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Podcast: Black girls’ experiences of sexual abuse

Last updated: 27 Sept 2021 Topics: Podcast

Exploring the absence of Black girls’ experiences of sexual abuse in research and practice

We spoke to Jahnine Davis, co-founder of Listen Up, about her work into exploring the lack of representation of Black girls’ experiences in research and child sexual abuse services, including suggestions to help improve practice.

Ineke Houtenbos, a senior consultant with the NSPCC, and Jahnine discuss:

  • why the experiences of Black girls are missing from research and the impact on policy and practice
  • key findings from Jahnine’s research, including the experiences of participants
  • learning to improve practice and research
  • Jahnine’s experience as a Black woman embarking on this work.

This episode contains quotes from research participants about their experiences which might be upsetting and cause distress. If you need further support, please contact the NSPCC helpline or visit the Childline website.

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About the speakers

Jahnine Davis, a PhD researcher, has over 20 years’ experience in the charity sector and is recognised nationally as a leader in the field of intersectionality, adultification and safeguarding Black children and young people.

Ineke Houtenbos is an experienced child protection professional with over 21 years’ experience and has provided training and consultancy on anti-racism awareness and anti-racist practice. She is a Senior Training and Development Consultant for the NSPCC in Northern Ireland.

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Related resources

> Learn more about Listen Up

> Read more about preventing child sexual abuse

> Browse our research reports and briefings

> Contact the NSPCC helpline

> Visit the Childline website


Podcast transcription

Welcome to the NSPCC Learning podcast, where we share learning and expertise in child protection from inside and outside of the organisation. We aim to create debate, encourage reflection and share good practice on how we can all work together to keep babies, children and young people safe.

Hi and thanks for listening to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. In this episode, we hear from Jahnine Davis, one of the founders of Listen Up, an organisation that engages professionals to critically reflect on approaches to child safeguarding. You'll find links to Listen Up on this podcast's webpage. And if you haven't listened to it already, last month's podcast on intersectionality with Jahnine and Nick from Listen Up, is definitely worth a listen.

This episode was recorded in June 2021 and focuses on Jahnine's work into the absence of Black girls' experiences of child sexual abuse in both research and practice. Jahnine sat down with an Ineke Houtenbos, a senior consultant with the NSPCC. Jahnine and Ineke discuss Jahnine's research and key findings, why the experiences of Black girls is missing from research and the impact that this has on policy and practice, how it's been for Jahnine as a Black woman embarking on this work and listening to the participant's experiences. And finally, what we can learn from this in order to improve practice and research.

Now this podcast does contain quotes from the participants about their experiences which are upsetting and may cause distress. Further support is available from the NSPCC helpline and Childline which we'll signpost at the end of this podcast.

I really wanted to just start with asking the question around what prompted you to look into this?

Well what prompted me was first that there is a lack of research which provides explicit attention to this area. And I always question what's the impact? If we don't have research - and we know research has a massive impact in relation to policy, practice implications - if we do not have a diverse range of research which focuses on different experiences in relation to child sexual abuse, then what does that mean in terms of whose narratives and experiences are included and excluded from these conversations?

And I think there is something about the research space. If I'm honest, as a Black woman, I wanted to enter into this space to ensure that I was amplifying these experiences because there is a tendency to focus on international research, specifically within the US, to have a better understanding about these experiences. And of course, we have the great work of Professor Claudia Bernard, but there is still this tendency to look towards international research when actually I think that continues to demonstrate the fact that we have this paucity of research as to why we have to do that.

And lastly, there is something about representation that through my practice experience as well as within my research career, there is still this tendency to use really unhelpful language such as, 'BAME - Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic'. And when I was reviewing literature in the study area, either there was the use of that language or the research tended more to focus on the experiences of South Asian women and girls - which again was very homogenised but still very much focused on South Asian women and girls.

