The unique harm of sexual abuse in the black community

What makes R. Kelly’s alleged sexual abuse of black girls different than that of other big-name alleged perpetrators, like Woody Allen?

What are the different pressures faced by Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford regarding their testimonies of alleged sexual and gender mistreatment by Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh?

As the founder of the #MeToo movement, why is Tarana Burke, a black woman, getting death threats from black men?

The underlying core of these questions is: What really makes trauma traumatic?

Decades of research on trauma, or physical, sexual or psychological violence, have shown the same thing: Victimization hurts people. Sexual assault in particular can be painful to all who experience it.

However, as a trauma expert who has studied the effect of violence for over a decade, I have found that there is a unique harm for black people and other minorities whose perpetrators are of the same minority group.

To understand this harm, I created cultural betrayal trauma theory. The general idea of cultural betrayal trauma theory is that some minorities develop what I call “(intra)cultural trust” – love, loyalty, attachment, connection, responsibility and solidarity with each other to protect themselves from a hostile society. Within-group violence, such as a black perpetrator harming a black victim, is a violation of this (intra)cultural trust. This violation is called a cultural betrayal.

The harms of cultural betrayal

Cultural betrayal leads to many different outcomes. CC BY-SA
Cultural betrayal trauma, which is simply within-group violence in minority populations, is associated with many outcomes that go beyond things that are typically studied with trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. It includes some things not often thought about with trauma, such as internalized prejudice – like a black person believing the stereotype that all black people are violent.

(Intra)cultural pressure is another outcome of cultural betrayal trauma. With (intra)cultural pressure, people who experience cultural betrayal trauma are often demanded to protect the perpetrators and the minority group as a whole at all costs, even above their own well-being. With the mandate of “don’t betray your race,” (intra)cultural pressure punishes people who speak out about the cultural betrayal trauma they have endured.

In a recent study, I tested cultural betrayal trauma theory in youth due to the increased risk for trauma and mental health problems in the transition into adulthood.

I surveyed 179 college women online in 2015. Over 50% of these young women were victims of trauma. Just under half experienced psychological violence, 14% endured physical violence, and almost one in three women were victims of sexual violence.