Who can forget the snarled, contorted face of Brett Kavanaugh as he gulped water and cried, or the steely calm of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford as she gave riveting testimony concerning what she says happened to her as a young, defenseless girl?
What we witnessed during Kavanaugh’s United States Supreme Court confirmation process gave all Americans a glimpse into the machinations of the powerful and privileged.
But as the #MeToo movement continues to be a potent force, I feel compelled to speak out for all the young black girls whose stories of trauma and sexual victimization will never be of major concern to most people because they are some of the least protected among us.
Tarana Burke, the extraordinary African American human rights activist who conceived “Me Too” in 2006, has spoken recently about how her honest and necessary work to help all survivors heal — emotionally and psychologically — is being attacked as “anti-male.” And like me, and many others, Burke is also concerned that the #MeToo movement is centering certain women while almost ignoring the African American girls and women it came into existence to help.
In an attempt to re-direct some of the attention back to its proper base, Burke said in a brilliant November TED Talk, that #MeToo is about, among other things, “the 1 in 4 girls and the 1 in 6 boys who are sexually assaulted every year and carry those wounds into adulthood.”
She said it is about “the 60 percent of black girls like me who will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18.” She also said her vision is “to see a world free of sexual violence.”
This work is important and necessary because sexual trauma, especially during a child’s formative years, can devastate that child’s wonderful promise, and set her on a path of pain, poor life choices, tragedy, and even destruction. It can undermine a child’s overall sense of self.
A New York native and graduate of Auburn University, Burke’s commitment to this work is deeply personal because she, too, is a survivor. She has spoken and written about the arresting story of how “MeToo” started.
When she was working at a youth camp, a 13-year-old girl confided that she was being sexually violated by a trusted adult. Burke was overcome with emotion and unable to allow the little girl to finish. Instead, she sent the child to another counselor.
Heartbroken by her inability to let the girl know that she “connected” and “could feel her pain,” and wrecked by the fact that the child went “back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper … me too,” Burke founded what has since become a worldwide phenomenon.
“MeToo” came into being as a way to show empathy, and to meaningfully address this frightening, shame-filled, societal ill with which far too many women and girls grapple — most often alone.
Sexual violence, especially against children, is a painful topic. It stabs so deeply into our humanity and makes us feel helpless — so most people want to turn away. But how can we, when a ton of statistical, theoretical, and clinical research warns us about the long-lasting possible effects of childhood sexual assault?
Although there is variation, depending on many things like the age of the child and whether the perpetrator was a trusted relative, friend, or stranger, the effects can include depression, anxiety, PTSD, sleeping and eating disorders, self-blame, guilt, overwhelming shame, feelings of worthlessness, inability to trust, anger that trusted adults did not protect them, relationship problems, self-loathing, and suicidal thoughts.
Obviously, school performance is often deeply impaired as the youngster wrestles with the trauma of sexual violation. Because her bodily and psychological integrity has been savagely breached, and her sense of healthy boundaries has been sabotaged, a child or adolescent may act out with risky sexual behaviors or she may shut down completely — unable to display social skills that lead to healthy age-appropriate relationships.
All of this is much too much for young people to navigate on their own and, as adults, we cannot expect them to shoulder all that pain, and heal from all that hurt and confusion, by themselves.
If a child is suddenly acting in ways that are uncharacteristic and disturbing to you, you may need to intervene to be sure that something revolting has not upset that child’s world — and if it has, you need to get help. Yes, this is a very thorny and difficult issue; in fact, it is appalling, but leaving a child to a lifetime of pain and sorrow is not the answer either.
Dr. Rhonda Sherrod is a lawyer, clinical psychologist, and former HBCU educator with a master’s degree in English from Chicago State University. She provides professional development training for teachers and law enforcement personnel. Her forthcoming book, Surviving, Healing and Evolving, will be out soon.