There was really nothing pointing me into the direction of having a better or deeper understanding from a practice perspective in terms of the experiences of Black girls. And that was why my research title was “Where are the Black girls?” because every time I picked up a research paper as I was undertaking my M.A. in Women and Child Abuse, that was always my question, where are the Black girls? Where are they in relation to child sexual abuse services? And I guess if and to what extent do various different stereotypes of Black girls influence how we as professionals identify and understand those experiences.

So do you think that they are linked in terms of the archetypal stereotypes that we have about Black women and girls and the lack of research around that then?

I would say that was one of my findings. So in total, I identified nine findings from my research and one of which was around the caricature of Black women and girls and those very traditional and lazy stereotypes, very much underpinned by racialised sexism. Whether it's the strong Black woman, or whether it's the angry Black woman, whether it's been the innately hypersexual Black woman - how all of these really harmful and very deficit-based stereotypes influence how professionals perceive them will go far enough to use curiosity, to apply that curiosity, to go that bit further to ensure that there is an understanding of those experiences rather than the assumptions based on these traditional and very unhelpful and harmful stereotypes. And that was definitely something which came up.

To give you an example, one of the research participants spoke about the fact that they had experienced sexual abuse. But the response from the service was very much that they thought that she was resilient, strong. And that when we talk about resilience that there isn't an acknowledgement that although it's been used and framed in a way - and I guess from a contemporary perspective of something quite positive - but actually for Black girls, there is already this assumption, a pre-existing stereotype of being strong. So therefore, when we think about resilience, we have to really question the trajectory in which we're viewing that form of resilience, and how Black girls are excluded from that. Because they've always been placed in some way which completely takes away that level of vulnerability, where we just always view them through the lens of strength, having this hyper-strength. And that was definitely one of the caricatures which featured throughout my study.

And that's very difficult to hear because we often focus on child protection and we talk about the child's point of view and centring the child within all of the work that we do, but if we're not seeing them as 'deserving' of the help, and if we don't value their experience in terms of a child whose experienced extreme trauma, then that's going to impact on the pathways for services. So there's a clear intersection there, isn't there, between racism and sexism then that impacts on them?

Definitely, that when we think about Black girls - and that's why it's really important - I know the word intersectionality is featuring a lot in various different spaces, especially within, I would say it's being newly applied to safeguarding practice in comparison to some of the other spaces within the women's sector. Especially Black feminist organisations have been working within intersectional frameworks for many, many years, but what we're seeing in terms of safeguarding is, I'm hoping anyway, this increased desire to really understand the importance of intersectionality. That it's more than a buzzword. That it really does matter to the work that we do. That we have to think about how the various different individual aspects of somebody's identity intersect, collide, overlap. But ultimately what that means in terms of what they then may experience, whether that's on a micro level, within the familial context, whether from a macro institutional service, wide level. Because what we do know for Black girls is that these various different caricatures such as I said, the strong Black woman, the angry Black woman, this is very much underpinned by gendered racism.

This is not just something about well there's a racist issue happening over there in isolation. This is very much intertwined with the fact that we are talking about Black girls. And when we think about how Black femininity, how that's placed and how it's positioned in society, it's very much through a 'deviant' lens. And there's loads of research, there's loads of literature which explores this from focusing on colonialism, all the way from slavery in terms of where it was legal, where rape and sexual abuse was legitimised. So what does that now mean in terms of how Black women and girls continue to be objectified, continue to be devalued? And this is why I really wanted to focus on this in relation to child sexual abuse, which for many might feel uncomfortable, because in some way we all would like to hope and think that surely those various different notions wouldn't play out in a safeguarding and welfare space, but I think would be quite naive to suggest that it doesn't. And something my study identified was yes it does. We know that, due to these various different belief systems, very much influence how Black girls are perceived as deserving or undeserving victims, they very much tend to be positioned within that undeserving narrative.

That just increases the barriers, doesn't it? In terms of them being able to seek help? Because some of your research talked as well about how they're viewed within their communities which can be a barrier. And then how they're perceived externally outside of their communities as you were just saying there. Can you say a little bit more about that?

