Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.
Author’s Note: In this essay, I use “women” to represent all women including cis-gender and trans women, and non-binary femmes.
“America seems filled with violent people who like causing people pain but hate when those people tell them that pain hurts” – Kiese Laymon
I learned how to disassociate from my body in order to survive long before I knew how to tie my shoelaces. Back then, I was too young to understand that when it came to the survival instinct of leaving my body to—my DNA had me covered. This is not a truth that belongs to me, but to too many Black and Brown folks. Most of us in the Diaspora carry the result of sexual violence in our veins. Sexual trauma is a heavy generational inheritance to carry and yet somehow many of us —survivors and perpetrators— refuse to work on ways to kill it. The silence, which ultimately protects perpetrators, serves no one but the patriarchy and keeps us in a vicious cycle of pain.
We have to be honest about who rape culture benefits.
Black bodies have historically been fodder for abuse due to the events and conditions pushed upon us via enslavement and colonization. The very Black women ancestors from which I come were also enslaved, punished, and raped. My Black male ancestors were emasculated through sexual and social trauma. Both have been tortured by the myth of white supremacy.
Black women, however, have always been the ones to bear the brunt of collective abuse.
When we look closely at rape culture today, it is clear that the consequences of white supremacist torture on the collective shows up most on girls’ and women’s bodies. Although rape and sexual assault can affect any body in private spaces, rape culture specifically targets girls and women out in public, for everyone to see, and mostly at the hands of men and boys “learning to be masculine.” Even when boys and men are victims or survivors of sexual assault, they are too concerned with finding ways to regain their access to power by diminishing women, and are seldom ever ready to admit responsibility, take accountability, and heal.
Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau and Intra-Community Sexual Assault
Following Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau’s death after tweeting about being abused at the hands of a Black man she met at a protest, amidst the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I came out about my own sexual assault at the hands of a well-known and well-respected artist New York artist. My abuser has gained much success due to the way he has commodified and grossly flattened the experiences of our communities including those at the intersection of racism and Latinidad to us, despite not actually believing in them. Moreover, he’s gained the trust of many, including myself, up until the event of my abuse.
In Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon mentions, “Most groups of men I knew were good at destroying women and girls who would do everything not to destroy them.” And those words make me sit on the fact that I don’t know of one woman who has not been emotionally abused by a man. And how that allowing emotional abuse quickly escalates to physical if we don’t catch it. If and when the physical abuse becomes present, we allow it again and excuse men. And so we are embedded into this quilt of allowing, excusing, understanding the pain of men. How do we collectively quit at the allowing?
We hear stories of Black men breaking Black women way too often. Sometimes they make the news, oftentimes they do not.
But we all know about the ruptures.
My coming out was powered by an extreme sense of grief and anger related to Toyin who shared her story of having been raped by one of our own—a self-described “man of God,” and was later found dead. Despite her cries for help, we failed her. Despite her trust in and love for Black men, in community, we failed her. I had never cried for help outside of my therapy appointments. For years after my abuse, I watched my abuser be lifted by women of my community whose work I loved, by well-known celebrities and government officials. My abuser was even given a celebratory day in the city that birthed me. The secret often scraped at my throat, but who would believe me?
A 19-year-old activist who went missing after tweeting that she was sexually assaulted has died, Tallahassee police confirmed.#OluwatoyinSalau was a prominent voice in protests over police brutality. Her body was found with that of a 75-year-old woman.
A suspect is in custody. pic.twitter.com/X7fG2jOfkX
— AJ+ (@ajplus) June 15, 2020
Gabrielle Union, detailed her horrific rape in We’re Going to Need More Wine, an excerpt that’s always stuck with me is:
“When I finally went to UCLA, I started group therapy, where I was the only one who had gone through the criminal justice system and the only one who had been raped by a stranger. The rest of the students had been raped by acquaintances or family members. You want to know something weird? I felt grateful not to know my rapist. It felt like a luxury; there was no gray area, no question of ‘Who are they going to believe, him or me?’’
Too many of us know our abusers, and because of that, we are doubted. It is not always true that our sexual assault comes from someone already labeled criminal or from a stranger. I know the men who have abused me. I’ve seen all of them up close. I’ve shared community and space with them.
The last abuser, the one I had to fight myself to tell on, has approached me since in places I thought were safe of him. I remember at a local music festival, I spent so much time dancing with my best friend, we peeled away from the crowd for one second, and he touched my shoulder, greeted me, and said I looked good and that ‘it had been so long.’ And I did what I had to to say safe: nodded with a stiffness in my body. Behind him was a femme artist, who I loved. I glanced at her hard, I wanted to tell her about what had happened, how it hadn’t settled in my gut but it was wrong. I wanted to tell her to run, run, run. Later I found they were good friends, and I exhaled. Maybe the friendship would keep her safe. Maybe he’d respect the conviction in her voice if she ever found herself saying, “No, stop, I don’t want to have sex.”
Black Diasporic women live in intersections, existing between lines, and even when we are elevated on paper, it means nothing in real life. A few pushes and we’d be gone—it’s often what society tries to do with those that live in intersections like these. I spent almost a year running through all the cons of letting the world into what happened to me. What I feared most was my experience being denied because men get to decide what the truth can and can’t look like, especially when we consider their treatment of women.
