Making Our Voices Heard: Black Women Open Up About Surviving Sexual Assault

by Anna Gibson

Bill Cosby is once again in the spotlight. Over 40 women have come forward accusing him of sexual assault—some of the accusations from as early as 1969. And this week, documents from court dispositions were unsealed, revealing that Cosby admitted to giving drugs to women so that they would have sex with him in 2005.

When these allegations were being scrutinized last year, a large number of people immediately came to Cosby’s defense. Most notably, people in the black community ignored the victims' testimonies, demanded proof (as if the testimony of 40 women wasn’t enough), and even raised suspicions about the motives of the women who spoke out.

From Clarence Thomas to R. Kelly, black people have shown our willingness to defend our “idols” at all costs—even when their actions completely disregard and betray our ethical standards. This goes back to our need to protect our community. By society’s standards, one black person’s actions may reflect poorly on the entire black race. Black people know intellectually that this concept is ridiculous. Nonetheless, we’re trapped by it, many of us feeling caught trying to defend one of our icons while his “sterling reputation” continues to be “tarnished.”

Unfortunately, in this case, our need to sacrifice our morality to protect our cultural “icons” only served to perpetuate rape culture, silencing the victims of these attacks and ignoring the wounds they have been carrying. We can only begin to heal ourselves by facing the truth: men and women who choose to prey on others have to face justice. We also have to allow people who have been victimized by sexual assault the space to tell their stories. The two courageous women below have chosen to do just that, in hopes of dismantling rape culture and helping heal survivors.

Aja Johnson is a newlywed and student at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. She is a Gender and Women’s Studies major and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration and Student Affairs. She knows that speaking about her experience will help others gather the courage to do the same.

The most widespread misconception about sexual assault is that it occurs most often with complete strangers. This is far from the truth. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), 86 percent of women who are sexually assaulted know their attackers in some capacity including friends, family members and acquaintances. Aja Johnson recounts how she was victimized by a young man she was dating:
We had talked a few times, and we decided to go to his house for a Super Bowl party. At the time, I’d guessed it was still early because there was no one there. After we sat down, he kept trying to have sex with me. He asked, ‘Don’t you like me?’ I said, ‘I do like you, just not like that.’ When I got up to leave, he pushed me against the wall… After he was done, I left and he followed me, cursing me out.
Deep-seated trauma has serious consequence for women who’ve been raped. According to the Sexual Trauma and Assault Response Services, can involve depression and anxiety. It can eventually lead to an official diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For black women who often try to live up to the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype, it can be difficult get help when we’re hurting the most.

Aja spoke to how this experience impacted her life: “I’m the type of person that if you don’t ask, I won’t tell. I’m so used to dealing with things on my own. The only reason I told my mother was when I started getting sick and thought I was pregnant.” She continues, “I found fault with myself more than anything, I would have flashbacks and play the scenario over and over in my head. I still blame myself sometimes.”

Aja’s experience could be because a huge aspect of rape culture involves victim-blaming. Police officers and paramedics may ask the victim any number of questions, from what the they were wearing, to whether or not they were drinking at the time. Because of this, Aja breaks down the importance of an individual realizing that no matter what the situation is, they don’t deserve to be denigrated for being assaulted.

She says. “To the women who’ve experienced what I have: Don’t be quiet. It’s not your fault, no matter what society says. Some people may tell you that you should have fought harder or yelled louder. This just isn’t true. No matter what anyone says you aren’t to blame.”

Resources like RAINN, give a nuanced account of what it actually means for a person to be sexually assaulted. As Aja adds, “Consent is 100 percent needed. There is no gray area here. You can’t consent by not saying anything, you have to actively say yes. You always have the right to say no. There isn’t a point where you can’t speak up and tell people that this isn’t what you should do.”

Another effect of victim-blaming is that survivors of sexual assault can feel alone, even when surrounded by loved ones. Because of this Aja stresses the need for community: “We need to look out for each other more… If you’ve dealt with this, find someone to talk to. Encourage people to speak out. You could be what’s between them [having the courage to] go to the police.”

Confronting rape culture head-on is harrowing, primarily because it’s embedded in our society. However, Aja’s circumstance proves that it’s possible to survive sexual assault and use your experience for the betterment of others.

Admittedly, the “gray area” of consent that Aja refers to can still cause many survivors to doubt themselves. As such, a woman who I’ll name "Grace" offers her story about how she grappled with the definition of assault and finally gained some clarity about her experience.

Grace is 49 years old and lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in Public Service Leadership. She says that her encounter occurred with a man she’d already been intimate with.

“When it first happened, we went to a party. There were about seven or eight people in the house with us...He took me upstairs and tried to have sex with me even after I told him I didn’t want to do it. We started to tussle… Eventually I just waited until he was done and left. I still wonder whether or not what happened was considered rape.”

Sexual assault is a violation that can affect every aspect of a survivor’s psyche. It’s not uncommon to see women working through these issues over long periods of time. Grace expounds on the obstacles she encountered and how it affected her day-to-day life: “Trust is a big obstacle that I still struggle with, regarding both myself and others. I wasn’t even certain of the decisions I made. To this day, I second-guess myself. “

Despite this, Grace is gradually beginning to overcome the negativity that holds her back and heal herself. She says: “My greatest victory is that I no longer blame myself. I released the shame and guilt. I’m finally able to tell my story, and while it’s only a small feat, I have confidence in myself and trust others a little more than before.”

When a woman is raped, it can dramatically affect how she perceives the world around her. It’s very easy to close oneself off from the world after experiencing this, but as the women above can attest, telling your story can be healing. Community discussion is necessary when confronting sexual violence. When enough women band together, we can bring greater awareness towards the harmfulness of rape culture, sexual assault, and trauma while promoting empathy and healing.

If you would like to contact Aja Johnson, you can email her at If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit RAINN's website.

Anna Gibson is a freelance journalist and student at Wayne State University in Detroit MI. She’s also a Theravada Buddhist who integrates social justice and compassion into her practice. If you think she’s awesome you can reach her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa or on Facebook where she’s totally not hiding under the name Anna Gibson.

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