So looking at the theme for example around adultification - where that was one of the findings - there was this assumption that Black girls are these hyper-resilient, overtly-confident, loud individuals, but actually that doesn't necessarily correlate to what they might be experiencing. One, how they might perceive themselves and two, what they might be experiencing within a familial setting. And I was really interested to explore intrafamilial sexual abuse to better understand, what does that mean in terms of the various different spaces Black girls or some Black girls have to navigate? Because you have the really strong societal messages you're born into externally, which completely dismiss, erase and disregard vulnerability and just the innate innocence of vulnerability all children have, but specifically Black girls.

But then on the other hand, if you're then within an environment where you're experiencing that harm and abuse, how are you able to navigate that? What does safety then look like for you? Where do you go? Who is protecting Black girls? And what came up was around over-valuing of Black boyhood. That historically, there has been such a lens and presence on focusing on the punitive responses Black boys get, from whether that’s stop and search, whether that's just looking at the criminal justice system. We just have to look at Lammy, 2017 - we know that there is still an issue with our criminal justice system and those who are more likely to go down a criminal justice route than a child welfare route. However, what we tend to do is focus on the experiences of Black boys and Black girls just continue to almost become quite invisible; we don't see them.

I remember one of the participants saying, “well look, if you are a Black girl and you're experiencing sexual abuse and the person who's committing that abuse is from somebody of your same background, that's another Black boy, a Black man, where do you go? How do you manage that?” And historically I would say that without wanting to homogenise and say this is for everybody, there is definitely evidence to suggest that for many Black communities, they continue to be overlooked and not necessarily protected, or feel they've been protected by the state. So if you think about that in the sense of child sexual abuse, where we have girls who are experiencing abuse, not only are they navigating that very challenging space of 'victimised by abuse', but then they're also challenging that space of where do you go when they're going into a system who historically has actually also not protected you and not protected your communities.

And doesn't value you as a child that is suffering ultimately and that needs the support and help and care. When we think about all of that, what did you find was the main direction taken when the risk of child sexual abuse was identified and acknowledged for Black girls?

There wasn't a specific direction. Instead there was more of a lack of questioning and understanding. There was something around value, and the lack of understanding around how value manifests over time, where there is this almost this continuum of devaluation for Black girls and Black women. And that's either through the lens of if we're talking about sexual abuse - it must be gang-related sexual abuse. So there was again that lack of curiosity to just sometimes go that bit further. Especially when we're thinking about - yes, we know studies suggest that Black girls might be at an increased risk, specifically those who live in areas where there is various different forms of gang violence in those spaces - but actually, that doesn't necessarily account to what does that mean in terms of if you're experiencing sexual abuse within the home, what about those Black girls? And in some way that there is such a strong emphasis and focus on gang associated sexual exploitation, sexual violence, that I think we're really missing the other, wider experiences of sexual abuse. And I think that further plays out when there was a lack of questioning or this kind of 'decreased' sense of value provided to Black girls who experience harm because of those various different racialised stereotypes.

And that's why throughout my research, I wanted to be really clear that racism underpins. Racism is the compounding factor throughout all of this. That we can't talk about referral pathways as this separate thing happening over there. We can't talk about a lack of knowing or understanding of the needs and experiences of Black girls, or the various different stereotypes associated to Black girls or forced onto them, without talking about the impact racism has and how that has featured across all of those spaces.

Taking all of that into consideration, what did the participants actually say to you about their own experiences and in their own words?

They said a lot and actually, I think it's important to note that whilst this was an M.A. study and therefore a small scale study, the findings were not just important in terms of thinking about considerations for practice but definitely overwhelming. Because even though they were based across various different locations across England, various different age groups - all of them were from Black ethnic backgrounds.

