Applied Psychology OPUS

Ethnic Differences in the Experiences of Sexual Assault Victims

Devonae Robinson

There is substantial support for the fact that, around the world,women are disproportionately targeted for sexual assault Alvidrez, Shumway, Morazes, & Boccellari, 2011; Truman & Langton, 2014.In America alone, over 500,000 women are subjected to sexual assault per year (Alvidrez et al., 2011; Truman & Langton, 2014). However, it was not until the past century that researchers began exploring the detrimental impact of sexual assault on female victims. Recent studies examining the prevalence of negative outcomes following sexual assault show that it is common for women to develop mental health difficulties following sexual assault (Alvidrez et al., 2011; Weist, Kinney, Taylor, Pollitt-Hill, Bryant, Anthony, & Wilkerson, 2014). Because of the large amount of female survivors of sexual assault that face these mental health difficulties, it is imperative that researchers understand and address the events that occur after a woman is sexually assaulted.

Indeed the psychological sequelae of sexual assault have been researched extensively over the last few decades which has contributed to the identification of trends that researchers associate with treatment outcomes. For example, researchers have identified that women who abuse substances are at higher risk for sexual assault than other women (Scott, Lefley, & Hicks, 1993). As a result, practitioners have used this research to modify treatment procedures and accommodate for the aforementioned group specific differences in outcomes (e.g. higher rates of victimization and increased stress). However, despite the success of identifying variations in women’s substance abuse and other pre-existing conditions in conjunction with sexual assault, little research has accounted for the demographic differences of sexual assault victims (e.g. Ahmad, 2006; Bird, Seehus, Clifton, & Rellini, 2014). In fact, many researchers often control for the variations in the victims’ identities, such as ethnicity and socio-economic status (Kalof, 2000). This trend becomes problematic when the differences in psychological processes across social groups are considered.

Research has revealed that there are several indications that ethnicity is relevant to the examination of the impact of sexual assault. Studies have found that there is a disproportionate amount of sexual attacks on minority women, variation in police reports across ethnic groups, and differing responses across ethnic groups following disclosure (Sabina, Cuevas, & Schally, 2015). All of these factors significantly impact the ability of women to return to pre-rape functioning following an assault (Jacques-Tiura, Tkatch, Abbey, & Wegner, 2010). Considering that many researchers refrain from studying ethnic differences, it is important to critically analyze the limited existing literature on ethnic differences in sexual assault in order to frame understanding of the issue and encourage future research(Arellano, Kuhn, & Chavez, 1997). Furthermore, by recognizing the ethnic and cultural differences of rape victims, researchers and service providers will be better prepared to respond to the needs of sexually abused women. Therefore, this paper will review literature that examines the ethnic variations in victimization and mental health outcomes of sexually assaulted women.


Rates of victimization. Many researchers have identified differences in the rate of sexual victimization across multiple ethnic groups (e.g. Littleton, Grills-Taquechel, Buck, Rosman, & Dodd, 2013). This research has revealed that White women are assaulted more frequently than other ethnic groups, followed by Latinas, Black women, and Asian women respectively (Littleton et al., 2013; Kalof, 2000). However, some variations in findings across studies indicate that Latinas may be victimized equally or slightly more frequently than White women, while other studies suggest Black women are sexually assaulted at a higher rate than other women (Scott et al., 1993; Wyatt, 1992). Researchers who include Asian and Native American participants have consistently found that Asian Americans are least likely to be sexually assaulted, while Native Americans are disproportionately assaulted compared to other ethnic groups (Cristani, Frueh, Gundaya, Salvail, & Triffleman, 2011; Littleton et al., 2013; Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001). In concurrence with these findings, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2014) recently reported that, while rates of violent crimes against White and Black women have decreased substantially, Native American women are at greater risk for being victimized. In fact, they are more than twice as likely to be victimized than Black, White, and Asian women (Truman & Langton, 2014). Despite the inconsistencies regarding the comparative victimization of ethnic groups, nearly all researchers can agree that women of different ethnicities are not victimized at the same rate.

