Yes, Sexual Abuse of Black Boys Is a Problem — and We Need To Pay Attention
We’re just coming to terms with talking about sexual abuse at all. But our sons have been missing from the conversation — and the outrage.
Trigger warning: This story features accounts of child sexual abuse and rape.
When I asked my writer’s group for advice on how to research child sexual abuse in the Black community, I wasn’t expecting personal anecdotes. Yet, that’s what Ron* gave us. He’d been sexually assaulted at various points throughout his life, he said — by a teacher, an aunt, and even his own mother.
In her 2004 book No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse, journalist and mental health counselor Robin D. Stone writes that one out of every six men report having been sexually abused as children. That number becomes even more frightening when you consider the fact that sexual assault crimes are vastly underreported.
As a society, we’re still learning how to discuss any kind of sexual assault — and conversations around the sexual abuse of Black boys are far, far rarer. Yet, these conversations need to happen, both for the survivors and for the men and women who love them.
Ron’s abuse, he told us, started when he was in eighth grade. He’d gotten in trouble at middle school for kissing a girl behind the bleachers; when the school told his mother what he’d done, he assumed he was in for some kind of punishment. Instead, he said, “she started to touch me” — at which point he trailed off, not wanting to relive the incident.
Things would only get worse: When he told his history teacher what his mother had done to him, the teacher also took advantage of him. This isn’t uncommon. According to Stone’s research, in nearly 95% of all abuse cases, the offender is either a parental figure or someone who’s a close acquaintance of the child.
Despite Ron’s personal experience, current data around the abuse of Black boys is extremely hard to come by. At the time of Stone’s book, 14% of all child sexual assault victims were male, with 20% of that abuse coming at the hands of women. There’s a website dedicated to the “one in six” statistic; however, the latest information listed is from the U.S. Center for Disease Control in 2005. In that study, the CDC claims 16% of males are sexually abused by the age of 18 — but doesn’t touch specifically on the experience of Black boys.
The dearth of such data doesn’t surprise Ron at all. “Men don’t report,” he tells me, “and even in surveys we often lie, unless very specific questions are asked.” Even more, those questions can be invasive or simply unhelpful: “What was your first sexual encounter like?” presumes the respondent has come to terms with that encounter enough to describe it; “Have you ever had a sexual experience with an older woman?” doesn’t necessarily uncover coercive or abusive encounters.
In the 2011 Psychology Today article “Talking About Sexually Abused Boys and the Men They Become,” author and psychologist Richard B. Gartner, PhD, lends credence to Ron’s assertion. Gartner cites “masculine gender expectations” that “teach boys they can’t be victims” as one of the main reasons the sexual assault of boys goes unreported. “Boys are supposed to be competitive, resilient, self-reliant, and independent, but certainly not emotionally needy,” he writes. “‘Real’ men initiate sexual activity and want sex whenever it’s offered, especially by women. For many men, these qualities define masculinity.”
Many of those patterns came to light in 2016, when the NY Daily News reported on multiple allegations of child sexual abuse by Afrika Bambaataa. Ronald Savage, the first to accuse the hip-hop legend of molesting him when Savage was a child, said that embarrassment and shame kept him silent for years. In the same manner, abusers are often protected by a veil of silence from family and friends — and, in fact, people are more apt to blame the abused child than they are to hold the adult accountable.
Ron’s traumatic experience gave him a ‘very weird view on sex’ and shattered his ability to create romantic partnerships. It affected his view on his self-worth and self-value.
It’s not uncommon for abusers to be people who hold some level of importance to the child, and to the community at large: a clergy member at the local church; a breadwinner head of household, or a trusted close family member. But even those who people suspect shouldn’t be around children can slip through the cracks, never being held accountable. Ron says he’d known about the abuse of other family members, and knew that other people were aware of what happened to him — they just never did anything about it.
Chris Rock captured this sentiment in his 1999 comedy special, Bigger & Blacker. In one joke, Rock discusses the benefits of having enough uncles to teach you everything you need to know about life. As he laments about the “stealing uncle” and the “alcoholic uncle,” he discusses the “molester uncle,” Uncle Johnny. Rock starts the bit with an imaginary mother openly wondering where her kids are, only to freak out when she discovers they’re with Johnny.
Ultimately, the hypothetical mother blames the kid for what happened. “That’s what you get,” she says. “Hanging around [with] fucking Johnny. I told you about that shit. Now walk it off.” It’s worth wondering how many male victims of childhood sexual assault felt they’d be told to “walk it off” if they spoke up.
For other Black boys, sexual encounters that happen with women or non-adults are often laughed about, or looked thought of as harmless. In 2009, the NPR show Tell Me More broadcast a segment prompted by Lil Wayne’s anecdote of losing his virginity at the age of 11 to a 14-year-old girl, and the admission that it affected him adversely later. And in 2013, Chris Brown shared a story with Vibe about the time he “lost” his virginity at age eight to a girl of 15. “It’s different in the country,” Brown said. “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.” The description fits the textbook definition of abuse and yet, to him, it was something he felt prepared him for sexual situations in the future.
In other cases, sex with an older woman is seen as a point of pride. Earlier this year, rapper Lil Boosie promised his 14-year-old son “oral sex from a bad bitch” as a birthday present. Fans defended the quote, saying it had something to do with his music. Boosie eventually said he was kidding, although it’s difficult to know if that’s just due to the backlash. He further explained on BET that because his son was a teenager, “If he wants to get some head from a girl, I’m cool with it.”
Whether it was a joke or not, the potential damage inflicted on his son could have lasted well past adolescence. For Ron, his own abuse has affected him for decades. “It ruins a lot of shit,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been looked at funny by women because I don’t speak to my mom often or fuck with a lot of my family more than I have to.”
Ron’s traumatic experience gave him a “very weird view on sex” and shattered his ability to create romantic partnerships. It affected his self-worth and self-value. It made him more sexually active and interested in kinks. “As men, we’re already taught we aren’t the prize in sexual interactions, even more so once you’re abused,” he says. “So I kept looking for things that were sexually outside the norm.”
He knows the first step to healing is to talk about what happened. “You can’t heal what you don’t reveal,” he says, “so it becomes a thing that fucks with you, and you don’t know why.”
Talib Daryl, a sexual abuse survivor featured in the NPR segment, says revealing what happened to him was a huge step in his recovery. “I found a new sense of power and freedom in being able to talk about it, even sometimes down to the details, to be able to let go of that fear,” he says. “It’s very empowering, and it will transform your life.”
And in healing, there is strength in numbers. In 2008, Sylvia Coleman, an award-winning health journalist and advocate for sexual abuse survivors, launched the Black Survivors Network, a “national online support system for African Americans.” Coleman, who is also a survivor of child abuse, believes in the importance of attending therapy or finding a support group. She also believes we must teach our kids early about child sexual abuse.
Black men should be at the forefront of the conversation about child sexual abuse, pushing to make sure we support one another and get help if necessary. The longer we’re silent on this issue, the more likely it will keep happening. And the longer the silence, the deadlier the results.
*Editor’s Note: Names were changed to protect anonymity. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800–656-HOPE (4673) or visit RAINN.