CW: Mentions of child sexual abuse and exploitation.
In 2006, the Tennessee Supreme Court sentenced Cyntoia Brown, a sixteen-year-old girl and victim of sex trafficking, to life in prison. Her crime? Shooting and killing John Allen, a 43-year-old man who solicited her for sex, drove her to his home, took out his gun collection, and tried to rape her. Fearing for her life, she shot him in self-defense. But when she went before the jury, they didn’t see her as a minor who had been trafficked and abused. They didn’t see a girl who’d be forced to fight a full grown man with a gun who threatened to rape her. They charged her as an adult sex worker and sentenced her to life in prison. Last week, after serving 13 years, she came up for parole and asked for clemency. The court ruled she would have to serve at least 51 years in prison before she’s eligible for release.
Cyntoia’s story, egregious as it is, is not unique. There’s an engine in this country, often unseen or deliberately ignored, working not only deny survivors of support, healing, and justice, but to also punish, criminalize and incarcerate them. The sexual abuse to prison pipeline is one of the reasons why girls are the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system but it rarely makes the headlines or factors into debates about sexual violence.
Why? Because Black women and girls are often the most at risk of being punished or criminalized for fighting back against their assailants.
According to The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story—a report by Rights4Girls, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women—73% of girls in the juvenile justice system have a history of sexual abuse. That same report notes that African American girls constitute 14% of the general population nationally, but 33% of girls detained and committed. There are thousands of girls like Cyntoia, as more than 1,000 victims of child sex trafficking are arrested and wrongfully charged with prostitution each year. These numbers boil down to one infuriating fact: Black women and girls are routinely criminalized and punished for having experienced sexual abuse and exploitation.
Yet despite these statistics and the devastating realities they represent, too much of the recent media conversation about sexual violence and punishment has focused on exaggerated and unfounded fears of false accusations against men. In some cases, public figures like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are trying to upend decades of civil rights progress in response to rape myths, simultaneously attacking protections for survivors and protections against unfair discipline while claiming to care about eliminating racial disparities in school discipline and the criminal justice system. It should go without saying, but the idea that protections for survivors must be eliminated to prevent racial bias in discipline is a false choice, one rooted in a refusal to acknowledge the experiences of Black women and girls. It also represents a refusal to look at the federal government’s own data on discipline and sexual misconduct, which reveals that just 0.3% of Black boys and 0.2% of white boys have been disciplined for sexual harassment— a statistically insignificant difference between two extremely small numbers.
Supporting survivors does not come at the expense of racial justice. Indeed, racial justice requires supporting survivors, because sexual harassment and assault are key drivers of school pushout and its related economic and social costs. Attacking protections for survivors is especially harmful to survivors who are less likely to be believed or supported: Black women and girls. It increases the likelihood of them being criminalized, punished, or funneled into the criminal justice system.
Ensuring Black women and girls who have experienced sexual abuse are supported and kept out of the criminal justice system is a racial justice issue. We need to remember that we don’t need to choose between protections for survivors or fighting racism in schools and the criminal justice system. For Black women and girls, many of whom are survivors like Cyntoia Brown, we need both.
Call Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam at (615) 741-2001 and urge him to grant clemency for Cyntoia Brown.