Nia Green, a 16-year girl from Savannah, Georgia, like many teenagers these days, posted “salacious” photos of herself with her boyfriend on her Facebook page. Her mother Shanavia Miller became enraged when she saw it, and decided to teach her daughter a lesson about morality and respectability. She called her “nasty” and a “ho,” hit her with a piece of thin plywood, punched her in the face and abdomen as the girl whimpered in a corner. And she recorded the four-minute beating and posted it on Green’s Facebook page for her friends to see.
And we saw it too: With our culture’s erotic obsession with violence, especially against young Black bodies, the video went viral, sparking yet another debate about digi-punishment.
Some commenters condoned both the beating and the posting, saying Green shouldn’t have been sexually active nor should she have shared the details online. Others condoned Miller’s beating her, but felt she went too far by publicly humiliating her. And then others were critical of all of it: the beating and the publicizing of it, because not only did she post a video; she included instructions on how to make the video “go viral.”
Thankfully there were viewers who forwarded the video to the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department, according to the Washington Post. And though no charges have been filed yet in connection with the video, according to a department spokesperson, Miller could eventually face criminal charges. “The spokesperson also noted that, though the daughter told police she felt safe in her home, the case was still referred to the Department of Family and Children Services.”
Green posted on Facebook that “she believes that she was wrong to have embarrassed her mom. ‘I know next time to just keep my business to myself.’” Her decision to “keep her business to herself” shows a rupture in the mother-daughter bond, suggesting she doesn’t view her mother as someone she can confide in or turn to for advice about sexual matters.
Physical punishment and shaming girls for their emerging sexuality may not be unique to Black mothers, but there is a cultural specificity that is connected to centuries of racialized sexual trauma. It has a lot to do with the way Black females have been dehumanized in this country: We were chattel, property, raped with impunity. The stereotype of the insatiable Jezebel, who lured White men into her bed, was used to excuse sexual violence against Black women and girls to reinforce the notion that we are inherently promiscuous, while ignoring the ongoing violent sexual abuse that we have always faced—whether from White slave owners and overseers, or from members of our own families and communities.
During slavery, Black mothers sometimes tried to make their daughters unattractive to protect them from the horrors of America’s white supremacist rape culture, which continued during the Jim Crow era. Sexualized images of Black boys and girls circulated throughout popular culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Black females have also been subjected to forced sterilization and blamed for breeding social problems by giving birth to little menaces to society.
In the 1980s, the myth of the “welfare queen” effectively tricked many Black parents, community leaders, and politicians into shifting conversations about the real structural sources of chronic poverty in Black communities away from calculated racism to their daughter’s budding sexuality and reproductive potential.
Underscoring all of this generational vilification and trauma is a unique form of female hatred and hostility that affects Black girls and women inside and outside of our communities.
One Facebook commenter, Aysha Bee, posted that some Black mothers might collude in the conspiracy of silence when girls are being sexually abused because they “hate the idea of your teenage daughter ever having autonomy of her own body. You hate the fact that your teenage daughter is discovering her femininity and sexuality. But when your daughter is molested or raped by a family member or her dad or your husband or your male friend or just a guy in general … you deny it happened to her. You tell her to suck it up for the sake of the family. You keep her abuser around. You don’t report the sexual assault. You blame your daughter by telling her she shouldn’t have been acting grown.”
Bee’s Facebook page was placed on a 30-day ban after that post.
A belief that White America will embrace Black children if they are embodiments of some pure morality is an illusion. To a parent operating from this fear-driven belief system, it might seem that keeping their children “young” and innocent will protect them from being victimized, stereotyped, criminalized, and experiencing the same levels of violence directed at Black adults.
Traditional religion, with its ideas that anything sexual is inherently sinful and intolerance for the natural emergence of sexuality and sexual desires, further contributes to this—and not just for people of color. Behold the high rates of teen pregnancy in the Bible Belt, and parents disowning their children for early pregnancy or being gay.
The belief held by many parents that beating and shaming girls can help to control their emerging sexuality is dangerous, physiologically and psychologically, not only because it erodes the trust and bond between parent and child. It also sends the message to kids that sex is something that needs to be suppressed and hidden. And over two decades’ worth of scientific studies reveal hitting, hollering, and threatening girls can set off a form of toxic stress that can trigger early onset puberty and lead to sex before their minds are prepared to understand the potential consequences. Girls who do not experience warmth and trust at home with their parents are more likely to seek affection and “release” elsewhere.
In Black communities, there’s a culture of silence around the harm that corporal punishment causes our children. We can’t call momma out, or hold her accountable for the damage she might cause. And that silence is what makes sex a taboo topic and has many of us believing that beatings/whuppings/spankings are an act of “love.” This is such a confusing message to our girls. To understand the issue of sexual abuse within our communities requires us to look at the impact of corporal punishment and the denial of bodily integrity.
Over the past year, I interviewed 32 Black women, ages 19 to 54 for my forthcoming book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America. I wanted to explore potential connections between whuppings and sexual abuse. Of the respondents, 17 women identified as heterosexual; eight as lesbian; one queer; four bisexual; and two unsure. All respondents were hit by their mothers or other female relatives, and two were struck by fathers and all said they were molested or raped by male or female family members. Yet, they didn’t tell their parents because they were afraid of sending their abusers to jail. The respondents said they also didn’t tell them because they weren’t confident that their mother or grandmother would believe them—they were afraid of being taken from their homes by children’s service agencies; and they were overcome with guilt and shame. They feared being punished, even whupped for reporting the abuse to their mothers or other female caretakers because they had received conflicting messages (or none at all) about sexual touching, and the beatings had already taught them that their bodies did not belong to them and that adults could do whatever they wanted to them.