What came up the most was the concept of value. And I remember one of the participants said, “well Black girls aren't deemed as being beautiful, so almost be grateful for the abuse”, and that out of all of them, that one's always stayed with me the most because that message around you're not necessarily understanding the impacts racism has. The impact that it has when it comes to how messages become internalised, over years and years of being told you're no good, being told you're ugly. All of this colourism, that if you're 'too dark' or if your features don't align to Eurocentric standards of beauty, whether that's the messages you see in the media and the TV playing out those covert messages, or whether it's those overt messages you might hear from others. And then to have somebody say “actually well of course we see that, Black girls aren't seen as being beautiful so if you are experiencing sexual abuse, you know, almost be grateful. Almost be grateful for the abuse.”

And then another participant said, “well look, no one cares about us. Our experiences. Do you think anybody cares about Black girls?”. And that was this feeling of who cares? Who's protecting Black girls? That level of attention which all children should receive are we seeing that play out in the same way for Black girls? And there was a massive focus on when Black girls go missing, which is interesting when you think about the various different debates happening currently at the moment in terms of children being missing, children experiencing harm, who do we see portrayed in the media to those who we don't necessarily see or hear about?

One of the features was that there was almost this complicit silencing of Black girls. That we have the experiences of Black girls almost missing from history. And one of the participants says, “well no one values us, no one questions us. Our experiences are not acknowledged in research. We are perceived as being strong. Why would anybody want to focus on us? That we have Black girls going missing left, right and centre, who's placing any emphasis on that?”.

And then there was something really interesting which came up around, is research and the research space some way complicit in silencing experiences? If we continue to only magnify some experiences, and I'm not saying that's intentional, but however, are we going far enough as researchers, specifically research spaces which are set up to focus on sexual abuse or other wider forms of harm, child abuse, if we are not explicitly placing attention on those voices, which we know are lesser heard, are we then complicit in silencing those experiences, if we continue just to keep saying the same old, same old? And for many of the participants, they said, “Black girls, no one cares about us because no one's ever spoken about us”.

And that goes back to that adage of we can't address what we can't see. And if we're not looking at that in research and it means almost that it's incumbent on every safeguarding professional to really be very critical about what research they're using that informs their work. Who's actually represented in that research?

And who's missing…

Exactly and then asking questions from there.

Indeed. I think one of the challenges which came up was around if we're talking about Black girls and child sexual abuse and some of the issues within that lack of identification, it also means we have to place the lens on services. We have to talk about what our responsibilities are as individual professionals based within those services. That means we have to talk about racism. And the reality, in terms of what was said from my study, was that's a massive issue still.

That not only is there resistance to really explore it, but one of the participants said, “instead what happens is that there is now this focus and this shift on unconscious bias rather than talking about conscious bias”. And by talking about unconscious bias - of course it exists - we all have various different biases that we hold, but by solely talking about or framing experiences of inequalities of discrimination around “it must be the unconscious bias playing out” in some way excuses professionals and services to consciously make an effort to acknowledge that there is conscious behaviour happening within that. That we also have conscious bias as well. And that by focusing on unconscious bias that almost continues to just silence and move away from the impact bias just has on Black girls.

Throughout the study I think what really came up, what just continued to surface to me was that we can have all of this understanding about the experiences of Black girls, but that has to happen in conjunction with having open, transparent and honest discussions and having reflective, accountable spaces about the function of racism in those spaces, within our policies within our research.

As I said, whether intentional or unintentional, we have to think about the impacts of not having the voices and experiences of Black girls included in those spaces and what the consequence and the impact is. Because if Black girls are seen as being innately hypersexual, again, which really stems back from slavery, colonialism - Black girls as these wayward women - of course, that's then going to possibly impact on how we then identify them as victims of CSA (child sexual abuse). So if we do not question and really hold ourselves to account then we're allowing those various different pre-existing racist narratives to play out and how we might perceive certain communities, in particular Black communities, where there is sexual abuse.

Perhaps that's some of the resistance around doing anti-racist work, is that it kind of starts with that unconscious bias as you said and then people kind of release any responsibility by having to do something about it because it's unconscious so we don't have to follow it up. Whereas actually it's about being humble, being vulnerable and thinking, “okay how is this actually impacting on my practice? It's actually not protecting children for me to think this way”.

