Underreporting of Rape in Minority Communities


Every year in the United States, there are about 207, 754 victims of sexual assault. 97% of rapists will never spend one day in jail. 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced a sexual assault in their lifetime. Every 2 minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. These frightening statistics demonstrate the scope of sexual violence in the United States, and each one leads to one of the most shocking, that for every 100 sexual assaults, roughly 54 go unreported. On college campuses, where sexual assault rates climb as high as 1 in 4 women having experienced assault, studies have shown that 95% of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported[1] (http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims). An oppressive culture of victim-blaming, fear of the perpetrator, and the sensitive nature of sexual assault prevent all victims from reporting the crimes committed against them to local or campus authorities. For minority groups and women of color in particular, there are very different social challenges incurred when reporting an incidence of rape.  As racial minorities have experienced a long history of racism and sexual exploitation in the United States, sexual crimes against women of color have been normalized and offensive racial and gender stereotypes have steadily facilitated the oppression of minorities using sexual violence as a tool.

Before exploring the intersection of race and gender as it relates to sexual violence, it’s important to define the similarities between rape and racism. Both ugly phenomena oppress victims with power, dominance, and control: rapist and racists alike involve one “dominant” party to suppress the rights of a “weaker” party using coercion and/or violence. Both promote myth rather than fact by playing upon incorrect stereotypes, such as “she was asking for it” or “black men are criminals”. Both are furthered by silence that is masked by fear of rebuttal and backlash, and both have played a very significant role in the formative history of our nation. (http://www.uncfsp.org/projects/userfiles/File/DCE-STOP_NOW/Racism_and_Rape.pdf)[2]

Here is a chart of the lifetime rape/attempted rape rate for women, by race.

All women: 17.6%
White women: 17.7%
Black women: 18.8%
Asian Pacific Islander women: 6.8%
American Indian/Alaskan women: 34.1%
Mixed race women: 24.4%[3]


Clear from this breakdown is that Native American women are raped at the highest rate, followed by mixed race women. Black women are raped at a slightly higher rate than white women, and Asian American women are raped at the lowest rate, at 6.8%. However, these figures could be underestimated by the stereotypes that contribute to underreporting such as the myth of the wild, sexual black “Jezebel” or the submissive, deserving Asian woman.[4] (http://www.safercampus.org/blog/2009/10/race-and-rape-keeping-racism-out-of-your-campaign/)

While there isn’t extensive research as to the reporting rates of Asians or Hispanics, there have been several studies regarding the racial implications of reporting for Native American and African American rape victims. The intertwined sexual and racial experience of both groups plays an important role in the way others perceive survivors and perpetrators of these races, which affects reporting rates and the healing journey of victims of these races. Both the experiences of African American women and Native American women have been consistent with the theory of “rapability”, the extent to which a person’s rape is considered a legitimate act of violence or simply a casual encounter of which a weak, insignificant person was dominated. [5]

As slaves both in the fields and within the home, African-American women were considered less virtuous and “eliciting” of institutional sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape for which perpetrators – often the victims’ owners – faced virtually no penalties for their behaviors. After federal US laws began to prohibit importations of Africans, slave-owners systematically raped black women in order to produce more slaves for the now-depleted “workforce”. Even as America transitioned into a post-slavery era, black men accused of raping white women were often executed or heavily punished while the rapes of African-American women went virtually unnoticed.[6] Today, studies have shown that if the victim of rape is an African-American woman, the sentence for the assailant will be lighter than the sentence given to the assailant of a white woman. In 1989, immediately after the infamous rape of the Central Park Jogger, a white woman that worked on Wall Street, a nameless black woman was raped and forced to jump from a twenty-one story building, and received barely any of the media attention that was so fixated on the minority youths wrongly accused of raping the Jogger. Both attacks were equally as violent and horrifying, yet received vastly variant degrees of attention from the media.[7] (http://www.nytimes.com/1989/05/29/nyregion/in-week-of-an-infamous-rape-28-other-victims-suffer.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm)

Native American/American Indian women have also been subjected to a violent, oppressive sexual identity as defined by other “dominant” genders and races. From America’s beginnings came the mass rapes of thousands of Native American women at the hands of Christopher Columbus and other North American explorers that “raped and pillaged” their way into conquering the new found land. Research amongst Native American survivors has shown that an attack, sexual or otherwise, is an attack on his or her identity as a Native. From many colonial narratives, it has been established that colonists considered all Native people to be far from “real” people and deserving of murder and mistreatment. Native woman specifically experienced brutal rape as a result of the colonial perceptions that Native bodies were considered “polluted with sexual sin”, “dirty”, and “sexually violable”. [8]

Also essential to the Native American sexual experience is legal boundaries that have existed between victims and their perpetrators. Although 80% of sexual assaults against Native women are committed by a non-Native man or husband, tribal courts do not have jurisdiction to try non-Native Americans without specific authorization from Congress. With this in mind, sexual predators frequent Native American reservations, especially during hunting season; there’s virtually no action that a tribal court can take against a perpetrator of sexual violence that is a non-Native American. This violent freedom most definitely contributes to the high rate of sexual violence perpetrated against Native American women[9](http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/opinion/native-americans-and-the-violence-against-women-act.html). However, this unjust power dynamic has shifted since the passage of the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which empowers tribal courts to use their jurisdiction to prosecute for against non-Native American people that perpetrate domestic violence against Native people[10] (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/03/07/president-signs-2013-vawa-empowering-tribes-protect-native-women).

