I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse (excerpt)


Lori S. Robinson

Dear Reader: The following is the Introduction to Lori Robinson’s book, I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse. We have also included a portion of Chapter 3 called Emotional Recovery. In I Will Survive, Lori Robinson has created a valuable resource for African-American survivors of sexual assault (as well as their families, friends, and communities), incorporating personal stories, civil rights history, and a call for community activism. An award-winning journalist and a rape survivor herself, Robinson walks readers through the ways survivors can experience emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual healing, offering her firsthand knowledge on the particular difficulties African-Americans face on their journey toward recovery.


African-American women are raped at a higher rate than White women, and are less likely to report it.1 We have suffered in silence far too long.

Rape is not sex. It is a crime of violence. A perpetrator forces the contact of sexual body parts. It leaves you angry, ashamed, terrified, and traumatized. Though it changes you forever, you do not have to live with those feelings for the rest of your life. I should know.

On May 15, 1995, two men ran up behind me as I approached my apartment building, and one of them pointed a gun at my head. In the hour that followed, I was blindfolded, gagged, tied facedown to my bed, and raped by both.

On the first anniversary of my assault-and each anniversary since-I celebrated my life and my healing. I journeyed so far so fast toward wellness and peace because of my therapist, my boyfriend (now husband), supportive family and friends, and divine healing. That’s not to say I don’t still face challenges from the attack. But what was done to me no longer has power over me.

There are no easy paths, no quick fixes, for this journey. Confronting the emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical scars of sexual violation can be a difficult, exhausting exercise. It can take years, even decades. Yet, no matter what happened to you, it is possible to become emotionally, mentally, and spiritually strong and healthy.

No race, ethnic group, or economic class is spared from sexual violence or the myths and misinformation that complicate the healing process for survivors. But in addition to our higher victimization rate, African Americans are less likely to get the help we need to heal.2 What’s more, our community is burdened by a centuries-long history of sexual victimization and other violent abuses that continue to make the issue even more complex for us.

Discussions of the victimization of Black women are sometimes interpreted as being anti-Black men. Historically, Black men have been characterized as sexual predators. For decades after slavery ended, false reports of the rape of White women resulted in the torture and violent murder of Black men.3 In recent decades, studies have shown that Black men are disproportionately incarcerated for sexual assault, and are given longer sentences than White men.4 Unfortunately, these realities have led to a common misperception that Black women who speak out about being raped are just like those White women up through the era of the civil rights movement- trying to bring the Black man down.

Because of the pain of past and contemporary racial injustice, we live in the midst of a distorted reality with its attendant myths. First is the myth of the Black rapist terrorizing White women. Historically, interracial rape occurred frequently, but most perpetrators were not Black men. From slavery’s end through the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, no southern White man was convicted of the rape or attempted rape of a Black woman, leading the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence to state in 1969 that “white males have long had nearly institutionalized access to Negro women with relatively little fear of being reported.”5 Anyone who knows anything about American history knows that Black men were victims of racist brutality, but Black women’s brutalization by White men is frequently overlooked.

Fast forward to today: Most rapists in the United States are White, educated, middle-class men.6 And the vast majority of rapists victimize someone of their own race.7

The second myth under which we operate is that women often falsely accuse men of rape. In actuality, false reports of rape are quite rare. The figure often used by sexual violence experts for estimating falsified reports is 2 percent, about the same rate as other crimes.8

The tendency to think Black women falsely accuse Black men of rape also comes from a misunderstanding of what rape is and why it happens. The following passage accurately describes how I felt when I was assaulted:

This scenario can happen between a husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, co-workers, strangers, adults, children-virtually any combination of people. In two-thirds of cases, rape is committed by someone the victim knows.10 And with 7 percent of offenders armed, it is less likely to involve a weapon than any other violent crime.11 Even if a woman goes home alone with a man she just met, that arguably poor decision does not mean she has forfeited her right not to have sex. Rapists rape because they want to gain power over someone else and because they are capable of disregarding someone else’s rights and wishes.

