Correction to This Article
A May 30 Metro article incorrectly identified the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics as the source of a statistic on the percentage of black female rape victims who report the crime to police. The statistic was provided by the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Trying to Break A 'Culture of Silence' on Rape

Raegena Lawrence, left, a rape victim who says her search for help was dismissed, volunteers for the Women of Color Network, led by Kathy Ferguson.
Raegena Lawrence, left, a rape victim who says her search for help was dismissed, volunteers for the Women of Color Network, led by Kathy Ferguson. "It needs to be talked about more," Lawrence says of rape. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

As Kathy Ferguson followed the story of rape allegations at Duke University, one fact struck her: not that the black woman hired to perform a striptease accused lacrosse players of assault or that the white men proclaimed their innocence.

Rather, it was that the woman had reported the alleged incident at all: Thirteen out of 14 black women who are sexually assaulted do not tell police, federal statistics show.

Ferguson, who leads Maryland's Women of Color Network, is part of a growing movement that tailors rape recovery efforts to minority women, who often receive less support in the aftermath of sexual violence.

"We're talking about a culture of silence," said Ferguson, 37, a founding member who lives in Prince George's County. "It's not only because of the fear and the embarrassment and shame that you find among all races. Black women historically have had to carry the burden of the community. You don't necessarily want to report because you don't want the community viewed negatively."

The reluctance to speak extends to law enforcement and to institutions. Seven percent of black women who are sexually assaulted report the crime to the police, according to the most recent crime data analyzed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, released in 2005.

The rate in the overall population is 42 percent, according to the bureau. Government-sponsored studies are limited and reveal only slivers of information. The only Justice Department-funded study to evaluate black women's experiences with sexual assault is to be finished this month at the University of Maryland.

Since 2000, the Women of Color Network has worked to support Maryland victims of sexual assault and to shape policy on the issue. Ferguson is the first paid coordinator of the network. And the network was funded for the first time, last year, through the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a nonprofit organization for the state's 18 crisis centers.

To get the conversation going, Ferguson and the network's dozen or so volunteers staged a conference last month at Prince George's Community College in Largo. The turnout was about 150 counselors, sexual assault specialists and survivors from Prince George's, the District and neighboring states.

That day, the Duke case was on the front pages of newspapers again. Two members of the men's lacrosse team had been arrested and charged with raping a woman the team hired to do a striptease at an off-campus party. The woman, who is black, alleges that she was raped, sodomized and choked. Attorneys for the athletes, who are white, have said their clients are innocent.

Ferguson's conference, months in the planning, did not include a specific session on the Duke case. It came up informally as Ferguson reviewed the day with keynote speaker Carolyn West, a psychologist and author of "Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black, and Blue."

In some ways, West said, the Duke case provides an opening into conversations that might not happen otherwise. She said it has encouraged people to talk about the background, including the history behind black women's reluctance to disclose assaults, dating to the era of slavery. An enslaved woman who had been raped rarely confided in anyone, West said, because no one could help her.

"There was that belief that black women were unrapable," West said. "Legally, it wasn't a crime to rape black women, literally for hundreds of years.''

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