The following is an excerpt from attorney Carrie Goldberg’s memoir, “Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls,” which comes out Aug. 13. In 2014, Goldberg made a name for herself representing victims of sexual violence — specifically in cases of revenge porn. Her law firm, C.A. Goldberg, PLLC, specializes in handling cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault and blackmail.
This excerpt appears in Chapter 4, “Girls’ Lives Matter,” in which Goldberg describes her work with three clients — all middle-school-aged girls of color from New York City. In the chapter, she describes the Title IX complaint she filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights on behalf of Vanessa, who alleged a classmate sexually assaulted her when she was 13.
“When I opened my firm, the idea of representing clients who were still in middle school wasn’t even on my radar,” Goldberg writes. “But by 2018, I’d filed seven Title IX complaints with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, including five on behalf of middle and high school students who were sexually violated by their peers, then shamed and blamed by the school officials who were supposed to be protecting them.”
In this excerpt, Goldberg outlines the stories of two other clients and discusses a larger system of bias against black girls and women who report sexual assault.
I first met “Destiny,” a 15-year-old disabled student from Teachers Preparatory High School in Brownsville, Brooklyn, after her mother was referred to me by a law student at one of New York University School of Law’s free legal clinics. Destiny has a severe developmental delay, loves chocolate chip cookies and is fascinated by luxury cars, especially Mercedes. One afternoon in February 2016, Destiny was coaxed into an unsupervised stairwell at her school by a group of seven boys. Two of the boys forced Destiny to her knees and made her perform oral sex on them, while their friends watched and stood guard. A few days later, the boys told Destiny they were going to do it again. She complained to a school guidance counselor, who made a report of the incident. Destiny and one of the boys who’d watched the assault were called to the vice principal’s office. The VP interviewed Destiny, and the boy, and determined that the behavior had been “consensual.” He then suspended Destiny for engaging in sexual activity on campus, which is against school rules. It would be almost a month before her suspension was lifted.
Destiny’s assault was not properly investigated, no attempts were made to ensure she was safe from further attacks. Instead, she was effectively denied her education after she reported the assault.
After I took the case and sued the city, Destiny’s assault was written about in the New York Daily News. Within days, another student’s mother contacted me to share that her daughter had been sexually assaulted in that same stairwell, raped by a fellow student in 2010. In that case, the city had paid a $500,000 settlement to the victim, who for years suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the attack. I was infuriated to learn that the assault had happened under the same vice principal who was now punishing Destiny. I became convinced that the school’s assertion that Destiny had engaged in “consensual sex” was actually an attempt to cover up that another assault had taken place in the same stairwell, in the same school, on the same administrator’s watch. I immediately amended our suit to reflect that the school had been on notice that the unattended stairwell posed a risk to students prior to Destiny’s assault. We doubled the amount of money we were demanding the city pay.
A few months after I started working with Destiny, I met “Kai,” an eighth-grader at Brooklyn’s Middle School 584. In November of 2015, Kai had been tackled by two boys in a school hallway. One boy punched her in the vagina, then jumped on top of her and started simulating sex while the other boy slapped her in the head. One of her attackers was suspended for a month. When he returned to school, Kai was forced to see him during three classes and the lunch period they had in common. Kai started having anxiety attacks. Her mother requested a safety transfer to another school. But Kai was denied placement, a blatant violation of her Title IX rights for accommodations. It took Kai’s mother almost two months traversing the bureaucratic maze of New York’s public school system to find another school that would take her traumatized daughter.
Within one year, I was representing three clients between the ages of 13 and 15, at three separate public schools in Brooklyn, all with similar stories of sexual assault followed by formal or informal school suspension after the victims reported the attacks. But that’s not all my youngest clients have in common: Vanessa, Destiny and Kai are all girls of color. These cases aren’t only about gender discrimination; they are also about race.
In my line of work, it’s impossible not to be aware of the impact of race on who gets considered an “innocent victim” and where we place our compassion and concern. Every day, I see the disparity play out in the way my clients and others are treated by law enforcement, school officials, the public and the press. In sexual assault cases, for instance, white women are often seen as deserving protection in a way that women of color, in particular black women, are not.