Men, including my abuser, truly believe in the cinematic rundown of rape. It is what Hollywood has taught us. That if they aren’t beating us, or if they aren’t torturing us beforehand, it isn’t rape. That a “no” is a way of flirting.
But rape is rape.
If activity does not conclude, it is anything that happens after a “no,” “I don’t want to have sex,” “stop,” “I am not ready,” “I haven’t prepared for this.” The pushing, the convincing, the plan under your sleeve to get women intoxicated in order to force her into your will is all part of the scheme. The patriarchy does not recognize our right to choose. And many folks, including women, internalize that belief hard. I have always known that, and so I tried my best to prepare for what came after my telling.
In Hunger Roxane Gay states:
“I am thinking about testimony I’ve heard from other women over the years—women sharing their truths, daring to use their voices to say, ‘This is what happened to me. This is how I have been wronged.’ I’ve been thinking about how so much testimony is demanded of women, and still, there are those who doubt our stories.”
Many people, men and women, have asked me to recount the rape and provide proof,like I had a camera reeling everything that happened after I said the first “no.” Like there was a way to mention the amount of exhaustion that seeped into my bones after I had verbally expressed, “No, I do not want to have sex.” While my abuser has stated I lied, no one asked him to prove his innocence—no one pressed him publicly. Our community holds onto the idea that successful or “decent” men are safe with everyone, even though we know many rapists are often the people we trust most. Folks have even gone to the extent of asking me why I didn’t go to the police, the same police they claim extra judicially murders Black people. When it comes to Black women’s issues specifically, are we really being asked to expect protection from the same system we’ve been fighting to dismantle after centuries of violently killing Black men? It is important to remember moments of violence like Sandra Bland’s death. It demonstrated once again that despite the many times abuse has been recorded and witnessed, when a Black woman’s body is on the line, no one protects us.
The Police Is Not Here To Protect Black Women
I know that there is so much bias in our thinking that when folks suggest the police, they truly don’t care about my wellbeing. It is important to truly acknowledge the ways in which the police and judicial system re-traumatizes, tortures, blames, gaslights, and shames survivors. As of 2018, less than a third of rape incidents are reported to police, while about one percent are ever referred to a prosecutor. Just last year, we witnessed two New York City cops get away with no jail time after raping a teenager while under police custody due to a loophole in the law. This justice system was not created to protect Black bodies, especially not that of Black and Brown women.
And does our punitive, criminal justice system truly bring abusers to accountability, to transformation, to healing?
Too often, it is Black women who bear the brunt of this question. We are forced into silence then, not only because of the backlash we face when we speak up, but also because there isn’t a system in place that can lead to transformative justice. And yet, silence is also not the answer. And I think back to a tweet by poet Simi Muhumuza, “Today, I choose to no longer carry shame or guilt for experiencing harm against my will. As a survivor, we all deserve to share our stories without shame. We are more than our worst day. We are bigger than our most difficult fight.”
Today, I choose to no longer carry shame or guilt for experiencing harm against my will. As a survivor, we all deserve to share our stories without shame. We are more than our worst day. We are bigger than our most difficult fight.
— simi (@simimoonlight) June 26, 2020
People have insinuated that I have stood in my truth publicly in order “put a good brother down” and elevate myself. I equally tried to prepare for this. I, like many other survivors, know shame too well. Understand that our own guilt about what happened to our bodies without permission protects the predators. The reactions I have received uphold the very reason why survivors of rape often don’t speak up and hold a silence that debilitates us. Despite the large number of retelling from women, primary sources, men have decided we are liars and that we exaggerate the truth; and that they are innocent—and women, specifically Black women, are not to be trusted or valued.
My therapist and I did not uncover the night of until last year, when it occurred to me that my body went into fight-or-flight when I heard his name. When I started dreaming of the incident. Something else my DNA has been equipped with is in the burying of abuse, but writing always seems to unearth my truth despite how painful it may be.
I had to get free of the anger, the fear, the disdain in my bones. My imagination was becoming a world riddled with the flashbacks of sexual violence. Not speaking on it was heavy, so heavy it became normal to catch an abuser in my dream, and then I’d have to run or come up with excuses on why I had to exit the dream. Sharing my story has led me to this: my story, his actions, are inconvenient to my abusers, his supporters, and those connected to him. And still if I had to do it again, I would—I haven’t dreamt of abuse since. I don’t have a story to tell about it,instead I can focus on my purpose and the other stories I have to tell now.
The very reason I came out was to talk about how Toyin’s case, like my own, isn’t isolated.
There’s a lot to be said about power. About the ways in which white supremacy and the patriarchy elevates men, even Black men who are complicit in the degradation of Black women. And while there is a lot to be said about power, I go back to what white supremacy did to our bodies, the violence forced upon us via colonization and enslavement. We’ve been trained to internalize whiteness and reflect the violence that came with it, and we often repeat the abuse that comes with power if we don’t check ourselves.
So I ask: who are we when we strip ourselves of racism and sexism? When is there accountability? And how does it look?