It's exactly that. And what I will say is that a big emphasis is very much from an external perspective, in terms of services, professionals, especially where participants who I should say over half of the participants I interviewed were victim-survivors of child sexual abuse. But what was really also apparent was how racism features and how that becomes internalised within the home, within the communities. And that narrative of ‘don't talk, don't share your business outside of the home'. Now when you position that in just an isolated space without any context, naturally you might then take quite a deficit perspective or unintentionally pathologise certain communities to say “well they have an issue over there with sharing information because they don't trust the police”. You have to really add some context to that. We have to acknowledge that because of the experiences of intergenerational traumas of racism, which when we think about high profile cases, but we also have to acknowledge those individual experiences over time. And that individual Black girl might not have had that direct experience.

It might be that there have been indirect experiences which have continued to be told, over time and over time, which of course, then influence and impact on how somebody perceived safety. So therefore, when you're told “don't talk business outside of your home”, let's be real, some of that might be coming from that abusive parent who doesn't want their child to go and say anything to various different trusted adults. But some of that is also very much underpinned by that protective, caring parent who's saying “don't chat our business outside of the house” and why is that? That's because we know when you leave this home, when you say that, we know that you're more than likely going to experience these type of injustices or these type of harsher narratives, whether you're a Black girl or a Black boy, because of those various different societal stereotypes.

So we have to also acknowledge that yes there's that external presence in terms of how professionals engage or disengage with Black girls, but how that then influences within the familial setting because participants were sharing their various different experiences of growing up in households where Black girls aren't allowed to be girls. That adultification is a core feature throughout. But that growing up and having to grow up quick and being perceived as an adult is also due to having to prepare Black girls at a much more faster pace for the outside world because of the realities of that increased possibility of them experiencing much more hardship when they leave the front door.

I wanted to ask you a little bit of a personal question. What is it like for you as a Black woman and as a mother listening to these experiences? What is that like for you?

To be completely honest, it was really challenging. It was really difficult. It was really difficult. I had to pause a lot throughout my study to just gather myself. And I think that was because when I was hearing the messages, specifically that one around being grateful for the abuse or Black girls not being seen as being beautiful, the conversations about colourism and that lack of worth, they resonated with me so personally growing up as what it was like for me growing up being Black, growing up as a Black girl, navigating those same experiences.

And I think it made me question how far have we really come and the messages which I received growing up from when I was young, in terms of having to be that bit stronger or having to work that bit harder or acknowledging that I might be treated differently because I am of this colour. I think what has changed in terms of what messages my children then receive and although I might reframe that differently, the experience hasn't changed. And I think about we're in 2021 and professionals and I really want to place the emphasis on safeguarding are still tripping up over saying the word Black, saying racism, like it's so challenging and almost offensive to say the word. More offensive than the actual experience. That it's so important to think about this.

And I would say as a Black woman researching this, it was really challenging because I am navigating the experiences externally. I'm navigating what is to grow up in England and be a Black woman who has experienced racism. I've experienced racism throughout my whole life and I'm conscious of that. I'm conscious of the predominantly white research spaces that I also then have to navigate where I then have to share this information.

I almost felt this sense of protection. I was so protective with my research because, especially where there was focuses on what happens within some home environments. Not because I wanted to silence those who had come forward and shared their narratives and experiences but because I was really, really acutely aware of the spaces I was then going to have to show and shared those experiences where for me there was possibly that lack of understanding and that automatic assumption to pathologise and 'other' and say " look over there", rather than to be able to really contextualise and understand this experience.

So it was really, really difficult. But it also makes me think as a Black researcher, as a Black woman who's been working in safeguarding for many years, if you are also Black and from another ethnic minoritised background and you're working in spaces where you are not necessarily representative or seeing yourself, that increased burden, that increased feeling of "I know what that feels like" and I think that that isn't necessarily... I don't think we still really address what that means for Black practitioners in terms of how they feel. I just want to shout out the work of Kijiji who are doing quite a lot of work at the moment focusing on Black safeguarding professionals - just so, so needed. But definitely as a Black woman researching this, it was challenging.

