The Coiled Spring First Grader Deep Inside: Sexual Violence and Restorative Justice by Sikivu Hutchinson

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Why should we believe her? She’s not a white girl. Hers is not the life story that the media makes visible as gospel, tragedy, and redemption. If she comes forward she could jeopardize her family, its livelihood, its standing in the community. Besides, the real issues that we should be most concerned about are racism, deadly force and the military presence of police in our neighborhoods. Rape and sexual assault are white preoccupations that distract, because, “If you loved your community you would be silent.”

In the toxic litany of messages that black female victims and survivors receive about sexual assault this last is one of the most soul killing, the most deadly. I have written often about how there was no language, program or messaging that existed when I was sexually assaulted as an elementary school student to make my experience visible. I have written less frequently about the shame and disassociation I still feel toward the child who it happened to, the coiled spring first grader nestled deep inside, the one who loved handball, the swings, Electric Company and Golden Legacy comic books.

On the block, in our neighborhood, silence was required for daily survival. Silence meant allegiance to black men and boys splayed in the white man’s radar scope; it meant tacit recognition of their greater suffering, their greater historical sacrifice. Even now, as the political landscape has shifted—as exemplified by the national fury over the lax sentencing of convicted rapist Brock Turner, allegations against Nate Parker and Bill Cosby, as well as Donald Trump’s sexually predatory behavior toward white women—and critiques of campus rape, rape culture and victim-blaming inform mainstream discussions about sexual assault, the specific context of black girls’ experiences are absent from national policy discourse.

The discrediting of black girls’ experiences starts in preschool and kindergarten, where they are taught to endlessly check, police and second guess themselves. It’s symbolized by the hand games that are deemed too aggressive, the dancing that is too “sexual”, the “signifying” that is too loud, disrespectful, and the outfits that the white and Latina girls can wear without getting sent to the dean’s office. It is due in part to this context that—although black women have some of the highest rates of intimate partner violence and sexual assault—we are the least likely to report having been victimized. Even considering the ways in which fear of policing and criminalization in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy hinders us, there is the trauma of constant vilification from within. The Black Church has always played a key role in enforcing this regime of silence. As one of the most devoutly religious communities in the U.S., heterosexist and homophobic attitudes among black folk often perpetuate stigmas against the sexuality of black women and LGBTQ folk.  Biblical references to women as property, rape objects, seducers and subordinates who should remain “silent” are still deeply ingrained among folk who attend churches where the public face of leadership and authority is straight, cis and male.

When we do sexual violence prevention work with high school students we begin by talking about the destructive power of misogynoir within the context of their everyday teen lives. It seems as though new terms are coined every month to smear black girls’ sexuality. Over the past few weeks, the term “gerb” has become popular, joining “ho” “thot” “ratchet” and umpteen other epithets designed to check the “hypersexual”, “unfeminine” behavior of black girls. Of course, mainstream vocabulary has always been boundlessly creative when it comes to demonizing women’s sexuality. Walking students through the historical context of these terms (e.g., the way in which “wench” and “Jezebel” were used to justify the rape of black women under slavery by branding them as hypersexual breeders) is critical to providing youth with context about the relationship between racist, misogynist representations of black women in the past and that of the present. Here, rape culture has foundations in the white supremacist imagination which are then reinforced by obstructionist policies around prosecution, law enforcement investigations and inadequate rape kit testing, all of which make it more difficult for sexual assault survivors to come forward.

During a recent Women’s Leadership Project and Young Male Scholars’ peer education training with members of the football team at a South L.A. high school it was clear that the demonization of black girls’ sexuality played a key role in boys’ inability to empathize with sexual assault victims. The explosion of social media platforms has made it easier for young people to participate in sexual harassment and assault through sexually explicit posts that often cause their victims to leave school and/or harm themselves. As the young people talked about the dissing that happens on popular social media sites, virtually everyone in the room admitted to knowing a girl who’d been targeted.According to the Pew Research Center, African American teens access social media at greater rates than do non-black teens. For black girls, online predation—whether it’s through Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat—is also one of the most prevalent sources of sex trafficking. Poverty, joblessness, low access to educational opportunities and high rates of foster care representation all contribute to African American girls having disproportionate rates of domestic sex trafficking victimization.

