Gabrielle Union Writes Essay on Her Rape, Consent + ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Director’s Rape Case
In an emotional op-ed written by Gabrielle Union for The L.A. Times, the Being Mary Jane actress opens up about her own experience as a rape survivor, as well as working with her The Birth of a Nation co-star and director Nate Parker, who faced trial for sexual assault while in college.
In 1992, when Union was only 19, she was attacked and raped in the storage room of a Payless footwear store where she worked. Her story sets the personal context for her participation in The Birth of a Nation, in which she plays a woman who turns to silence after being sexually assaulted.
However, earlier this summer the actress received information about a sexual assault case Parker was involved in 1999, in which he and Nation collaborator Jean Celestin were accused of raping a woman. According The Daily Beast's report on the case, Parker was acquitted of all charges; Celestin's sexual assault conviction was eventually overturned for ineffective legal representation. The woman, who alleged harassment from Parker and Celestin following the assault, committed suicide in 2012.
"Different roads circling one brutal, permeating stain on our society," Union writes, referring to the muddiness of playing a rape victim alongside a man himself accused of rape. "A stain that is finely etched into my own history. Rape is a wound that throbs long after it heals. And for some of us the throbbing gets too loud."
Since finding out about Parker's history, the actress says that she has found herself in "a state of "stomach-churning confusion" as she cannot take the allegations against him lightly.
"I took this role because I related to the experience," she writes, adding, "I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated..."
In her essay, Union also addresses the meaning and importance of consent, and how she is teaching her sons about affirmative consent and why "they have to hear 'yes'."
"On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? It’s very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said 'no,' silence certainly does not equal 'yes,'" Union offers.
"Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a 'no' as a 'yes' is problematic at least, criminal at worst. That’s why education on this issue is so vital. As a black woman raising brilliant, handsome, talented young black men, I am cognizant of my responsibility to them and their future....Recently I’ve become aware that we must speak to our children about boundaries between the sexes. And what it means to not be a danger to someone else."
While the actress admits that she still doesn't actually know with certainty what took place on the night of Parker's alleged sexual assault, she believes the film is an important opportunity to educate the public on the realities of rape culture and the aftermath of rape.
"I took this part in this film to talk about sexual violence. To talk about this stain that lives on in our psyches. I know these conversations are uncomfortable and difficult and painful. But they are necessary. Addressing misogyny, toxic masculinity, and rape culture is necessary. Addressing what should and should not be deemed consent is necessary," she writes.
Read her full essay at The LA Times.
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