Because I was raped by strangers with a weapon, no one ever accused me of lying or suggested that I wanted it to happen. It is time for the Black community to honestly examine the issue of sexual violence so that survivors of incest, marital rape, date rape, and acquaintance rape are treated with the same compassion and sensitivity I was.

African-American anti-rape efforts are not anti-Black men. They are pro-Black people. Black men as well as Black women have much to gain from ridding our communities of sexual violence, both as potential victims and as loved ones and friends of survivors. When Black girls and boys are sexually abused, it can cause lifelong emotional problems and make them more vulnerable to abuse as adults. When Black adults are sexually assaulted, it can impede their ability to function at home, at work, and in the community. Sexual abuse or assault can hamper any survivor’s ability to have healthy relationships. Sexual victimization can be the catalyst for the mildest to the most severe dysfunctions, such as low self-esteem, substance abuse, and depression.

For the purposes of this book, I have had to narrow my focus to healing, risk reduction and anti-violence organizing for adults, as well as some information for adult caretakers of child sexual abuse victims. I wish I had the time and space to address sexual violence even more comprehensively, particularly in environments with significant African-American populations. I would have liked to provide victims in the military with information about the separate criminal justice system they must navigate. And I would have liked to address the prevalence of rape in prisons. The sexual abuse of women prisoners, primarily by male employees, and male prisoners, primarily by other prisoners, is an often-ignored crisis. In most of the reports and studies of sexual violence, the rape of prisoners isn’t considered. Couple that with decreasing resources for rehabilitation and you can’t help but wonder if the criminal justice system is in a way contributing to the problem of sexual violence rather than making our communities safer.

Hopefully, as organizations, schools, churches, and mosques address sexual violence, these and other topics will be covered in their discussions and activism. I am confident that once more African Americans have a factual understanding of this issue and how comprehensively it affects our communities, we will make antirape efforts a priority.

Sexual assault and abuse is nothing new, and it is certainly not unique to African Americans or the United States. Not only is it a phenomenon found in societies throughout the world, it is used as a political tool and an act of war. During the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict in the 1990s, soldiers conducted mass rapes of Muslim women as part of an “ethnic cleansing” campaign.12 One European Community fact-finding team estimated that 20,000 women had been raped in less than a year.13 In Peru, security forces have punished civilian women perceived to be sympathetic to opposition forces by raping them.14 Before and during World War II, an estimated 80,000 to 200,000 women, primarily Korean, were forced into sexual slavery in military brothels for Japanese soldiers.15

I’ve written I Will Survive not because African Americans are the only people affected by sexual violence, but because we are uniquely affected. Sometimes people are more comfortable working on their own challenges in culturally specific ways.

I hope survivors of all ethnicities and races benefit from reading this book. I Will Survive is for everyone concerned about the tragedy of sexual assault and abuse. Whether or not you have been directly touched by sexual violence, it is an issue that affects you. Incest, date rape, marital rape, stranger rape, and other types of victimization are happening in your community, no matter where you live.

I hope parents, educators, health care professionals, community groups, youth organizations, churches, mosques, and rape crisis centers will find I Will Survive an effective tool in the escalating struggle against sexual assault and abuse. I included the historical foundation for the sexual victimization of African Americans in order for you to better understand its contemporary reality. Through reading this book you will learn to broaden honest dialogue in your community and engage in anti-rape activism in ways large and small. You’ll become aware of resources available for the reduction of the risk of sexual assault.

I Will Survive was also written for the family and friends of survivors. Your loved one needs you now more than ever. I urge you to use this book to become the best supporter you can be. People often don’t know what to say or do to support survivors. Sometimes they opt to do nothing. It is not uncommon for the people a victim depends on for help to cause more harm than good with hurtful or dismissive words. You will learn how to help your loved one access needed resources and how you can effectively assist in the recovery process. You will also come to realize that you are a victim too. You will go through some of the same emotions as the survivor. You will be encouraged to get the support you need as well.

