Who Do We Think of as Survivors of Sexual Violation?

New research challenges common stereotypes about Black male sexuality.

Posted Sep 24, 2018

Imagine a 13-year-old in a sexual relationship with a 20-something friend of the family. The adult occasionally trades small sums of money for oral sex. The child grows up to be a promiscuous adult, particularly when it comes to oral sex. Unfortunately, this scenario is not difficult to imagine. But it’s worth considering the typical "script" that structures what comes to mind when you consider this scenario. What gender do you imagine the teenager to be? What gender the adult? And what about their race?

If you imagined the victim to be a young Black male, and the perpetrator an adult female, then you’d be correct. This case is taken from a recent pilot study of adult sexual violations of young Black males. The findings are striking. The study presents five snapshots taken from longer narratives, alongside harrowing statistics. Though Black Americans, on average, report earlier sexual debuts than White Americans, Black males report even earlier sexual debuts than their female peers. The implication is that young Black males are having their first sexual experiences with much older females; thus, their sexual debuts may more often occur in the context of statutory rape.

One reason many people do not readily imagine the victim in the above scenario to be a young Black male is that our imaginations are shaped by the familiar stereotype of hypersexual and hyper-masculine Black men. But this study points out that the very behaviors associated with these stereotypes may be due to the kinds of childhood sexual violations uncovered in the interviews the researchers conducted. Interviewees reported first sexual encounters as early as the ages of six and eight, as well as sexual encounters in their early-to-mid teens with even older women. Some of them reported having had hundreds of sexual partners into adulthood; one reported having 11 children. Without knowing their early sexual histories, and simply judging from their adult sexual behavior, these men may seem to support the hypersexual stereotypes about Black men in America. But it is well documented that sexually abused children, and boys in particular, tend to be more promiscuous, compulsive, and riskier in their adult sexual behavior. And they are more likely to be sexually aggressive, perpetrate intimate partner abuse, as well as more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. In general, knowing about someone’s childhood can help to explain some of his adult behaviors. It seems that knowing about the childhood sexual experiences of the five Black men whose narratives are included in this study can go a great way towards explaining their adult sexual behavior.

Part of what makes this small study so powerful is that there is good reason to think the findings generalize. Young Black males are overrepresented in categories correlated with risk of childhood sexual abuse—for example, growing up in single-parent, low socioeconomic status households. This suggests that the snapshots presented in the published study are more representative than they may at first seem to be. As the authors put it, this study should give us “pause in determining Black hyper-masculinity to be the sub-conscious or deliberate motivation driving negative inter-personal conflicts and violence. … Black males should be theorized as socialized into particular sexual scripts or coping with likely childhood trauma when evaluating their adult behaviors.” The men they interviewed are properly considered survivors of childhood sexual abuse, even rape. Statistics suggest they are far from alone. Taking this evidence on board requires complicating how we think about Black male sexuality and behavior, even among adults.

This is a pilot study and the research is ongoing. We can expect to learn a great deal more about the sexual violation of young Black males, as well as about how this shapes their lives into adulthood. For the time being, it is striking how much the preliminary findings already challenge much of what we think we know about Black men, oftentimes in the form of background assumptions that structure the way we understand and interpret their behavior.

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