April is replete with monthly observances that range from the mundane to the profound. April is National Straw Hat Month and National Soft Pretzel Month. We celebrate diversity via Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, National Thai Month and Black Women’s History Month. We promote awareness via National Donate Life Awareness Month, National Mental Health Month and National Autism Awareness Month. April is also National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
Six months after the viral hashtag #MeToo ignited national interest in the movement founded by Tarana Burke some 10 years ago, I expected a more vigorous public investment in Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. I anticipated intense debates over the need to affirm victims whose experiences don’t make headlines. Of the challenges to women and men who labor in the hospitality industry, on farms and as home health aides where speaking out can lead to more violence and even threats of deportation. For young women whose early physical development leads adults to accuse them of inviting unwanted attention. For young men who were shamed and their masculinity questioned.
I needed a more dedicated indictment of how the exclusive focus on firing perpetrators doesn’t address the multilayered needs of victims. I longed for legislators to leverage the public mood by convening local providers and social service organizations working to address human trafficking that targets young women and young men. I needed college campuses to seriously interrogate the fallacy of efforts to teach young people how to avoid being a victim, while neglecting the need to train people not to be perpetrators. A dedicated emphasis on affirmative consent that isn’t obfuscated by intoxication, time of day or attire.
To be sure, some of these things happened. But certainly not to the level and degree I and many others expected or needed. What I did not expect was that we would come to the close of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month with protracted debates over whether Bill Cosby’s conviction rings hollow because other high-profile perpetrators remain free.
Cosby’s conviction on three counts of sexual assault launched a firestorm of political punditry, social media commentary and scholarly analysis of longstanding issues of power, access and vulnerability. A plethora of memes comparing the lack of criminal charges levied against high-profile White figures such as Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Roman Polanski and even President Donald Trump have been used to indict racial privilege in the criminal justice system.
Vigorous, and at times vicious, exchanges abound about a mythical plan to purchase a major news network alongside allegations of an illuminati effort to take down a powerful Black man. Calls for racial solidarity can’t be built on the silencing and subjugation of women in order to protect abusers. It’s akin to those who defend Trump’s behavior under the guise of party and ideological solidarity.
Imagine if a person of color was killed by another person of color. The perpetrator was tried and convicted for taking the life of another. The harm and pain of that loss isn’t dampened by the realization that White officers who kill unarmed people of color are rarely held accountable for their actions. Instead, we are able to call for accountability in both situations while still acknowledging that privilege based on race, class, celebrity status and gender persistently shape the administration of justice.
Indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement was born out of a demand for accountability that isn’t contingent upon occupation and job title. Indicting White privilege doesn’t require dismissing culpability for the commission of harm. Rather ,two things can be true at once: Bill Cosby’s commission of sexual assaults is worthy of punishment. And, White perpetrators treated as social pariah also deserve to be held legally accountable.
In 1991, scholar Kimberle Crenshaw published her now-seminal work, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” The premise was deceptively simple: Various systems, institutional structures, nodes of power and cultural norms intersect to make certain groups and identities more vulnerable. The focus on intersectionality isn’t just about the groups to which we are born into or choose to belong. Rather, it is a recognition that policy and practice can both stigmatize and pathologize multiple constituencies at once.
According to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Black women are disproportionately affected by various forms of violence, including intimate partner violence, sexual assault, stalking and homicide. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 38% of Black women experience some form of sexual violence during their lifetime. Bringing legal action against the people responsible for this violence is often conditioned upon access to affordable legal representation, social standing of the accused and victim and statutory definitions of assault and consent.
These intersections highlight the complicated nature of pursuing justice for victims of sexual violence. What’s particularly troubling is that most of the people vigorously defending celebrities like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly have never met these people in person. They’ve never had the opportunity to personally discern the public persona from the private disposition. And yet the data on the prevalence of sexual assault and violence illustrate that most of us know someone who has been a victim. Sometimes the hypothetical “well what abouts” and “what ifs” support people we don’t know, at the expense of those we do. To quote Pulitzer Prize-winning griot Kendrick Lamar, “tell me who ya loyal to?”
On this the last day of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, let’s stand in solidarity with victims of sexual violence across the markers of race, gender identity, sexual orientation and age to create communities that are healthy and safe. Let’s invest in scholarship that examines the collection of policies and laws that produce new chasms and deepen existing fault lines. Let’s also recognize that attempts to build group solidarity predicated on respectability politics are fragile and ephemeral. And finally, let’s address the privilege that exists in multiple spheres to define whose pain deserves our collective support.
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University, where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.