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Sexual Harassment and Women of Color

February 13, 2018We are living through a moment in this culture. Women have been victimized by men since time immemorial, yet there has recently been a groundswell of women coming forward to publicly share their stories of sexual harassment and assault. The accounts of these survivors have resulted in male perpetrators losing their jobs, being expelled from their industries, and having their reputations irreparably tarnished. 

Perhaps because in this most recent outcry against sexual harassment (remember Anita Hill?) the women who initially came forward were movie and television performers, (household names to many), the media showcased their stories. The movement then spread to other industries—resulting in similar outcomes for men named as assailants—and its momentum ignited movements including #MeToo and Time’s Up, in which harassment and assault survivors share their stories on social media. The current movement against sexual harassment and assault is spreading to include lower-wage workers whose voices often go unheard, and that's great. Yet with all the great coverage of the #MeToo movement, there is still a lack of attention being given to the diversity of the women victimized by sexual harassment and assault.

Women of color experience both racialized and sexualized harassment and assault, stemming from the historical context of their experiences. For example, Latinas historically endured rape as part of European colonialization of Latin American countries by Spaniards. Similarly, after the Philippine-American War, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the US occupation in Asian countries propelled local sex industries and sex trafficking rings to serve soldiers. And Black women were routinely sexually assaulted during slavery in the United States, as a “weapon of domination” with the goal of lessening slave women’s will to resist and demoralizing their men. The institutionalized rape of Black women endured after slavery, with the Ku Klux Klan and other oppressive groups using rape to reinforce the oppression of the Black community.

From these historical roots, stereotypes of women of color were formed, which in some ways rationalized sexual violence. Latinas have dealt with overly sexualized stereotypes, being characterized as promiscuous or lusty women who “stimulate male attention and provoke sexual aggression.” Similarly, Asian women have been fetishized, exoticized, and sexualized as geishas, china dolls, lotus blossoms, or dragon ladies. Black women have been stereotyped as hypersexual, stemming from their treatment by slave owners as well as norms of slavery commerce in which slaves were often stripped naked and physically examined before being purchased. 

Women of color have pushed back against some of the new movements, highlighting the different issues and realities they face as compared with White women. For example, when women instigated a Twitter boycott to protest the actress Rose McGowan’s ban from the platform (supposedly for using an obscene word directed against Harvey Weinstein), women of color reacted differently. Film director Ava DuVernay, who is Black, noted that a “groundswell of solidarity” had never happened for women of color Twitter users, who routinely face worse harassment than White women. A boycott of silence did not resonate with some women of color; as one user stated, “I don't support White women who are silencing themselves when they should be speaking out,” while another asserted, “White women are given more voice and power than any marginalized woman will ever be given.” 

Because of these stereotypes, and combined with economic vulnerability, women of color have been more susceptible to sexual harassment and assault than White women have been. For example, according to a survey of immigrant Latinas, at least 46% said they suffered some level of sexual abuse by authorities, family members, or strangers before reaching the United States, and in migrant labor, sexual harassment and assault of women is quite common. Catalyst research has also identified that women of color are susceptible not just to actual biased treatment, but are disadvantaged by their anticipation of biased treatment.

Inequity is pervasive in our society. Even while women of color may suffer higher rates of sexual assault than White women, there appears to be a double standard regarding their treatment as victims. The penalties their assailants suffer are less severe than those of people who sexually assault White women. A Brandeis University study found disparities in treatment of sexual assault cases that correspond with the race of the victim. In one locality, researchers found that prosecutors filed charges in 75% of the cases in which a White woman was attacked, but when the victim was a Black woman, prosecutors filed charges just 34% of the time. 

Can we find unity across the diversity of women, so that the experiences of women of color are viewed with the same compassion as those of White women? There appears to be a level of disconnect, as evidenced by at least some White women. For example, one of the first women to file suit against Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, Gretchen Carlson, a White woman, also disrespected Serena Williams, a Black woman who is also a prominent and widely renowned tennis player. Carlson commented on Williams’ behavior during a match, calling an angry outburst by Williams a symbol of “what’s wrong with our society today.”  She also recently published a book called Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back. As New York Times writer Leslie Jamison noted, the portrait on the book’s cover—of a fair-skinned, blond-haired woman—reminds us that “fierceness has always been more palatable from some women than from others.”

Alliance-building must start with relationships and communications among women.  We need to repair the “disconnects” that fracture and weaken potential alliances.  Frank dialogue regarding the sexual harassment and assault that we face is essential in reaching an understanding of, and compassion for, each other’s experiences. Understanding our different experiences will create a united force to stand firm against perpetrators of harassment and assault, forcing them to own up to their misdeeds and creating an environment of zero tolerance. Only by standing together, and united, will we gain the strength to effectively overcome oppression.