This is a marathon, not a race. It’s what we keep saying about racism. And as a Black Diasporic woman, I’ve had to come to the understanding that we don’t have the time to excuse racism or sexual violence. We just don’t. And so we must continue to push back this idea of silence with our experiences, whether you are a survivor or have been a perpetrator.
We must eradicate secret-keeping for abusers in order to effectively dismantle rape culture. I want to talk. Talk so much that it leads us all to enough tired that we rebuke abuse, swear to give Black girls and Black women the love they deserve. Swear to leave children alone. Swear to allow men to be soft and vulnerable. Swear not to use positional power to coerce. Give into the life force of accountability.
Men As Perpetrators—And Survivors
When bringing up gendered violence, some remind us to think about the fact that rape is not specific to gender. While 1 in 5 women report experiencing rape, 1 in 71 men report the same. However, we must take into account that boys and men, in a masculine driven society, have power to lose, and so the speaking up on experiencing rape is yet more taboo. In addition, due to our cultural ignorance on non-binary and trans folks, reportings are even less.
Boys can and are raped and too remain silent. My friend Joel Leon detailed his sexual assault stories and the ways in which his mental health was compromised well into his adult years. In his essay “For Black Boys Considering Suicide,” he states:
“I was five years old when it happened….As boys, we never spoke about these things, especially Black boys. The boys become men, who may eventually raise other boys, quiet boys, too afraid to break their silence.”
I wonder about boys’ and men’s silence, and how it’s different from the silence I know. Young girls and women remain silent about sexual abuse because we are trained to be calladitas out of dangerous respectability politics. We are trained to not be heard, and if we do speak then we are “big mouths” and in the best case scenarios, we are believed but labeled broken and victimized.
I think back to Gabrielle Union’s account. She named suing Payless, where she was employed and raped, but wanting to sue them for the way her father looked at her: as a victim, as broken down. Even standing in our truth, we can hardly reach for power—mostly because under this system of male superiority, we have never had any true claim to power. While I assume that the silence boys and men carry is in order not to completely break off their claims to the traditions of masculinity, I wonder if the silence simply boils down to that.
In “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” Junot Diaz writes:
“More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. I spent more energy running from it than I did living….And always I was afraid—afraid that the rape had “ruined” me; afraid that I would be “found out”; afraid afraid afraid. “Real” Dominican men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a “real” Dominican man I wasn’t anything. The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything.”
When Junot Diaz released this essay, my first reaction was to go into myself, bury the secret of my abusers a little bit deeper because they had most likely been hurt too. It didn’t dawn on me until fairly recently that men who are abused spend so much time trying their very best to run back to their masculinity, looking to reclaim their power. That is precisely why rape culture thrives, and why many men inflict emotional, mental, and/or physical pain on women. Modern society has always upheld toxic masculinity when it is upholding misogyny and patriarchy. It translates to mental, emotional, physical abuse, disdain, and hate towards women. It looks like denying the experiences of women.
Gendered violence is real. I remain in the truth that when men and boys come out about their sexual assault, they are believed more often. So why are the young girls and women who say the same things doubted, silenced, erased? This is frustrating to me since a large portion of the women I encounter in my communities have survived sexual assault. Why is it that when boys and men speak up about their stories they are believed, offered empathy, and given permission to heal, while we deny girls and women? How do we begin to talk about the fact that boys and men are forced into silence under the guise of brotherhood, while girls and women do it to get free? It is that freedom that society attempts to cage and keep away from young girls and women.
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In a recent Instagram post Claudio Cabrera, New York Times SEO Director, writes:
“Why should a victim of sexual assault ever tell her story if you are only going to believe her when she’s dead?…Because believing them means you’ll have to explore a side of yourself you don’t want to confront. When women say our men are killing us they don’t mean just in death. Death doesn’t begin when your heart stops. It begins at invalidation.”
Imagining What’s On The Other Side
What I am asking for is not easy. It requires a deep re-imagining of our future along with radical honesty. It requires men and women to examine their complicity. It requires men to sit with their long list of encounters and wonder how they contributed to rape culture by making people feel sexually unsafe, insisting on someone sleeping with them, contributing to rape jokes, or physically harming someone. It requires us to name the ways in which they have upheld rape culture, whether through slut-shaming or blaming girls and women for tapping into their erotic power. It requires men to have these conversations alone, and to pay women for the labor of guiding them into action. While I pray that letting folks into my abuse story motivates them to be critical and examine what is, I am not hopeful. We have seen time and time again how Black and Brown women come out with their stories, it’s a big buzz, and then it goes away and nothing changes. If anything I hope this leads to the end of invalidating girls’ and women’s experiences.
When I imagine how my community comes out from this event, I dream up that we collectively believe people who survive rape and experience the effects of rape culture. I dream that we have tough conversations with ourselves and others, and that we are called into actions that shift cultural norms and beliefs.
I dream up a world filled with safety because consent is valued, consent is sexy.
In this imagined state, the beliefs and actions that aim to destroy girls and women, which have been allowed in public and private, cease to exist because we call them out in the same way we are learning to call out racism and white supremacy.