The experience of Black girls in relation to child sexual exploitation (CSE) and sexual violence is limited within research, policy and services in the UK. For example, policy and debates around CSE in the England primarily focus on White girls as victims and Asian men as perpetrators. Black girls, more specifically Black British Caribbean, typically do not fit the archetype for a victim, and as such are underrepresented within statistics and research.
This essay aims to highlight the multifaceted, racialised and gendered assumptions – such as hypersexualisation, adultification and sexual scripts, how they shape the experiences of Black girls and how they are positioned within society. Drawing from professional practice, theoretical concepts and annual reports, it will review systematic oppression within the education and justice system, examining how biases and oppression are experienced by Black British (Caribbean) girls. It will explore the disparity of funding for projects that work primarily with males and make recommendations for how funding could be used to help young Black females.
The essay concludes with recommendations and implications for practitioners and services working with young people. Additionally, it introduces youth work as a potential solution due to the trusted, voluntary and informal nature of the relationships between youth workers and young people.
Sexual violence and child sexual exploitation of girls and young women has been at the forefront of much political debate over the last decade. Sexual violence can be defined as any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work (WHO, 2012).
Coercive behaviour/control is the act of persuading someone to do something using threats, humiliation, intimidation and assault. It was only recently made illegal in England and Wales through the introduction of the Serious Crime Act 2015. The key focus of political debate has been around child sexual exploitation – a form of child sexual abuse, with White girls/young women as victims and Asian men as the perpetrators.
Child sexual exploitation is a type of abuse where a child or young person receives gifts, money and/or affection as a result of sexual activity. It is a process of grooming resulting in young people being coerced into believing they are in a loving, consensual relationship. In some cases, gang members enter relationships with young women, who are often controlled, coerced and sexually abused, in order to secure a location for drugs, weapons and money to be stored. These young women would be viewed as victims of CSE – or should be.
Understanding the multi-faceted identities of the Black female is vital – intersectionality. That is how race, gender, age, class and other identities, intersect to shape the reality of Black females and the role this plays in their increased vulnerabilities and risks to various forms of domestic and sexual violence (Crenshaw, 1994; Paik, 2009 & 2017).
Crenshaw and other writers Black (British) feminists have argued that experiences and lives cannot be separated from the distinct identities of race, gender, sexual orientation and class (Crenshaw and Ritchie, 2015; Collins, 2015; hooks 2015; Mirza, 1997; Weekes, 2002).
The way these identities overlap depend on the context and situation, as violence against Black women is more than a problem of sexism; but is more about oppression through racism and sexism combined as well as their socio-economic status which for many residing in the inner city is working class – classism (Brownmiller, 1979; French, 2012; Collins, 2000). It is essential to keep this in mind when talking about sexual violence and Black (young) women.
Throughout history, globally, Black girl/women have been subjected to an excruciating amount of violence. They have primarily been viewed as assets to the male – sexual products, used for financial profit, the pleasure of the White slave master and then a domestic worker (Collins, 2004).
Black women have continuously received the message that they are incapable of being raped, cast with a duty to fulfil the sexual desire and fantasies of not only the White man but their Black male counterparts (French, 2012; hooks, 2004).
Being mindful not to make sexual violence a ‘Black issue’ however, as demonstrated literature and documented history proves that Black women are and have been disproportionately affected by this form of violence. Yet, the wider society, the support services/organisations, policy and debates again do not reflect this. By applying a critical race lens (Crenshaw et al., 1996) to the subject focusing on how the cultural and structural impact the personal experiences of Black girls and women we will be able to see the challenges they face as they navigate the sexual scripts and stereotypes which they are assigned (Thompsons PCS Model). We will see not only the effects of racism but more so colonialism and patriarchy.
Black British feminists who once worked with survivors in the 1970/80s moved away to east/west Africa and the Caribbean where they found that Black women faced the same issues, if not worse – colonialism being the focus as opposed to racism (Wilson, 2016).
DHSSPSNI (2008) provide a model demonstrating a wider concept of CSE when applied to young people (see inset). For many girls and young women their attitude to sexual violence is ‘it’s wrong… but you get used to it’ (Beckett et al, 2013), ‘it’s not right but what can you do’ (Coy et al 2013). For Black girls/young women this attitude is complex and multifaceted.
There are a variety of contributing factors and concepts which make this attitude crippling to the personal, emotional, social and sexual development. Her concept of self-worth is shaped by wider society – being historically and currently still subjected to sexual violence. Their body is hyper-sexualised and fetishized, and they must navigate a series of historical and contemporary sexual scripts and stereotypes and attitudes towards victimisation due to the silenced discourse in the Black community and barriers to reporting/help-seeking.
