Why Sexual Violence in America is Really a Conversation About White Privilege

by Stacey J. Sage – June 14, 2019


Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, James Toback, Roger Ailes, Bill O’ Reilly, Associated Justice of the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh and even the man who is currently known as the POTUS: Donald Trump.  They are all among the names of a growing list of powerful white men facing or have faced sexual assault or harassment accusations, and the list seems to be getting longer day by day.  Captain James Dunn, Brock Turner, Judge Aaron Persky, Judge Betty Adams Green, Justin Schneider, Asst. DA Andrew Grannik, The Arlington Texas Rapists, Judge Michael Gray, DA Tim Curry and DA Joe Shannon Jr. They are among the names of convicted and unconvicted (yet proven guilty) rapists and the respective judges and attorneys responsible for helping them dodge accountability and not serve any time.  And then there’s Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein, the two white female attorneys responsible for the wrongful conviction of the former “The Central Park Five” now  ‘The Exonerated Five.’

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) and the Bureau of Justice, 57 percent of all sexual violence perpetrators are white and 99 percent are male.  EROC stats show that while 80 percent of reported incidents of rape are reported by white women, 96 percent of rapes happen to women of color.  An ABC News/Washington Post poll, 14 million women said they were sexually abused in work-related episodes. On top of that, 25 percent of them identified men with significant control over their careers as the culprits. If you’re thinking that 25 percent is a relatively low number,  Think 25 percent of 14 million? That would be 3.5 million cases of sexual assault committed by people of power in this poll alone.  In 2018 Bloomberg BusinessWeek featured an article America’s C-Suites Keep Getting Whiter (and More Male, Too).  White men account for 72 percent of Corporate Leadership.  They make up 83 percent of public board chairs and 93% of private board chairs, and make up 78 percent and 88 percent of public and private board members respectively.  In the Hollywood Reporter’s most recent “Top 100 Most Powerful People in Hollywood”, 76 were white men. On the “Top 100 Hollywood Power Lawyers of 2019,” 83 are men and 79 are white men.

Currently, a whopping 91 percent of senators are white, and 75 percent are men. It’s no better on the House side; 78 percent of the representatives are white, and 81 percent are men. There are 44 male governors and 94 percent of governors are white. And here’s the hit: men also hold 75.1 percent of state legislature seats, and 85 percent of those men are white. Are you starting to put the pieces together? I mean seriously, are you picking up what I’m laying down. Uncontested stats prove that more often than not, while women, and in particular women of color are the victims of sexual assault and sexual violence, whites (and in particular white men) are the ones who make the decisions, and who have the final say about whether or not the claim of sexual assault is valid, and whether or not the behavior/act warrants accountability and/or punishment.  And because whites (and in particular white men) design the laws by which America is governed, sexual assault cases are typically weighed and tried (sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to try) through the lens of white privilege, and as a result, are plagued by subjectivity. When sexual assault cases are brought to trial, and the perpetrator is a white male who is found guilty, “justice” still seems to bend in his favor.  For when it comes to sentencing, judges or jurors are supposed to consider their state’s sentencing guidelines, the severity of the crime, the offender’s prior record and “other factors”. But to say that this is an imperfect science is a gross understatement, because all of these factors, all too often, favor white men.

Everything about the way that we talk about and deal with sexual assault and sexual violence in America is tainted with our history of sexual violence inflicted by white men, and the attitude/social-political disorder of white privilege. Yet, we continue to have conversations that focus on consent; coercion; prevention; sexuality;  safety; accountability; representation; influence; toxic masculinity; feminism; “rape culture” et al.  Those are all very important and necessary conversations to have, *but-TTT,  they are only relevant or helpful to the larger conversation insofar as to what extent we also honestly consider how racial bias is at play with all of those elements, and at all junctures of our social and criminal justice systems. And with regard to victims, it’s also imperative that we begin to examine and weigh to what degree race, racial bias, and ultimately white privilege, have an overwhelming influence on how and whether or not victims of sexual assault/violence want to even engage with the criminal system.

