Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Five years have passed since Nylah Burton was sexually assaulted while attending Howard University, but she’s still feeling the financial burden of being a survivor. Therapy remains a recurring fee. She’s also paying to take additional college classes. Burton plans to go into medicine—it’s her long-term goal, and one that was put on hold following her assault as she grappled with self-blame, self-doubt, and the fear of seeing her rapist around campus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the “cost of rape” is $122,461 per survivor. That total includes the cost of lost productivity, as well as medical and criminal justice system fees. Data on the prevalence of sexual assault is limited, and rape remains one of the most under-reported crimes. (According to data spanning 2010 to 2017 from the U.S. Department of Justice, three out of four rapes go unreported.) Chandra Dawson, deputy director of the DC Rape Crisis Center, says college-age individuals, those between the ages of 18 and 24, are a high-risk group for sexual assault and gender-based violence. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 23.1 percent of undergraduate women and 5.4 percent of undergraduate men have been sexually assaulted “through force, violence, or incapacitation,” and 21 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming college students have been sexually assaulted. 

Those numbers start to add up. “People don’t realize how [many] costs there are related to being a survivor,” Burton tells City Paper. “I am still paying a lot of money to heal from that experience.”

The price of surviving inspired Burton to start the Black Survivors Healing Fund, a GoFundMe campaign for current and former Howard students who’ve survived sexual violence during their time at the university that’s raised more than $26,000 of its $50,000 goal. Run by Burton and several other Howard alumni, it’s assisting 20 survivors who reached out for financial support. Another 20 people are on the waitlist. The fund’s ultimate goal is to give each survivor $5,000 to use as needed, and Burton says the original 20 have, so far, received about $1,200 each. The fund hopes to eventually expand to support all Black survivors.

The fund began collecting donations in June, after dozens of Howard students shared their experiences of sexual harassment and violence during their time at the university on Twitter. Some spoke of the same alleged perpetrator, whose exposure, Burton suspects, sparked the social media outpouring. 

Seeing these stories, Burton says, was “heartbreaking.” She thought of the trauma that survivors face, both from the assault and from public disclosure. She wanted to help immediately. Money was her solution. 

She envisioned a repatriations-type movement, supported, funded, and shared by cisgender, straight men, perpetrators, and fraternities. That, she says, hasn’t happened. Instead, it’s become more of a mutual aid society; a large portion of the donors have been women, members of the LGBTQ community, and people of color, the same people the fund was set up to support. Its GoFundMe page emphasizes that sexual violence is a problem on all college campuses, but adds “Black people—especially female-identified Black people, Black people with disabilities, and Black LGBTQ+ people”—experience this trauma at a higher rate. 

According to EndRapeOnCampus.org, roughly 22 percent of Black women reported being raped in a 2014 study, but “for every Black woman who reports, at least 15 Black women do not.” Dawson interprets this information as a result of “living in the margin.” “You can’t address sexual violence within the African American community and not address racial injustice,” she says. The prevalence of sexual violence against Black women, Black men, and the Black trans community is “rooted in where we sit societally … Any person of color or anyone outside of the mainstream, you sit on the margins of the system. Being on that side of the aisle makes you vulnerable to all other forms of victimization, including sexual violence.” 

Burton, who’s also worked in sexual assault prevention advocacy, agrees. That’s why she wants the fund to “uplift the most marginalized—Black women, Black people of other marginalized genders, Black people who struggle socio-economically. The people who are most likely to be exploited,” she says.

Yet, in the midst of ongoing unrest over racial inequities and a pandemic that has disproportionately affected communities of color, the fund, according to Burton and Dawson, has received backlash for focusing on Black survivors, for not dictating how the money is spent, and for not confirming recipients are, in fact, survivors of sexual violence. Burton says much of the backlash came from “friends and former classmates” after the fund reached out for input and help spreading the word. In response to the questions about not including all survivors, Dawson says Black and Brown survivors have unique needs and may lack certain privileges, including family support, financial resources, and even access to drop-in centers. “Individuals need to understand, it’s not level in terms of the delivery of service provision,” she says. As for the inquiries on how the money is spent and how the fund confirms recipients’ assaults, Burton says these questions are “very much rooted in rape culture.” 

