If We Want Sexual Freedom, We Must Achieve It for Everyone
Taking action against the disproportionate amount of sexual violence perpetrated on black, brown, and indigenous women
Trigger alert: This article includes statistics about sexual violence against black women, indigenous women, and women of color.
What do I want? I want the liberty to express my sexuality in any way I choose. I want to be able to engage in consensual sexual activity with any partner of my choosing (who mutually and consensually chooses me back) whenever and however we want. I want to be able to choose how I define myself as a sexual being and I want to be the sole author of my sexual narrative. I want complete sovereignty over my own body.
What do you want? I’m guessing something similar, if not the same.
I often remind men that the realization of women’s sexual freedom will also be the realization of their sexual freedom. (Yes, men have a huge amount of sexual freedom now, but without sexually empowered women, their freedom isn’t going to get them far.)
It’s also essential to understand that women’s freedom is a far-reaching concept. A white woman’s journey of sexual empowerment is much different than a black woman’s journey. Or an indigenous woman’s. Or that of a woman of color.
These women are dealing with a complex tapestry of circumstances that affect their sexuality and sexual empowerment on every level. As I continue to examine and explore the issue of female sexual liberation, I realize the importance of consistently bringing attention to the additional barriers faced by black women, indigenous women, and women of color.
Men — particularly white men — and white women: we have to acknowledge that we will not be able to achieve our sexual liberation until we all do.
Sexual violence against black, brown, and indigenous women
We have still to recognize that being a woman is, in fact, not extractable from the context in which one is a woman — that is, race, class, time, and place. –Elsa Barkley Brown
I have written a lot of articles in which I touched on aspects of what I would call “feminist sexuality,” mostly as they pertain to the world I know — white women. I had to be incredibly generous with my red pen, however, because there’s just not enough room in a 1,200-word article to include everything I want to say.
Now let’s talk about a black, brown, or indigenous woman’s experience. Twelve hundred words isn’t going to cut it. Twelve million words probably wouldn’t cut it.
But here’s a brief list that barely scratches the surface:
- More than 20% of black women are raped in their lifetime.
- 40% will experience violence from an intimate partner.
- 53% have experienced sexual violence and 56% have experienced domestic violence.
- Studies are finding links between the incarceration of black women and a history of childhood sexual abuse, which is now being referred to as the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline.
- Women’s reports of sexual violence are commonly disbelieved and dismissed, but for no population more than black women, indigenous women, and women of color. The gender bias of law enforcement institutions is complex and aggressive when faced with victims of sexual violence who are not white.
- “More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence.”
- Latina women who make the journey over the U.S./Mexico border often take birth control pills because rape is so prevalent.
And all of that fails to even hint at the centuries of sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological trauma that these populations have faced due to colonization and slavery. Their sexual oppression and domination has been normalized by our culture.
The importance of knowing our history
…black feminist frameworks have been doing the hard work of building the social justice movements that race-only or gender-only frames cannot. — Kimberlé Crenshaw
Part of the work I think we have to do here is to acknowledge the efforts of the women who came before us, the women who started fighting for sexual justice a long time ago. Do you know who Harriet Jacobs, Recy Taylor, and Fannie Lou Hamer are? These are names we should all know. These are women who should be in every American history textbook. They risked their lives to stand up against sexual violence.
How about Tarana Burke? Do you know that name? You should. She’s the one who started the #MeToo movement. Nope, it wasn’t started by Alyssa Milano, as has been widely reported in social media stories. Let’s please remember to give credit where credit is due and to be more mindful of the ways our culture teaches to erase black women, indigenous women, and women of color.
It’s also important, I think, to revisit her vision for the movement, rather than be swept away by the manner in which it evolved after it went viral. As Burke stated in her 2018 TEDTalk:
“Suddenly, a movement to center survivors of sexual violence is being talked about as a vindictive plot against men.”
I’ve found myself frustrated with this, as well. I feel angry that the narrative seems to be shifting in that direction. Turning it into a “plot against men” invalidates the critical importance of making space for people to stand up and share their sexual trauma in an effort to help them heal.
Why did Burke create this movement?
“I started this work … in 2006–07 while working with young black and brown girls in the south — trying to find resources for them because they were survivors of sexual violence and sharing their experiences of sexual violence.”
And what is it today, in her eyes?
“My vision for the Me Too movement is part of a collective vision to see a world free of sexual violence.”
Now, in addition to pushing back against the characterization of this movement as a misandrous power trip, we also must use it as a springboard to further examine and correct the pervasive sexual violence disproportionality experienced by black women, indigenous women, and women of color.
“What if the Senate had actually taken me seriously?” –Anita Hill
Our words and intentions mean nothing if we don’t take action. However, I, as a white woman, feel it would be inappropriate to insert myself into this conversation by offering advice on how we can do that. I feel it is more appropriate to point people in the direction of the black, indigenous, and women of color who are thought leaders on the subject of racism and equality. These include:
(Please share other teachers and resources in the comments.)
Beyond that, I will only tell you what I am doing, without positioning myself as an expert or trying to center my voice:
- I am reading books and articles on these subjects — there are countless educational resources out there on this subject.
- I’m making sure that I expand my cyberworld. I am committed to being more mindful about reading and sharing the work of authors and activists who are black, brown, and indigenous.
- I am contacting my representatives.
- I am supporting organizations that are working to correct the injustices perpetrated on these populations.
I’m still reluctant to share that, in light of the fact that it might be interpreted as a white woman patting herself on the back, but I’m going to include it, anyways, as an attempt to help anyone who feels like they don’t know where to start.
Please remember that everyone’s sexual freedom matters. Everyone deserves this liberation. But we can only get there together.
© Yael Wolfe 2020
Important reads by other writers:
I’m a Sexual Assault Survivor. Here’s My Advice for Building Relationships
It’s not easy, but involving your partner may lead to better intimacy