Adisa Salim is the Shelter Director for 2nd Chance, Inc. She is a mother of five sons and grandmother to nine. She is a community activist, author and spoken word artist. 

When I was a little girl, I didn’t have the “sex” talk with my mom. There was no talk of healthy sexuality because the rule in my childhood home was simple, sex was bad, don’t do it. In the 80s and 90s, the message that was most prominent was “just say no” to drugs rather than “no means no” when it came to my body. So, at 16 years old when I found myself being sexually assaulted by a boy I considered a friend. I didn’t tell anyone. I blamed myself for being in a place I shouldn’t have been. I blamed myself for trusting him. I rationalized what happened to me, filed it in the back of my mind and never spoke of it.  Deep down I knew the label that would be given to me if I told what happened. I would become a rape victim. As a teenager, my desire was not to stand out but to simply blend in. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want attention. Now as an advocate for victims of sexual assaults, I am happy to have found my voice. Unfortunately, however, my silence is not unique—especially among women of color.

Black women are less likely than White women to report that they’ve been raped. There are mutual reasons that both don’t report rape—a sense of shame, a belief that they were at fault, fear of repercussions. But some reasons are different and based in history. Rape of African-American women goes back to before they reached the Americas. African women that were kidnapped were routinely raped by crew members during the transatlantic voyage. There were few consequences for rapists—regardless of race. In 1859, a Mississippi judge overturned a guilty verdict from a lower court in a case involving two slaves. The victim was less than 10 years old. The judge wrote in his decision: “The crime of rape does not exist in this state between African slaves, because their intercourse is promiscuous.” His ruling reinforced the belief that African-American women are naturally hypersexual beings. That myth endures today.

Given the strained history between the Black community and police, Black survivors may be wary of seeking help from law enforcement. They may feel safer avoiding law enforcement altogether.

There is also the stereotype within the African-American culture that women are to remain strong no matter the circumstance or situation.

Black Survivors who have been assaulted by other Black people may feel a responsibility to protect members of their community, fearing that speaking out will affirm negative stereotypes and criminalize a man of their race. Historically, Black women have carried the burden of fighting for racial justice for Black men, our Black children and our Black sisters. But who fights for us? Who protects us from injustice? Speaking up for Black women when they have been raped IS racial justice in a system that already sexualizes and dehumanizes us.

If a woman chooses to disclose her experience of assault, the environment she finds herself in isn’t always supportive. Our response to an actual occurrence of rape is often damaging enough to keep a woman from pressing  charges and dissuades her from sharing her experience. We ask questions that are loaded like a weapon: What were you wearing? Are you sure this isn’t just your regret talking?

Let’s make sure that if someone is brave enough to disclose that she has been the victim of sexual abuse we don’t add to her suffering. Let’s not re-victimize her with unfair assumptions or victim-blaming questions. Let’s be listeners. Let’s be safe outlets for her hurts and fears.

If you have been a victim of sexual abuse, you are not alone. And whether you have friends and family members you can confide in or not, I encourage you to seek out a professional therapist you feel comfortable with. You have suffered a terrible trauma. Just as a doctor can put a cast on a broken bone, a good therapist can provide a safe space for you to speak up, be heard, receive impartial advice, and heal. Ending the silence around sexual abuse is going to take all of us. Let’s listen instead of labeling. Let’s support instead of second-guessing. Victims need to be cared for, not shamed or shushed. Silence only supports the stigma.