When we think about sexual violence, we often think about it in terms of gender and power, but we also need to think about race and control. In the United States, a significant part of colonial violence was sexual violence used as a form of social control and a way to further oppress enslaved people. Throughout U.S. history, we see sexual violence continue to be used as a tool for oppression with present-day impacts. Learning more about this history can help us understand how present-day systems, laws, and behaviors came to be and how to be an ally to survivors today.
Rape is an act of power and control. It can also be used as a way to further oppress marginalized communities and as a way to maintain a white supremacist social order. During slavery, the rape of African American women was both common and legal (WCASP). Black women were dehumanized and seen as “breeders” who birthed more labor, furthering the trifecta of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.
• Support organizations focused specifically on survivors of color, like SCESA (the National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault).
• Support survivor-led organization A Long Walk Home which empowers young people to end violence against girls and women.
• Share resources, like Taking Back Ourselves, dedicated to recovery for survivors of sexual abuse and assault.
In the 1800s, early American colonies defined rape as “carnal knowledge of a woman 10 year or older, forcibly or against her will” (UALR). This law excluded free and enslaved Black women and girls who could not file rape charges against a white man until 1861 (Slate). You can see the patriarchal views of rape itself, given that rape was originally seen as a property crime against the male head of the house. It took until 1959, in the case of Betty Jean Owens, for white men to be convicted of rape (with mercy), and even in this case, the judge was under serious political pressure to convict (Danielle McGuire). In 1974, Joan Little claimed self-defense against sexual assault but was charged with first-degree murder. In 1975 she was acquitted, becoming the first woman in U.S. history to be acquitted for using deadly force to resist sexual assault, affirming that women have the right to defend themselves (ZINNED).
Once slavery ended, we continued to see rape used to oppress people by using it as a fear tactic, punishment, and a tool for social control. It became a way to police people’s actions and maintain the social order. This manifested in two uniquely violent ways. The first was in the brutal violence Black women and girls experienced at the hands of white men, like Recy Taylor (APA). In many cases, at least one of the white male perpetrators would confess, and all freely admitted to having “sexual relations” (often with minors). Yet they were continuously acquitted by all-white, all-male juries. The second part was the white male hysteria and their portrayal of the “Black male rapist.” These white men knew the true monsters to fear because they were them, yet they created a scapegoat out of Black men. And while Black women did not see justice in the courts, Black men were being lynched based on false allegations of rape.
As innumerable brave women and girls spoke up about their assaults, we saw how maintaining the social order through respectability politics came into play. When women and children came forward, the media, attorneys, and people giving false testimony tore apart everything about them — shredding their reputations, demeaning them, and ultimately making the false claim that most were sex workers, therefore, couldn’t be raped or coerced. Respectability politics has and continues to be incredibly damaging because seeing a victim as “less than” and lower in the social order gives people allowances to no longer see them as a victim or someone deserving of justice or support.
The impacts of sexual violence and colonization continue to be significant today for women of color, like the violence against Native women. We still see how sexual violence and white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism are deeply intertwined. Consider how many abusers are protected because they are powerful white cisgender men and how many of these abusers felt they had carte blanche to prey on those in lower social class/order than them. Also, consider how white male abusers continue to be protected by white men and white women, like in the case of Murray Miller and how Lena Dunham not only publicly defended him but attempted to discredit Aurora Perrineau, a Black sexual assault victim. It took a year for Dunham to issue a cringe-worthy “apology” that seemed to make it clear how easy it is to offer support to anyone who is the “right” (or white) kind of victim and how quick we are to discredit and defame others (VOX). We know that respectability politics impacts not just what stories we hear about but who gets justice and who is believed.
We also continue to see how white men have a higher value/social currency in the U.S., such as in the case of Brock Turner. Even after the jury found him guilty, the judge talked about the life that Turner could have and felt that a longer sentence “would have a severe impact” on this life (NPR). It was yet another reminder of how a privileged white man’s life was seen as more valuable than the person harmed — that his future potential was worth more than his victim’s.
To be a better ally for survivors of sexual violence, it’s imperative to face history. It’s equally important to face ourselves and how we may have been socialized to normalize certain types of violent behavior and protect or believe certain people over others. Think about the laws in your state around sexual violence and how they’ve evolved. Consider the long-lasting and intergenerational impacts sexual violence has had and continue to listen and support survivors and the organizations they lead.
• Sexual violence has been used as a form of social control and a way to further oppress marginalized people throughout history.
• Rape culture has been used as a way to further white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.
• Privilege and respectability politics influence who feels able to speak out, who is protected, and who is believed.