The Black female body has been hypersexualised and objectified for centuries, fetishized – again not only by the White man but their male counterparts. This is commonly experienced by young Black females from an early age and is enhanced as their body begins to develop (The Receipts Podcast, 2020; Ntinu, 2017). Many Black girls/adolescence result to adjusting their clothing – wearing loose fitting clothes to conceal their curves, in an attempt to reduce unwanted attention in the form of stares, inappropriate comments and sexual advances – sexual harassment from their peers and grown men over twice their age. These experiences are not only from strangers but from often trusted adults, family members and friends, another taboo subject.
‘Breaking the silence’ brings light to the prevalence of child sexual abuse (CSA) in the Caribbean with 42.8% (#2291) of participants that disclosed they were sexually active (#5352) experiencing their encounter of sexual intercourse before the age of 10 (Reid, Reddock and Nickenig, 2014).
The article also on incest, ‘any such interaction with a close relative or anyone perceived as a close relative that Is committed to secrecy’. English speaking Caribbean participants described incest as any relationship between an older relative and children under the age of consent. Special consideration also to kinship ties to local extended family structures (Barrow, 1999; The Children’s Commissioner 2015).
Social norms and representation of Black females within the media through all mediums from music videos and lyrics to drama/reality tv, movies, advertisements and social media shape not only how society view the Black female but also her own concept of self and self- worth. To go even further modern society and the increased use of aesthetic and cosmetic treatments which see both men and women getting lip fillers and other treatments resulting in the natural genetic features of the Black female. The ideal body today resembles the natural make up and what was once the exact reason Saartije ‘Sara(h)’ Baartman was captured, exploited or ‘exhibited’ at freak shows across Europe in the 19th century.
Sexual scripts both historical and contemporary serve as a blueprint to Black female sexuality and a major area for young girls to navigate along with sexual coercion (Collin, 1990; French, 2012; hooks, 2015). Serving as conceptual framework by Simon and Gagnon (1994), sexual scripts place sexual behaviour with cultural, interpersonal and intrapsychic forces.
They are racialised, gendered and pervasive. The general perception being that Black females are sexually promiscuous, hypersexual, seductive and manipulative – the ‘jezebel’. If not the jezebel then often the ‘freak’, who is sexually aggressive and loves sex without emotional attachment or the ‘gold digger’ who trades sex for economic reward with sex being their most powerful commodity. Once she enters motherhood it is the ‘baby mama’, occasionally accused of manipulating pregnancy to create a permanent bond with the father – also known as trapping.
Other sexual scripts include the ‘Mammy’, ‘Sister Saviour’, Earth mother’, ‘dyke’, ‘diva’ and ‘gangster bitch’. And I would go even further to add the modern day ‘side chick’.
These sexual scripts are internalised by Black girls from an early age and you will see a representation of each of them on television, film and music.
The entrance of Black females into a racialised and patriarchal culture was not and has not been readily accepted and still requires negotiation of male values and attitudes towards women – ‘presented as sexual whose primary role is for male pleasure; men are thus depicted with greater agency and control (Stephens and Few, 2007, pp.60) This raises the issue of respectability politics and Black sexual politics (Collins, 2000; Hines, 1989) both culturally and structurally.
From as early as 5 years old Black girls are viewed and treated more adultlike than their White counterparts – adultification. This continues throughout all stages of childhood with the perceptions of differences at its peak between the ages of 10 and 14. Black girls as young as 10 years old are referred to as ‘young women’ (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez, 2017). Morris (2019) argues that the inappropriate use of language, referring to 10-year olds as young women, can be priming or trigger girls to feel that they are no longer in critical stage of development and that those under 12 years old should be referred to as girls. The impact adultification has on Black girls is crippling and permits the erasure of their childhood and innocence.
Adultification bias informs how Black girls are treated in society and within institutions such as school. There are a variety of negative outcomes which include again hypersexualisation – believing that they know more about sexual activity at a younger age, and differential enforcement of school dress codes. As well as the failure to safeguard young Black girls from sexual assault and harassment in the school setting from peers and occasionally staff. The treatment and experience within the education system impacts how these girls view themselves as victims.
The Criminal Justice System and over-policing of Black girls and women
Throughout history there has been much debate and documentation of unfair treatment, excessive use of force and over-representation of Black boys and men within the criminal justice system and other institutions/systems. Yet the invisibility of Black girls within these debates would lead one to assume that they do not experience similar treatment. Black women in England, based on the population, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Within youth custody, girls represent 20% of the population and like their male counterparts, Black girls are overrepresented (Home Affairs Committee, 2007; Youth Justice Board, 2004).
According to the Prison Reform Trust (2017), Black women are twice as likely to be arrested as White women and 10% less likely to be proceeded against following arrest. Thirty-five percent more likely to plead not guilty resulting in the likelihood of more severe sentencing. They are 63% more likely to be tried in the Crown Court where their fate is at the hands of typically a White male majority jury raising concerns for jury bias. Black women are also 29% more likely to be remanded following Crown court and 25% more likely to receive a custodial sentence.
