When discussing a timeline of the anti-sexual violence movement, many people refer to second wave feminism and women’s liberation in the 1960s and ‘70s as the beginning of movement. It is true that many hallmarks of the movement occurred during these years, including the founding of early rape crisis centers. It also led to subsequent federal laws and budget allocations that codified the necessity of rape crisis centers as important community resources.
While these decades saw significant milestones in bringing attention to the issue of sexual violence, the roots of the movement extend much further back. Sexual violence has long been recognized as a problem by Black women, and one that intersects inextricably with race. However, due to the structural privileging of white identities and narratives, the intersecting history of race and anti-sexual violence activism often goes untold in mainstream United States history.
Before rape crisis centers existed as a cornerstone of community response and services, Rosa Parks initiated a bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat. This was a significant boon to racial equality activists and helped spur on the Civil Rights Movement. However, her action was taken primarily in response to the sexual violence against Recy Taylor by a group of white men.
Before that, Black women advocated on issues of injustice inherent to Jim Crow policies. Black men were constantly portrayed as perpetrators of rape against white women, leading to vigilantism and extra-judicial retribution, whereas white perpetrators of Black women were rarely held accountable for their actions.
Before that, Black women faced the intersection of sexual and racial violence during slavery. Social norms of the time identified women as the property of their husbands, and legal precedent labelled slaves as the property of their white owners. Laws overlooked men’s perpetration of sexual violence against their wives (and continued to do so until the 1990s), and hardly acknowledged white perpetration of sexual violence against female slaves.
Early in the history of the United States — far before the second wave of feminism — Black women recognized the intersection of sexual violence and racial oppression because they lived it on a daily basis. This history is often not told because those same systems of privilege and oppression that existed during the formation of our country have continued to define and narrate the history that students learn in classrooms, viewers consume in mainstream media, and society as a whole accepts without further question. Now is the time to question those stories. Centuries ago would have been better, but we have to at least start where we are.
Conversations about sexual violence can’t occur without also acknowledging racial violence. The two are inextricably linked throughout history and by current intersections of race, class, gender, and all other aspects of identity that carry privilege or oppression. As Indigenous rights activist Lilla Watson so beautifully stated, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Dismantling sexual violence doesn’t mean addressing the surface of the issue by adopting a colorblind approach of “this impacts all of us” (or class-blind or ability-blind, or any other identity). Sexual violence has roots in racial violence, just as racial violence has roots in sexual violence. Effectively ending sexual violence requires adopting a critically aware racial perspective to understand the roots and intersections among racism, sexual violence, and all other forms of oppression.
Natalie Ziemba is our Crisis Response Coordinator. She manages the Center’s 24-Hour Help Line, oversees our volunteer Companions, coordinates the Orange County SART, bakes delicious cookies, and more.