Cultural influences on victimization. Researchers have tested many factors that contribute to the variation in victimization rates; the way that many of these factors contribute to victimization is directly related to cultural and environmental differences across ethnic groups (Jimenez & Abreu, 2003). More specifically, researchers have found that there are cultural differences in attitudes towards rape (Jimenez & Abreu, 2003; Price, Davidson, Ruggiero, Acierno, & Resnick, 2014; Jacques-Tiura et al, 2010). For example, minority men and women tend to have more victim-blaming attitudes than White Americans (Jimenez & Abreu, 2003; Wyatt, 1992). One study found that Latino/a, Black, and Asian Americans were more likely to endorse rape myths (e.g. “the victim was asking for it”) hold negative attitudes toward rape victims than Whites, even if they themselves had been victims of sexual assault (Jimenez & Abreu, 2003; Carmody & Washington, 2001). These myths have been known to disproportionately affect minorities because of the harmful stereotypes embedded within them (e.g. Latinas are promiscuous and “only promiscuous women get raped”) (Carmody & Washington, 2001). However, research also demonstrated that White Americans were more likely to uphold stereotypes and rape myths if the woman was part of an ethnic minority (Jimenez & Abreu, 2003). Just as minority groups have been socialized by their cultural norms to believe that certain sexual behaviors are permissible, White Americans have been conditioned to believe that minorities are more promiscuous and accepting of sexual advances (Jimenez & Abreu, 2003). Carmody and Washington (2001) believe that a reason for this cross-cultural endorsement of rape myths stems from the fact that many women function within patriarchal societies that hold women more responsible for sexual acts than men.

This cultural mis-socialization is reflected in the belief of many rape victims who assert that, although their experiences were legally defined as sexual assault, they were not victims of rape (as cited in Wyatt, 1992; Kalof, 2000). These women are aware that the assault was not a normal sexual encounter, but they blame themselves for the attack (Sigurvinsdottir & Ullman, 2014). The higher endorsement of rape myths toward minority women in diverse ethnic groups is not only a reflection of the internalization of their cultural norms, but also the ideas about race and sexuality that have been heavily integrated into American society (Carmody & Washington, 2001; Donat & D’Emillo, 1992; Wyatt, 1992).

Historical influences on victimization. One important factor that impacts a victim’s ability to report rape is the presence of rape culture, defined as the normalization of rape based on negative attitudes toward gender and sexuality (Donat & D’Emillo, 1992; Wyatt, 1992). Because of the deeply imbedded rape culture in America, there are many obstacles that women face when reporting rape. They have been required to verify penetration through invasive procedures often before the acknowledgment of the rape or the attempted rape, they are burdened with having prove that they tried to stop the rape through both verbal and physical resistance, and they are expected to have a pristine sexual history (Donat & D’Emillo, 1992). However, the dehumanizing experiences of Black rape victims have been compounded by the socio-cultural context of the United States. Historically, white and black men used the bodies of Black women women to assert their power. Because of the common practice of controlling Black women with their sexuality, many of these women’s experiences with assault have been ignored (Donat & D’Emillo, 1992).

Post-assault victimization. In addition to the historical barriers that dictated women’s ability to successfully report and discuss rape, researchers have identified real and perceived barriers that currently discourage minority women from formally reporting sexual assault to law officials or rape centers (Jacques-Tiura et al., 2010; Weist et al., 2014). Research suggests that the internalization of the cultural stereotypes, such as those previously addressed in this literature review, contributes to the pattern of minority women failing to formally and informally report sexual assault as frequently as White women (Alvidrez et al., 2011; Donat & D’Emillo, 1992; Jacques-Tiura et al., 2010; Wyatt, 1992). Although all women have low rates of formal reporting (only about 24% of women disclose to formal sources), minority women disclose less to informal sources and receive more negative responses than White women, leading to an increase in minority women’s negative mental health symptoms (Jacques-Tiura et al., 2010; Weist et al., 2014; Wyatt, 1992).