Most importantly, this book is for my fellow survivors. I offer you comfort, encouragement, and empowerment. I have provided information to help guide you through physical, emotional, and spiritual healing, as well as the criminal justice system. You will understand that the violation you suffered was not your fault, and that you are not alone. You will read the stories of survivors who have triumphed in their healing process. You will learn what to expect and how to get the services and resources you need for your own healing.

I decided to write I Will Survive because I want other Black victims of sexual violence to become survivors too. I want your pain to cease. I want you to thrive. I want our community to be healthy, to be safe, and to flourish.

Peace, courage, strength, and blessings,
Lori S. Robinson


1 Rennison, Callie Marie. Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1999: Statistical Tables (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, January 2001); White, Aaronette. “I Am Because We Are: Combined Race and Gender Political Consciousness Among African American Women and Men Anti-Rape Activists,” Women’s Studies International Forum 24, no. 1 (2001), 12-13; White, Aaronette M. “Talking Feminist, Talking Black: Micromobilization Process in a Collective Protest Against Rape,” Gender & Society 13, no. 1 (Feb ruary 1999), 97.

2 White, “I Am Because We Are,” 12-13.

3 Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race and Class (New York: Random House, 1981), 183-184.

4 White, Aaronette. Interview by author. Bowie, Md. 5 White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985), 164.

6 Lindquist, Scott. The Date Rape Prevention Book: The Essential Guide for Girls and Women (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2000), 52; Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime in the United States 2000 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2001), Table 44; Benedict, Helen. Recovery: How to Survive Sexual Assault for Women, Men, Teenagers, Their Friends and Families (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 9.

7 Rennison, Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1999.

8 White, “Talking Feminist, Talking Black,” 97.

9 Benedict, 5-6.

10 Rennison, Callie. National Crime Victimization Survey: Criminal Victimization 2001 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, September 2002), 8.

11 Ibid.

12 Equality Now. “Bosnia-Herzegovina: Mass Rape, Forced Pregnancy, Genocide,” Women’s Action Update (April 1994).

13 Lewin, Tamar. “The Balkans Rapes: A Legal Test for the Outraged,” New York Times (15 January 1993).

14 Human Rights Watch. “Rape as a Weapon of War and a Tool of Political Repression,” The Human Rights Watch Global Report on Women’s Human Rights in Human Rights Watch website [cited 2 August 2002]; available at www.hrw.org.

15 Soh, Chunghee Sarah. “The Comfort Women Project” in Online @ SFSU web-site [cited 2 August 2002]; available at https://www.sfsu.edu/~news/2009/spring/26.html.

Chapter 3 Emotional Recovery

How can I go on?

The day after I was raped, I called the D.C. Rape Crisis Center hotline. I remember asking if, after such an assault, women went on to have normal lives, get married, have children, be happy. It sounds silly to me now, but on May 16, 1995, I found it inconceivable that someone could be normal, much less happy, after experiencing what I had. That was my intellectual perspective. At the same time, on some deeper level, I had already decided to struggle to feel better. My emotional pain was too agonizing to accept indefinitely.

I began therapy less than twenty-four hours after I was attacked. That first day, my mother and sister accompanied me. The next day, my boyfriend and I went together. Over the next several months, I attended weekly private counseling sessions that helped me heal emotionally and spiritually.

Mine was a far from average scenario. Most people who are sexually violated in childhood or as adults never seek help. Estimates of the number of victims who get mental health treatment range from 25 percent to 40 percent. And we know that Black folks in particular are more likely to go to family and friends for help than professionals.

It is impossible to know exactly how many survivors never tell anyone, not a parent, sister or brother, or best friend, much less a therapist. But in studies of Black women’s sexuality conducted by renowned psychologist Gail Elizabeth Wyatt, half of interviewees who had experienced childhood sexual abuse never told anyone and less than 5 percent ever got counseling.

Healing is not easy; on the contrary, it can be a painful process that takes years. But no matter what kind of violation you’ve suffered, feeling better is possible. And getting professional help can be an essential part of recovery.

“It’s such an easy thing to say and such a hard thing to do. Because we really do want to believe that we can get a good shower, we can pull ourselves together, and we can go on with our routine,” says Rosa McDaniel-Ashe, a psychotherapist at Pathway Center for Psychotherapy in Norcross, Georgia.

