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Discussions of sexual violence silenced by culture and language barriers

by Erin Freeman

Discussing the truth about sexual violence in Latino communities somehow remains taboo despite the growing number of high profile stories of sexual assault and acquaintance rape in the headlines. Sexual assault isn’t any less common among Latinos. In fact, numerous reports reveal higher rates of sexual violence among Latinos than other ethnic groups. Why is the discussion of sexual assault so difficult in our communities? Unfortunately, there are multiple culture-specific barriers to reporting sexual assault and seeking medical, psychological, and legal services that exist resulting in decreased rates of formal and informal reporting. So, how can we begin a dialogue to change that?

Survivors of all forms of sexual violence face a major uphill battle in recovery whether they disclose the assault to others or not. Because many people are unaware of the complexity of sexual violence, reporting the assault can often feel more excruciating than surviving the experience itself. For Latino families, cultural expectations and traditions that strengthen our family bonds and our larger community network unfortunately also serve to silence survivors of sexual violence. This silence prevents them from accessing services that would help them recover, and the effects are serious. It is estimated that only 21.7% percent of rapes experienced by Latinos are reported to the police compared to 32.5% of rapes experienced by Whites.

The close-knit nature of Latino families, focusing on the family above the self, is often the source of the difficulty in reporting. More often than not, the perpetrator is a family friend or relative. The US National Institute of Justice shows that about 75% of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the survivor and that 80% of all rapes occur in the home. These statistics show that rapes are rarely committed by a stranger in the bushes. Because survivors worry about disrupting family unity or disrespecting elders, they choose silence over disclosure. The balance between teaching children to respect the authority of the parents and other elders and to speak up for their bodily autonomy presents a unique challenge to parents in Latino families.

Survivors from more traditional Latino families face additional barriers to reporting sexual violence. Strict ideas about purity and marriage hold a prominent position in the lives of young people, especially young women. Respect to the body, “darte a respetar”, becomes a confusing concept when a young person experiences a forced sexual act for which they did not consent. Often, feelings of shame and guilt prevent men and women from discussing their experiences with their family members. Many feel responsible for allowing the assault to happen to them. In addition, survivors also fear that they will not be believed by family members to whom they disclose. It is incredibly difficult to accept that a close friend or family member could commit such a terrible act. Family integrity depends upon each member being responsible and respectful. This unshakeable faith in each other makes it difficult for family members to believe a survivor’s story. The absence of discussions on sexual violence keeps these survivors in the dark about who is really responsible: the rapists.

Recent immigrants are especially vulnerable to victimization and encounter even greater obstacles in seeking help. For those who enter the US with documentation and without, access to accurate information about US customs and laws is limited. For example, many Latinos come from countries where marital rape is not prohibited by law and are unaware that US laws exist to punish rape between spouses. Access to this type of knowledge is restricted by lack of Spanish language materials, Spanish speaking information centers, and outreach programs in Latino communities. Frequently, younger children who speak English translate for the survivor leading to secondary traumatization of the child. For immigrants without documentation, the stakes are even higher. These immigrants rarely report assaults because of concerns over lack of status, detention, and deportation. This in turn leaves them more vulnerable to attack. Campesinas, female farm workers, are 10 times more vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment at work than women in the general population. Although programs have been developed to assist women who experience sexual violence, those who would benefit from them are unaware of their existence because of language barriers and lack of access.

The number of barriers to successfully reporting sexual violence and providing assistance to survivors seems overwhelming, but it is possible to make real change in our communities! Laws are on the books to deter and punish acts of sexual violence. Organizations exist to provide services to survivors. The infrastructure is in place. The change in attitudes and ability to access those services needs to come directly from the Latino community. We are the ones who need to take the next steps. Change can be as small as discussing sexual violence with our families. Broaching the topic instantly makes it less taboo, and survivors may feel more comfortable disclosing experiences of sexual violence. This can be a difficult conversation to start, but it will have long lasting positive effects. With your friends and family, acknowledge that the topic of sex and sexual violence is not an easy subject but that it is important to you. You will find that many others in your family and community have questions and want to discuss it as well but haven’t found a supportive audience.

What can we talk about?

  • Sexual violence is only the fault of the perpetrator. The survivor did nothing to cause or deserve what happened to them. It is especially important to communicate this message to children. Because they are often confused by what happened, they may be afraid of getting in trouble. Reassure them that as their family, you would never be mad at them for disclosing something like this.
  • Your purity or integrity is not damaged by sexual violence. The assault reflects only on the bad nature of the perpetrator, not the survivor. Your worth as a partner is in no way diminished or lessened by what happened to you.
  • How the family is always there to support each other, no matter what. There is no judgment or shame surrounding sexual assault. Your family will always accept you.

What else can I do?

  • Reach out to local organizations that specialize in sexual assault, like rape crisis centers, and offer to serve as a bilingual or bicultural trainer/volunteer. Many organizations lack such a volunteer and, therefore, lack the resources to assist a large segment of the population.
  • Encourage your local cultural organizations to partner with organizations specializing in sexual violence to increase outreach in the Latino community.
  • Contact your local government officials to let them know that programs preventing sexual violence and assisting survivors are important in your community and that they should support legislation that improve these programs.

If you are a victim of sexual abuse or know someone who is, talk to someone that can help

  • RAINN (The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) provides a free, anonymous 24/7 hotline (800-656-4673) for survivors and friends and family of survivors of sexual assault. When you call this hotline, it will automatically connect you to your local rape crisis center based on your area code.
  • Local rape crisis centers can be contacted directly. They often offer services such as hotline callers, medical advocacy, legal advocacy, case management, and counseling. These services are often free. These centers can also be located through RAINN here.
  • Planned Parenthood also offers services for survivors of sexual assault, including STD testing, emergency contraception, birth control, and abortion. Planned Parenthood accepts insurance but also provides services on a sliding scale, making it affordable for people without insurance.


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