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Race and Ethnicity

How Black Men Became Invisible Sexual Harassment Survivors

Hypermasculinized and oversexualized, Black male survivors of sexual abuse go overlooked.

Key points

  • Black men are underrepresented in research and movements for victims due to erasure, not just stigma.
  • Myths about Black people's alleged sexual deviance have cast Black men as sexually compulsive and predatory.
  • Most media forefronts anatomy or criminality when discussing Black men, not moral or higher-level cognition.

Black men constitute at least 22.6 percent of all male survivors of sexual harassment and/or assault, yet among male survivors of all racial groups, they are arguably most invisible.

Shvets Production / Pexels
Shvets Production / Pexels

The prevailing assumption that “real” men are invulnerable to sexual violations is one barrier to representation within movements to end sexual violence. For Black men, however, this sentiment is only amplified and exacerbated by how casually and routinely Black masculinity is hyper-masculinized and hyper-sexualized.

The confluence of these misconceptions can lead to advocates and justice systems failing to comprehend Black men as victims, due to cognitive dissonance between the evidence of victimization and the reality that they likely have no schema of a Black male survivor.

At best, this leaves Black male survivors invisible and abandoned—at worst, they are discredited and retaliated against, using the exact same stereotypes that made them vulnerable to predation in the first place.

A Contemporary Problem

In 2017, actor Terry Crews spoke out about a “high-level executive” who flirtatiously licked his lips and groped Crews in front of many onlookers at a professional event in Hollywood.

His story illustrates not only how casually Black masculine bodies are objectified, but also how routinely it is presumed that Black men enjoy others’ sexualized gaze. The stereotype that Black men are sexually charged up, insatiable, and predatory—allegedly ready and willing to be “turned on” anytime, anywhere, by anyone—informs this presumption.

Standing at 6’2” and 240 pounds, Crews’ physicality also symbolizes “the scary Black man” in the racist imagination that often shapes mainstream media. The racialization of Crews’ physical stature is perhaps why his wife warned him, “Terry, you can never handle any situation like this with violence. You are a target. You are going to be baited and pulled if you react physically.”

Referencing his wife’s advice, Crews continued, “That’s one thing I knew—being a large African-American man in America, I would immediately be seen as a thug.”

In a reflective social media post, Crews wrote that if he reacted, he knew, “‘240 lbs. Black Man Stomps Out Hollywood Honcho’ would be the headline the next day.”

Source: Zen Chung / Pexels
Source: Zen Chung / Pexels

To Crews’ point, mainstream media is saturated with hyper-masculinized tropes about Black men. For instance, Hollywood has long been known to typecast Black men into hypermasculine roles. According to one study, even when Black male actors play teachers, their character types tend to reinforce stereotypes.

To extend Crews’ critique to the hyper-sexualization of Black men, jokes stereotyping Black XY genitalia as being abnormally large—invoking scientific racism—are pervasive throughout TV, film, music, and stand-up comedy (e.g., “once you go Black…”).

Hyper-sexualized tropes also run rampant in interracial porn, a genre that often sexualizes racial differences. Porn might seem like an unlikely site of sociological analysis, but among a randomly selected sample of 10,000 Americans, 84 percent had viewed pornographic films.

Whether geared toward gay or straight audiences, interracial porn routinely portrays Black men as vessels of animalistic and primal sexuality. One researcher found that interracial porn routinely refers to Black men as “thugs, pimps, hustlers…bros who live in the ‘hood’ and drive ‘pimp-mobiles,” and frequently describes Black XY/male genitalia hyperbolically—with words like “huge," "enormous," "monstrous," "gigantic," and "unbelievable.” Another study noted that interracial porn, compared to same-race porn, depicted Black men as more aggressive and less affectionate.

In Race and Masculinity in Gay Porn: Deconstructing the Big Black Beasts, Desmond Goss surveyed comments under interracial porn videos. Comments expressing fetishes and kinks related to consensual non-consent and rape fantasies were often posted by self-identified gay white men who projected aggression onto Black men. Relatedly, in Racial Erotics, C. Winter Han points out that gay porn typically devalues and all but erases Black “bottoms” and Asian “tops.”

Gail Dines argues in The White Man's Burden: Gonzo Pornography and the Construction of Black Masculinity, that in “most of the Western world, there is a general consensus that a real man (read: white) works hard, puts food on the table and an SUV in the driveway, shows some interest in his children's welfare, and exhibits a somewhat restrained set of sexual practices within state-sanctioned heterosexual marriage.”

Black masculinity, conversely, is characterized as the opposite of “hardworking, law-abiding, intellectual, rational, and sexually restrained and controlled.” Yet, for white viewers of interracial porn seeking to momentarily indulge sexual gratification over the norms of civilized white society, this white racist construction of out-of-control Black male sexuality offers an escape. Off-screen, however, these same Black male bodies do not matter because their worth does not extend beyond sexual pleasure, entertainment value, and economic exploitation.

Darlene Alderson / Pexels
Darlene Alderson / Pexels

The Problem's Historical Roots

“We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him,” said Benjamin Tillman on the Senate floor in 1900.

By 1915, the country’s leaders were gathering regularly to view "The Birth of Nation," a silent film with imagery that cemented the association of Black men with the rape of white women.

The film has had real-world implications throughout history. In the century since its release, there have been numerous cases in which a white woman falsely accused a Black man—the Scottsboro Boys (1931), the Groveland Four (1949), Emmett Till (1955), Mack Charles Parker (1959), Ronnie Long (1976), Sullivan Walter (1986), the Central Park Five (1989), Pervis Payne (1991), and Brian Banks (2002). The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and the Rosewood Massacre of 1923 can also be traced to such allegations.

Many of these cases ended in lynching. Abolitionist journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote in her newsletter, Southern Horrors, that, “the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women.” Wells-Barnett stated that editors of the Memphis Daily Commercial wrote, “The commission of this crime grows more frequent every year,” and, “There is no longer a restraint upon the brute passion of the Negro.” Consequently, some of the aforementioned cases ended in castration.

In 1952, decolonial philosopher Franz Fanon theorized in Black Skin, White Masks that an anthropological and socio-sexual fixation on the “dark phallus,” as he calls it, originated with European colonialism in Africa and evolved into a white supremacist ideology of Black sexual deviance deployed for social control.

Fanon does so by contrasting anti-Black and anti-semitic oppression, stating that while white supremacists viewed the Jewish people as an intellectual threat, Black people represented a biological threat, “for the Negro is only biological.” Consequently, Fanon argues, the subordination and social control of Black people has focused on the corporeal, particularly the sexual.

Andres Ayrton / Pexels
Andres Ayrton / Pexels

One dangerous implication for Black men, Fanon suggests, is, “Whoever says rape, says Negro.”

These historical-based stereotypes can render Black male victims/survivors illegible. For instance, in Understanding Black Queer Male Survivor’s Experiences of Sexual Assault, an interviewee recounts a police officer telling him dismissively, “You’re sitting here wearing earrings, and you expect us to take you seriously?”

Not only that, but they can frame Black male survivors as guilty until proven innocent, making them vulnerable to confirmation bias amidst false allegations.

As put by the authors of Any Four Black Men Will Do: Rape, Race, and the Ultimate Scapegoat, “Institutions such as the media, universities, and campus police sanctify White patriarchal hegemonic hierarchies when investigating the “truth” is set aside in favor of the status quo.”

Equally important, they render Black male survivors illegible to themselves. Explaining why he failed to recognize himself as a victim, one participant of a study on Black male survivors simply responded, “I’m already seen as a sexual predator from saying hello.”

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