In part one I used Total Sorority Move’s article entitled, “Is It Possible that There is Something Between Consensual Sex and Rape” to discuss what I have observed as something of a trend in rape culture discourse. I explained how race may color one’s interpretation of sexual assault and alluded to the privileged voices that have dominated in the discussion. In this, part two, I will discuss the alluded to privileged voices and the problem with said voices, highlight work being done to give marginalized voices some capital in the discussion, and share my suggestion for another way.
The second article that was the impetus for this discourse is actually several articles all about Lena Dunham’s account of a sexual assault in college which appears in her memoir “Not that Kind of Girl.” In her retelling Dunham arrives at a party drunk and high and meets a “creepy guy” whom she manages to give her address. She leaves the party and runs into a friend in the parking lot who attempts to dissuade her from going home with the guy but she refuses. According to Dunham, when she gets home she tries to convince herself that she is willingly having sex with the guy and starts to have sex with him until she realizes that the condom that was supposed to be on his penis was instead hanging from a decorative tree. At the sight of this she flees to her couch, tells him to go and that was the end of it. The next morning, when she tells her roommate about the situation, her roommate lets her know that she was raped. Dunham laughs it off but then it settles in for her, changing everything she thought she knew about rape and now it is contributing to the discourse about college campus sexual assault. This account from her memoir has been making its rounds:
“Why It Matters that Lena Dunham Wrote About Being Raped in College”
“Lena Dunham’s Story of Rape is a Must-Read”
“Why Every Feminist Needs to Read Lena Dunham’s Description of Her Rape”
“Lena Dunham: Not All Rapists Are Straight-Forward Villains”
“Lena Dunham: I Was Raped By a Republican”
“Lena Dunham Discovers Ambiguity”
And the list goes on.
I saw Dunham’s story within minutes of reading Total Sorority Move article mentioned in part one, so this may have influenced my reading. But here I was again reading about a young white women caught in a precarious situation with a man, trying to convince herself that she was either comfortable or willingly having sex with him. Unlike the Total Sorority Move story Dunham took action and told the man to get off her as soon as she realized that he wasn’t wearing a condom. Dunham also stated that the man was sexually aggressive toward her–although I will be honest that I’m not sure how you can discern that when you are both drunk and high. I’ve been drunk a few times and high once and I can say, under either circumstance, I wasn’t always sure what was going on around me. Being drunk impairs physical and mental faculties and being high alters your state of consciousness, so being drunk AND high and still discerning someone’s intention/actions toward you seems questionable. Nevertheless there are some facts in Dunham’s story that could render it true and a case of rape as we have come to know it in campus sexual assault incidents, but there are also some facts that make me question the story’s veracity. I wonder why–if she could sense that this guy was creepy and sexually aggressive and a Republican–she denied the help of a friend who tried to stop her? Was that not her ram in the bush? And had she not seen the condom hanging from the tree would she have continued in the encounter? Again I’m confused by the details of the story, what exactly makes it rape, and further what makes narrative accounts of this kind stand out in the public consciousness. Indeed we must be made aware of the sexual violence against women, but it seems that there is a privileging of narratives and those narratives that we lift up also happen to be from, primarily, from white women.
White women’s voices have long been privileged and the catalyst for change as well as, unfortunately, great hostility and violence. History proves this with the case of Emmet Till who, on a family visit to Mississippi, spoke to a white woman, was accused of flirting with her, and then was beaten and shot by her husband and his half-brother. The story of the Rosewood massacre has Fannie Taylor who had a domestic violence altercation with her husband that was heard by the neighborhood but she accused a black man of raping her. The cinematic portrayal of the Rosewood massacre, “Rosewood,” had Fannie run out of her house screaming, “It was a nigger!” This set the town against their black neighbors and caused tensions to flare to violent, destructive levels. Even Tyler Perry has illustrated the power of white women’s voices when, in his 2007 film “Daddy’s Little Girls,” Monty (played by Idris Elba) a single father is haunted and socially stymied by a rape accusation made against him in high school by a white girl whom he was having consensual sex with. I bring these examples up not to accuse white women of lying about their accounts of sexual assault but to illustrate the power their voices have had and have for a long time. Their word is bond before it is ever wrong. We know a white woman claimed to have started the #bringbackourgirls campaign and was believed without question when it was actually a global campaign that originated in Abuja, Nigeria. But far from highlighting negative accounts, there are also the positive accounts of white women coming to the defense of black people being discriminated against in public places–there’s an Upworthy video for that. White women’s voices have power for both good and evil, and while I respect the power wielded for good, I also want the world to recognize, hear, and acknowledge the voices that have been marginalized. Room must be made for a multitude of voices as we continue these discussions about rape culture and non/consensual sex. In this, black voices must be heard because black female bodies and the narratives of their sexual assault matter just as much as that black male bodies being taken nearly every day by force.
