Racial and Ethnic Minority Survivors

Racial and Ethnic Minority Survivors

Sexual assault is used to disempower and frighten, just as racism is used to disempower and frighten. Racist attitudes, when combined with misguided stereotypes about minority women, magnify their sexual vulnerability. Minority women may also experience racism in the form of racial microaggressions such as every day insults, indignities, and demeaning messages communicated overtly or subtly to them by people who are unaware of the effects of their actions and words. The experiences of survivors of sexual assault who are also minority women are significantly different from those of White women. A history of being socio-economically disadvantaged, politically oppressed, racially polarized, and culturally overlooked in the United States cannot be ignored. Although the significance or lack thereof of any one of the aforementioned factors should never be assumed, the manifestation of these oppressions in academic and professional settings is imperative to providing care and support to survivors.

The portrayal of black women as seductive, alluring, beguiling, and lewd – the Jezebel stereotype – has persisted since the era of slavery, enduring in television, media, music, pornography, and institutional treatment of Black women. Conversely, the stereotype of the black woman as a Matriarch emerged from a 1960s government report claiming slavery had reversed the roles of man and women. The Matriarch was strong, aggressive, proud, and unwilling to conform to traditional gender roles. These polarizing stereotypes make it incredibly difficult for a survivor of sexual assault to avoid being blamed, questioned, or branded at a time when empathy and intervention are needed the most. Compounding these shameful stereotypes is the historical reality that black women in the South had little legal recourse when raped or assaulted by white men, and hesitated reporting crimes committed by black men for fear of inhuman and racist treatment at the hands of law enforcement. As a result of institutionalized racism, women of color may be treated with less respect, sensitivity, and professionalism at hospitals, colleges, police stations, and judicial agencies.

The idea of Asian Americans as the ‘model stereotype’ – silent, subservient, chaste, law-abiding, exotic, and acquiescent to authority – silences and homogenizes the authentic experience of thousands of individuals who come from hundreds of distinct cultural backgrounds. Grouping their needs into one ‘Asian American’ experience is dismissive and narrow, posing immense mental and emotional health concerns for a survivor of sexual or relationship violence.

Little research has been conducted in Hispanic-American and Mexican-American communities related to sexual assault and relationship violence. Nevertheless, stereotypes of Latino culture as inherently aggressive and violently patriarchal perpetuate the idea that these women are ‘accustomed’ to participating in, or being subject to, violent sexual relations. Attributing lower rates of reported sexual assaults in Hispanic communities to machismo is also misguided; although machismo is characterized by male dominance, it also includes values of nurturance, compassion, and dedication to family. Attempting to ascribe the same cultural relationship norms to Hispanic-American women, Mexican-American women, or Spanish women is a racial microaggression.

These myths and stereotypes only serve to minimize or deny the impact of sexual violence on minority women. Every survivor has a unique set of socio-environmental factors that either promote or hinder their ability to seek help after experiencing a sexual assault. These factors can be attributed to their socialization through religion, cultural frameworks, family values, geographic location, gender identity and sexual orientation, past experience with abuse or lack thereof, prior health-seeking behaviors, access to high quality care and numerous other factors. A professional who is working with a survivor is responsible for gaining as holistic an understanding as possible. All survivors of sexual and relationship violence, regardless of race or ethnicity, face inter-cultural and intra-cultural pressures that will affect their experience as a survivor.

Violence in minority communities not only affects the individual but also the community at large. Survivors are often well aware of this impact, but those seeking to help survivors are not always as sensitive to this reality. Survivors have the right to decide whether they will report a sexual assault to the authorities or their community and may fear a sense of isolation upon doing so. Survivors of sexual violence may also choose to remain silent about a sexual assault out of a sense of loyalty to the community and/or their family. This challenge is further exacerbated when deciding to file a formal complaint; some survivors may feel they are burdening their community or family with unwanted negative attention. No matter what decisions survivors of sexual violence make with regard to reporting, they should always be reassured that it was not their fault.

 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Survivors

The Center for Disease Control recently released the National Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), the first report to provide national data on intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking by sexual orientation. The survey found that lesbians and gay men reported IPV and sexual assault over their lifetime at levels equal to, or higher than, heterosexuals. The survey also found that bisexual women (61.1%) reported higher levels of rape, physical and/or sexual abuse, and stalking by an intimate partner than both lesbian (43.8%) and heterosexual women (35%). The majority of the women surveyed, regardless of their sexual orientation, reported experiencing sexual violence from a male perpetrator. These findings underscore the need for prevention and intervention services aimed at reducing the lifetime victimization experienced by those who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. The report does not suggest that violence occurs more in same-sex or opposite sex couples, but rather, an urgency to provide holistic and non-judgmental prevention services for any survivor of sexual or relationship violence, regardless of orientation.