The impact of this reality, on the Black female and the wider community is that over half of Black families in the UK are lone parent families – in comparison to less than 25% of White and 10% of Asian families. Black women are also known to experience extreme use of force at the hands of the police service in both the UK and USA, often at times resulting in losing their life in their own homes – for example: Joy Gardner, 1993.
Movements in USA surrounding the over policing and brutality experienced by Black girls have become a public discourse – see Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected by Crenshaw, Ocen and Nanda (2015). Whilst this report is based on a USA context, much of the content is relevant to experiences of Black girls and young women in the UK. However, the experiences and voices of Black girls and young women in relation to youth violence, particularly those within the inner-city areas, are absent in research, political debates, the development of policies, as well as funding opportunities. Funding for projects addressing youth violence usually focuses on issues such as knife crime and gang activity usually targeting inner city, BME young men.
Black girls historically have been viewed as deviant and challenging – ‘Black girls for example may be perceived as contesting not only codes of femininity but also White norms; they may thus be on the receiving end of a double dose of disapproval’ (Hudson, 2008). Many professionals/practitioners working with young people and within the youth justice system develop an unconscious bias and stereotype young people from this community. They discuss and use language such as troubled, irresponsible delinquents deserving of punishment as opposed to their White counterparts who are viewed as mentally ill and in need of treatment. When discussing risky behaviour for girls it is almost always related to sexual activities whereas for boys it is more around their delinquent behaviour and their use of drugs (Paik, 2011).
As demonstrated throughout this essay, there are a number of personal, cultural and structural/societal factors that leave Black girls vulnerable and unprotected. They are not viewed as victims due to this ‘strong Black woman’ narrative and fictional ‘Superwoman’ construct. This very narrative masculinises Black females/femininity and impact how Black girl’s behaviour is perceived – perceptions of coping mechanisms and impact in how much, and what types of, support is provided compared to others (Davis, 2019). Their experience of racism and bias as outlined by Davis (2019), ‘Experience of stereotypes of ‘angry Black women’, ‘aggressive and confrontational’ were prime examples of barriers to building relationships and accessing genuine support.’
Due to the lack of trust and negative working relationships between many girls/young women and both the education and criminal justice system, Black girls are left feeling unheard, undervalued and isolated. They are left to navigate their way through their experiences with little to no guidance and support from family, professionals and wider community members. The lack of safe spaces to meet with others to share their experiences result in Black girls and young women who must navigate their own understanding of sexuality, sexual development, and subsequent sexual threats, victimisation and agency – sexual scripts (French, 2012; Davis 2019).
Single-sex youth work settings are essential to address the issues surrounding the invisibility of Black girls, from a gender conscious practice. This means facilitating projects dedicated solely and unapologetically to the experiences of Black females, with a conscious reflection on gender constraints imposed by both societal and cultural structures. Projects which challenge both gender roles (Weber, 2009; Woodward, 2000) and the status quo, enabling young people to address these issues in a safe, non-judgemental and inclusive space (Batsleer, 2013, 2017; YouthAction NI, 2006).
In order for these projects to reach their full potential, representation and relatability matter. This means essentially that projects addressing these issues should be facilitated by Black women. They should address the following areas, amongst others:
- How they make sense of sexual coercion and subsequent confrontation from threat
- Sexual scripts and other social constructs amongst this particular age group and wider societal views/influences
- Gender roles, especially from a cultural context which in Britain would be typically Caribbean or African.
- Personal responsibility
- Exploring consent
- Exploring intersectionality – how Black girls, individually and collectively, experience the world based on the intersections of their identity.
- Healthy relationships
I believe the benefits gender conscious work in a single-sex setting – prided on relatability and representation, include minimizing the emotional and social pressures feature in mixed settings thus maximizing the potential of a safe experience. It also promotes expression and allows for rapid development of self and skills – improving levels of self-confidence, self- esteem, self-worth and assertiveness within a safe environment. It also promotes and explores resilience through necessary skills and knowledge to overcome challenges they will most likely face within society at one point or another.
Most importantly, these projects would enable Black girls and young women to engage in activities and discover their potential through broadening their views. Developing a support system amongst their peer group and being able to build a positive, trusting working relationship with a youth worker with whom they can feel they can relate to and be open about their experiences. We all have a duty to safeguard children and young people and for far too long have Black girls been misunderstood, invisible, and unprotected. By providing these relationships and opportunities for Black girls and young women, they will begin feel heard, valued and most importantly protected.
Thank you for taking the time to read this essay/article.
- What are your key take aways from what you have read?
- What would you like to know more about?
Drop me a message to find out how to book training for your team/organisation/service in 2022.