Working with Women of Color Who Have Experienced Sexual and Relational Violence

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By: Elizabeth Geiger, Ed.M.

Elizabeth Geiger, EdMOne of my most memorable clinical experiences was working in a hospital’s oncology department. During this time, I provided free individual and group therapy to primarily ethnic and racial minority clients of low socioeconomic status who were diagnosed with cancer. As this was a specialty department, I thought my work would focus on my clients’ cancer diagnoses. To my surprise, this was often not the case; in fact, the majority of my work involved discussing their complex trauma histories and the intersectionality of clients’ multiple marginalized identities. As my caseload increased, I began noticing that many of my clients, specifically women of color, reported histories of sexual and/or relational violence. Furthermore, they rarely had access to resources (e.g., legal advice, safety planning, counseling), or felt safe enough to process these experiences. For example, many women were so fearful of not being believed that they chose to maintain silence rather than risk invalidation. The intersectionality of gender and race largely shaped these women’s experiences of sexual/relational violence and their coping/help seeking behaviors. Due to the prevalence sexual/relational violence in women of color, I decided to create a workshop for survivors that would focus on the intersectionality of gender and race. This paper will review the relevant history, research, and theory that I found important while developing this workshop.

Relevant History

While women of all races have been victims of sexual/relational violence, the way in which this violence operates and the availability of and access to resources varies drastically when comparing the experiences of White women to women of color (Lee, Thompson, & Mechanic, 2002; Olive, 2012; Women of Color Network, 2006). These differences are rooted in complex histories of racialized violence and maintained through contemporary forms of racism (INCITE, 2015). Sexual violence against Black women, for example, became institutionalized by slavery, which continues to carry a powerful effect today (Crenshaw, 1991b; INCITE, 2015; Olive, 2012; Rawls 1984). Stereotypes rooted in slavery such as “The Jezebel,” the belief that Black women are sexually promiscuous, immoral, and lustful, continue to be used as a justification for sexual violence (Donovan & Williams, 2002). During times of slavery, Black women were forced to stand on auction blocks where their bodies were objectified and sold to the slave owner who purchased them (INCITE, 2015). Furthermore, rape by slave owners was used as a tool to reproduce slave labor and was therefore seen as economically profitable (Crenshaw, 1991b; INCITE, 2015). This history has not only reinforced the occurrence of sexual violence against Black women but has also worked to normalize Black women as “unrapable” (Donovan & Williams, 2002). Such normalizations suggest that the rape of Black women is an acceptable sexual act and therefore not considered to be rape at all.

The rape of Native American women also has historical roots (Smith, 2005). Sexual violence against Native American women was a vital tool used by colonists to achieve conquest, which has been documented in The Trail of Tears and The Long Walk (Amnesty International, 2007). Colonial settlers identified Native American women as innately “dirty” and “promiscuous,” using this as a validation for murder and rape (Rawls, 1984). These stereotypes continue to impact Native American women today, as they are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault than women of any other race (Perry, 2004). Immigrant women also have a long history of sexual violence in the United States due to systems of patriarchy and racism (INCITE, 2015; Olive, 2012). For example, in the late 1800s Chinese women were trafficked into the United States to serve as prostitutes (Takaki, 1998). Chinese women also became known as “naturally inclined” to prostitution, which was later used against them during the Anti-Chinese movement (Barkan, 2013).

Application of Theory

Due to this history, women of color are often seen as more “rapable” and less believable when disclosing experiences of sexual/relational violence (INCITE, 2015; Olive, 2012; Smith 2005). Thus, violence against women of color serves to reinforce systems of oppression, such as racism and colonialism. For these reasons, it is imperative that colonialism, race, and gender be included in our understanding of these women’s experiences. To separate these identities not only invalidates the lived reality of women of color,, but also serves to reinforce systems of oppression. In working with women of color survivors, Olive (2012) recommends using Intersectionality Theory (Crenshaw, 1995) and Black Feminist Theory (West, 2002). These theories urge mental health professionals to incorporate the intersection of gender and race within the historical context. However, literature on sexual/relational violence has frequently focused solely on gender identity, rather than using an intersectional approach (Bograd, 1999; Sokoloff & Dupont, 2005). Statistically, when compared to White female survivors, women of color are less likely to utilize resources and more likely to drop out of support groups (WOCN, 2006). Research suggests providers’ lack of intersectional lenses when working with women of color survivors contributes to these statistical differences (Bryant-Davis, 2005; Crenshaw, 1991a; Lee, Thompson, & Mechanic, 2002).

