After months of avoidance and fear (classic- IYKYN), today is the day I decided to begin writing about sexual trauma. Some of my original apprehension still lingers within me, but this article needed to be written…
Black women and children deserve the validation of being seen and spoken to on the issue of sexual assault and violence. What has inspired me, as always is the contagious courage and grace of Black and Latina women all across social media platforms who push past their hesitation, self-doubt, shame, and guilt to entertain, encourage and motivate the rest of us on a daily basis. The strength reverberating through the women of my communities is a mirror that I can always look to for a reflection of my better half, the half of me that is fearless and living her truth, however overwhelming. What I have found is that this cycle of communal energy flow only works if, whenever possible, we give back as much as we take. I hope that this article helps another survivor to borrow the armor I’ve grown throughout my experience in acknowledging and overcoming the real-life consequences of sexual trauma. While everyone’s journey is as unique as the individual, my prayer is that this article helps another woman see what my eyes have seen and to understand what I have learned throughout this journey. I am not a professional or a doctor; but I am a survivor and this is my testimony:
Understanding that Black women in The United States have always existed under the threat and reality of sexual violence from the inception of chattel slavery is the foundation to understanding the cognitive dissonance with which sexual violence against Black women and children is approached and processed today. Black women are not the only women who experience sexual violence; however, the historical subjugation of Black people and women respectively in a white dominant patriarchal society put Black women in the vice grip of an intersection between race and gender. The inequity of this subjugation has made Black women more vulnerable. Before slave ships reached the shore, African slave women were raped. Once on the shore, every social courtesy customary to women and children, indeed to human nature, was disregarded. Children were sold from their mothers, sold away from their mothers forever. The cycle of the unprotected Black child, unhealed Black mother persists today. Life on plantations meant certain rape at the hands of slave masters and overseers for mother and child. African American slaves’ bodies were bred like cattle. Some were forced to have non-consensual sex for the sole purpose of breeding children for the profit of plantation owners.
In the mid-1800s, Black women were treated like inanimate vessels and used like lab rats for the benefit of research in the field of American gynecology. Throughout the Jim Crow era, Black women continued to be raped by White men without social or legal consequence. Hundreds of years, about twenty generations later, Black women and children are still suffering this quiet storm. The legacy of sexual trauma throughout the lineage of Black women is a persistent disease that generations have endured consistently while managing unexplained and undiagnosed symptoms of acute, chronic, and/or complex trauma. Silence is no longer required for survival. On the contrary, our survival depends on us speaking up.
One year since the World Health Organization declared the disease of COVID-19 a global pandemic, there is only one other illness that puts a greater fear in my heart, that makes my mind race with panic and anxiety. It’s the illness Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by sexual trauma. As a survivor, the only thing scarier than dying of COVID-19 is the unrelenting nightmares, the indistinguishable boundaries of the mind, the mistrust in everyone and everything; including myself. There is no vaccine for the paralyzing confusion caused by living alone with trauma, feeling like your spirit is displaced from your body, or wondering if you will ever experience true joy. To me, there is nothing worse than living in a state of shock on the inside while smiling on the outside. Before I was formally diagnosed with PTSD, it was already manifesting throughout my body and throughout my life. It was present in my relationships, my career, my education, my diet. It was everywhere, but I didn’t understand that the disconnect in my life was indicative of childhood sexual trauma buried deep down beneath an outgoing personality and an overwhelming social pressure to perform, alignment be damned.
Common symptoms of PTSD are persistent negative emotional states of fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame, diminished interest or participation in significant activities, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, and/or a persistent inability to experience positive emotions, an inability to experience happiness, satisfaction or loving feelings. Reckless or self-destructive behavior, hyper-vigilance, exaggerated startle response, problems with concentration, and sleep disturbance are also indications of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
These symptoms are so generally accepted and go unchecked for such long periods, that many survivors discount them as characteristics of personality, not as red flags that they are. If you developed a cough and lost your sense of taste and smell over the last year, you would worry you had COVID, and you would attempt to remedy it as quickly as possible to save yourself. It is with this same sense of urgency we must address the consequences of sexual trauma, less they materialize into physiological ailments like diabetes, high blood pressure, or obesity. While the symptoms of an illness like COVID can be acute at first, some chronic and complex symptoms arise if the illness goes untreated. PTSD is no different to the mind and nervous systems than COVID is to the lungs. The longer you live without a strategy or a plan for treatment, the deeper and more long-lasting the symptoms of trauma.
Overcoming and managing PTSD begins with acknowledging that you have PTSD, and even then a “cure” in the traditional sense of the word is not possible. Trauma cannot be undone, therefore you cannot be cured of it. The only thing that changes is the way you cope with your trauma. Some ways to do that are to avoid your triggers or to practice mindfulness, which can be used as a pre-meditated strategy for handling unexpected triggers. If you are unknowingly experiencing behavioral symptoms consistent with those related to PTSD, it can jeopardize your pathway to healthy healing and learning how to cope through proven behavioral therapies. Not only can this delay stagnate the healing process, but it can also jeopardize your chances of receiving justice in a court of law.
While one in six women report experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault in The United States, only 15.8- 35% of all sexual assaults are reported to authorities and only 6% of rapists ever serve time for rape. Over time, Black women have been brutalized and victimized by the criminal justice system, but the criminal justice system is an investment that Black women have made and the return on that investment is well overdue. Black women deserve justice and equal protection under the law. One of the ways we can ensure that this happens is by reporting the crimes and requiring the criminal justice system to represent the law in the protection of our civil rights. I hope this starts a much-needed conversation and validates the experiences of many survivors who suffer silently. There is much more to say on the issue of sexual assault and trauma. The marathon continues.
For confidential help regarding rape or sexual trauma call The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). For 24/7 online access visit online.rainn.org.
Featured photo: Michaela Coel/I May Destroy You/HBO
Shanique Perez is the Mom of two elementary-school-aged sons. She is a college student with a Journalism and Public Relations concentration. She has been writing, editing, and proofreading for over six years. Her previous career in recruiting and client retention has sharpened her outreach and public speaking skills. She has written resumes and cover letters for clients. Shanique was born in New York City and the self-identified Afro-Latina American is of African American, Puerto Rican, and Panamanian descent. Shanique Perez grew up in Southeast, Washington, D.C, and attended The Madeira School in McLean, Virginia where her innate ability to communicate through writing evolved into a tool for political, social, and economic activism. She lived in Houston, Texas for six years before relocating back to D.C. after Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017.