Many of these women said that much of what they learned about sex was self-taught, that their parents didn’t talk to them about their changing bodies or protective sex. Their mother simply told them to “stay out of trouble” without giving information on how to achieve this goal. Some began their periods as young as 9—they felt like little girls in women’s bodies, saying that they not only felt unprepared to cope with their hormone-spiked emotions and sexual impulses, but with sexual advances from men and boys. Six respondents became pregnant before age 18 and raised the children, while four had abortions. (The women sharing their stories are identified here by their initials.)
Spanking Seeded the Mind-set to Accept Molestation
T.W., 39, is a same-gender-loving woman from Virginia who was spanked as a child and later sexually molested by a young man. “The acceptance of spankings as an act of love encouraged me to accept the molestation as something that I should go along with because I thought that the person was offering love to me.” She said being spanked “allowed for a mind-set that love also entailed being uncomfortable with things that people did to you that were not necessarily what you wanted to be done—placing you in a vulnerable, painful and uncomfortable space and doing what you were told.” The spankings kept her from telling her parents about the sexual abuse because “engaging in any type of sexual behavior, even unwanted, would result in my failing,” which would lead to spankings. She also worried that her molester—who she had believed was a friend—would get in trouble and that, too, would be her fault.
“At Least it Wasn’t a Beating”
J.B., 46, remembers her mother beating her with a toy racetrack, which weakened the bond of trust and kept her from feeling comfortable talking with her mother about the fact that male relatives regularly molested her. Believing that her mother hated her, she didn’t see much difference between the violation of her body by her mother and that of the predatory men in her family. She never told her mother about the abuse because, she said, “I believe that I allowed it because at least it wasn’t a beating.”
Bruises, Cuts, and Sexual Desires
B.A.B., 45, said her mother made her bathe before whupping her naked with thick leather belts, switches, fists, a jump rope, and a telephone cord. This resulted of course in bruises, a fractured wrist, open cuts, and scars. But it has also has had an enduring impact on her sexuality: She says she likes to be lightly spanked and choked during her sexual encounters.
M.J.H, a 19-year-old college student, was hit with belts, fly swatters, and her mother’s hands, which sometimes left bruises. She became secretive about her sexual development. “I always felt afraid that I would be punished if my sexual desires and experiences were discovered.” After one whupping, she says she masturbated “to calm myself down.”
Wired to Enjoy Pain
T.N.R, 41, was spanked as a child for the way she washed dishes, performed household chores, styled her hair, and “not answering ‘yes ma’am’ loud enough.” She was physically and verbally abused: Her parents told her she was ugly, stupid, and worthless.
Her mom’s second ex-husband said she’d, “only be good for lying on my back. I grew up believing I wanted to be a prostitute because if I was only good for lying on my back, I wanted to get paid to do it.”
Her brother sexually abused her from elementary school through middle school with their mother in the next room. “I knew it was wrong but it kept him from beating me up every day. He then sold her to his friends for sex, which gave her a reputation as being “easy,” and allowed their cousins to touch her, and made her watch and reenact porn scenes. She “learned to like pain,” and has enjoyed BDSM. “It makes me feel good because I never learned to trust my body and never learned to accept the pleasure that comes from sex. I learned to equate sex with love. If that meant doing things I didn’t want to do, I did it.”
Spanked into Silence
E.T., 31, sustained welts and cuts on her body from spankings. “I believe the spankings made me less likely to ask important questions about growing up and to be honest about my feelings,” she says. “I was silenced.” Her stepfather and oldest cousin sexually abused her until she got her period. Her family’s response was to “deal with it within the family and not have the law involved.”
Though folks may not want to admit it, for fear of adding to White people’s stereotypes about us, these kinds of stories are all too common in our communities. And the data bears that out. Not only are Black children physically abused at higher rates than other groups of children, according to annual child maltreatment reports, they are also killed as a result of child abuse at a rate three times higher than others races. The Black Women’s Blueprint conducted a study of 300 women and found that 60 percent of them had experienced sexual abuse at the hands of Black men before age 18. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence found 30 percent of Black women with documented histories of childhood sexual abuse were sexually assaulted in adulthood.
So to come to this discussion with the usual refrains—“Not all black mothers” or “White mothers too” or “Not my mama” or “Not me” or “What about the absent father?” or “Stop bashing Black mothers” or “Racism, patriarchy, being poor or not having a degree are to blame”—can foster a culture of silence and erasure of truths that far too many of us hold. When the victimized become victimizers they must still be held accountable.
We simply can’t defend or celebrate the actions of mothers like Shanavia Miller. She is not protecting her daughter; she is not providing her with the information that any young woman needs to cope with her emerging sexuality especially in our social-media era. Already viewed with suspicion and derision, these beatings and public shaming reinforce that Black female bodies and sexuality is the problem, which is exactly what our White-supremacist culture wants us to believe.
Even if your mother didn’t abuse you; even if you are a Black mom who doesn’t treat her daughter this way, even if it’ll make you feel uncomfortable and you fear looking bad to racist White people who think all Black women are whores—you need to engage in this very important public-health conversation. Spend your energy sharing with other moms the healthier strategies that you are using to usher your daughter through this challenging passage to womanhood.
Because we have to stop telling Black girls that they are stupid, worthless, nasty hoes. We must let our daughters speak. We must make them feel safe telling the truth about what has happened to them. We must prepare them to understand normal, healthy sexual development, and to navigate the complex social situations they will encounter.
Black female sexuality matters; to beat it down or to suppress it is to deny black humanity.