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Dealing with multiple marginalizations: How do low-income Black girls navigate sexualization?

by Marisa Ragonese

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

What a year for talk about racism in the US.

No criminal charges for Darren Wilson, the police officer in Furguson, MO who shot unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown last August. Or Daniel Panteleo, the cop in NYC caught on video putting Eric Garner, Black father of six, in a fatal chokehold on a July afternoon while arresting him for selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island. Not to mention Black 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot to death on a Cleveland, Ohio playground in November by rookie officer Timothy Loehmann, who thought Tamir’s toy gun was the real thing and didn’t even do a double-take before killing him.

Since these high-profile shootings, stories and conversations about deadly, unchecked racism have permeated even the apathetic white mainstream through media outlets, and social media has exploded, at least in my circle, detailing the ways that #Black Lives Matter, and how our society fails to reflect it. People have been out in the streets in droves to protest, and it’s led to a little bit of air time outside of the Black community about some of the big and little humiliations and injuries that Black men, in particular, endure at the hands of the police – a government agency that, frankly, has always dedicated itself to protecting the wealth of the wealthy instead of the everyday person.

But what about the girls? What about Black girls? Aside from some posts on Facebook pointing out that Black women are also affected by police brutality and state violence, I haven’t heard much at all; it’s crickets when it comes to the set of challenges Black girls face when trying to navigate not only state violence but also a racist/sexist culture. But it’s women’s history month, and Black lives matter, so this month’s SPARK blog is dedicated to discussing research that elevates the voices of Black girls.

Anne Kruger, Erin Harper, Patricia Harris, DeShelle Sanders, Kerry Levin and Joel Meyers[1] conducted a study to find out how low-income 12-14-year-old Black girls deal with sexualization, ethnic stereotypes and violence in their communities, and they did it by listening to the personal perspectives of Black girls, which hasn’t been done a lot in the research world.

The starting point for their research was to look at “commercial sexual exploitation of children” (CSEC), one form of sexualization that affects Black girls in certain communities. Commercial sexual exploitation is when an adult makes money, or gets off sexually, by forcing kids to do sexual stuff. The researchers went to two middle schools in high-risk communities, and worked with girls to develop after school sessions, because they wanted to develop relationships with the girls and support them while they were conducting the study. They paid close attention to what the girls said during the workshops, listening to how they described their personal strengths and weaknesses, and the challenges they face in their communities, as well as the ways they felt supported.

What they found was that the girls talked a lot about how difficult it was to find people to trust – peers, adults, police – but that they enjoyed developing trusting relationships during the course of the afterschool group sessions. The girls talked a lot about dealing with fighting and physical violence in their peer groups; they described it as a regular part of their interactions, especially with other students. Kids carried weapons – the researchers even saw a boy with a gun at one of the research sites – and remember, this study was at middle schools. They talked about seeing prostitution in their communities, and being aware of how girls can be lured into prostitution by guys who claim to like them, or because pimps could buy them stuff they needed or wanted like clothes, makeup, drugs, or someplace to stay. They had street smarts.

The girls also talked about sexualization. They explained that they felt very sexualized and were preyed on by boys and men – even older men who lurked outside of the schoolyard, which is such a stereotype it’s like totally ridiculous – and they were also expected to sexualize themselves, which they did by dressing in tight clothes and short skirts and giving lap dances to boys at the roller skating rink. The researchers noticed that the girls took in a lot of mainstream media portraying as normal violence against women and women as sexual objects, which, frankly, is good for no one, and that during group conversations, the girls’ statements “echoed” popular culture – like, for instance, some of the girls justified a famous dude beating up his equally famous girlfriend because she looked at his phone. Ouch.

Not to be shady, but this study – like lots of studies – may not be telling feminists things we didn’t already suspect if we’ve been paying attention; but that’s not what makes it important. I think it’s awesome for other reasons. I love the way it was done – half intervention, half study – meaning the researchers were using specific tools to try to help the girls deal with their problems while also learning more about what those problems were. That means that to the best of their abilities, the researchers were 100% about supporting and elevating the girls under investigation, which is a great way to do research about young people and their personal strengths and weaknesses and how they’re negotiating their day-to-day lives. I mean, a little non-condescending help while you’re studying people and their problems, please. And that’s another thing that I really like about this study – I’m a sucker for research that’s driven by the needs of the people being studied (it’s called “applied” research) because the knowledge it produces can help strengthen interventions that can be used in the real world. In this case, that’s in and outside of schools to help empower girls to push back against sexualization. But the crowing achievement of this research to me is that it, like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, holds a mic up to suppressed voices just enough so that they’re traveling a little bit further. And then a little bit further than that.

Because my hope for the girls in the study, for Black girls everywhere who struggle, who are living in impossible situations but doing their best, who live and die in injustice with no groups of protestors remembering their names, is that people with the power and authority to help change the societies that smother girls will hear their voices and do their part. Because it’s about time we all pay some attention. To Black girl matters.

[1] Kruger, A. C., Harper, E., Harris, P., Sanders, D., Levin, K., & Meyers, J. (2013). Sexualized and dangerous relationships: Listening to the voices of low-income African American girls placed at risk for sexual exploitation. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, 14(4).

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