“You know he’s got a taste for darker skinned women who no one else finds attractive...[it’s] assumed maybe that there's something you could gain from it”. When I heard these words in BBC Three’s Documentary ‘Tim Westwood, Abuse of Power’ it hit so deep. I’d never quite heard words that summed up my relationship with being a victim of sexual violence who also happened to be dark-skinned and therefore, ‘undesirable’ in the eyes of Western society. The point on an axis where unwanted attention and advances meets the desire to be seen as attractive and sexually desired. This point on the imaginary axis is a very difficult and taboo territory, that very few discuss openly, especially when it comes to those of us who are victims of sexual violence and/or harassment. How do we know that it qualifies as sexual harassment when we’re constantly told by society that we’re unwanted and therefore we should be grateful if we are getting sexual attention? This feeling not only complicates the survivor’s understanding of the experience but often hinders darker skinned black women (and those of other marginalised genders of course) decision to speak out about their experiences, let alone take a step further to report such incidents. Desirability politics and hierarchies that exist within our society also affects which victims are listened to and who we feel more empathy towards. Many people have mentioned the disparities between the media (as well as legal) attention certain victims get over others. This isn’t to say that those who get media attention or are given space to share their experiences, shouldn't be able to have these privileges, but more so to say that this shouldn’t be a privilege but a right given to everyone irrespective of skin tone or how conventionally attractive they are. On a personal level, it has taken me many years to acknowledge instances of sexual harassment and violence because of this. My understanding of what counts as a violation has been muddled with feelings of ‘gratefulness’ that someone was viewing me as sexually desirable. It's something I still struggle with. And like any other trauma, many of my experiences have been pushed to a safe box/chest in the back of mind, which I hope eventually, one day, I will be able to open and begin to process its content. Ultimately though, because I’m not yet ready to do so, it means that despite my awareness of these blurred lines, I will continue to fall victim to people violating my boundaries. Whether that is in the form of racial fetishization or through situations where I am made to feel as though I should be grateful for sexual attention because of my skin tone. I think it's okay and important to acknowledge that chasm; the gap between being aware and still being susceptible to violation. Through this, you realise that there will always be an element of vulnerability that is somewhat inevitable. Especially for Black women. It is very rare to be seen as vulnerable and fragile and as someone who should also be protected. Often, Black women and non-binary people assume the role of the ‘protector’ or the ‘all knowing’, ‘untouchable’, ‘strong’ woman, who’s always there to help and to be a place of refuge for others. But sometimes, the problem with this is that society can fail to create safe spaces for the same people who are being the ‘safe haven’. Fragility is rarely afforded to Black women but more so in situations where they are the victim. And this can become tricky to navigate if you find yourself in a situation where you have been violated. You start to panic, thinking, where should I go? Where is it safe for me? Who will believe me? Who will see me?
This is what I mean when I say desirability politics is more than just wanting or longing to feel attractive, it’s more than just the experience of a single individual but rather it is about the way that individual, or group of people, is perceived. Knowing that there is a possibility that you might not be believed because people who look like you aren’t usually seen as ‘vulnerable’ or in need of protection, is tough. And then in turn, you can end up feeling like a fraud or a liar because you aren’t seen as the usual or ‘perfect’ victim. Whilst I do not have a solution to this, I think it would be important for all of us (especially for those who aren’t darker-skinned black women) to notice the ways we continue to push certain narratives around who is a victim and who isn’t. This can involve thinking about who is casted or centred in campaigns about sexual violence, or as simple as extending safe spaces or platforms to speak out, to all different kinds of victims. Not only is this beneficial for people who look like me, it will inevitably be useful for other marginalised people who exist outside of the labels of ‘white’ ‘straight’ ‘cisgender’ ‘woman’ ‘conventionally attractive’. With this, alongside unlearning to de-centre whiteness, we can help to create safer spaces and realities for marginalised people. Finally, for those of you who have read this and felt like you could relate: I feel you and see you. I definitely don’t have the answers but I hope that by talking about my own experiences of sexual violence and its added complexity because of my colour, it acts as a comfort to know that you’re not the only one out there navigating these feelings and experiences.
Maxine is a mental health advocate, anti-racism activist and writer who is currently at university studying PPE. You can find them on Instagram here.