Article Lead Image

Police officers are sexually terrorizing black women—and the law allows it

The war on black women is a war on America.


Marcie Bianco


Posted on Aug 19, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 3:25 am CDT

As activists and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement stress the importance of #SayHerName, stories of black women enduring police violence continue to trend on the Internet. The crimes perpetrated by the American police force this past year expose the distinct difference between the moral code of the law and moral ethics. The law, which officers claim to follow, has instead enabled the continued abuse of black women.

Charnesia Corley knows this all too well. According to a recent report, the 21-year-old Texan was driving to the store to get medication for her sick mother, when police pulled her over shortly after 10pm on June 21—for allegedly failing to yield at a stop sign. A Harris County Sheriff’s deputy, who is both white and male, claimed to have smelled marijuana in the vehicle and ordered a vaginal cavity search. Despite Corley’s objections, she was detained in the back of a police car, and forcibly searched by two female deputies—in the middle of a Texaco parking lot.

Did the the young black woman, pose such a terrible threat to the state of Texas by allegedly running a stop sign and “smelling” of pot? Was Corley’s cavity search—a vaginal one—ethically justifiable?  The obvious answer is no. Instead, it was an act of sexual terrorism, a deliberate attack on the black and female body enabled by the law.

Recounting the horrific event to locate affiliate ABC13, Corley explained how the deputies conducted the search. “She tells me to pull my pants down,” Corley said. “I said, ‘Ma’am, I don’t have any underwear on.’ She says, ‘Well, that doesn’t matter. Pull your pants down.’” She continued, “I bend over and she proceeds to try to force her hand inside of me. I tell her, ‘Ma’am, No. You cannot do this.’” The deputy then threatened to break Corley’s legs if she didn’t comply with the search.

He was like the mad, white Othello, searching for “ocular proof,” even he’d mentally indicted the female body as wrong, and as criminal—especially the black female body.

But Corley did not consent to the search, one conducted solely on the premise of an alleged marijuana smell in her car. That hasn’t stopped the Harris County Police Department from defending their actions, with a spokesperson telling ABC13 that deputies acted within the law and “did everything that they should.” In their expressed view, officers forcing their hands up a woman’s vagina, on suspicion of marijuana possession, is sound policy.

Corley’s case is unfortunately complicated by the fact that 0.02 ounces of marijuana were found on her person (the location on her body not verified; not to mention we could very easily posit the potential of that paltry amount being planted on her person). But following public outcry, as the Associated Press reports, police have dropped charges against Corley, which included drug possession and resisting arrest—stemming from her lack of consent for a cavity search.

However, what was never questioned is the fact that the deputy’s sense of smell was used as justifiable grounds for detaining Corley, searching her car without a warrant, and then ordering a search on her person—also without a warrant. He was like the mad, white Othello, searching for “ocular proof.” But Corley isn’t going out without a fight. Last week, she filed charges against the deputies for sexual assault. “I feel like they sexually assaulted me!” she told ABC 13. “I really do. I feel disgusted, downgraded, humiliated.”

Even as Corley takes her challenge to the courts, her ordeal is not at all uncommon.

The cold, hard truth about America’s police state is that it wields its authority without adjudication. Cloaked by the rule of law, police can take unethical actions with impunity.

Police can and have conducted cavity searches on black women without warrants, typically when it’s in the state’s immediate interest to do so. In 2013, for example, Texas corrections officer Jennifer Stelly was given a cavity search in public when Houston police pulled her boyfriend over. She settled her case with the state for $185,000. In that case and others, the use of the muddy term “probable cause,” which gives officers the legal right to conduct cavity searches without a warrant, has undoubtedly been abused by officers—who wield all the legal power (and lethal force) in these situations.

The cold, hard truth about America’s police state is that it wields its authority without adjudication. Cloaked by the rule of law, police can take unethical actions with impunity. They can also dodge any responsibility for their actions, even when they’re called into question by the public or other law enforcement officials. 

It’s a truth that’s often affirmed by the criminal justice system, which repeatedly falls to charge officers for their crimes. As we have seen repeatedly this year regarding the treatment of black and brown bodies, the realm of the law and the realm of ethics are two separate entities for most police officers. “Police power” is ambiguously defined, yet glaringly clear to black and brown Americans, who see guns pointed at their faces on a daily basis.

In an environment where police abuses persist, targeting and detainment often serves to dehumanize the individual—regardless of whether or not it’s legal or warranted. Cavity searches, in a case like Corley’s, are therefore presumed legal because of implied consent from the presumed “criminal,” who is subject to governing laws. Even when there’s no expressed consent, the resistance is ignored because police officers and the criminal justice system often disregards their human rights. 

This is why the “punishment clause” of the 13th Amendment still exists, which reveals the historical connection between the declared end of slavery in the 19th century and the egregious rise in the incarceration of black people. The clause states that slavery and servitude shall only exist “except as punishment” for a convicted crime—a legal exception that supports the prison-industrial complex. Whether or not an individual is convicted of a crime, they’re still subject to less-than-human treatment, and the law allows it.

This is also why Corley’s cavity search was not deemed sexual assault by the police, even though that’s what she experienced. For Corley, as for countless women of any race, police brutality is inherently sexual because it is an assault on the female body. Her cavity search was done in public, making it evident that police brutality against black women is indeed a form of sexual terrorism. It sends a message of fear and intimidation to other (black) women that this is what awaits them simply because of who they are. 

The illogic, technocratic use of police cameras, in this regard, works to reinforce their terroristic message to the public: They want us to see what they’re doing, as was the case with Sandra Bland.

The degradation, objectification and dehumanization of black women’s bodies is alive in our culture, and systemically reinforced by our justice system.

For black and brown women, racialized and gendered forms of state violence run on a deeper level—from the physical and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of slave owners to (more recently) the criminalization and incarceration in the racist prison-industrial complex. There is a “long, terrible history of white men using their social and institutional powers to abuse black women—and their bodies,” as Daily Dot contributor Morgan Jerkins wrote

And as demonstrated by the case of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Hotlzclaw—who’s been charged on 36 counts of rape, sexual battery, and indecent exposure involving black women during stops—it’s a problem that’s as overt as it is insidious. 

The degradation, objectification, and dehumanization of black women’s bodies is alive in our culture, and systemically reinforced by our justice system. As evidence, we can cite the half dozen black women in July who suspiciously died while in police custody, or the 13 black trans women who have been murdered in 2015 alone. That’s aside from the horrifying projection that the police will kill 1,100 black Americans this year—a statistic comparable to wars between nations, not the relationship between citizens and the officers who swore to serve and protect them.

Corley, who had no prior criminal record, was targeted and identified as a de facto criminal simply because she has a black body. Her case is one of countless instances of the criminalization and institutional abuse of black bodies by the criminal justice system. As the Huffington Post reported last month, a Bureau of Justice Statistics press release said “government data shows that black drivers face a greater likelihood of being stopped and a greater chance of experience a negative interaction with police.” 

One of the reports it cited, conducted by researchers at the Seattle University School of Law statistically proves how black Americans are disproportionately targeted and detained for minor traffic infractions. Likewise, the researchers revealed that black people were at least twice as likely to be subject to a low-discretion search than their white counterparts.

This police abuse reflects the historic attempt by white men and white America to control, confine, and obliterate black women’s bodies. 

And not surprisingly, for women, there is no comprehensive federal record of the extent of sexual abuse and misconduct by the police—despite numerous studies confirming that sexual abuse is a institutional problem. For instance, a 2010 Cato Institute study noted that sexual misconduct by police is the second most-reported form of misconduct. 

And in a 2007 report for the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as Zoë Carpenter noted at the Nation, “rape and sexual abuse by police [in the United States] are primarily reported by women of color.” Not to mention, as I’ve written elsewhere, that “in families of police officers, domestic violence is two-to-four times more likely than in the general population—from stalking and harassment, to sexual assault and even homicide.”

This police abuse reflects the historic attempt by white men and white America to control, confine, and obliterate black women’s bodies. We need to call police brutality what it is: a war on Black America, which is a war on America. And we need to call this abuse of power against black women’s bodies for what it is and for what Corley is suing for: sexual assault.

Marcie Bianco is a contributing editor at Curve magazine, and an adjunct associate professor at Hunter College. She has contributed to AfterEllen, Feministing, The Feminist Wire, The Huffington Post, Lambda Literary, XO Jane, The Women’s Review of Books, and more. She writes and lectures about ethics, from feminism to race relations. Marcie tweets at @MarcieBianco.

Photo via Eneas De Troya/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Share this article
*First Published: Aug 19, 2015, 2:48 pm CDT