I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never attended a slumber party. Growing up, my mother didn’t play about her children being unsupervised around adults she barely knew. This meant sleepovers were simply out of the question. Knowing this, I still tried my luck a few times in high school, thinking it was more of a maturity concern than anything else. I’d prepare for all the preliminary questions, hoping thoroughness might earn me a different outcome.
Whose party was it?
Where did she stay?
Who all lived there?
What was her mom’s name?
What’s her mom’s phone number?
*Bonus Question: Is she one of the little “fast” ones?
It was embarrassing having to jump through hoops to participate in every day adolescent activities, but eventually I knew what to expect and so did my friends. It typically took a day or so for my mom to render her verdict. But first she’d excitedly tell me how so and so’s auntie, who used to attend our old church before she became a Jehovah’s Witness, had an uncle that was married to my first cousin. That cousin just so happened to be related to the birthday girl through marriage on her daddy’s side, making us something like fourth cousins, once removed. Oh, and I still couldn’t go.
It would take me well into adulthood to learn that what felt like an extreme case of helicopter parenting was actually my mother’s way of protecting us from the possibility of child sexual abuse. A fear that I inherited once I became a mother myself. But as I sat down to write a piece expounding upon my concerns as a mother to a young Black boy, I found almost nothing on the matter. With the exception of a few think-pieces expressing similar frustrations, I found that there just wasn’t much out there discussing the sexual exploitation of Black boys. There was no denying that Black boys were statistically one of the most at-risk groups when it came to child sexual assault. And there was no doubt that Black boys, both globally and domestically, possessed specific characteristics that further heightened their risk. So either I was paranoid about a problem that didn’t exist or no one was talking about it.
Was it possible I was worried about a phantom phenomenon? There are countless studies pertaining to young female victims, why would male stories warrant anything less? As I scoured through endless victim testimonies, I identified one potential explanation. Female victims appeared to have a better understanding of the fact that abuse had occurred, whereas male victims seemed less clear on what constituted abuse to begin with, despite 1 in 6 reporting abuse before the age of 18. Listening to a friend gloat about losing his virginity to our school nurse at the age of ten drove this point home for me. Even after acknowledging long-standing intimacy issues and trouble establishing healthy sexual relationships, my friend stood by his belief that the nurse did nothing wrong. Chris Brown offered a similar account as he described losing his virginity to a teenage girl at the age of eight. Attributing his sexual wherewithal to regular exposure to pornographic videos, Brown contended the young girl was just showing him the ropes, so to speak. “By that point, we were already kind of like hot to trot, you know what I’m saying? Like, girls, we weren’t afraid to talk to them; I wasn’t afraid. So, at eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it. You can be the best at it.”
While the law is clear that both Brown and my friend were victims, an internalized expectation for hypersexuality doesn’t allow either of them to acknowledge their victimization. In other words, sex can never be used as a weapon against Black males because Black males always desire sex. Furthermore, their testimonies shed light on a stigma which requires Black males to be hyper-masculine in order to prove their authenticity. Black males are expected to be hardened and unafraid, quick to physicality and eager to defend themselves against danger, and only within those confines are Black males considered “real.” Unfortunately, there’s no room under that narrow umbrella for a male who is incapable of defending himself against the unwanted sexual advances of a female. And there’s even less room under that umbrella for a male who is incapable of defending himself against the unwanted advances of another male.
Gender certainly adds an interesting layer to the discussion, but sexuality flips it on its head. While victims of female perpetrators reported dealing with the fear of insubstantiality, victims of male perpetrators chronicled fears of inadequacy. Even though sociologists contend that sexual assault is more about power than it is about sexual attraction, strong sentiments of homophobia within the Black community have rendered many incapable of differentiating between the two. Just to be clear, women do in fact commit child sexual assault, to the tune of 5% according to a 2015 study, but by and large, young boys are victimized by male perpetrators, male perpetrators who would otherwise identify as heterosexual. Making the ongoing myth of the hyper-sexed homosexual deviant nothing more than an inflammatory theory.
