Black Teenage Girls’ Experiences with Sexual Coercion: Context, Coping, and Consequences
Trigger warning for discussions of rape and sexual violence committed agaisnt black women.
Black girls and women are not part of the dominant sexual violence discourse. The bodies of black girls and women are often treated as invisible or disposable in this society. Rarely are we viewed as victims of violence or as agents of resistance. Male violence against black girls and women infrequently appears in the media and it is hardly addressed in ‘mainstream’ feminism. The silence surrounding the victimisation and survival of black girls and women is also often obscured within our own communities.
Black Girls’ and Women’s Sexual Coercion in Context
To understand sexual victimization against black girls and women, it is necessary to place the experiences of black women in a sociohistorical framework. Statuses of “black” and “woman” are both historically oppressed identities in the United States. Thus, black women are seen, treated, and often inter- nalized as having “double-minority” status, experiencing both gender and racial oppression (and their intersection). The controlling image of black girls and women as sexually loose and lascivious (e.g., Jezebel, video vixen, “ho”) represents this intersection and has historically played a role in their sexual victimization (Collins 2000; Getman 1984; Wyatt 1992). During slavery, the reproduction of Africans was essential to the economy; slave owners sought increased amounts of “labor” to either sell or use for their own service and agricultural production. Because black women were considered property, white men, both during slavery and after emancipation, often took sexual conquest of black women. Black women who were raped under these circumstances had no protection from their rapists (West 2006). The image of the Jezebel (and its contemporary expressions through images such as the video vixen) has historically been used and continues to be used as a means to justify the rape and sexual victimization black women; underlying these practices is the belief that because black girls and women are sexually promiscuous, they are always desirous of sex and thus cannot be raped or are not injured by sexual victimization. This controlling image has profound implications for the perception and treatment of black sexual violence victims/survivors. For example, research indicates that black sexual violence victims are perceived as suffering less harm than their white coun- terparts (Foley et al. 1995) and that they were more likely to be blamed for their sexual assault (Donovan 2007; George and Martinez 2002). The Jezebel image also influences black sexual violence survivors’ recovery process in a number of ways. Wyatt (1992) found that black women were significantly less likely to report incidents of sexual assault to the police, partly because of common perceptions that black women are not credible rape victims. The degree to which African American sexual assault victims internalize the Jezebel image can also influence ways in which they understand why they were assaulted and can shape psychosocial responses in dealing with sexual assault (Neville et al. 2004).
Psychosocial Influence of Sexual Coercion
Although race and gender have played critical roles in shaping the sexual violence of girls and women, sexually coercive encounters are stressful and can be traumatic for people irrespective of social location (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, class). Sexual violence in adolescence has been linked to psychological maladjustment, including depressive symptoms (e.g., Leitenberg and Saltzman 2000; Rhode et al. 2001), suicidal ideation (Buzi et al. 2003), disordered eating (Ackard and Neumark-Sztainer 2002), and low overall mental well-being (Howard and Wang 2004). Adolescents who experience sexual victimization are also at greater risk for health consequences related to sexually transmitted infections (see Beck-Sague and Solomon 1999 for a review), including potentially life-threatening infections such as human papillomavirus infection (Kahn et al. 2005; Stevens-Simon et al. 2000), squamous intraepithelial lesions (Kahn et al. 2005), and HIV (Lindegren et al. 1998).
Not surprisingly, the research in this area typically focuses on more vio- lent or aggressive forms of sexual coercion and, moreover, on predominant- ly white samples. Research on the outcomes of adolescent sexual coercion specifically, or nonphysical tactics of sexual victimization, is significantly less. Psychologists Cecil and Matson’s (2005) examination of psychosocial correlates of sexual violence among African American adolescent girls is a notable exception to this body of work. They found that girls who reported greater severity of sexual coercion (i.e., rape as opposed to sexual coercion) had lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression. Over the past decade or so, scholars have examined not only the link between sexual coercion and psychological outcomes but also the psychological factors that may help explain that linkage. This work is important because it acknowledges that victims are in fact survivors and that there are activities in which they engage to assist in their recovery process. Coping strategies have emerged in the psychological research as a consistent mediator between sexually coercive encounters and psychological outcomes. Findings suggest that among adult women sexual violence survivors, those who use more passive or avoidant coping strategies tend to have greater psychological distress (Boeschen et al. 2001; Frazier and Burnett 1994; Neville et al. 2004) and those with active coping strategies such as thinking positively and keeping busy show higher psychological well-being (Frazier and Burnett 1994). Various coping strategies have been found to mediate the association between negative social reactions and psychological symptoms (Ullman 1996), behavioral self-blame and distress (Frazier, Mortensen, and Steward 2005), control over recovery and distress (Frazier, Mortensen, and Steward 2005), and child sexual abuse and trauma symptoms (Arata 1999) among rape survivors. Women have also spoken about their recovery process and described coping mechanisms— such as seeking support, reframing the experience, and seeing themselves as survivors rather than victims—that help them cope with the trauma (Smith and Kelly 2001). At this point, we know very little about the potential role of coping in how adolescent girls deal with sexually coercive encounters.