For decades, researchers have studied the effects of assumptions — also known as unconscious bias — we make about individuals based on their race, ethnicity or other identities. One famous study showed that résumés from fictitious job applicants with white-sounding names (like “Conner,” “Heather” or “Harrison”) were offered follow‑up interviews 50 percent more often than applicants with black-sounding names (like “Jamal,” “Keisha” or “Shaquan”). Other research found medical professionals assumed black people were more likely to abuse pharmaceuticals and were less sensitive to pain than their white patients and routinely prescribed the patients less pain medication as a result, even when the patients were seriously ill children. A meta-analysis of 42 studies on shooter bias found that individuals were quicker to shoot at targets depicting an armed black person than at those depicting an armed white person. And the U.S. Government Accountability Office found, in 2018, that teachers in K‑12 schools were more likely to suspend black boys than white boys who committed the same infractions. This bias impacts children as soon as they enter the school system, according to the report. Black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of suspensions or expulsions.
When it comes to faulty assumptions adults levy against black girls, there is perhaps no study more elucidating than Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality’s 2017 report Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, which looked at adults’ perceptions of black girls between the ages of 5 and 14. Researchers administered questionnaires to hundreds of adults from various backgrounds, ostensibly asking about child development in the 21st century. None of the participants knew the real purpose of the study. Instead, they were randomly assigned surveys that measured their attitudes about either white or black girls. Researchers found adults were more likely to view black girls as “more sexually mature” than their white peers, and also more knowledgeable about “adult topics.” Adult respondents also regarded black girls as more “aggressive” and less in need of “nurturing, comfort and support.” The study’s authors note that adults ascribed to black girls supposed attributes of grown black women, features that are themselves rooted in racist stereotypes. For example, black girls are characterized as hypersexual — a toxic image of black women that has persisted since slavery — and, consequently, less childlike. The phenomenon, called “adultification,” can have a profound effect on the way black girls are treated, especially by law enforcement and in schools.
“What we found is that adults see black girls as less innocent and less in need of protection as white girls of the same age,” Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, told The Washington Post. The compelling report describes adultification as “a form of dehumanizing,” which the authors argue is “robbing black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from other developmental periods: innocence.” Writing about the study in The Post’s parenting blog, African American mother Jonita Davis noted wryly: “Any black mother could’ve told the researchers that, from the time they are talking and walking, little black girls are deemed ‘fast,’ a word synonymous with promiscuity.”
When Destiny and Vanessa reported their assaults to school officials, there was no doubt the sex happened; no one ever suggested the girls were “making it up.” The question in the minds of the administrators was about consent. In other words, maybe the girls had wanted it. The school’s resource officer asked Vanessa repeatedly why, if the sex hadn’t been consensual, she hadn’t done more to fight off the boy? He was clearly skeptical of Vanessa’s complaint.
After Destiny was assaulted in a stairwell at her school — an assault witnessed by multiple students — the vice principal of her high school not only deemed the act “consensual,” he also sent a letter home to Destiny’s mother, placing the blame squarely at her daughter’s feet. “This behavior constitutes a danger to the health, safety, welfare and morals of your child and others at school,” the letter read. The vice principal was holding Destiny — who has an IQ of 71 — responsible for her own assault, and blaming her for being a bad influence on the entire student body. For the record, Destiny is unfailingly shy and had an unblemished school disciplinary record. Her best — and only — friend was her little brother.
The fear of being met with skepticism keeps many women from reporting their sexual assaults. For girls and women of color, the prospect of facing challenges to their credibility must feel insurmountable. Some experts estimate that for every black woman who reports her rape, at least 15 stay silent about their assaults. This is three times as high as the nonreport rate among white women rape survivors. Other studies show that even when black women do step forward to report sexual assault, they are less likely to be believed than their white counterparts. And if the offender is brought to justice, the disparity is likely to continue. According to a review of relevant studies conducted by Brandeis University’s Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, the adjudication of rape cases can vary significantly according to the race of the victim. Juries are more inclined to see black victims as less credible and their assaults as less serious. When presented with various rape crime scenarios, mock jurors were significantly more likely to find a defendant guilty when the victim was a white woman, compared to scenarios in which the victim was portrayed as black.
Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls
By Carrie Goldberg, Jeannine Amber
Plume. 304 pp. $27