The reemergence of a 17-year-old sexual assault case involving Birth of a Nation writer, director and star Nate Parker has weighed heavy on the hearts of those who understand the gravity the incident -- which brings up a much needed conversation about rape culture and consent in this nation -- and the historical significance of the highly-anticipated film.
That is not lost on actress Gabrielle Union, who on Friday revealed in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that she took the role in Parker's film to "represents countless Black women who have been and continue to be violated." For Union, that meant she "couldn't take the rape allegations lightly."
Living at an intersection of gender and race while also existing as a survivor of rape, Union admitted that hearing about the case sent her in a state of "stomach-churning confusion."
"As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly," she wrote. "On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? It’s very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said 'no,' silence certainly does not equal 'yes.' Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a 'no' as a 'yes' is problematic at least, criminal at worst. That’s why education on this issue is so vital.”
The issue is a personal one for Union. Twenty-four years ago, the star was raped in the back of a Payless shoe store where she was working at the time. Sexual assault, she wrote, "is a wound that throbs long after it heals."
"My compassion for victims of sexual violence is something that I cannot control. It spills out of me like an instinct rather than a choice," she said. "It pushes me to speak when I want to run away from the platform. When I am scared. Confused. Ashamed. I remember this part of myself and must reach out to anyone who will listen — other survivors, or even potential perpetrators."
The conversation about rape and consent is one she and husband Dwyane Wade are teaching their three sons.
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"We are making an effort to teach our sons about affirmative consent. We explain that the onus is on them to explicitly ask if their partner consents. And we tell them that a shrug or a smile or a sigh won’t suffice. They have to hear 'yes.'"
Union, who wrote that she understands that "these conversations are uncomfortable and difficult," hopes that discussions like this will also help dismantle "misogyny, toxic masculinity, and rape culture."
"Think of all the victims who, like my character, are silent. The girls sitting in their dorm rooms, scared to speak up. The wife who is abused by her husband. The woman attacked in an alley. The child molested. Countless souls broken from trans-violence attacks. It is for you that I am speaking. This is real. We are real. Sexual violence happens more often than anyone can imagine. And if the stories around this film do not prove and emphasize this, then I don’t know what does."
You can read the op-ed in its entirety, here.