Further, the onslaught of films memorializing and contextualizing victimized white women (be it in portrayals as seemingly disparate as those involving Nicole Brown Simpson, the Manson women killers or Amanda Knox) continues to convey the message that white women’s pain should always have priority. When young people of color see these images ad nauseum they are socialized to believe that they are the most authentic narratives vis-à-vis women’s experiences with abuse and sexual and intimate partner violence.

Restorative justice with accountability means actively engaging and training boys and men to challenge rape culture, sexism and misogyny against black women and girls. It means educating boys and men that when they demean us they are ultimately demeaning their lives, communities and families. It requires a transformative vision of black masculinity, one that confronts the way sexual violence is often framed as a “natural” part of black men’s hetero-normative sense of identity. It demands that community and government resources be shifted to prevention programs as well as therapeutic initiatives that provide critical healing space for victims and survivors—away from the prisons, police, and weaponry that lock down black communities. And it also demands bringing forward marginalized histories of the modern civil rights movement, that with its origins in black women’s resistance to sexual terrorism and rape. Finally, it asks us as black feminists/womanists/survivors who love and work with black children to continue to be on the frontlines as culturally responsive adults bringing the elimination of sexual violence into the narrative of liberation struggle. It is the legacy that our black women ancestors, against the code of violent silence and invisibility in their own homes, families and communities, left for us.


Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D., is the founder of the Black feminist humanist high school mentoring program The Women’s Leadership Project and author of the novel White Nights, Black Paradise. She is a contributing editor for The Feminist Wire. You can follow her on Twitter @sikivuhutch

In My Mother’s Name: Restorative Justice for Survivors of Incest by Liz S. Alexander

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 

By Liz S. Alexander

___________: I, Marla request that you no longer appear at my home due to past crime committed to self lasting several years, non provoked; Crime consisting of both physical and sexual abuse. When in your presence you are not to put your hands on me in any shape or form. Because of you, I have suffered detrimental effects, which have intruded constantly into my life, affecting me as a woman and human being.

 I am the daughter of a survivor of physical and sexual abuse.

During my mother’s childhood and all throughout her adolescence, she was repeatedly physically and sexually abused by her older brothers. All of whom have never been held accountable for their actions. All of whom have been and continue to be protected by the pervasive silence, secrecy, avoidance and denial that seem to be entrenched in my Black family.

As early as eight years old, I can recall my mother, Marla, telling my brother and me about her experiences of sexual and physical abuse during her childhood at the hands of her brothers. Coming from a home of parental absenteeism and neglect, my mother’s only form of escape from the abuse was becoming pregnant at age sixteen by a boy who she “sought emotional comfort from.” In my mother’s attempt to tell me of her abuse, I was unable to fully grasp the depth of what had happened to her. At the time, I couldn’t even begin to conceptualize the abhorrent act of sexual violence. However, I was acutely aware that her experience shaped how she chose to mother me, her only daughter. I can recall that regardless of my mother’s financial status as a single parent raising four children, at each place we lived, I always had my own room. Even if it meant that my brothers went without one. Additionally, my mother was attentive to what I wore and she was extremely sensitive to how boys and men reacted to me in public; especially since I always presented older than what I was because of my Amazonian physique. In one case, I can vividly remember my mother confronting a man in public, who had attempted to engage with me inappropriately.

Unfortunately, my mother’s experience of physical and sexual abuse is not unique. According to a 2014 study on sexual abuse, the U.S. Department of Justice found that an estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. In 93% of the cases, the perpetrators of the abuse were a family member or someone they knew. For Black women and girls, 60% of black girls experience sexual assault by the time they reach 18 and for every black woman that reports her sexual assault there are at least 15 black women who do not, according to the preliminary findings by Black Women’s Blueprint. Additionally, given the legacy of historical trauma in the Black experience in the U.S, coupled with the incessant subjection to violence and victimization under a white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal regime, Black women and girls are often shamed into silence out of the need to sacrifice themselves, in order to protect the “Black race.”

