I discovered it almost by accident. My friend had been raped. But this had not just happened; it had actually occurred several years ago. Sadly, she could tell me the exact date, time and minute that the rape transpired. I asked her whether she had pressed charges. Her answer was "no." I asked her whether she had spoken with her family about it, and her answer was "no." I sat there aghast until she filled in the story.
The rapist was a respected family friend. He, apparently, had been coming on to my friend — who was considerably younger — to the point of making my friend very uncomfortable. She communicated this to a brother of hers who was friendly with the soon-to-be rapist. The brother was told by the soon-to-be rapist that this was all in the imagination of my friend and that my friend had misunderstood his words. The entire family believed the soon-to-be rapist.
Subsequently, the rapist visited the house when my friend was alone. Despite my friend's pleas for him to stop, he sexually assaulted her. Raping her without a condom, he gave her human papilloma virus, a contributor toward cervical cancer. When he finished with her and was leaving the house, she told me, he informed her that he would be back.
Sexual violence against women is a subject we often prefer to ignore. When we hear the stories, we want to disbelieve them. We very often think about the Tawana Brawley-like stories and other such claims that turn out to be untrue, thereby writing off legitimate concerns. In fact, the climate is such that women, like my friend (and I have actually more than one friend who has experienced rape), feel that they cannot tell anyone what happened to them. My friend, despite her internal and external strength, is deathly afraid that she will be judged and blamed, and the sad fact is that she almost blames herself for the rape having occurred.
I don't know what happened in the Duke Lacrosse incident. It sounds as if the authorities handled the case like a bunch of Keystone cops. Yet, for each such case, there are countless others that either go unreported or are dismissed. In the case of my friend, the rapist was an "upstanding" member of the community whose word was believed before the word of my friend because, after all, my friend was just a woman — a very young woman.
It strikes me that when it comes to women of color; the presumption is that they are almost always lying. Usually, this is connected to allegations of excessive sensuality on the part of the woman. We men are all too prepared to disregard the concerns and warning signs because it might break some sort of brotherhood or code among men. It is as if we believe that "boys will be boys." Among many women, however, there is also a tendency to believe that the problem starts with the woman.
We have few places in our communities to have honest discussions about sexual violence. We rarely debate it in our newspapers, or even online, except when we are in a gossipy mode. But serious discussions about prevention or sexual trauma just do not happen.
After hearing this story from my friend I wanted to believe that there was something that I could say to assure her that it would not only not happen to her again, but also not happen to other women. But how can I do that when our community fails to put this issue on the front burner for discussion?
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time international and labor writer and activist. He is currently a visiting professor at Brooklyn College-CUNY and is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.