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Field lessons from reporting on black women survivors of sexual violence

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Field lessons from reporting on black women survivors of sexual violence

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This project is the most challenging work I’ve done so far in my career, but not for the reasons I expected.

When my editor first told me about the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship, the issue of sexual assault was bubbling up in the media again. I could sense that this time, the conversation would be different. As expanded access to public dialogue via the Internet converged with new waves of feminism and social justice, I could see that more people than ever before would listen, think critically, and stare into the faces of this issue.

I wanted to make sure some of those faces would be black.

According to Justice Department statistics, one in five black women are rape survivors; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 22 percent of black men have experienced sexual violence other than rape.

While sexual violence is universal, there are countless filters through which it is processed. My five-part series examined some of the filters at work in the black community. Many cultural considerations can hinder healing for black women survivors: the burdensome expectation of strong black womanhood; the power of the black church; the desire to shield black men; and the lack of self-care examples are all real dynamics black women survivors endure.

The easiest part of the project was connecting to experts who were all excited that someone was talking about these nuances. Finding non-expert survivors who were willing to talk, though, was more of a challenge than I expected.

Although survivors are all around us, it’s simply not the kind of subject that lends itself to a cold call or man-on-the-street interview. Crisis centers, hotlines, and individual service providers no longer help facilitate this kind of public disclosure, even in the name of breaking the silence. People repeatedly told me that in the past, despite full consent and good intentions, the experience too often re-traumatized their clients. I tried an anonymous online survey, trackable links to said survey, flyers, and message boards (physical and virtual). None of that worked, either.

Ultimately, the best way to find survivors was through word-of-mouth. I also found survivors by seeking people who are already bursting to tell their stories. People are already sharing their journeys through personal blogging, social media, open mic nights — all they need is the opportunity to fully tell their story.

I expected talking to survivors to be hard, and painful. And it was, in the sense that my subjects are people — they could be my aunts, or big sisters, or me — and it was terrible to hear them unearth these traumas in grave tones, and even more terrible that these traumas happened at all.

Only, it wasn’t hard at all. As a journalist and as a person, there’s something therapeutic about being entrusted with someone’s personal rock bottom, and being a vessel for their story. There’s something therapeutic and powerful about standing with someone in his or her pain. And these women didn’t know it, but just by trusting me in that way, they were standing with me in my own black hole — by then, I was about six months in to a sudden and relentless depression.

I will always remember one of the subjects telling me that one reason it took her so long to tell someone is that she felt pleasure during her rape. Our conversation was obviously not the first time she had told someone she was raped; but in an uncharacteristically quiet preface, she told me it was the first time she had ever spoken this detail aloud, to herself or to anyone. I will always remember the break in another woman’s voice as she talked about being a product of rape; and I’ll remember her simple “thank you” after a commenter on that article invited her to a support group for children of rape.

It was an honor to talk to these women.

While the series would be nothing without them, they were not the only component in making this series matter. Here are some insights for anyone working on a large-scale series:

Call for back-up as early as possible, and be as specific as possible with requests. A solo writer may be able to crank out the articles on his or her own, but he or she will need help with innumerable related tasks and necessities along the way, some of them unforeseeable. Even having the opportunity to kick ideas around is helpful. Try to carve out time to think about your needs, because others can only help so far as you can explain your needs.

Think of promotion as its own project. Tell people what you are working on, even if it’s unclear if they would be interested or able to assist. Ask if they are interested in seeing the finished project. Be strategic and proactive. Take the time to plan out how this project will be promoted or publicized. It’s better to take that time at the start of the work.

Watch your time. Diving deep into a subject will likely take longer and require more effort than initially imagined — and on areas you aren’t expecting to have difficulty.

• Don’t reinvent the wheel. Chances are, someone out there has at least laid some groundwork on the topic. Align yourself with these people or groups; they will likely become your biggest cheerleaders. Some of the resources I used include: “NO! The Rape Documentary” by Aishah Shahidah Simmons; “I Will Survive: The African American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse” by Lori S. Robinson; data and expert input from the Black Women’s Blueprint; the Bureau of Justice Statistics and its National Crime Victimization Surveys; the CDC, and more.

Rape and other forms of sexual assault and abuse are still sensitive subjects wrought with high emotions and dire consequences for everyone involved. Any series on the topic comes with its own considerations.

The primary issue with rape cases is veracity. In so many cases, there are no objective means to prove or disprove events. If you are not in a position to verify the allegations, focus on the person telling his or her experience and the aftermath, without including identifying details of others.

Rape, sexual assault and abuse are social and public health problems, not women’s issues — the conversation cannot be had without men. It is hard to find male survivors (who are not also experts or activists) who are willing to speak about this topic on the record and without anonymity. I kept hoping to include a male survivor — and it almost happened — but it didn’t pan out. On the other side of the coin, a host of small studies conducted over the decades have found that never-charged people will admit to committing sexual assault, but only if the asker doesn’t refer to them as a rapist, abuser, or predator. That said, such men are likely not willing to associate themselves with a public project that talks about rape in bald terms.

To include male voices, I spoke to black men who are activists and/or partnered with a survivor.

I am proud of these articles and the above-average visibility they received, but I hope someone will continue to talk about this issue and build upon it, particularly in communities of color. I noticed, for example, that there is very little data on sexual violence among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and I doubt that this lack of data stems from a lack of incidence. There are many avenues that still need exploring, including: sexual predators themselves, prison rape, incest, and the voices of male rape and sexual assault and abuse survivors. Additionally, many projects spotlight survivors and are personal in nature; but it could also be useful for a series to frame the issue as a systemic problem involving poor protocols, inadequate information, harmful socialization norms, and individual moral failures.

If I can be of use to anyone interested in writing about this topic, feel free to email me at contactjazelle [AT] There is still so much left to say.

[Photo by GovernmentZA via Flickr.]


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