Sexual assault research must consider race

Loyce Gayo

From the image of the Jezebel — a sexually promiscuous and immoral Black woman — to the image of the Sapphire — a hostile, nagging, dark-skinned woman — myths and stereotypes have long shaped how society denies or minimizes the impact of sexual assault on women of color. These stereotypes, rooted in a grim history of racial brutality, have allowed for sexual violence committed against women of color to be viewed as insignificant, acceptable or even justified.

“[Stereotyping] creates symbolic violence and devalues the bodies of certain students,” sociology graduate student Juan Portillo said.

At the university level, it is difficult to direct a conversation on how Black women experience sexual violence because of the way data is collected. The AAU survey results released Sept. 21, while thought provoking and insightful, fail to capture the University’s racial demographic. In light of UT’s dismal 13 percent response rate, the University-specific data fails to capture the nuances of sexual violence on campus.

“[The survey] is missing something important,” Portillo said. “The assumption goes that, regardless of race, the experience of sexual violence is the same. That assumption is premised on erasing or not realizing [Black] experiences.”

Black women also face barriers when seeking help in times of adversity. Experienced racism has caused many Black women to distrust institutions designed to help survivors. At hospitals or at the hands of law enforcement, Black women are given less priority and more likely to be treated with disrespect.

The story of Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot during a fight with her estranged husband, is an example of this. According to Portillo, a graduate student assistant for Voices Against Violence, distrust for institutions poses a challenge for the University, as well.

“The work [Voices Against Violence] does matters, and it does have an impact,” Portillo said. “But we are not making the changes in institutions to be able to respond to issues such as how to be sensitive to the different experiences.”

Efforts to make the conversation on sexual violence more intersectional are being made on campus. Lynn Hoare, health education coordinator for Voices Against Violence, said partnerships with student organizations have been the most effective way to build an inclusive discussion on race and bring about change. 

More research is required to grasp the scope of sexual assault Black women experience and the barriers they face to receive support services. This requires both the will and funding of the University to prioritize the lives of students of color. The University owes it to its most marginalized voices to recognize the systemic racism that has long rendered Black female bodies invisible.

Gayo is an African and African diaspora studies senior from Houston.