Health & Healing

This article was originally published in BLAC’s April 2008 issue.

13-year-old African-American girl in Flint says she is gang-raped after meeting a man on the Internet.

She and her mother go to the hospital, where a medical exam backs up her story. A doctor calls Flint police. But they refer her to Detroit, where the crime allegedly happened. Detroit police say Flint should take the report.

Outraged, the girl’s mom seeks justice elsewhere-on TV news.

This run-around epitomizes the grim reality that further traumatizes rape survivors, say advocates. Often victims are not believed and law enforcement responds too slowly.


April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an opportunity to highlight prevention and survivor services.

Not enough is done to promote prevention and improve services in Detroit, according to social worker Kalimah Johnson, who worked for the Detroit Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit and Rape Counseling Center. But activists are working to change that.

“It makes no sense that a victim of sexual assault and her family have to go through these troubles,” says Johnson, also a celebrated poet who addresses abuse and sexism in her writing.

“Survivors need to not have continuous barriers for services,” she says. “So, you’re not scrambling on who to call next, you have people helping you.”

Funding and staffing shortages hamper the coordination of services, experts say. But the bigger problem may lie in the way society perceives rape involving African Americans.

Yes, sexual assault can happen to any person, of any race, of either gender. But when it happens to an African-American girl or woman, too many turn a blind eye, including the victim herself.

“We have such mixed messages about African-American women and their sexuality, particularly young girls,” says Paula Callen, program director for the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, an advocacy organization which recently opened its first Detroit office.

She says the “oversexualization” of Black females in music videos and films casts a cheap, sex object stigma. So, when a rape occurs, a survivor might buy into stereotypes that she asked for it or deserved it.

For each Black woman who reports her rape, it is estimated that 15 others do not, according to the national Women of Color Network, a leadership initiative citing a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice report.

Experts say that survivors may see the Flint case as a reason not to report rape to police, go to a hospital for an exam and evidence collection, or seek psychological counseling. As a result, they live in shame and fear.

In Flint, the 13-year-old’s story aired, Detroit police took a report, and the girl identified two men from a line-up.  They are in jail while police search for two other men.

Callen says, “As we go into Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we doing the best possible job?  Are people getting all they need to do the job to respond to sex assault?’”

The Flint case, she says, answers this question with a clear-cut “no.”

Prevention Tips for Parents

  • Engage in open dialogue about sex with your children. Use proper names such as “penis” and “vagina” for body parts, instead of nicknames that may promote shame, fear or ignorance.
  • Talk to children and teens about song lyrics and television and movies images that portray women as sex objects.
  • Teach children that no one should touch or kiss them in a sexual manner, and to tell a parent immediately if something occurs.
  • Bust the myth that most rapes are perpetrated by strangers. Most often, sexual assault is a crime between people who know each other:  relatives, spouses, friends, dates.
  • Dispel the myth that incest only occurs in White families.

Elizabeth Atkins is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

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