Intersectionality sheds new light on sexual assault

    Out of the students who report sexual assault issues to the Center for Awareness, Response and Education, 20 percent are African-American.  But only 5 percent of students at Northwestern identify as African-American.

    Communication senior Kyra Jones learned this from CARE while doing an independent study on sexual violence in the African-American community.  

    “Everything I’ve kind of learned has been generalized, assuming that survivors have the same experience,” Jones said.  “Race does play into experience. When working with survivors, it’s important to know how race and societal factors will impact their reaction and the community’s reaction.”

    Multiple identities affect each individual’s experience. Discrimination against certain identities such as race, gender, class, ethnicity and sexuality converge, which can intensify oppression.  This concept of the intersection between different systems of discrimination is known as intersectionality.

    In terms of sexual assault, intersectionality also affects how people view the victim and how the victim will interpret the situation.

    “If you got oppression coming at you in several different directions, it impacts you,” Women’s Center director Renee Redd said.

    CARE’s findings

    Jones' second major is gender studies, which she became interested in pursuing after volunteering with Rape Victim Advocates. She hopes to work at a rape crisis center after graduation and is intrigued by history’s erasure of violence against African-American women.

    In order to pursue her study, Jones did research in the library about the the history of sexual violence in the black community.  In addition, she talked to different rape crisis centers, including Rape Victim Advocates, CARE and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s support center.

    After Jones approached CARE with questions for her study, CARE found statistics on the amount of African-American students who reported instances of sexual assault. This helped CARE plan a task force to create focus groups for African-American students next school year.

    In order to do this, CARE is applying for a grant through the federal Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women Campus Grant Program. In addition to creating a focus group for African American students, CARE plans to create a task force for LGBT students.

    According to Laura Stuart, CARE’s Sexual Health Education and Violence Prevention Coordinator, 13 percent of students who report sexual assault issues identify as LGBT. In comparison, but CARE estimates say only 8 percent of students at Northwestern are LGBT.

    “All you have are those numbers,” Stuart said.  “On one hand, that could potentially be a bad thing. Our LGBT and black students experience higher rates of violence, or it could be a good thing. They could feel comfortable accessing services here.”

    Speaking about experiences

    Survivors of color may be less likely to approach crisis centers and speak about their experiences or report to law enforcement, due in part to society’s perception of their racial group around sexuality issues.

    On campus, victims may feel like they negatively affect their community’s image if they report the issue, especially when their on-campus community is small.  Furthermore, in most sexual assault cases, victims often know their perpetrator.

    “In a predominantly white and heterosexual community like Northwestern, and you’re from a smaller community, there’s another layer of feeling like you represent that community,” Stuart said.

    Redd agrees, saying that she has worked with African-American women who refrained from reporting if they were assaulted by African-American men, saying they felt they were betraying their race.  This also applies to people of other minority races because they have a smaller representation in the campus community.

    Northwestern’s Take Back the Night rally, which took place April 24 at the Rock and Dittmar Gallery, aimed to support survivors and give them a safe place to speak about their experiences.

    This international effort to raise awareness on sexual violence and to support survivors comes from the idea that sexual assault survivors should be able to reclaim their right to be safe at night. Starting at the Rock, students marched throughout campus, ending at Norris for a survivor speak-out in Dittmar Gallery, where survivors could share their stories and reclaim the night.

    “I feel like so many of my friends have stories of sexual assault,” said Elizabeth Bohl, a Weinberg junior and Take Back the Night co-chair. “It’s important to create an atmosphere where they feel safe and can speak about it.”

    In light of campus policy changes on sexual assault, the lawsuit against Northwestern for not acting on a sexual harassment claim and discussion about Title IX have sparked more conversations on sexual assault.  As a result, this year, Take Back the Night focused more on supporting survivors.

    “I think a lot of people are fearful,” said Haley Pilgrim, a SESP senior and Take Back the Night co-chair. “They don’t have to hide from it, and there are tools to talk about it and have people feeling support and know campus is a safe place, and there are other survivors.”

    Racial stereotypes

    Gender affects experiences of sexual assault, but other experiences such as race and personal experience come into play. Racial stereotypes will impact a victim’s experience, especially when those stereotypes are hypersexualized.

    Jones found that, during the Civil Rights Movement, more emphasis was put on African-American men. Issues that African-American women faced, like sexual violence, were not in the spotlight.

    “The crux of rape culture is sexism,” Jones said.  “When you’re a person of color who’s been sexaully assaulted, you’re not only affected by sexism, but also racism. If you’re a person of color, these rape myths are amplified by race myths. It becomes more difficult if you’re a person of color.”

    Furthermore, African-American men were more often accused of rape, which could lead to less coverage of violence against African-American women.  Jones said she read about instances where the black community raised money for legal support and leniency to the perpetrator, while nothing was given to the victim.

    “When black men assaulted black women, they didn’t want to talk about that because it promotes the myth of the black rapist,” Jones said. “We still have a politics of respectability within the black community, especially more privileged sectors of the black community.”


    Sexuality is another identity that impacts a victim’s experience of sexual assault.

    According to Stuart, people may not view men as victims, and gay or bisexual men may feel like they cannot receive services. People in the LGBT have also been hypersexualized. Sexual violence has also been used as a hate crime against the LGBT community.

    Intersections of different identities will also impact a victim’s experience. For example, due to the intersection of sexuality, race and gender, Redd said that an African-American lesbian woman is more likely to face more judgment if she is sexually assaulted.  She may face discrimination because of her race and class, lack of support because of her gender and even homophobia from her community, especially if her community has a more conservative Christian background.

    Weinberg senior Amrit Trewn, who did independent research through the Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Research Fellowship on interracial sexuality, said that intersectionality was useful when considering these issues.

    “The idea of interracial dating is dancing between racial lines, which are always jagged,” Trewn said. “The way we see them crossing was through violence and coercion. It brings to light this darker side of sexuality.  Sexual racism in the past influences how we live our lives today.”

    The task force

    Not all the details about the task force have been decided yet.  CARE finds out whether it will receive the grant in September. Whether or not CARE receives the grant, Stuart said the task forces will most likely happen. However, with the grant, they hope to hire more staff and receive more funding.

    The task force will include student members advised by staff who serves those student populations. It will also collaborate with community organizations such as the YWCA.

    “Ultimately, we would like to do better programs, better outreach,” Stuart said. “Are there dynamics in sub-communities in Northwestern that we need to better address?”

    LGBT Resource Center director Devin Moss said the task force will focus on preventing sexual violence in the community.

    “Doing educational and preventive work is a mission of ours,” Moss said. “I know that issues have occurred on campus. I want to be able to make sure students know there are resources to reach out to for support.”

    CARE also hopes to collect additional data and run more focus groups to invite students to talk about how they perceive sexual violence in the community, as well as how they perceive CARE and other services.

    With this information, they hope to have a better idea of changes they can make to the CARE program and to prevent sexual assault. Jones also hopes they reach out to other minorities and communities on campus.

    “Everyone is intersectional in some kind of way,” Jones said. “Everyone’s experience of sexual violence will differ depending on race, age and class.  We’re already in an environment where people discriminate against us. We don’t want to discriminate against each other.”

    Each person takes on many identities, and people cannot change their background or how they were raised. However, discussion on issues of discrimination and sexual assault, with a lens of intersectionality, can help change viewpoints and allow others to understand different points of view.

    “The only way to change this is discussion and acknowledging it exists,” Pilgrim said.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.