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Women’s Center coordinator explains how intersectionality affects norms of sexual violence

At a Wednesday talk, clinical social worker and therapist April-Autumn Jenkins highlighted the factors that cause and perpetuate violence against women of the African diaspora.

Jenkins, gender violence intervention services coordinator at the Women’s Center, addressed the intersections of race, victimhood and survivorship in sexual violence at a talk at the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies. She outlined key societal norms that perpetuate sexual violence.

One norm, she said, is “power over others.” She cited to relationships between parents over children, men over women and of one race over another to demonstrate the many power dynamics many encounter daily.

The central focus of the talk was on the other two norms: the pervasiveness of violence in society, such as through movies and video games, and the power of “privacy and silence.” Jenkins said that these two norms go hand in hand with the limited notions of masculinity and femininity. 

While “boys will be boys,” she said, women are thought to “belong to men as a whole,” she said.

Jenkins then performed a thought exercise with the audience to illustrate the extent to which restricted ideas of femininity have permeated our consciousness, inviting them to describe what it means to act like a lady. Attendees proposed words like “constrained,” “proper,” “pure” and “put together.” 

Alternatively, when Jenkins asked the audience to describe a “superwoman,” the crowd offered “powerful,” “fearless” and “heroic.”

While the qualities ascribed to the superwoman were different, Jenkins said that the mental image we conjure of both the lady and the superwoman is white, cis, female-presenting and heterosexual.

“We’re thinking about a white woman. That’s what we’re thinking about,” she said, adding that this is problematic because a superwoman in the African diaspora is represented differently.

It is for this reason, Jenkins said, that the idea of intersectionality is important.

In another activity, Jenkins read aloud different facts about violence against black women. Whenever a fact struck a chord, audience members were told to tear paper hearts that they had been given at the beginning of the exercise, the idea being that no heart would remain whole. 

Jenkins listed the high rates of black women killed at the hands of an intimate partner and the increased risk black women face for domestic violence, rape, abuse and homicide, leaving not a single paper heart intact. 

She ended the talk with a conversation about the ways in which everyone can support people of color when they seek help as victims of violence. 

“Even before they show up, what is the backpack of things that they are carrying with them that I must consider?” Jenkins asked. 

She posed potential answers of culture, background, and previous experience contributing to how to approach a particular person’s situation, a nod at her earlier conversation about intersectionality. For example, she stated that an international student from Africa has a very different cultural mindset compared to an African American student, from attitutes towards sex to cultural taboos. 

Jenkins made one thing clear above all else. She repeatedly said that “this is an everybody work,” in reference to the way in which we must cooperate as people to make headway in making things equal. 

“It can’t just be a woman thing,” she said.

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