Every April, organizations and individuals across the country pause to acknowledge one of the most persistent forms of violence in our society–and across the world. Yet, as we see increasing public discourse around many of the issues that led to the creation of National Sexual Assault Awareness Month in 2001, there is still a tremendous lack of attention paid to the group of people that represents both the population that is most vulnerable to sexual violence, and our greatest hope for transforming the culture that begets that violence.
I’d like for us welcome in May by taking a moment to reflect on what #MeToo means for our youth.
Tarana Burke, my friend and longtime colleague, first created the #MeToo movement in order to support and affirm Black women and children survivors that have been consistently ignored and neglected by America’s narrow ability to recognize victims of abuse. It has since expanded into an international call for greater protections against sexual violence and harassment, and better ways of holding those who commit these acts accountable. However, despite Tarana’s greatest efforts and the advocacy of her allies in this fight, there remains a tendency for members of the media to continue centering privileged victims, salacious, celebrity-driven stories and narratives that suggest that ‘me, too’ is a witch hunt that may leave innocent men and boys destroyed in its wake.
As we fight to correct this narrative, we must also push to better include children and teenagers in the discussion, particularly girls of color, and in our efforts to address the myriad issues that make sexual abuse, harassment and assault as commonplace as they are today. When we fail to protect our young people, when we blame them for the harm they experience or tell them that there is no hope for eradicating those harms, we send a very clear message about how they are valued by the world around them and how they should value themselves. We also allow the cycle of abuse to continue; though while the majority of victims do not become abusers, the majority of abusers were victims themselves.
So what do we need to do? Well, first, we acknowledge what our young people are up against. Approximately 1 in 10 children–1 in 7 girls and 1 in 25 boys–will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, while some 60 percent of child sexual abuse victims don’t tell anyone what they have experienced. The statistics are even more troubling for Black girls, approximately 60% of whom will experience sexual abuse by the age of 18.
Sexual terror has been an inextricable part of the Black experience since the first enslaved Africans were brought to these shores, their bodies poked and prodded, policed and penetrated by slaveholders in order to develop the labor force that would build up this country without recognition, compensation or agency. This legacy continues today, supported by the inaction of the state and the apathy of the masses–but it doesn’t have to.
The recognition of the pervasive nature of sexual violations in the lives of our youth must then come with a commitment to action from institutions and individuals that claim to work in the service of girls and women, of children, of LGBT people and of people of color. Our country, which does not adequately recognize the dignity and humanity of even its most privileged children, is currently led by an administration has targeted the meager accommodations and rules implemented to protect them sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has targeted Title IX protections that were created to make it easier for survivors to report and seek assistance. This is particularly dangerous when you consider the number of public and private school systems that have failed to adequately implement those protections to begin with, often failing to have enough staff and resources dedicated to addressing individual incidents and campus-wide concerns in the first place.
For example, the New York City Department of Education has just one Title IX coordinator responsible for responding to reports of sexual assault and violence on the campuses of our K-12 public schools–hardly enough for a school system with 1.1 million students.
This means that the other responsibilities of a Title IX coordinator, which include preventing and addressing issues of discrimination and disparity on the basis of gender expression and/or sexual orientation and ensuring support for pregnant students, can very easily lose precedence when there may be more urgent allegations to address. Furthermore, one person cannot adequately support the City’s principals and other school staff with the tools they need to create a culture of safety on their campuses and to respond properly when an incident has transpired.
For that reason, it should come as little surprise that a lawsuit was filed just this week accusing the DOE of failing to adequately protect students, investigate when incidents have been reported and provide support in the aftermath. The suit was filed by Legal Services NYC on behalf of four girls of color with learning disabilities. Among the allegations: a 13-year-old being told by a dean “He just likes you” after a classmate reached under her skirt to touch her and the rape of a 14-year-old girl with autism in a school stairwell. All four students unsuccessfully reported incidents to school officials on numerous occasions to no avail.
It is also critical that we hear from young people and empower them to fight on behalf of themselves. My organization, Girls for Gender Equity is “intergenerational,” which means that we both work side-by-side with youth and bring their perspectives into spaces where they may not be able to enter. Why? Because young people know what young people need and feel, and they will articulate those things clearly to adults who take the time to both listen to their voices and address their concerns.
Those of us who are committed to addressing sexual violence must be certain to include children and young adults in our analysis, our advocacy and our activism. By failing to do so, we train them to expect abuse and harassment as a normal consequence of life–and, at times, to repeat those behaviors.
As we prepare for last month’s showers (hopefully) give way to May flowers, let us be intentional about creating a world in which our young people won’t have to say, #MeToo at all.
Joanne N. Smith is the Founding President and CEO of Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), an intergenerational advocacy organization, engaging cisgender (cis) and transgender (trans) girls of color and gender non-conforming (GNC) youth of color and working intentionally to center Black girls in the movement for gender and racial equity. Since 2001, GGE has worked both alongside with and on behalf of our youth in supporting the optimal development of our communities through a combination of direct service measures, advocacy for policy change, community organizing, and culture change work. Follow GGE and Joanne on Twitter: @GGENYC and @JoanneNSmith