In her book, No Secrets No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse, Robin D. Stone, identifies the following as the cultural taboos and social dynamics that Black women and girls have to navigate, in addition to the sexual abuse they endure, when confronted with incest and other forms of child sexual abuse in a familial context:

Fear of betraying family by turning offenders in to “the system”
Distrust of institutions and authority figures, such as police officers
Reluctance to seek counseling or therapy
A legacy of enslavement and stereotypes about black sexuality

Given this, in order to appropriately support Black women and girls who are survivors of incest and other forms of child sexual abuse within the familial context, in my experience, it is imperative that a restorative justice healing framework be realized and implemented, where the needs of women and girls survivors are centered.

In my personal experience, despite the physical and sexual abuse my mother endured at the hands of her brothers, in her adulthood, she maintained contact with them. In fact, during my childhood, she allowed my siblings and me to spend the night in their homes un-monitored. Granted, by this time, her brothers had families of their own and in my personal experience, when I went to their homes, I was neither harmed nor did I ever fear for my safety. I say this to say that in my Black family, where abuse was and still may be present, the survivors and perpetrators are in contact with each other. And if contact is inevitable, it should be done so in a restorative justice context.

Restorative Justice (RJ) is an indigenous practice that has been used to mediate conflict for centuries. However, it was introduced in the 21st century as theoretical concept by John Braithwaite, Howard Zehr, and Mark Umbreit (and others). RJ is a non punitive process that seeks to mediate conflict between victims, offenders and the community at large, for the purpose of healing harm and fostering rehabilitation for all parties involved. Moreover, for families, RJ involves “acknowledgment of fault by the offender (and family), restitution of some sort to the victim, including both affective apologies and material exchanges or payments, and often new mutual understandings, forgiveness, and agreed-to new undertakings for improved behaviors.” RJ re-connects offenders back to the family rather than isolate them, while holding the offenders accountable.

Additionally, if RJ is to be realized as an effective framework for Black families to heal survivors, offenders and the entire family from sexual violence, as well as to dismantle familial sexual violence, the healing needs of Black women and girls must be centered. When Black women and girls are centered in this process, RJ creates the space where they are empowered to decide what justice is. They also have the power to choose to forgive and accept restitution or reconciliation, or not, as well as to choose what they think is the proper balance between reconciliation and family peace. And the first step to centering the needs of Black women and girls is to believe them.

Unfortunately, my mother will never have the opportunity to experience the process of RJ because she died prematurely as a result of negative life outcomes that were a direct result of her childhood experiences of physical and sexual violence. However, she devoted the latter part of her life to healing herself, reclaiming her power, confronting her abusers and raising a daughter who would one day call out and disrupt the pervasive silence, secrecy, avoidance and denial regarding physical and sexual abuse that seem to be entrenched in her Black family.

I am the daughter of a survivor of physical and sexual abuse,


I claim healing in my mother’s name.


Liz S. Alexander MA, MSW is a thought leader, public servant and advocate for justice involved youth. A recent transplant from Chicago, Liz has extensive experience working in a program administrative capacity supporting system involved youth. Liz is the founder of She Dreams of Freedom, a project that raises awareness about the plight of girls in the juvenile justice system, while also providing a platform to empower the voices of girls in the juvenile justice system. As a restorative justice practitioner, Liz is committed to working in partnership with justice involved girls to end the pipeline of girls into the juvenile justice system. In 2015, Liz was recognized as a “40 under 40” Young Woman Professional Leader by Demoiselle 2 Femme, a trailblazing organization serving girls on the South Side of Chicago, and most recently she was named as a “ Woman of Influence” by the YWCA of New York City. Liz received a Masters of Social Work with a focus in Trauma and Violence from the University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration and a Masters of Religious Leadership with a concentration in Social Transformation from the Chicago Theological Seminary. Liz received her Bachelor’s of Arts degree from Spelman College where she majored in Sociology.