Mental Health Outcomes

Mental health symptoms. There are other post-rape mental health consequences seen across ethnic groups in addition to those associated with disclosure (Zoellner, Feeny, Fitzgibbons, & Foa, 1999). Although sexually victimized ethnic populations have similar depressive symptoms following rape (i.e. high rates of depression immediately following assault that decrease substantially in subsequent months), research suggests that ethnic minorities experience more symptoms of PTSD and anxiety (Jacques-Tiura et al., 2010; Littleton et al., 2013; Scott et al., 1993). For example, researchers have found that Black women have more symptoms of PTSD following assault than white women, a potential correlate with disclosure rates (Jacques-Tiura et al., 2010). Other findings suggest that Hispanic women have significantly more psychiatric hospitalizations and greater anxiety than Black and White women (Littleton et al., 2013; Scott et al., 1993).

Mental health treatment. Although these differences in mental health can be partially explained by the previously mentioned ethnic variations in victimization and responses following disclosure, the way mental health services are utilized also has a significant impact on victims’ psychological well-being (Price et al., 2014; Weist et al., 2014). Researchers have found that Even though Black women have been identified as the population with the greatest need for post-rape resources and are more likely to seek out treatment, recent studies found that, of all victimized ethnic groups, Black women were the least likely to complete treatment (Alvidrez et al., 2011; Jacques-Tiura et al., 2010; Price et al., 2014; Weist et al., 2014; Zoellner et al., 1999). Researchers have found that the race of the service provider can contribute to the high dropout rates of ethnic victims (Alvidrez et al., 2011). A study found that belonging to the same ethnic group as one’s service provider significantly predicts higher retention rates in treatment programs for all ethnic groups (Alvidrez et al., 2011). The influence of the service provider’s ethnicity not only  highlights the impact of the service provider on the mental health outcomes of minority women, but it also underscores the influence of culture on the recovery of the victim. The differences in beliefs and attitudes toward rape that have been identified across cultures do not facilitate the recovery of ethnically diverse victims and may correlate with why women drop out of programs or never enroll (Jimenez & Abreu, 2003).

Consequence of mental health difficulties. As a result of the mental health disturbances, sexually victimized women, especially those who do not seek out treatment, may engage in a number of risky behaviors following sexual assault (Cristani et al., 2011; Littleton et al., 2013; Wyatt, 1992). For example, across all ethnic groups, sexually assaulted women have been found to abuse substances at a higher rate than non-assaulted women, have more sexual partners and unprotected sex over their lifetime, and have more unintended and aborted pregnancies (Cristani et al., 2011; Littleton et al., 2013; Wyatt, 1992). However, researchers have found that there are ethnic differences in the frequency at which some of these risk-taking behaviors occur (Littleton et al., 2013). Studies point to alcohol use and risky sex as the most common risk-taking behaviors in which victims of sexual assault participate to cope with their stress following the assault, but participation in these acts varies across ethnic groups (Arellano et al., 1997; Price et al., 2014; Scott et al., 1993). Recent studies show White, Latina, and Asian women are more likely to cope with the assault by excessively drinking alcohol, while Black women are least likely to use alcohol to cope with their stress (Littleton et al., 2013). However, researchers also found that Black women and Latinas are more likely to engage in risky sex to cope with their negative mental health symptoms than Asian and White women (Littleton et al, 2013; Wyatt, 1992).


The analysis of the literature revealed that there are substantial differences across ethnic groups following sexual assault that can be observed at the cultural, psychological, and social levels. Not only do the cultural and ethnic identities of rape victims largely influence their perspectives on the assault, but cultural and environmental factors also limit the ability of victims to utilize resources that are available to them. This finding is important because it has implications for future research to account for the cultural needs of ethnic minorities when implementing various treatments to limit the number of risk-taking behaviors in which victims engage. Researchers should also attempt to study a full range of ethnic groups within the same study to allow for a holistic analysis of experiential differences across ethnic groups. As suggested by the limited research that has already been done, there are significant differences across ethnic groups that can benefit victims substantially when addressed properly by help providers. Future research should also investigate how the differences in coping methods factor into the recovery of sexually assaulted women. Additionally, it might be helpful to address whether the type of risky behavior in which a victim engages influences their decision to seek post-assault services. All of these suggestions for future research may contribute to the identification of potential inhibitors to the full recovery of rape victims.


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