By me placing a lens on the communities that I'm from, what does that feel like for me in terms of feeling like some kind of traitor? That I'm now, you know, almost outsider/insider. Always will be an insider, but I'm definitely placing a lens to magnify some specific issues. And how might that land? I think about what my friends might think, my family members might think. It was really, really challenging. So I would say that anybody who's researching child sexual abuse, just anybody of course, you really do have to take care of yourself and I had a very good network around me.

But I think we have to acknowledge that intersection of when you are a Black woman researching this and you're researching areas specifically focusing on areas which relate to your own identity and possible own lived experiences, there has to be further support provided because it's really challenging. And it hurts. It hurts because we know this is happening. And that's what led me to do my PhD which I'm now in my second year focusing on service responses to Black children and how perceptions of Black children - if, and to what extent, do perceptions of Black children impact safeguarding responses?

And that was because one of the quotes - one of the comments I should say - from one of the participants from my M.A., I remember she just said and she was so exhausted and very, very teary, and she just said, "who's protecting us?". And that's what's always just left me is "who's protecting us?" and that's the name of my PhD study. And that's why I want to continue. I didn't choose to go into research. I just didn't really want to. I'm like, "oh, gosh, that's not for me", but for me this is a political and personal decision more than anything because I am really tired and exhausted of not hearing the narratives and experiences of Black children. Or having that footnote on a research paper of "we know that there are additional needs and experiences of 'BAME' children, of disabled children, of LGBT+ children". I'm really tired of that. I want to explicitly pay attention to the experiences of Black children so that is what I'm doing.

And it's so important that you do this and I can't thank you enough, both personally and professionally for doing this work. Because it's necessary. And it's necessary that those children also hear that voice and hear your voice and see that there are people out there who will listen. So in terms of service responses as you've mentioned there, what would some of your recommendations be for those of us who are listening to this today in terms of how do you do better?

I think there are a few things. First in terms of the research space, I think we need to really start emphasising what facilitates telling, what facilitates communicating harm, rather than what the barriers are. I think we have to really start to explore how our current assessment tools, frameworks we use, whether they're the traditional frameworks underpinning wider safeguarding practice or whether they're the tools and frameworks individual services have designed, who do they include? Who do they exclude? Is there an understanding of the experiences of Black girls?

I would say there has to be some more attention provided to an understanding of racialised stereotypes. Because it's just not good enough anymore to say "we don't know". You have a duty to go and find out. If you don't know, identify what your knowledge gaps are. Think about who your service provision is currently providing service to. Is that reflective of the geographical or the demographic of young people within your geographical location.

Thinking about how we can start to adopt much more courageous conversations in our narratives rather than just saying, anti-oppressive, anti-racist. Let's really think about what does that mean in practice? How do we engage in conversations about racism? How do we start to really unpick and think about how our own individual lived experiences, professional careers, may have collided in some way to influence how we might perceive certain communities. Especially those who differ from us, with a specific emphasis on Black communities - I'm speaking about in relation to my research. Maybe looking at the referral pathways. Maybe do some dip sampling to identify who is being referred to what service, and is there difference in terms of where Black girls might be going - that's if we're seeing them at all - are they going down that gang associated exploitation pathway and are they being picked up much later? Are we focusing as well on intrafamilial abuse? We know that there are wider conversations happening in relation to how there is a focus so much on extrafamilial, let's also not forget intrafamilial harm; abuse within the home.

But as I said, first and foremost, I think we have to start with ourselves. We really do. Because we have a duty to safeguard and protect all children and I think when I go back to that point, that participant said, "who's protecting us?", my wish for safeguarding practice is that no child ever has to ask that question. No child ever has to contemplate that. That they know that we are there to protect them, regardless of their background, regardless of the colour of their skin. I just don't think we're there yet. But I do hope and believe that one day we will get there.

And thanks to your work, one day we will. Thank you.


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