Burton purposefully created the Black Survivors Healing Fund for survivors to control how they spend the money. “For me,” she says, “being a survivor was so much more complicated than ‘just get therapy.’” After her second assault, Burton says she became estranged from her parents and worried about not being able to afford food. That fear forced her to find a job that further impacted her ability to focus on classes.

“Choice. Power. Options. Those are the benefits of the Black Survivors Healing Fund,” Dawson says, noting that the fund’s organizers have a clear understanding of survivorship that is not contingent on qualifiers. It’s not about giving survivors money, says Dawson, it’s about giving them the autonomy to navigate healing on their terms. “They didn’t get to choose the sexual assault, somebody else did that,” she explains, but “you get to take the cash and do what you deem imperative, critical, or beneficial for your individualized healing.” That journey, Dawson and Burton say, looks different for everyone.

Many of the fund’s recipients have used the money for rent; others have used the funds for therapy. But the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have only increased the need, especially for rent support. “Honestly, this is so many things at once,” Burton says. “If anything, it proves how much being a survivor overlaps with every single part of your life.”

That’s certainly true for T, a recipient of the fund who spoke to City Paper on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. A current Howard student, T described his assault as coercion by his girlfriend at the time. She became violent and manipulative after he refused to have sex with her. Eventually, scared that the police could be called, he “gave in to deescalate the situation,” he says. The assault caused him to become depressed. He struggled to get out of bed and go to class, which in turn cost him his scholarship. He describes the resulting interactions with both his parents and the school as a “very sour experience.” 

Today, he’s grateful the Black Survivors Healing Fund treats his past with care. “The truth is, sexual assault is still very stigmatized,” he says. “As in my case, the trauma it causes often has financial implications.” The money T received from the fund helped him pay part of his tuition balance. It also gave him hope. “It’s a huge part of the reason I can say I’m on track to graduate from Howard in May 2021,” he says. 

College sexual assault is not specific to Howard. According to Dawson, DCRCC has fostered relationships with many universities in the area to aid with prevention, advocacy, and intervention. Campus sexual violence, she adds, is a national issue. As for Howard’s handling of the student’s sexual violence claims, however, Burton says fund recipients have said they felt “failed by Howard’s administration, not only on the prevention side, but also on the supporting survivors with resources.” 

In a statement given to City Paper, Howard University Provost Anthony Wutoh says the school “prohibits all forms of sexual misconduct and we are deeply concerned about the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of all students, especially during this challenging and turbulent period.” Wutoh’s statement does not include the number of assaults reported yearly on campus, but says the university provides free, confidential counseling for students. Students are encouraged to report any concerns to the university’s Title IX office, which remains open to assist students in understanding the process. “This is our personal commitment to rid our community of such traumatic acts that have a devastating impact on college students across the nation,” Wutoh’s statement concludes.  

For Burton, college remains a complicated part of her past. It’s where she fell in love, learned about her Blackness, and met lifelong friends. She also experienced horrible, lonely moments. “Howard’s failure to provide the support I needed really made me more vulnerable to repeated incidents of abuse,” she says.

“I often wonder what my life would have looked like, who I would have been, if only I had not had those experiences. I think here’s the part where many women and people of marginalized genders—but especially those of us who exist at the intersection of gender oppression and anti-Blackness—are supposed to say that the experience made us stronger. And I suppose, in many ways, it did make me stronger. But I’d rather not be strong. I’d rather be protected and loved and cared about.” The fund, she says, is her attempt to give survivors a little bit of what was taken from her.  

You can contribute to the fund by visiting gofundme.com/f/black-survivors-healing-fund. Round-the-clock support from the DCRCC is available at dcrcc.org or by calling (202) 333-7273. To report an incident of misconduct or assault to Howard’s Title IX Office, visit howard.edu/title-ix/home or contact the office directly by emailing TitleIX@howard.edu. For free, confidential counseling services, email HUcounseling@howard.edu or call (202) 806-6870.