A recurring column exploring various statistics related to sexual wellness, mental health, and substance use at Colorado College, brought to you in collaboration with the Wellness Resource Center.
Of reported rapes, this is the percentage reported by white women, according to the organization End Rape on Campus. Though white women report at higher rates, most studies indicate that women of color experience sexual violence at higher rates than white women, with Black women experiencing the second highest rates of violence after Native American women. Trans women of color experience the highest levels of sexual violence of any racial group.
This is important because, while we know all sexual violence is drastically underreported — in fact, it is often estimated to be the most underreported crime — this is particularly so in communities of color. The disproportionate racial disparities in reporting rates of gender-based violence reflect the impact of intersecting systems of oppression on women of color. Particularly, this figure exposes the legal system as a mechanism through which intersectional oppressions are produced and maintained.
The connection between sexual violence and race is actually deeply codified within our country’s legal history. One might begin by looking at the year 1681, when, according to Jacqueline Battalora, author of “Birth of a White Nation,” white people were first recognized legally as a distinct racial group within U.S. law. In fact, the first time the word “white” appeared in reference to race was in a Maryland anti-miscegenation law, prohibiting “white women” from marrying men of African descent.
Battalora writes that this anti-miscegenation law “was followed by a slew of laws in Virginia that imposed the category [white], worked to give it clear meaning, and simultaneously transformed colonial society. These laws created an entirely new bottom to society and tossed people of African descent and members of Native Tribes down in it.” While these laws did not advance the wealth of white laborers, it did give them “authority to rule over those excluded from whiteness and the power to treat them however badly they wished without threat of prosecution.”
This law is just one access point through which we can see the emergence of disturbing trends that have been perpetuated into modernity — for example, controlling white female sexuality through sanctity and villainizing and perverting Black men. While this law is an indication of violence against white women in its assertion of control over their bodies, it is also, perversely, a recognition of their worth. Protecting white women against violence is historically, though problematically, validated in our legal system, in a way that protecting women of color is not.
With an average of one in five women experiencing rape or attempted rape within her lifetime, rape culture undeniably persists. However, even as sexual violence becomes more widely recognized in today’s culture, the nuances of how gender-based oppression relates to racial oppression continue to be too-often obfuscated by generalizations that apply exclusively to white women. Ultimately, though, these systems are inextricable, and attempting to address one without the others will be self-defeating.