The Sociocultural Context of African American and White American Women's Rape

Reviewed by
Priscilla Schulz, LCSW

from an article of the same title by:

Gail Elizabeth Wyatt, University of California, Los Angeles

Journal of Social Issues, V. 48 (1), 77-91, 1992

What questions does this study address?
Successful recovery from sexual assault can be affected by how victims perceive the experience, whom they blame for the assault and what expectations they have about how others will judge them. For African American women, America's long history of slavery may have a lingering effect on their attitudes about rape and their right to be protected. To date, research on rape has not taken into account the effects of history and culture in women's response to rape. This study addresses these issues by asking:

Does America's 250-year history of the sexual exploitation of slaves influence the response of African American women today to rape and sexual abuse?

How are the consequences of rape different for African American and White women?

As early as 1660 in Colonial America laws encouraged the "sexual tyranny" of African American slaves by slave owners to enhance owners' economic and social gain. Slave owners especially victimized African American women; offspring from the rape of African American women slaves by slave owners increased slave populations and owners' holdings. Moral justification for the sexual oppression and exploitation of African American slaves stemmed from 15th century Christian missionary attitudes that vilified the "sexual appetite" of Africans. Stereotypes about male African American sexual prowess and the sexual promiscuity of female African Americans linger to this day. Until slavery was abolished, African American slaves had no legal recourse for rape. After slavery, the American legal system treated the rape of African American and White women differently; African American women's sexual assaults were not taken as seriously.

How was the study conducted?
Based on reported histories of sexual abuse, 55 female subjects were selected from a stratified probability sample of 248 African American and White women between the ages of 18 and 36 in Los Angeles County, California. Study participants had similar incomes and educational backgrounds. During the selection process, all 248 women responded to the Wyatt Sex History Questionnaire (WSHQ), a 478-item structured interview that assessed subjects' experiences and consequences of past and current sexual abuse. At the end of this one- to two-hour structured interview, women were asked four questions to determine whether they had experienced sexual abuse since age 18. Researchers read a definition of rape that defined it as the "involuntary penetration of the vagina or anus by the penis or another object." Fifty-five of the 248 study participants admitted to such sexual victimization. Each of the 55 sexual assault survivors were then asked more detailed questions about each incident. During this part of the interview, researchers discovered that many rape victims were uncertain about whether to label their experiences as rape, especially if their assailant had been a friend or relative. For the purpose of this study, however, all incidents of involuntary sexual experience, whether perpetrated by friend, relative or stranger, were counted as rape.

What were the study's findings?

The effect of race on prevalence and type of sexual assault

There were no significant differences in prevalence or types of sexual assault between African American and White subjects. Altogether, subjects reported more acquaintance rape; African American women in the study tended to report more stranger rape than White subjects.

The effect of race on patterns of disclosure of sexual assault

  1. African American subjects were significantly less likely than their White counterparts to have disclosed incidents of sexual assault prior to the present study.
  2. Few African American (23%) and similarly few White victims (31%) had reported their sexual assaults to police or rape centers. African American women were slightly more likely to have withheld reports of attempted rape from authorities.
  3. African American women victims reported slightly less support when they disclosed their assaults to a confidant than White victims reported receiving.

    Race and the impact of sexual assault on victims

  1. African American subjects were significantly more likely than White subjects to blame their living circumstances for placing them at risk for victimization.
  2. African American subjects tended to be the victims of repeated sexual assaults slightly more often than White subjects. This has implications for recovery from rape.
  3. White victims of sexual assault were significantly more likely than African American victims to engage in a broad range of sexual behaviors including oral and anal sex, extramarital affairs, many sex partners and short-term sexual relationships.
  4. African American subjects were significantly more likely than White subjects to have heard sexual and racial stereotypes regarding what kinds of women are likely to be raped. This may indicate that society conveys stereotypes about rape to African Americans more than to Whites.

Related issues and recommendations

  1. Rape prevention efforts should focus on the effects of poverty on rape. Many girls and women live in environments that both place them at risk for being victimized, and interfere with their access to services after victimization. Barriers to safety and services, and ways to minimize risk need to be addressed with groups at highest risk, specifically, poor communities of ethnic minorities.
  2. Part of the unwillingness of African American victims in this study to disclose incidents of rape is the perceived lack of community and societal support for their experiences. Inequity in the prosecution of rape against African American victims supports this perception.
  3. Regardless of ethnicity, sexual assault has serious consequences for victims, including mental illness, increased risk for sexually transmitted disease, and marital discord.
  4. In this study some African American subjects recounted stories of rape of ancestors during slavery. Such histories suggest that some African American women may not have a notion that they deserve and will be protected from assault. In psychological treatment of rape survivors, clinicians should consider the personal-historical context of rape when exploring the meaning of the assault and when challenging trauma driven thoughts.
  5. Continued efforts are needed to educate law enforcement, health and mental health professionals about racial issues in the prevention, prosecution and treatment of rape.

Reviewed by Priscilla Schulz, December 1999

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