                                                The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, CDC


mistreatment by region

 In the largest survey regarding transgender discrimination – ‘Injustice at Every Turn’ (2012), surveying 6450 transgender and gender non-conforming people – 64% of transgender respondents indicated that they had been sexually assaulted. Of the 61% of respondents who expressed either a transgender or gender non-conforming identity at school (primary through graduate school), all respondents reported considerable abuse because of their identity. From elementary through graduate school, respondents reported high levels of bullying, physical abuse, sexual assault, harassment, and even expulsion from school. Unfortunately, race and geography compounded the effects of abuse. Multiracial respondents reported these abuses at 71%, and those living in the South reported the highest levels of abuse at 65%. In higher educational settings (college, graduate, professional, or technical schools), respondents reported high rates of abuse by students, teachers, and staff, including harassment and bullying (35%), physical abuse (5%), sexual assault (3%), and expulsion (2%.) According to the survey, abuse at this level did not vary considerably among racial groups, between regions, or by gender identity/expression. Students identifying as transgender or expressing gender non-conformity while attending college, graduate school, or technical school also experienced other barriers to full participation including denial of campus housing (5%), denial of gender-appropriate housing (20%), and denial of appropriate bathroom facilities. Below are quotes taken from the survey highlighting the injustices experienced by those respondents who self-identified as transgender or gender non-conforming:

“Prior to being out at school, I received about $18,000 in financial aid, several awards, and scholarships. The year I decided to be ‘out’ on my applications, I received one scholarship out of 18 that I applied for despite having a 4.0 and an excellent application package.”

“I am not able to pass as male to the students who live in the same residence hall that I do because I have a female roommate, which automatically shows them that I [was born] female as well.”

“I have chosen to attend college online to avoid harassment.”

“I am in a Ph.D. program and have been censured by the faculty for coming out as a trans woman. I have been denied classes and otherwise harassed by some teachers. One male psychologist verbally attacked me in class and used transphobic and misogynist language. “

There are many issues regarding sexual assault and violence that are unique to LGBTQ communities. Several of these issues have to do with inclusion in policy and procedure that denies and/or minimizes the violence and abuse experienced by members of these communities:

-          Sexual assault or rape among same-sex partners sometimes does not legally or societally qualify due to what constitutes “sex”

-          A fear of being outed may lead to reluctance or fear of reporting the assault or abuse

-          Sex-segregated housing poses an obstacle for those trying to avoid the perpetrator, as well as for transgender survivors who may be barred from appropriate housing because of their status

-          Resistance to seeking medical care for fear of discrimination, particularly among transgender survivors of sexual violence

Although discrimination was pervasive in the entire sample of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating. Of the 1120 respondents from the Southern states, 22% reported being refused medical care due to their gender identity/expression. 27% postponed necessary medical care when they were sick or injured, due to discrimination. Compared to the rate of attempted suicide in the general population (1.6%), a shocking 40% reported attempting suicide at some point in their life.

Those seeking to help survivors who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender queer should be focused on treating the person, not the gender expression. Many survivors of sexual assault and relationship violence who identify as LGBTQ experience discrimination from health care and counseling professionals who are more focused on asking about their gender identity than providing support for the assault. If the assault was perpetrated as a hate crime (and this is expressed confidentially), all levels of the administration should take sensitive measures to address the complexity of the assault but only with the survivor’s persmission.

LGBTQ survivors may be reluctant to disclose to family and friends about a sexual assault or abusive relationship if they already experience stigma, harassment, and disapproval because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. It is important that professionals who are providing support and care to a survivor of the LGBTQ community be sensitive to the existing relationships in that person’s networks, and make sure they have someone they can trust whether they decide to disclose or not.


Survivors with Disabilities

According to the latest National Crime Victimization Survey (2008-2010), an estimated 567,000 people with disabilities experienced a nonfatal violent crime in 2010. Serious violence (defined as rape, sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery) account for about 50% of violent crimes against people with disabilities. The age-adjusted rate of serious violent victimization was 16 per 1,000 people with disabilities, compared to 5 per 1,000 people without disabilities. People with disabilities (40%) were more likely than people without disabilities (31%) to be assaulted by perpetrators well known to them or who were casual acquaintances. Intimate partner violence accounted for 13% of violence against people with disabilities.

People with disabilities face similar barriers to seeking help and confiding in professionals as those who do not have disabilities, but as always, each survivor’s experience is unique to their lived circumstances. Those who perpetrate sexual violence against people with disabilities may socialize them to believe that the abuse is normal and acceptable. Furthermore, a survivor may be confused if the perpetrator is a caregiver or family member who also provides appropriate care in addition to assaulting them. A survivor may fear that a caregiver will punish him/her/hir for reporting the assault, or that he/she/ze will lose essential services.

People with disabilities are often patronized and discriminated against within the societal structures in which they live their daily lives. Therefore they may feel they won’t be taken seriously if they report a sexual assault. A survivor with a cognitive disability may lack the language to explain what has happened. In addition, some survivors may face structural and logistical barriers that prevent them from accessing the help they need, such as not being able to use the phone or internet or to leave their home unassisted.

Adapted to Emory University with permission by a team of Respect Program staff and interns from the University of Michigan’s Striving for Justice document.