This week Time magazine announced that its person of the year is actually a group of people: “the Silence Breakers” who have courageously outed the alleged sexual predation of powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes. This is a sign of real progress. The hope is that this continuing national reckoning will lead to a culture in which women are able to flourish without shame or fear.
But if the cases of high-profile men in politics, media and Hollywood are the cases at which the conversation stops, we will have missed a major opportunity to examine what the very worst sexual abuse looks like — and what we might do to stop it.
Perhaps that’s why, in the weeks since the accusations of vile (and possibly criminal) behavior of Harvey Weinstein altered the public consciousness, and as our understanding of sexual harassment has expanded to include all manner of merely boorish behavior, some highly influential celebrities of color — Rihanna and LeBron James among them — sought to direct our focus to the case of a 29-year-old black woman named Cyntoia Brown.
The facts of Ms. Brown’s life are heart-rending. An elementary school dropout and runaway born with fetal alcohol syndrome, at the age of 16 she found herself living in a Nashville motel with an older pimp called Kut Throat who drugged her, raped her repeatedly and forced her into prostitution.
On Aug. 6, 2004, when she was 16, she shot and killed a 43-year-old john in his home, when the man allegedly reached under his bed. Ms. Brown testified that she believed he was reaching for a weapon and feared for her life. She also took money and two guns from the property before fleeing. A jury rejected her claim of self-defense, finding her guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery.
Ms. Brown was tried as an adult in 2006 and given a life sentence, which she is serving in the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville. She will not be eligible for parole until 2055, when she will be 67 years old.
Those who follow the issue of restorative justice have known Ms. Brown’s name for years. There is a 2011 documentary, “Me Facing Life,” dealing with her predicament, which became a factor in changing the way that Tennessee deals with child prostitution cases. But she only burst into the national consciousness last month when the #FreeCyntoia hashtag went viral. (Rihanna’s initial post on Instagram alone received almost two million likes.)
Fortunately, most American women cannot say #MeToo about such a horrific ordeal. But the truth is that there are many more Cyntoia Browns in our midst than we would like to think.
Consider the case of Sara Kruzan. Her father was incarcerated, and a trafficker named George Gilbert Howard, 20 years her senior, began grooming her for sex work when she was just 11 years old. In 1995, at age 17, she killed him and was sentenced to life in prison without parole in California.
Evidence of the abuse she suffered was deemed inadmissible at her trial. Though recent studies estimate that a staggering 86 percent of women in jail have suffered some form of sexual violence, the criminal justice system routinely fails to take this into account.
Twelve years into her sentence, Ms. Kruzan received a break when Human Rights Watch brought national attention to her case, prompting the governor at the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to commute her sentence. She was granted parole in 2013.
I recently spoke to Ms. Kruzan and Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch, who now collaborate to end the use of life sentences without parole for minors. “Sara and Cyntoia are not unique,” Ms. Calvin told me. Such abuse, Ms. Kruzan stressed, “is protected by silence.”
Ms. Kruzan told me about the case of a woman named Laverne Dejohnette, a Californian serving a life sentence for murder whose story has not gone viral. Ms. Dejohnette’s father was a trafficker and her mother was trafficked. Like many women in prison, “Laverne was sexually abused within her family and is a survivor of incest,” Ms. Kruzan told me. She was sexually trafficked by her own parents, yet the mitigating factors of her abuse were not taken into account. “These are stories of relentless violence and forgetting,” Ms. Calvin said. “Society forgets these people exist.”
For all of the women who have had the strength to share their #MeToo stories, there remain so many women in our culture, most of them poor women of color, who lack the resources or opportunities to add their voices to the growing chorus.
Without for a moment diminishing the pain and suffering — whether physical or emotional — of any woman who has now found the voice to speak out against sexism and harassment, for this moment of collective awakening to have a deeper significance, we have to address a very serious question. If ambitious, highly educated, well-compensated women at major news organizations are being harassed and assaulted with impunity, what is happening to poor and working-class black, brown and white women outside the media’s glare?
The deeper question may be whether we really want to know. Nietzsche believed the lower you ventured on the social hierarchy, the less suffering mattered. “The curve of human susceptibility to pain seems in fact to take an extraordinary and almost sudden drop as soon as one has passed the upper ten thousand or ten million of the top stratum of culture,” he wrote in “On the Genealogy of Morals.” Comparing Africans (and laboratory animals) to a representative of the white upper class, he concluded, with some disdain, that all their torment combined “is utterly negligible compared with one painful night of a hysterical bluestocking.”
Such talk now seems monstrous, yet a visitor from outer space could be forgiven for thinking that many of us continue to see things this way.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, where he is at work on a book about racial identity.