By Ashleigh Smithson
2017 was dubbed “The Year of the Silence Breakers” by Time Magazine. As stories of historic sexual abuse continue to ripple across the globe, we are in an unusually introspective paradigm. Cross – culturally we are examining our attitudes towards women, consent, patriarchy, and rape culture.
From Harvey Weinstein, to Bill Cosby, and even George W.H. Bush, global consciousness is awakening to the nuances of consent; and imperatively how power dynamics assist in silencing victims of sexual abuse.
However, even in this time of ‘wokeness’, few know that the #MeToo movement was started by a black woman, for black women. Tarana Burke is widely credited as the catalyst for this movement. Thus, whilst Taylor Swift, Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan are the visible champions of this movement, the genesis of Tarana’s movement was envisioned to aid women of colour affected by sexual abuse.
This writer in no way wishes to diminish the experiences of white women. However, as we have learnt throughout the Women’s Rights Movement, white feminist issues tend to be pushed to the fore, to the detriment of women of colour.
Listening to Ms. Burke eloquently detail her own experience of sexual abuse, and her decision to establish rape crisis services in her community, made me and countless other black women think about our own experiences and perspectives regarding non-consensual sexual contact.
As a first-generation British woman, my mother’s views on sex, relationships, and consent are reflective of her higher education and Britishness. Consequently, unlike many Caribbean families, my family spoke openly about the intricacies of sex and relationships. We fiercely debated the asymmetries that existed in gender expectations, and discussed whether or not the church aided and abetted patriarchy.
My mum never sat me down for ‘the talk’. Instead we discussed sex openly. I told her about all the exploits of girls I knew, and she would listen attentively, and I guess try and establish what my thoughts were about Luke commenting on Nicole’s growing boobs in front of the entire P.E class. Although embarrassing, I was comfortable in the knowledge that any question or comment I wanted to utter, I could do so with this former midwife turned financial professional.
Why then, did I choose not to tell her that when I was 14 I was touched inappropriately by one of my male teachers?
In order to answer this question, I must contextualise not only this event, but also the society this event occurred within. Readers of my previous article will know that I was born in England and moved to St. Kitts at the age of 10. It goes without saying that societal views regarding sex and consent – particularly underage sexual contact – are significantly different in the UK.
Even as early as the 90s, British children were made aware of their rights. It was drummed into us that it was not okay for someone to hurt you, or make you feel uncomfortable. And in the event that you are hurt or made to feel anything less than safe, children were (and still are) empowered to blow the whistle. No judgement. No threat of negative repercussions.
This is vastly different from the realities of the Caribbean. The Caribbean is a living contradiction of perspectives when it comes to sex. These small islands embrace their beautiful Afro-centric roots. We promote and monetise a culture entrenched with music, carnival and salacious whining. Conversely, these same small islands, denounce women who are sexually liberated, whilst overlooking the commonplace sexual abuse of the vulnerable by people in positions of authority.
How did this paradox come to be, you ask? The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Whilst the objectification of women has occurred for centuries prior to slavery, slavery was the single most significant event that has impacted western societies’ views on the black woman. During slavery, sexual exploitation was common, to the extent that it was expected. When Massa’ was rough with you, it was rationalised as us having done something to provoke or displease him. And when Massa’ was gentle with you, he treated you and perhaps your family a little less inhumanely. You see, during the 500 years of slavery and colonialism, a black woman’s consent or feelings were never considered. Our happiness, thoughts, or feelings were simply not relevant!
Like many other traumas, the disregard and degradation of black women has survived emancipation. The way that black women – particularly those of a darker hue – are viewed in the region is a direct result of their objectification and dehumanisation during enslavement.
It is true that dark-skinned black women are particularly disrespected as ‘ladies’, whilst being simultaneously hyper-sexualised. This has resulted in continued unwanted sexual attention, harassment, and rape. What is even more disgusting is the fact that the responsibility is often shifted.
“She kno’ wha’ she was lookin’ fu…”
“You ain’t see how she was whining.”
“She always showin’ off she big ass.”
These nonsensical ‘justifications’ are common in the Caribbean. So in this time of hyper-consciousness, how do we move forward effectively as a people?
I think the first and most vital step we must take as a people is to gain an understanding of the concept of consent. Consent is defined as ‘the act of giving permission’. Ponder that. The ACT of giving permission. Often times it is thought that a lack of dissent is consent. The fact that I didn’t slap my teacher’s hand away as he reached up my skirt, does not mean that I consented! The fact that a woman does not protest when you seeps her in the street does not mean that your sexual advances are welcomed.
An important second step is understanding power dynamics and holding those in power responsible. Arguably, the most compelling reason why teacher-student relationships should not occur (outside of the age of consent issue) is because of the asymmetry in power between the parties. A teacher, like a leader of a country, wields significant power over their student. As such, even a ‘yes’ in the circumstances can be a no. If a man places a knife to your throat, and then proceeds to ask you if you would like to have sex with him, your response of ‘yes’ is clearly influenced by your respective positions.
In order for the Caribbean to respect the basic human rights of women, it is absolutely essential that we start to recognise that power dynamics between people can negate any consent given; and more importantly is a gross abuse of power.
Furthermore, it is high time that these offenders are PROSECUTED! Too many abusers go unpunished. It has gotten to the stage where these people are not even discrete anymore!
Lastly, we need to support victims. The single thing that prevented me from reporting my assault was the backlash.
“Da English gyal know wa she was lookin’ for.”
This sentiment would have been repeated by other teachers, the police, and society as a whole. I knew this, and thus I remained silent. Right now, as you read this, you may know someone who has been abused, or is currently being abused. It is imperative that as individuals we are sympathetic and open to the idea that even a person of the seemingly highest moral character could have committed such an atrocity. We need to support our women.