Why Sexual Assault Survivors Of Color Need Their Own Spaces To Heal

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Why Women of Color Need Their Own Spaces to Heal from Sexual Trauma

Image by mbg Creative x Erika Kapin Photography / Contributor

For survivors of sexual trauma, finding healing is often an arduous process. And if you're a person whose race, gender, or sexual orientation is already marginalized, trying to find support for healing as a survivor can be uniquely difficult.

"As I've been working in mental health, what kept coming up is what I call the lack of support for folks of color, especially femmes of color," explains comprehensive sex educator and trauma specialist Jimanekia Eborn. "They are questioned more. They aren't believed more. There's a lack of resources."

These unique challenges are why Eborn created Tending the Garden, a healing retreat specifically for femmes of color who've experienced sexual trauma. It's designed to make space for survivors of color to work on their healing together in a space created specifically for them, led by people like them. All the retreat staff, educators, and therapists (who are affectionately named "hoes," which is both a reference to the gardening tool and an acronym for "helping open every survivor," like a flower) are femmes of color and survivors themselves. Among the instructors are award-winning yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley and sexuality doula Ev'yan Whitney.

"[They have] different types of pronouns, they have different bodies, they have different types of racial and ethnic identities, and for me that was really important for people to show up and see others that look like them," Eborn tells mbg.

The unique challenges of marginalized survivors. 

Eborn has worked in mental health for over a decade, working as a counselor, case manager, and educator at trauma care centers and educational institutions. "What I have seen oftentimes in mental health facilities or other places I've been is that folks don't necessarily understand the journey of a femme of color if they're not a femme of color," she says. "I've worked in mental health facilities where folks have left worse than when they showed up because of the lack of care, the lack of support, the lack of time given to them because they identify as a certain way or looked a certain way."

(Throughout this piece, we use the word femme as intended by Eborn and her staff: Although the term originated within the lesbian community as a specific type of lesbian identity, today people of varying sexual orientations use the term to describe their gender, usually when they feel their gender identity or gender expression aligns with femininity in some way. "Simply put, femme is more inclusive," the retreat website says of the word choice. "We are not the gatekeepers of language, and this retreat is open for anyone who has been affected because of their feminine aspects. Our facilitators and staff identify as women, transfemme, genderqueer, and nonbinary women.")

Dealing with mental health care practitioners who don't respect your identity or see your full identity can make working on your healing unnecessarily difficult and even be retraumatizing. Even among well-meaning practitioners, many people are not adequately trained on how to work with people of color and people in the LGBTQ+ community, such that these survivors need to spend time explaining themselves or educating the very person who's supposed to be helping them heal.

I wanted these individuals to take up their own space and not have to worry about anyone else taking up their space. I wanted them to have a space where they can exhale.

For example, Eborn says Black women often face more resistance or simply receive less unequivocal support from their providers. 

"I've found that there can be a lot of gaslighting and a lot of discounting," she says. "Black women are perceived to be so strong, and I hear that a lot. Often I'll look at myself and be like, 'You're so strong. You can do everything.' So people don't check in on them. People don't check in on femmes of color because they're so strong, and then when they do ask for help, people are all like 'Well, how bad is it? Are you sure?' And it takes away from the process. It takes away from the healing if they're constantly being questioned instead of just being believed."

Research has found the "strong black woman" stereotypes can have significant consequences for black women's mental health, including higher likelihood of depression and a lower likelihood of seeking out help. A data analysis from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality also found people see young black girls as "less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers" and as being more sexual than young white girls; it also found people believe black girls need less nurturing, protection, comfort, and support. Even the Me Too movement, which was started by and for people of color, didn't catch mainstream attention until white women started becoming involved with it.

When you add gender diversity on top of racial identity, things get all the more challenging. A lot of research suggests trans and nonbinary people of color experience uniquely high rates of sexual abuse. A 2015 report found half of black trans and nonbinary people have experienced sexual violence, and another half have experienced domestic violence. On top of their increased experiences of trauma, Eborn points out that these folks need to deal with mental health professionals who dismiss or question their gender constantly, which can create distract from the process or create an unwelcoming environment. Research shows one in four trans folks has avoided a doctor's appointment for fear of being mistreated.

When you're trying to work on something as sensitive as sexual trauma, these unnecessary obstacles can make an emotionally chaotic process feel downright unbearable. There's so much value in just working with people who share your experiences and not needing to explain yourself when you are working through one of the most challenging and vulnerable healing processes imaginable.

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A place to heal in peace.

It's high time femmes of color had dedicated spaces created wholly for them, their healing, and their growth. Eborn hopes Tending the Garden can be one such space.

"What do you need, like for a garden, to make things grow? You need water. You need support. You need time. You need to seed it," Eborn says. "That's what I want these individuals to come to the retreat to learn how to do—to tend their own garden."

The flowers in question, she says, refer to our emotional capacity, our sexual well-being, and being able to feel good within oneself. Survivors of color deserve their own spaces like this one to process their trauma, learn coping strategies and other helpful skills, and reconnect with their bodies and their sexuality. Eborn's retreat has clearly been thoughtfully designed around exactly what trauma survivors need to actually heal, including on-site therapists they'll have access to at any moment and an extensive aftercare program to ensure they'll have ongoing support when they return home from the retreat (think access to free online therapy sessions, some take-home healing tools, and new toys for physical exploration).

"I wanted these individuals to take up their own space and not have to worry about anyone else taking up their space. I wanted them to have a space where they can exhale and not have to pick up anyone else's nonsense," Eborn says. "It will be a hard journey because you're going to see things in yourself that maybe you have avoided. But I will say also, the other side of it is going to be beautiful."

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