The stereotypes of minority women alluded to previously within this article have also prevailed throughout history as strongly contributing to the underreporting of minority rape. The perception of minority women as “rapeable” and minority men as “angry” or “violent” is perpetrated by the following stereotypes that further oppress these already-marginalized communities. For example, the “Jezebel” stereotype dictates that black women are sexually promiscuous, immoral, and always desire sexual advances. This image is especially reinforced in portrayals of black women “jiggling and gyrating” in rap and hip-hop music videos. Also known by names like “hoochie”, “freak”, and “hoodrat”, “Jezebels” are portrayed as women that can’t possibly be raped as they are consistently exposing their bodies in an explicitly sexual way. Our communities are less inclined to accept that a woman, especially a black woman, is capable of simultaneously expressing her sexuality and being raped. Stereotypes that accompany black men – that they are “sex-crazed” “violent” and “criminals” have reinforced the racist notions that all rapists are black men. Because of the police brutality and racial profiling that black men have experienced, it may be incredibly difficult for a black woman to bring more negative attention upon the black community by reporting a rape by a black man. The statistics corroborate this dilemma: for every one white woman that reports her rape, five do not; for every black woman that reports her rape, fifteen do not[11].

“Intra-racial rape can feel like a rift between a woman and her people. The survivor is cast into silence not so much a by a desire to protect those men who perpetrated, but to protect the black men in her life who she loves, respects and trusts[12].” (http://www.theroot.com/views/rape-and-race-we-have-talk-about-it)

A prime example of this would be the 1991 Mike Tyson rape case. The case was fraught with racial stereotypes that portrayed Mike Tyson as “oversexed, prone to violent and aggressive behavior, and dumb as a brick wall”, the quintessential “Black rapist” and Desiree Washington, the sexually promiscuous “Jezebel” that should have expected the rape and for whom the rape couldn’t have been as traumatic as it would have been for a white woman.[13]

“In effect Fuller (Tyson’s defense attorney) was saying to the jury: Tyson is your worst nightmare – a vulgar, socially inept, sex-obsessed black athlete. And any woman who would voluntarily enter a hotel suite with him must have known what she as getting into. In other words, both principals were animals – the black men for the crudity of his sexual demands, the black woman for eagerly acceding to them.”

Another example of the racism that compliments accusations of rape against black men would be the Rosewood, Florida massacre of 1920. A black man that lived near Rosewood was accused of raping a white woman in a neighboring town, and the entire village was burned down by an angry mob who pursued the people living in the town for a whole week until they were all killed or had escaped by train. The town of Rosewood is now completely destroyed and serves as a tragic memory of the consequences of a white woman accusing a black man of rape. (http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/davidson/arch%20of%20aa%20life%20and%20culture/Week%2011-14/Dye,%20Historian%20Vol%2058(3)%20Spring%201996.pdf)

Native American women have faced similar stereotypes that have oppressed them from reporting their rapes and created an unequal power dynamic in courts that undervalue their rapes in court. Similar to black women, Native American women have been portrayed as “property”, promiscuous, and immoral; therefore, their rapes weren’t/aren’t valued the same way white women’s rapes were/are. Rooted in this stereotype is that face that women of color have historically worked outside the home and therefore are viewed as “unchaste” because their presence in the outside world, opposed to staying at home with the children, implied they were “accessible’ and inviting sexual advances.

These perceptions of race and rape are still prevalent today, and prevent all genders and races from receiving the protection and justice from courts they deserve as Americans. In order to fight these incorrect portrayals of race, it is critical that we change our own personal prejudices regarding race and rape and equalize prevention and response efforts for all races.

[1] “Statistics.” Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. RAINN, n.d. Web. 11 July
2013. <http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/

[2] “How Are They Connected?” Racism and Rape. Men Stopping Rape, n.d. Web. 11 July
2013. <http://www.uncfsp.org/projects/userfiles/File/DCE-STOP_NOW/

[3] “Statistics.” Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. RAINN, n.d. Web. 11 July
2013. <http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/

[4] “Race and Rape: Keeping Racism Out of Your Campaign.” SAFER. Students Active For
Ending Rape, n.d. Web. 11 July 2013. <http://www.safercampus.org/blog/

[5] Olive, Victoria C. “Sexual Assault against Women of Color.” Journal of Student
Research 1 (2012): 1-9. Print.

[6] Olive, Victoria C. “Sexual Assault against Women of Color.” Journal of Student
Research 1 (2012): 1-9. Print.

[7] In Week of an Infamous Rape, 28 Other Victims Suffer [New York City] 29 May
1989. New York Times. Web. 11 July 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/1989/05/

[8] Olive, Victoria C. “Sexual Assault against Women of Color.” Journal of Student
Research 1 (2012): 1-9. Print.

[9] Erdrich, Louise. “Rape on the Reservation.” The Opinion Pages. The New York
Times, n.d. Web. 11 July 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/

[10] Gillette, Jodi, and Charlie Galbraith. “President Signs 2013 VAWA – Empowering
Tribes to Protect Native Women.” The White House President Barack Obama.
The White House, n.d. Web. 11 July 2013. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/

[11] West, Carolyn. “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls: Developing an
‘Oppositional Gaze’ Toward the Images of Black Women.” Dr. Carolyn West.
Carolyn West, n.d. Web. 11 July 2013. <http://www.drcarolynwest.com/

[12] “Race and Rape: Keeping Racism Out of Your Campaign.” SAFER. Students Active For
Ending Rape, n.d. Web. 11 July 2013. <http://www.safercampus.org/blog/

[13] Burrell, Darci. “Myth, Stereotype, and the Rape of Black Women.” UCLA Women’s
Law Journal 4.1 (1993): n. pag. Print.


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