In almost any context sexual violence is hard to talk about, but it is black women who bear a particular burden with the issue because of the manifold ways in which our bodies have been exploited, objectified, and subjugated. In a 2012 article on Forbes.com entitled, “Black Women, Sexual Assault, and the Art of Resistance,” a statistic from the Department of Justice was shared that stated for every white woman who reports her rape, 5 don’t but for every African-American woman who reports her rape, 15 don’t. There are manifold reasons for this silence, many of which are connected to long-held, unhealthy cultural traditions. For example, some of us live under the “it’s family business” regime and therefore we keep our stories to ourselves lest we throw family members, friends, and others under the symbolic bus. Or there are the manifold cases of young women abused by family members who confess to their mothers, grandmothers, aunts or other female guardian only to be told they were lying, “fast-tailed” and then are summarily shipped away. But it is important for us to reveal and tell our stories not just for our freedom but to add color to a largely monochromatic discourse. There is (at least) one group doing just that.
In August, writer, performer, storyteller and teaching artist Michelle Denise Jackson knows a lot of black women whose lives revolve around some account of sexual assault in their childhood or during young adulthood and how black women’s sexual assault narratives are profuse but it is not a part of the larger discussions we have regarding sexual assault. Last Tuesday on ForHarriet.com, Jackson returned to the subject of Black women’s experience with sexual assault to promote the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an organization established by the black feminist organization Black Women’s Blueprint, to focus on rape/sexual assault and its effects specifically on women of African descent. The BWTRC is aiming to collect 1,000 stories from black women about how sexual assault has impacted their lives on every level and the impetus for this new initiative is precisely because the many dialogues about sexual assault fail to account for the specific ways in which the crime affects black women. And this is not the only group that is providing space for black women to share their stories of sexual assault and survival nor is it the first time a black woman’s group is stepping up to the anti-rape debate. Black women have been at the forefront of anti-rape activism and can count amongst their leaders, Rosa Parks, who did work to lead African-American women’s public protests that galvanized local, national and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity. We need to get back to the place where black women’s voices on this matter have as much strength and credibility as their white female peers.
My desire is that discourse regarding sexual violence, from rape to nonconsensual sex and the areas in between, would be an inclusive dialogue. That every time we come to the table to talk about sexual assault, a multitude of voices would be present that represent the diversity of women’s experience with this crime. The Lena Dunhams, white sorority girls, and white women of the world can’t be dominant in sexual assault narratives, and the narratives of black women can’t be relegated to the margins. The establishment of the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is surely a start in the right direction, but we also need to work on forming multicultural alliances that facilitate a more in-depth understanding of how sexual violence affects women in the broader sense so that policies created touch those women and not just answer the cries of the privileged. We can no longer work with the assumption that all sexual violence is experienced the same (which, I understand may also bank on me acknowledging that the accounts from Dunham and the white sorority girl are valid because those are particular experiences of sexual assault that took something away from those women.) There are cultural differences that influence understandings of sexual assault and those differences need to be brought to the forefront for everyone to acknowledge and understand. We need an alliance that explicitly calls for the integration of women’s stories of sexual assault that will both reveal and allow for cross-cultural understandings of the many faces and experiences of sexual assault. It’s time for us to make clear space for women of all races and ethnicities to come together and share their stories in ways that refuse to privilege any one story. Because if any decision is going to be made about women’s bodies all women must be taken into account.
For more information on organizations that focus on rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, incest, and other sex-related crimes visit:
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
The Department of Justice’s Sexual Assault Page