If we take even a brief look at sexual assault/violence in an historical context, we’d realize that sexual assault was basically unheard of in America prior to European presence. Amy Casselman, a professor of Native American studies at San Francisco State University shares: “Because women played central roles in all aspects of indigenous culture, violence against them was fundamentally incongruent with one’s conception of self and society. And, in the rare cases in which violence against native women did occur, native nations used their own fully functioning systems of law and order to swiftly address the perpetrator and restore balance to the community.” Native Americans had their own tribal courts, which Casselman contrasted with the American ones of today, which she refers to as overall “less survivor-oriented” (especially in the case of women of color) because they rely on maximum/minimum sentences and presume the alleged assailant’s innocence (especially if the alleged assailant is white). The reason for this is because for everything that is considered in a sexual violence case, there is a subjective connection that in America is more or less rooted in some sort of implicit bias, which is connected to privilege. So for example, in the case of “The Central Park Five” location became somewhat of a focal point, hence the name of the case. And here’s why:

Central Park’s history itself is tainted with racism and privilege. Seneca Village was after all, the village that died so that Central Park could be born. Seneca Village was a small but vibrant community founded in 1825 by free working class African-Americans in uptown Manhattan. The area from West 82nd to 88th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues was still farmland back then, a good six miles north of teeming downtown, and this was long before public transit. Maps of New York City as late as 1840 actually stop at W. 26th Street (the second marker just south of the Empire State building), almost four miles south of Seneca Village.  In the summer of 1856, Mayor Fernando Wood sent the residents of Seneca Village a final notice, and in 1857 he sent the police to bludgeon them out. According to one newspaper, the violent clearing of Seneca Village was a glorious victory that would “not be forgotten [as] many a brilliant and stirring fight was had during the campaign. But the supremacy of the law was upheld by the policeman’s bludgeons.” On October 1, 1857, the city government announced that the land was free of “pesky human habitation.” The dwellings were demolished and Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux began to build Central Park. Fast forward one hundred and thirty two years later; no one ever said it explicitly but one of the dynamics at play prior to the rape of “The Central Park Jogger” and from the very beginning of the investigation into the case which led to ‘The Exonerated Five’s’ wrongful conviction was the belief that those black boys didn’t belong in Central Park to begin with because after all, Central Park was literally created for upper class whites.

How guilt and innocence is viewed and determined in America rests so heavily on privilege and lack thereof; in particular in sexual assault and rape cases. Furthermore, the crime of rape was never developed to respond to the social harm of unconcensual sex. Despite what we call it: “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse,” sexual violence,”  are all more about power than about sex. “Although the touch may be sexual, the words seductive or intimidating, and the violation physical, when someone rapes, assaults, or harasses, the motivation stems from the perpetrator’s need for dominance and control…and ultimately POWER.  So we can #metoo till the cows come home, and we can condemn “toxic masculinity,” and we can recognize that people neither ask for nor deserve to be abused, harassed or violated.  We can create buddy systems for being out late and night,  we can teach and take self-defense classes, and we can donate our money to the local rape crisis center.  We can pledge to never commit or condone any acts of sexual violation, and think critically about how the media depicts sexuality.  We can petition, and lobby the hell out of local, state, and federal legislators.  But if sexual violence is about power and power is about privilege, then isn’t time to address the matter at hand?

*but-TTT – used to encourage a long and pensive pause, and then consider or reconsider the first and second part of the sentence and how they may conflict 



2 thoughts on “Why Sexual Violence in America is Really a Conversation About White Privilege

  1. Your piece definitely refreshed my mind as to who is actually in power to determine what is sexual assault and what is not: white men. I found it extremely compelling when you spoke to current conversations about consent and the like, but these discussions do nothing as far as who holds the hammer in the court of law. Sad truth, but important to start the dialogue about race, power and justice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your piece definitely refreshed my mind about who is in charge of what is determined as sexual assault and what is not: white men. While conversations about consent is important (as you stated), it does nothing to actually change the power dynamics in law. Great post to start the dialogue about race, power and justice!

    Liked by 1 person

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