There is little doubt that the reporting about the bad — and sometimes illegal — behavior of prominent men has led to important change in terms of how we think about and acknowledge sexual assault and violence. When the reporting on sexual assault in Hollywood and the media began to lead to real change, I was disturbed and a bit nervous but mostly grateful for the women and men who stood up to tell their story. A year and half later, it is necessary to reflect on the movement and assess how well we have done right by its victims.
Though the initial wave of public allegations has dwindled, reports of sexual assault by powerful men continue to emerge. The most recent public person to be accused of sexual assault is Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. On Feb. 3, reports surfaced of Vanessa Tyson’s allegation that Fairfax, then a John Kerry staffer, forced her to perform oral sex at a hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Five days later, Meredith Watson released a statement in which she detailed that Fairfax raped her while they were both students at Duke University in 2000.
After the accusations that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wore blackface, many assumed Fairfax, the only Black person to hold statewide office in Virginia, would ascend to the top of the commonwealth’s government. Once the sexual assault allegations surfaced, Fairfax did initially receive some backlash, including some calls for resignation and impeachment. However, those calls have been walked back.
Only two weeks after these allegations, this story has fallen out of the news. Even when it was in the news, this story did not receive the same backlash and fury that the allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, Sen. Al Franken or even Alabamian Senate candidate Roy Moore did. Why isn’t there a collective rage on the behalf of Fairfax’s victims? Why aren’t there protests or social media campaigns attempting to get justice for Vanessa Tyson or Meredith Watson? Why does it seem like sexual violence against Black women is treated differently than sexual violence against white women?
The first report of assault allegations in a major newspaper against singer R. Kelly was published in 2000. The report included having sex with a minor, which is particularly problematic given the age of consent in Illinois is 17. There were also several lawsuits filed against R. Kelly for having sex with minors and recording sex acts without consent between 2001 and 2002. Again in 2017, physical and emotional abuse allegations were reported against Kelly. Though Kelly was arrested in 2003 on charges of possession of child pornography, he was only arrested on multiple counts of sexual abuse charges last week. He continues to make money on his streamable music, some of which contain allusions to his heinous crimes.
In 2004, comedian Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault by Andrea Constand, and a year later, Tamara Green also came forward with similar allegations dating back to the 1970s. Since then, 60 other women have accused him of sexual assault, some including being drugged and then assaulted. It was not until April 2018 that Cosby was convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault and sentenced to three to 10 years in prison.
Harvey Weinstein was removed from the Weinstein Company within three days of the first reporting about his illegal behavior. Matt Lauer was similarly fired from NBC one day after allegations surfaced. Even more recent, Ryan Adams’s music was shelved after reporting by The New York Times of his abusive behavior toward women.
Why are some men delivered swift, severe punishment while others continue to hold societal power? We should look to their victims. From this pattern, it seems clear that men whose victims are primarily upper-class, often socially powerful white women receive harsher repercussions than those whose victims are not.
When Prof. Christine Blasey Ford accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, there was an outcry against his nomination, as there should have been. Just like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and others should absolutely face serious and hefty punishment for their actions. Yet, the allegations against Justin Fairfax seem to have faded to the background. Few, if any, continue to draw attention to the charges against him.
The problem is not that people are outraged on the behalf of white survivors. The problem is that people are not as equally outraged on the behalf of Black survivors. It should not have taken almost 20 years for R. Kelly to receive (some) punishment for his actions, nor should it have taken 14 years for Bill Cosby to be convicted for his. And it should not take just as long for Justin Fairfax to face repercussions if an investigation confirms the allegations against him.
Additionally, a study published by researchers at SUNY Geneseo in The Psychology of Women Quarterly found that white women are less likely to intervene in a sexual assault if the victim is Black. According to the researchers, they “found that although white students correctly perceived that Black women were at risk in a pre-assault situation, they tended not to feel as personally involved in the situation.” The white female bystanders reported they felt “less personal responsibility” and that the Black victims “experienced more pleasure in the pre-assault situation.”
While the woman who coined #MeToo, Tarana Burke, has been doing work on behalf of women of color since the ’90s, the rest of us risk failing the movement if we primarily focus on the experiences of white women. The assault of any woman deserves our attention and empathy, but most sexual assaults and rapes take place where other oppressions already exist. This means that women who hold other marginalized identities are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, specifically because they hold even less societal power. These groups include women of color, disabled women and queer women.
There is an existing and growing sect of feminists who work to end oppression that intersects at multiple marginalized identities in ways that create new and overlapping oppressions — also known as intersectional feminists. Still, most of society and mainstream media are not considering the sexual victimhood of black women as wholly distinct and important to address. This is absolutely unacceptable.
White women must make anti-racism a fundamental pillar of our feminism if our goal is to achieve real and tangible change to improve women’s lives. Our work must first focus on the oppressions of those most marginalized, because only through helping those most marginalized can we dismantle entire systems of oppression themselves.
Audre Lorde once said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own,” and the truth of her words persists today.
Marisa Wright can be reached at email@example.com.