If we’re looking in the wrong place for the victimizers, we’re sure to miss the victims. Granted, there’s validity to the argument that relatives and family friends are most often responsible for child abuse cases, but these findings refer primarily to female victims. In contrast, male victims were more likely to be sexually abused by strangers or by authority figures in organizations like schools, faith-based institutions, and athletic programs. Data from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed that, between 1950 and 2010, 60% of all abuse allegedly took place at faith-based institutions. And while these organizations exist in communities of every race, they play a very different role within the Black community where 66% of children are raised by single parents. In many ways, community-based organizations have served as surrogates to fatherless Black children, providing a safe haven and other resources to single parents facing financial hardship as well as those lacking support in the home. This makes it easy for “benevolent strangers” to utilize camps, church programs, and school activities as breeding grounds for sexual exploitation. Wielding authority and access, predators coax young male victims into a vow of secrecy that, coupled with the threat of social banishment and rejection, can last a lifetime. And that leaves single parents with a horrid set of options.
For those weary of leaving their sons unattended in the care of “trusted” members of the community, the alternative of leaving them to fend for themselves opens them up to a greater potential danger: incarceration. Despite data indicating that young Black boys are not committing more crimes than their peers, they’re still five times more likely to be incarcerated or committed to an institution. And with more and more states permitting the incarceration of minors in adult populations, the prison rape problem has grown exponentially. Where words like “kid” describe inmates who’ve been victims of sexually coercive relationships, correctional institutions highlight an unfortunate correlation between youth and victimization.
If you’ve ever watched an episode of “Beyond Scared Straight.,” an A&E series following the lives of at-risk teens through an intense jail immersion program, then you’ve laughed uncomfortably as inmates threatened young participants with unwanted sexual contact and forced participants to do emasculating things like comb their chest hair. Some going as far as to pre-select their would-be lovers out of the preteen lineups. Viewers might dismiss these exchanges as being done for the cameras, but letters from inmates written to the Human Rights Watch organization tell a less contrived story. An Arkansas inmate gave his account stating that, “The kids I know of here are kept in the hospital part of the prison until they turn 16. Then they are placed in general population. . . . At age 16, they are just thrown to the wolves, so to speak, in population. I have not heard of one making it more than a week in population without being “laid.” In his own letter to the Human Rights Watch, a Florida prisoner said, “Mostely (sp) young youthful boy’s are raped because of their youth and tenderness, and smooth skin that in the mind of the one duing (sp) the raping he think of the smooth skin and picture a woman . . . . Prisoners even fight each other over a youth without the young man knowing anything about it to see whom will have the boy first as his property.” Which brings me to my next question, how do I keep my son safe?
I could continue to adopt my mother’s philosophy to trust no one, carry my son on my back until his feet drag the ground, and keep him protected from the slightest bump and bruise. I could avoid every church, cathedral and mosque, rip up permission slips for little league baseball, and force my son to spend every summer with his grandparents, but that would do nothing to change his community as a whole.
I’d much rather deal with the sexualization of young Black boys and a culture that condemns victims for being victimized, as if their pain is some sort of social inconvenience. I’d much rather deal with our propensity to protect useful predators and treat child abuse like it’s God’s punishment for disobedience. If we want to stop sexual abuse from happening to Black boys then we have to create an environment where Black boys are priorities, not casualties. That means being done with protecting predators and forgoing restitution for the sake of salvaging reputations. That means ending social policies that allow predators to be viewed as martyrs of the justice system. People who hurt Black children shouldn’t be able to find refuge anywhere, especially not within the communities they continuously destroy. If a legacy of secrecy and suppression threaten to keep my son captive within his own community, a community that will expect him to come back one day and serve it, then that community owes it to him to end its silence. So, I’m ready to talk about the sexual abuse of Black boys, are you?