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Sexual Empowerment vs. The Adultification of Black Girls

A 2017 study conducted by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that in comparison to White girls, Black girls between the ages of 5 and 14 were perceived as: 

  • more independent
  • knowing more about adult topics and sex
  • requiring less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort

These adultifying views of black girls are rooted in historical stereotypes of black women, categorized into three dominant themes, that emerged in the South during slavery: 

  • Jezebel – hypersexualized, seductive
  • Sapphire – loud, aggressive, angry, emasculating
  • Mammy – nurturing, self-sacrificing

The following statistics represent the sexual consequences of the adultifiying views of black girls that the Georgetown study found: 

  • 40% to 60% of black women report being subjected to coercive sexual contact by age 18
  • 1 in 4 black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18. 
  • African American girls and women 12 years and older experienced higher rates of rape and sexual assault than White, Asian, and Latina girls and women from 2005-2010.

From: The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community 2018 

It is apparent that the adultification of black girls is rooted in racism and puts black girls at higher risk for sexual abuse. This is a public health crisis. We must continue to advocate for the protection of black girls and to demand media depictions of black girls and women that do not perpetuate the adultification of black girls. 

Now that we understand the adultification of black girls and it’s sexual consequences, let us explore what it means for Black Girls to embrace their sexuality. According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control in 2017, an estimated 55% of male and female teens have had sexual intercourse by age 18. This finding suggests that black girls, among other teens, are embracing their sexuality. This also suggests that 45% of black girls and other teens may be practicing abstinence. 

How do we understand the difference between the adultification of black girls and embracing sexuality? 

An important difference between addultification and embracing sexuallity is the mental health impact. Sexual abuse or trauma are associated with post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, substance misuse and eating disorders. Survivors may feel ashamed, guilty or shocked and may also experience flashbacks. If you have been sexually abused, it is important to remember that the abuse was not your fault. Healthy sexual expression is associated with increased confidence; decreased stress, anxiety and depression and improved emotion regulation. 

Another important part of this exploration are the conversations that take place between black girls and their parent(s). Adolescents who have open, caring and non-judgmental conversations with their parent(s) about sex are more likely to delay having sex or use condoms and contraceptives. (CDC, 2014) If you have created a safe space for your teen to talk with you about sex, they may also be more likely to talk to you if they have experienced sexual abuse. Open and honest conversations also create a space to define consent and abuse, further empowering teens to know when they have been abused and to report it. 

A key theme in this post is respect. Society needs to respect black girls by dismantling racist stereotypes that lead to the adultication of black girls. Black bodies, to include girls, boys, women and men need to be respected. This not only applies to sexual abuse but also violent acts commited by police and white supremacists. Finally, parents are encouraged to show their children that they respect their bodies and autonomy by having safe and healthy discussions about sex. These types of respect may lead to the elimination of the adultification of black girls and healthy sexual expression. 

If you have experienced sexual abuse, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673) for support. Many therapists specialize in treating sexual trauma. To find a therapist, check out the Therapy for Black Girls Therapist Directory