These are sensitive topics that require deftness, but the complexity only highlights how much they need to be explored.


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By Nylah Burton

Sexual violence prevention programs—often delivered as discussion-based workshops directed towards youth—are crucial to ensuring community safety. Participants often learn important skills towards ending sexual violence, like building empathy and bystander intervention. But these programs have also demonstrated a terrible shortcoming: When program participants are presented with situations of sexual violence, they are less likely to empathize with Black victims, more likely to blame them, and less compelled to intervene to help.

Sexual violence prevention programs must stop treating the intersection of race, ethnicity, and sexual assault as only a footnote. Racism is much more intertwined with sexual violence than our society likes to admit. Ignoring this fact will only result in the further criminalization and victimization of the same Black students these programs claim to help.

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The most glaring issue with sexual assault prevention programs lies in its most useful tool: roleplaying exercises and scenarios designed to build empathy or encourage bystander intervention. Participants are given hypothetical sexually violent situations and are asked to intervene to help the victim or empathize with them.

In many versions of prevention curricula, most of the victims have “white” or generic names. This causes Black participants to feel that they are being erased, due to our deeply racist ideas of what a “perfect victim” looks like. For some organizations, the response has been to include more victims in the scenario with “Black” names, which studies show leads participants to blame the victim and show lower empathy for them.

The solution isn’t to stop including Black victims in these scenarios, it is to make sure that the scenario explores the role of race in the sexually violent situation, not glosses over it. In the discussion, participants should intentionally be asked open-ended questions about how society treats Black people who disclose sexual violence, and what specific stereotypes contribute to Black victims—particularly Black women—not being believed.

In prevention programs, detailed and complex discussions about the role of race in sexual assault are often ignored in favor of simple solutions. In my experience as a consent educator, when facilitators mention that the vast majority of survivors (90-98%, and probably more) are telling the truth about being sexually assaulted, some Black male teenagers will then ask about the historical fact of white women lying about rape by Black men. While most facilitators would never demonize this question, it’s common for them to simply reiterate the statistic and move on. This results in Black students feeling unheard and invalidated.

The harder—but necessary—path would be to validate that this is a deeply painful part of Black history, as the murder of Black men and boys like Emmett Till shows. Facilitators should also confirm that, while it is much less frequent, it still happens, as in the case of the Central Park Five. Then, because sexual violence is all about power, the facilitator should explore the unequal racial power dynamics in these situations.

This can be done without denying that the vast majority of survivors—regardless of race—are telling the truth. In fact, an effective discussion will only strengthen that reality. Facilitators should start an in-depth conversation about how white women absolutely can and are assaulted by Black men who are exploiting unequal power dynamics besides race. And then the cultural fear of “rape myths” can be explored using cases like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, showing how victim-blaming in those cases harms all women, and especially Black women.

These are sensitive topics that require deftness, but the complexity only highlights how much they need to be explored.

Failure to adequately discuss and explore race in these programs erodes trust between Black participants and the professionals who are supposed to help them. This may result in participants feeling uncomfortable disclosing sexual assault for fear of not receiving empathy. A facilitator committing micro-aggressions like suggesting that Black or other marginalized cultures are inherently more entrenched in rape culture may also lead to students not disclosing sexual abuse that happens within their community because they fear further victimization based on these stereotypes.

Failure to properly validate cultural fears around certain issues—like Black men being unfairly accused of crimes or calling the police in a dangerous situation—can lead to the dismissal of the concepts discussed in the workshop. This, in turn, increases intra-community violence perpetrated against the most vulnerable members of the Black community, like women and queer folks.

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To address this issue, sexual assault prevention organizations must re-evaluate their curriculum by examining how it talks about race. For example, programs and organizations (like RAINN) often include inaccurate data that state white women are assaulted more than Black and Latinx women, sometimes even stating that they are 4 times more likely to be assaulted than Black women. They are citing studies that do not consider the low reporting/disclosure rate among Black and Latinx women because of various barriers, that leads many social scientists to believe that Black and Latinx women do get sexually assaulted more than white women.

These organizations must be curious about the information they are given, recognizing that some statistics do not accurately reflect systemic racism’s effect on sexual violence.

Customized curricula that delve into the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual violence should also be delivered by skilled, Black facilitators and offered to Black communities or organizations that work with Black communities. RAINN, a national organization that aims to end sexual violence, has a leadership team that is almost completely white. The most diverse components of their leadership team are people in advisory or symbolic roles that don’t have much decision-making power. Diversifying leadership will result in the widening of perspectives and the increase in program efficacy.

Regional organizations should also consider the dynamics of race and sexual violence in the area. In Colorado, the state where I reside, the population is over 80% white. Black men are routinely fetishized here. Almost every time I go into a bar or nightclub setting, I witness a Black man experiencing sexual harassment or nonconsentual sexual contact by a white woman.

Also, in this state Black women are not seen as ideal partners—even by Black men—and this increases the misogynoir they face both within and outside of their communities. These dynamics should be recognized and understood when working with a group of Black students in Colorado.

We need sexual violence prevention programs. But we also need programs that aren’t afraid of discussing the unique risks that students of color face.

Nylah Burton is a writer who resides in Denver, CO. Her work explores the intersections of race, gender, and religion. You can follow her on Twitter @yumcoconutmilk