There are many reasons survivors of sexual violence choose not to get help, or not to tell anyone at all. They might think they won’t be believed or supported, or don’t want to burden an already overburdened family. They may dread that a loved one will seek violent revenge. Women who are sexually abused at work may be afraid they will become jobless. Some women who are financially dependent on their abusive partners are scared they won’t be able to make it on their own. And as African Americans, we don’t want to air our dirty laundry in a society that tends to emphasize what’s wrong with us.

“It becomes a luxury to heal. That’s how we look at therapy,” explains Davine Del Valle, a psychotherapist at Sine Qua Non: Allies in Healing in New York. “You can’t afford the time. You can’t afford the money. It’s not a priority. . . . It doesn’t matter if you’re suffering and depressed and all the grief is trapped in your body.”

Survivors sometimes feel so overwhelmed by what happened that they think no amount of counseling can help. Black women often believe if we can’t handle our problems alone we are weak, crazy, or just not praying hard enough.

“Black women, I tell you, we think we are superhuman,” says J. Estes, a psychologist in private practice in Columbus, Ohio. “We’re the worst offenders when it comes to not coming for treatment early enough. We’re not supposed to be in pain. And by that time we have brainwashed everybody else around us to believe that we don’t have pain. We just take care of their problems, and so [we]’re the last ones dragging in the door.”

Some women don’t seek help because they don’t understand that they’ve been violated. Maybe you haven’t recognized that incident that you didn’t want to happen on that date in high school as rape. Perhaps you consider that scary, confusing episode with your cousin when you were seven years old as just child’s play. Even if you were violated years or decades ago in a seemingly minor way and experienced no apparent negative consequences at the time, it is quite possible that you will be negatively affected by the incident at some point later in life.

Some survivors will make strides in healing without the help of a professional. For them, tackling the healing process alone should mean much more than just going on with life. It requires self-education, discipline, and the willingness to challenge oneself to grow and to work through pain.

But among those who decide to go without help, there are untold numbers of walking wounded. Whether their dysfunction is obvious or obscured, they live months, years, even their entire lives, depressed and anxious, or unable to sustain relationships, or trying to deaden their pain with alcohol or drugs, or mistreating their children because unresolved anger spills into their family life, or with any number of other symptoms.

Many people think that someday they will suddenly and miraculously feel better. With any goal you set for yourself, you must take steps to achieve it. Authentic healing is no different.

Whether you were assaulted as a child, teenager, or adult, whether you tried to physically fight off your assailant or went along with abuse because you felt scared and powerless, what happened to you was not your fault. It is unfair that you may need to put some hard work into being emotionally balanced, peaceful, and healthy. You could not control the violation, but what happens next is primarily up to you. Bluntly put, you now must choose whether or not you will strive to heal.

You can choose to let your pain serve as a catalyst for emotional and spiritual growth. Many survivors who report triumphant recoveries say they’ve become stronger, wiser, more deeply spiritual and loving, even more appreciative of life through their healing process. Healing is worth the struggle.

“At some point a total healing can take place. But it is taken in steps,” says Atiba Vidato-Haupt, an ordained minister and psychotherapist in Washington, D.C. “The degree to which the individual is willing to work on the healing process will determine how complete their recovery is.”

Depending on where you are in your healing process, that might be hard for you to believe. Are you still asking: Is healing really possible? If by that you mean, will you go back to being the same person you were before you were assaulted, the answer is probably not. But if you mean, can you be free of emotional pain and other negative effects of your trauma, the answer is a resounding yes.

In this chapter, you will become aware of how sexual violence affects people mentally and emotionally. And you will learn about some of the healing options available. Not every approach will appeal to you. Because healing is a unique process for every survivor, a broad variety of healing modalities are gathered here in order to help you make informed choices about your recovery. You will also learn some proactive steps you can take on your own in your healing journey, either in addition to professional help or independently.

To order Lori Robinson’s book:

“I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse”