Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center

Striving for Justice: A Toolkit for Judicial Resolution Officers

Communities of Color

Assumptions about race make women of color vulnerable to sexual assault in a number of ways. Sexual violence committed against women of color is often seen as insignificant and/or acceptable and is justified by stereotypes of women of color that serve to portray these women as “unrapeable.” The sexual assault of women of color demonstrates the intersection of sexism and racism. Sexual assault has traditionally been used by men to disempower and frighten women, just as racism has been used to disempower and frighten people of color. The sexual assault of women of color, therefore, is often a combination of both racist and sexist attitudes. These attitudes, compounded with certain stereotypes, magnify the sexual vulnerability of various groups of women of color.

 

Myth: Women of color are promiscuous, so if they are sexually assaulted, it is because they were “asking for it.”

Myth: Asian-American women do not get sexually assaulted because they are always willing to have sex.

Myth: African-American and Latino cultures are violent; therefore women in these cultures experience the violence of sexual assault as “normal.”

These myths and stereotypes result in a society that often denies or seeks to minimize the impact of sexual assault on women of color. In order to both prevent the sexual assault of women of color and to better help women of color who are survivors, it is imperative that our society recognize that sexual violence affects not only White women, but women of all races, and that a sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. In order to do this, we must challenge both the racist and sexist beliefs that we hold, and that we see in the society around us.

Institutionalized Racism:  Additionally, women of color may have experienced racism in the past, and this may cause them to distrust the institutions that are designed to help survivors. At hospitals or police stations, women of color may be treated with less respect or less priority than White women, and may face even more victim-blaming and disbelief than White women do at the same institutions. If women of color do choose to seek counseling, they risk facing racism within the system of sexual assault counseling, or, at the very least, they face a system whose primary clients and therapists are White women, many of whom may not be educated about the special concerns of women of color.

Barriers to Seeking Help:  Women of color, in addition to the barriers that all survivors face when seeking help, may also face barriers that are unique to their community. These obstacles can come either from inside the survivor’s ethnic or racial community, or from the professionals from which the survivor seeks help. It is important to remember that each culture and community has its own set of values that may contribute to a survivor’s willingness or reluctance to seek help about a sexual assault.

For example:

Within traditional Asian families, there may be a value placed on suffering without complaint.

Latina women may be criticized for turning to sources other than the church or their own family for help.

African-American women may feel pressure to fit the stereotype of being strong and this in turn may lead to a denial of their own vulnerability, or a desire to hide that vulnerability from others.

For some survivors, their concepts of their own virginity, availability for marriage, and social worth may be impacted by a sexual assault.

Because most sexual assaults involve a victim and perpetrator of the same race, there may be either internal or external pressure on a survivor to keep quiet about an assault in order to avoid furthering negative stereotypes about the men of that race.

These characteristics are, of course, only generalizations, and individual women of color may face a wide variety of intra-cultural and inter-cultural pressures that prevent them from speaking out about a sexual assault.

Violence in communities of color not only affects the individual, but also the community.  Survivors are well aware of this dual affect but the subject is often not discussed.  Survivors are often left to choose either to maintain silence around the assault or to voice it, knowing that if and when the assault is disclosed, she/he may face isolation.  The survivor may also choose not to disclose the assault to her/his community as part of a sense of loyalty to the community and/or family to preserve family honor.  This challenge is further exacerbated when deciding to file a formal complaint.  Survivors in this situation are not only choosing to disclose their own painful experience, but also carrying the pain of adding more negative attention to his/her community or family. 

Example:  When considering whether to file a sexual assault complaint, a woman of color decided to discuss her challenge with her mother.  Her mother responded by blaming her for leaving the safety of her family and expressed that somehow the assault was her fault.  In this example, maintaining the family pride was more important to the mother than her daughter’s needs.

▪ Given these challenges often faced by survivors of color, they often seek alternative responses to the assault.  Survivors may avoid speaking about the experience altogether and attempt to maintain relationships within her/his community.  Survivors may also choose to recover from the incident by seeking out support from non-members of the community that are private or safe.  This is often meant to protect anonymity. 

▪ The barriers involved with disclosure of sexual assault within communities of color are important to recognize in that they present some evidence as to why a survivor may choose not to disclose the abuse, to stay in an abusive relationship, or to do nothing at all.  This is telling in that choices are often limited for survivors in communities of color.  Survivors face the threat of losing relationships, shaming from their community, and/or experiencing difficulty with a healthy development of their social identity.

Example:  When seeking support services, a survivor asked if she was “strong.”  Although she spoke out against her offender, she needed validation that she did not lose her strength or pride as a woman of color. These are important attitudes and beliefs that many survivors encounter in their decision to tell or not to tell their stories.