts was made to feel that officers though the couple was actually a prostitute and client is not surprising.
More recently, a group of Black women enjoying an evening at New York’s swank Standard Hotel were harassed by security, who told them bluntly that he believed they were soliciting sex work.
To some extent, these incidents highlight an evolutionary conflict: Black women are subjected to dated stereotypes and clash with regulatory agencies unable to accept otherwise.
In the days of old, Black sexual perversions went like this: Black men were all rapists, and Black women were all ‘whores.’ Our criminal justice system played a fundamental role in the sexual objectification of Black women. It decriminalized sexual assault against them, both during enslavement and in practice long after. Instead of punishing their attackers, society engaged in victim-blaming on a massive scale. Then as now, Black women were supposedly hypersexual to the point that they were always sexually available–they were essentially unrapeable. They could not be victims, girlfriends or wives, and certainly not ‘true’ women. Their bodies belonged to whomever wanted to violate them, despite persistent messaging that Black women were also inherently undesireable. Consider:
-Stereotypes about Black women being prostitutes were so common in the late 19th century that some found ways to use this to their advantage. Black “badger thieves,” as they were called, pretended to be streetwalkers only to rob wannabe customers.
-In places like 1920’s Harlem, as historian Cheryl Hicks points out, innocent Black women standing in front of their buildings or walking home from work would be rounded up and arrested during prostitution sweeps.
-At the same time that Black women have been denied legal protection, they have been among the most criminalized. Black women’s incarceration for petty theft and substance abuse helped make them the most disproportionately, overrepresented group in prison.
-Black women are also among the most victimized. Some 40 percent of Black girls have been sexually coerced before reaching adulthood.
Myths of promiscuity have often left Black women vulnerable to sexual assault while masking their victimization. Historically, law enforcement officers and prison guards in particular have taken full advantage. Records indicate whether Black women were arrested in holding cells or locked in solitary units in female wards or laboring on chain gangs, guards and other male inmates sexually abused them.
Today, Black female prisoners face an increased likelihood of sexual assault by inmates as well as violation by guards during body searches. The 16 felony charges of sexual assault by an accused Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw is one of the more disturbing cases of police violence against Black women. That the accused remains out on bail shows that, save for the local chapter of the NAACP, a petition on Change.org, and segments on Melissa Harris-Perry, few seem worried about the ongoing threat to Black women’s safety as well as the safety of the victims, many of whom were poor women allegedly targeted because the legal system would be unlikely to believe them.
Troubling, too, is the backlash that Watts faces: Audio and video footage surfaced revealing she was fully clothed, sitting on her boyfriend’s lap in his car and that she refused to show ID. Since she was getting frisky with her man, how dare she not want to dignify specious prostitution allegations? The nerve: a Black woman not wanting a White police officer, or any officer really, to have her name and address when she hasn’t committed a crime! There’s also now collective denial about the fact that if both she and her man were White in L.A. doing the same thing, no one would likely have batted an eye. The cops probably would have been attending to more pressing matters, which begs the question: Has that supposed 911 call surfaced? Isn’t this what the officer said he was following up on?
Either way, the reality is there is very little precedent for Black women to safely engage in sexual play or to be sexually desirable, let alone make out with White men in fancy cars. Ms. Watts had to the audacity to act as if she were a woman with that kind of space, almost like she were an actual citizen.
For a brief moment, it seemed like the rest of the country thought she was, too.