what the holtzclaw trial tells us about intersectionality and rape culture
The conviction of a former Oklahoma City police officer is a bittersweet victory for African-American women.
Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted December 10 of 18 counts of rape and sexual assault. The former officer was charged in 2014 with 36 counts including rape, sexual battery, forcible oral sodomy and stalking. During the month-long trial, his victims, 13 black women ranging in age from 17 to 57-years-old, told an all-white jury how Holtzclaw stalked them and after stopping them, would force them to perform sexual acts in order to avoid arrest.
Convicted of four counts of first-degree rape, he faces a possible life sentence and is set to appear in court for January 21.
To the dismay of many, throughout the trial it appeared as though the victims were on trial rather than the accused. As many of the women had existing criminal records for substance abuse and prostitution, the defense repeatedly attacked their credibility. Holtzclaw’s attorney questioned why the women did not report the attacks to authorities immediately following their occurrences and suggested to the jury the women were liars with an “agenda.”
Allegations of sexual assault are difficult to prove regardless of the circumstances. Many women do not report a sexual assault because of the shame, stigma and blame that often come with it. Usually a matter of he-said-versus-she-said, 68 per cent of rapes in the U.S. go unreported while one study said the majority of rapists never spend a single day in prison for their crimes. Yet while victims of sexual assault often face immense challenges in trying to receive justice, for black women these challenges are magnified.
The rape of black women by white men has its roots in American history when as slaves, women were subjected to brutal and violent sexual assault by their masters. As they were not deemed “people,” there was no justice for these women and this culture of rape and assault became embedded in the black woman’s history. But centuries later this culture has continued, though the paradigm has shifted. While the law has made it possible for women of colour to seek justice for their attacks (to what extent though, is to be argued) African American women continue to make up an significant portion of rape victims. Often depicted as promiscuous, sexual beings, these stereotypes of black women have helped to make them the invisible victims.
The systematic targeting of Holtzclaw’s victims is a clear example of how intersectionality impacts rape victims of colour differently than white victims. As most of these women were from low-income neighbourhoods and had been convicted of a crime, they were seen as easier targets. As the defense proved in court, their circumstances and life choices made it easier to discredit their traumatic experiences. In addition to common misconceptions of sexual assault that place the blame on the victim rather than the perpetrator, these women had to prove their vulnerability and susceptibility to being raped. By mainstream societal standards they were not attractive, successful, nor desirable- why would a white police officer want these women?
Perhaps it was this same attitude which led to a significant underreporting of this case. While the stories of Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi’s victims- mostly white- sparked international outrage, Holtzclaw’s victims received only a fraction of this attention.
In an emotional press conference Friday, some of Holtzclaw’s victims spoke out about their attacks. Jannie Ligons, the first victim to report her assault to authorities, told reporters how the incident has left her traumatized. Though clearly emotional, she made it clear she was not the one to blame for her attack.
“All I know is I wasn’t a criminal,” she said. “I have no record. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Sexual misconduct is believed to be among the most prevalent types of complaints against law enforcement officers. A recent investigation by the Associated Press uncovered 1,000 officers who had lost their badges in a six-year period for rape, sodomy and sexual assault (among other sex crimes). Though they lost their badges, they were not necessarily charged or convicted of a crime. Given these lack of convictions and the nature of this case in particular, it was unlikely a jury would find Holtzclaw guilty for his crimes. At a time when racial tensions continue to rise across the U.S., this unlikelihood was only heightened. Although the all-white jury found him guilty on only half of the charges, the conviction is nevertheless being called justice.
Speaking at the press conference Friday Benjamin Crump, the American attorney famously known for representing the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, spoke of the difficulties the women faced throughout the trial. But praising the case’s outcome, he said, “I really believe that equal justice prevails in America.”
It took the testimonies of 13 women and over one year for Daniel Holtzclaw to be convicted. In that time, one of his victims suffered serious health complications including a stroke, while another says she requires extensive therapy to cope with the trauma.
And so the question must be asked: for who does this justice prevail and at what cost?
But that’s just According to Adrienne.