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Cultural Differences and Interpersonal Violence

Sex is a powerful force in our lives. In addition to providing us with pleasure, it allows us to become more intimate with people we care about. Unfortunately, we can abuse its power and use it as a tool for expressing anger and domination in violent ways. This misuse and abuse are evident in all cultures and socioeconomic classes, although certain myths and stereotypes falsely argue that poor and working class men, especially African Americans and Latinos, perpetrate most rapes and incidents of battery.

Culture and class differences do exist, however, in situations involving sexual violence. A knowledge of these differences will help all of us work better at ending sexual violence.

Finally, it is a strong belief of Project SURVIVE that all forms of violence originate from power imbalances and abuses. As we fight to end sexism, we know we must also struggle against racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism (against Jews and Arabs), xenophobia (against immigrants), and other forms of discrimination.

Sometimes when we give presentations, a person in the audience will talk about how battery or rape is a real problem in his or her culture. We always explain that interpersonal violence is a problem in all cultures and in every socio-economic class and that each of us is most familiar with how it expresses itself in our own culture and class.

As we stated earlier, the dominant culture perpetuates a myth that African American men and Latinos are more violent than Euro-American men. In fact, if we go back in United States history, we discover the institutionalized raping of black women by white men during slavery times. Routine sexual abuse was a documented tool of slavery. After slavery ended, during the Reconstruction period, white mobs raped black women as part of their terror tactics. Lynch mobs, angry at the growing prosperity of some African American males, accused black men of rape in order to kill them. Early African American anti-rape activists such as Ida B. Wells fought against rape, which targeted black women, and against lynching, which targeted black men.

The word "machismo" in Latin cultures refers, in part, to the ability of a man to stand up for his family. It's a word that often connotes pride and honor, but it has been sometimes mistakenly used by the feminist movement to describe male chauvinism and misogyny. It's unfair to use a Latino expression to describe a negative phenomenon, i.e., sexism, that exists in all of our cultures.

(Remember, however, that no one experience can ever define any particular culture. It can be misleading to generalize about cultural differences even though it's important to examine their role in our lives.)

In communities of color where police brutality has damaged trust, victims of sexual violence and battery in intimate relationships are often reluctant to call on police for protection.

The dominant culture has stereotyped African American women as both "promiscuous" and "strong" and so often does not take the rape of black women nearly as seriously as it does the rape of white women.

In general, women of color--women of African, Latin, and Asian descent and women from indigenous cultures--have been exoticized and sexually objectified by the dominant culture, so rape victims from all of these communities receive less sympathy and attention.

The Catholic Church is powerful in many Latino cultures. The emphasis on virginity before marriage and monogamy within it may compound the emotional pain a Latina rape victim suffers. While a supportive extended family can help in the victim's healing, it may also be a cause of concern if its male members seek revenge for the "dishonor" done to the family. A Latina may also fear hurting the family name if she reports marital abuse.

In many Asian American communities the topic of sex is not part of public discussion, which makes it harder for a victim of sexual violence to come forward. In addition, due to cultural norms, some Asian American women who are raped experience intense feelings of shame and guilt.

Like Asian American women, Jewish American women have to work against the myth that claims "there is no sexual violence or battery in our community."

Immigrant women worry about their residence status if they make their abuse public, even though a woman with green card status from a marriage to a batterer may receive asylum. Women who are illegal immigrants are understandably even more fearful of coming forward; however, the Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights can help them.

Gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and transgendered people have to confront the myth that says "sexual violence and battery do not occur in same sex relationships." In addition, like people of color who sometimes experience racism when they contact community agencies, people of various sexual orientations may experience heterosexism and homophobia. Transgender victims are also vulnerable to abuse by community and law enforcement agencies. Finally, GLBT victims may not want to make their abuse public because, if they do, they may be forced to "come out".

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