Another important area of focus for the workshop was addressing safety within the group context. In Black Feminist Thought (1990), Patricia Collins states, “Historically, safe spaces were ‘safe’ because they represented places where Black women could freely examine issues that concerned us. By definition, such spaces become less ‘safe’ if shared with those who were not Black and female” (Collins, 1990, p. 110). I struggled with this, as my intention in creating the workshop was to provide a safe space for the women. Yet, the workshop would be less safe due to the fact that I was White. I decided to ask a colleague who identifies as a woman of color to co-lead the workshop with me. I hoped it would help balance the power dynamics within the room. I also found it important to explore my own identities and how they would impact my role as a leader of the workshop. As a White woman, I needed to know and understand my privileges on both a cognitive and emotional level. Thus, it was important for me to know what specific privileges my Whiteness provided and the emotional reactions evoked from holding such privileges. Lastly, I needed to be ready to talk about these privileges openly and with comfort.

The Women’s Empowerment & Safety Workshop

After reviewing the literature and assessing safety within the workshop, I designed The Women’s Empowerment & Safety Workshop to address the following topics: 1) definition of sexual/relational violence, 2) historical nature of violence against women of color (e.g., colonialism, slavery), 3) intersectionality of gender and race and how these identities impact one’s experiences of violence, 4) internalization of violence and experiences of discrimination, and 5) empowerment, resources, and activism. The workshop was initially held as a one-day event, but continues to be offered each year due to its popularity. On the day of the first workshop, seven people attended, all of whom identified as women of color. The majority of the women identified as Black. Although identification as a survivor was not a requirement to participate in the workshop, all attendees identified as survivors of sexual and/or relational violence.

In the beginning of the workshop, my co-leader and I addressed the racial difference between us and invited the attendees to discuss concerns surrounding this difference. The attendees discussed my Whiteness and the privileges it provided me in various contexts. For example, a common topic was the fact that you have to be “lily-White” to be taken seriously by the cops, social workers, and legal system. In these moments, I was hyperaware of my Whiteness and the emotional and physical safety it provided me. I felt a mixture of sadness, anger, and anxiety. Instead of distancing myself from the discomfort, which is a privileged choice I hold because I am White, I pushed through my emotional reaction and used it to intervene. I validated the members and acknowledged that because I am White, I am more likely to be taken seriously and will be provided with better care. My co-leader then invited the attendees to explore their feelings in relation to this unfortunate reality. The attendees were angry, and for good reason. Although their anger was difficult to sit with, it was essential in building trust with these women. This specific incident demonstrates how clinicians can apply intersectionality informed therapy by addressing their own power and privilege within a therapeutic space.

Throughout the workshop, attendees discussed important experiences that highlighted the intersectionality of race and gender, and addressed how that intersection shaped their understanding of sexual/relational violence, access to resources, and the healing process. In line with historical views that normalize violence against Black women, one member discussed how the women in her family would prepare each generation for this violence. For the women in her family, this violence was not a question – it was a certainty. A discussion on access to resources brought light to the fact that what health providers often consider helpful for survivors (i.e., police, legal, counseling) can actually cause harm (Bryant-Davis, 2005; Bryant-Davis, Chung, & Tillman, 2009). For example, a few members identified the legal system as “off limits” and suggested that it would likely do more harm than good. Out of the seven workshop attendees, none had chosen to report or disclose their trauma incident to law enforcement, which may be related to how racial stereotypes, such as promiscuity, are often used to place blame back on the victim (Bryant-Davis, 2005; McNair & Neville, 1996). In addition, both historical and recent events (e.g., racial profiling, police shootings) have created and fostered mistrust between people of color and the law. Only two workshop participants had previously sought counseling services, and both prematurely terminated them because they felt their counselor did not understand their experience. For example, the attendees reported that both counselors were White and did not bring the topic of race into the room. In discussing what healing should look like, all attendees agreed that a focus on intersectionality is necessary for posttraumatic growth.

Implications for Practice

Although I was not able to formally assess the attendees’ experiences, positive reactions were verbalized, with attendees reporting high satisfaction, increased knowledge, and appreciation of the supportive environment. Specifically, many spoke about how an intersectionality approach helped them to feel understood and welcomed. As demonstrated by this experience and past research, using an intersectionality framework is a necessary tool for mental health professionals working with women of color survivors. It is important for counselors to put significant time and energy into understanding their own identities, the privileges and biases they hold, and how these identities will impact the therapeutic relationship (Bryant-Davis, 2005; McNair & Neville, 1996). In sharing this experience, my hope is that as a field we can begin to restructure trauma work to encompass an intersectional approach that validates and empowers women of color survivors.


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Elizabeth Geiger, Ed.M. is entering her 3rd year in the counseling psychology doctoral program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a member of the Laboratory for Oppression, Resilience, and Empowerment, where she conducts research with a focus on the intersectionality of multiple marginalized identities and experiences of discrimination.