Earlier this year, researchers from the University of California at Santa Clara released some startling statistics: 90 percent of all young girls had been sexually harassed in school. The harassment included receiving unwanted romantic attention and physical contact, hearing demeaning gender-related comments, and being teased, bullied or threatened with harm. What’s even more disturbing?: That young girls of color and those who live in lower socio-economic areas reported higher rates of this type of treatment.
This information may shock some folks, but not Jody Miller, PhD. For almost two decades, the criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis has studied how sexual abuse and violence affect African-American youth. In her new book, Getting Played: African American Girls, Urban Inequality, and Gendered Violence (NYU Press, $22), Miller reveals her experiences on the streets of St. Louis and discusses the social, cultural and economic connections she uncovered.
We sat down with the educator and author to discuss what she discovered, the undervaluing of black female bodies and what we can do to change it.
Real Health: Why did you conduct this research?
Jody Miller: In the mid-’90s, my dissertation was about young women and gangs, which turned into a book. What I found in that research was that young women experienced a lot of [sexual] victimization in the context of their neighborhood and their gang involvement. I wanted to expand beyond the victimization of just girls who are in gangs. And I was also interested in this work because so little had been done on it in terms of black women.
So much research about sexual violence and abuse has focused on white women. Why have women of color, especially black women, been ignored?
Part of it is racial inequality and the way that research is conceptualized. This situation is also partially influenced by how public opinion conceptualizes who is allowed to be a victim and who we should be concerned about and protect. [Historically, especially during slavery] black women have not been allowed to be called “victims” and have not been protected.
Also, when criminologists and researchers fight against the demonization and the stereotyping of young black men for their participation in crimes of violence against women, politically, this is potentially troubling. But the argument that I make is that by choosing not to write about this means that young black women are virtually ignored and there is danger in that.
I know that it was important for you to illuminate the abuse that young black women face, but not to demonize black men in the process. Why?
It was important to make that distinction because in the United States, when we deal with social problems, we tend to prefer an individual explanation for problematic behavior. We prefer to blame the individual and call him a bad person instead of investigating the social factors. I wanted my work to be different.
What major themes did you discover?
First, victimization is extremely widespread among young women living in urban America, especially in impoverished communities. There is no doubt that there was a lot of abuse—rape, molestation, harassment and physical violence. And as with most rape crimes, a majority of the women did not report it to the authorities. What young women did do was create strategies to ensure that it didn’t happen again. For example, they would not drink at a party, lose sight of a drink so something could be slipped into it, go to a man’s house alone, etc.
In terms of harassment, there is no definitive solution in terms of addressing it. If a woman doesn’t respond to it, she’s labeled; if she responds to it, she might attract advances. It’s a catch-22.
What else did you find?
I found that witnessing violent acts had a huge impact on the rise of violence among black youth—it can influence whether someone becomes a victimizer or a victim. This was very striking to me, especially when talking about violence against women. There is this assumption from researchers that it is a private matter and happens behind closed doors. These young people had seen a lot of violence against women. And the messages young people were given from their peers and by adults in the community led to a lot of it being downplayed. In fact, some young women who witnessed really brutal acts thought it was funny. But the good news is, despite having done so, they still were very ambivalent about those reactions. Women who laughed later said, “We shouldn’t have laughed, we should have done something, and we should have helped.”
I also found that young women don’t have institutionalized resources to go to for help, but neither do young men. It’s like a layering effect; gender inequality layered on racial inequality creates a circumstance where kids have no ability to address all sorts of issues.
And if there are resources, then women don’t trust them. That’s the same way they feel about the police. Most of their experiences with the police were negative. As a result, young people don’t go to the police when they’re victimized. There was one story in the book about a young girl who was raped by a neighbor and her best friend was pushing her to call the police. But when the police showed up, the friend disappeared. Later on, we find out that the police [officer] taking the call had raped the best friend.
That’s really disturbing. What about harassment in school?
It was a major problem in St. Louis schools, which in many ways represent a number of school districts in urban areas. Urban schools are underfunded and poorly managed, and officials are concerned with guns and gangs—not the victimization of young women. In general, this lack of concern is more widespread. As a culture, we downplay the seriousness of sexual harassment. The attitude seems to be, what are we going to do, expel all the boys? That doesn’t help the community or society.
Then what are the solutions if blaming the individual is not the best approach?
As I said, we need police accountability. We need safety in schools and for schools to partner with agencies to deal with this issue. In school, a larger strategy could be to instill in boys more empathy for women and also find ways for boys and girls to relate to each other in ways that aren’t only sexual.
Also, it is crucial for the community to speak out and empower young women. Chicago’s Rogers Park Women’s Action team has organized an initiative against street harassment and other issues. The key to effecting change is getting people to challenge the behavior, but that is not all it will take to solve the problem. Broader issues need to be addressed, and we need to address gender inequality as well as racial [inequality] in the community and how social structures and other factors influence those inequalities.
Are you a sexual abuse survivor? For help and resources, please contact the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
What are other young people around the country doing about street harassment and sexual violence? Read RH’s “Doin’ It for Themselves” to find out.