Art by Jocelyn Diaz

The Taboo Subject of Sexual Assault

Two Latinx university students share their experiences of sexual violence, and how they sought help

CONTENT WARNING: Mentions of domestic and emotional abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. Resources listed at the end.

Estrella was a junior in high school when she and her boyfriend of three years got into yet another argument about him inappropriately touching her in public. Whether it was groping her or speaking to her disrespectfully in front of his friends, the arguments often resulted in him crying and giving gifts in an attempt to earn her forgiveness.

The two had driven to a secluded area late one night to discuss his behavior. Estrella said despite intending to break up with him that night, his promises to change his ways gave her hope and kept her in the relationship with him for another year.

They talked for an hour that night. He threw the flowers, a jacket, a sweater and a blanket he gifted Estrella to the backseats of his car. He began kissing Estrella and forced himself onto her. “I always blame myself because I think ‘Why would I let that happen,’” Estrella said.

Now a college sophomore, Estrella is among the many women who blame themselves for the sexual violence they have endured. Out of every thousand sexual assault cases, 310 go unreported to the police, according to the largest sexual violence organization, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Estrella is one of those cases. 

She said it wasn’t until two months after their breakup that she realized her ex-boyfriend had sexually assaulted her. She said her failure to recognize the severity of the situation was partly rooted in the way her Latinx parents raised her to support men and take care of them.

Estrella said she would vaguely communicate to her mom about the various instances her boyfriend made her feel uncomfortable, yet her mom would suggest “that’s just how men are.”

“My parents were old fashioned in that sense, they made me think that if a man did something to me it was because it was my fault,” Estrella said, leading her to believe the way she was being treated was normal. 

Estrella said that toxic masculinity, the cultural expectation for men to behave in stereotypically masculine ways such as through exerting dominance or aggression, is prevalent in Latinx culture. Out of 5.4 million Hispanic/Latinx women, 36.1 percent experienced sexual violence, according to a 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

Nina Wilson, a DePaul women and gender studies professor, works on the education team at Resilience, a non-profit sexual violence resource organization. Wilson said toxic masculinity and misogyny are a response to the historical mistreatment of Black and Brown communities. Wilson said she thinks the two are natural responses to systems of violence such as colonization, imperialism and contemporary variants of capitalism and neoliberalism. “A lot of these processes used gender-based violence to enact harm and Black and Brown people have unfortunately had to assimilate, having to succumb as well as perpetuate harmful gender roles, or die,” Wilson said.

The perpetuation of sexual violence is not just exclusive to Latinx communities. “It really is a systemic issue, it happens everywhere,” Wilson said.

Sexual violence against women of color has deep roots in U.S. history. Enslaved Black women were commonly raped by their white slaveholders, according to Prevent Connect, a national project that helps prevent sexual assault and relationship violence. After slavery ended, physical and sexual violence remained prominent against Black and Indigenous communities, causing Black women to become some of the first women to break the silence about rape.

“Particularly in the community of women of color, where other forms of trauma such as systemic oppression and discrimination already exist, they may experience intense response or worsen symptoms that they already had [to sexual violence],” said Sara Heidbreder, a sexual and relationship violence prevention specialist. 

Yasmine is another Latina who experienced sexual violence. 

During their high school winter break, 15-year-old Yasmine was smoking a marijuana blunt with her friend in his room. The two had met the summer before eighth grade and had established a good friendship, often bonding over similar family problems growing up.

After smoking, he offered her a yellow Xanax pill. Although hesitant to take it, Yasmine said it happened quickly and her friend assured her that everything would be fine. Yasmine said he further persuaded her by telling Yasmine that her boyfriend would come over soon.

Yasmine’s boyfriend never came that night. 

Within a few hours, Yasmine and her friend had finished an entire prescription bottle of Xanax.

Yasmine said she has no recollection from that night. She later found an image on her phone of her and her friend laying on his bed. In his hand were thirteen yellow pills.

She woke up the next day and her friend told her they had sex. “I couldn’t even believe it, I was so astonished and disgusted,” Yasmine said.

It wasn’t until two years later, when Yasmine fell into a depressive episode because she couldn’t bear the silence anymore, that she told her parents she was raped. 

Yasmine remembers her dad asking if anyone had touched her and the way it triggered her emotions. “I wasn’t going to lie, I just started crying and balling my eyes out,” Yasmine said. “Immediately they knew that something had happened. I broke down and told them the whole situation, all the drugs, everything.” 

Rocio Lozano, the sexual assault program director at Mujeres Latinas en Accion, said stigma still exists in the Latinx community when trying to find professional help.

“[Latinos] care a lot of what our family thinks of us, culturally we are always trying to please the family and in trying to please the family, or to avoid what they will say then we do not seek services,”  Lozano said. Survivors may also refuse to seek professional help because the perpetrator could live within proximity such as on the same block, apartment building or neighborhood Lozano said.

Most children and teens who face sexual violence are committed by someone they know. Out of the sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, ninety-three percent of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator most were either acquaintances or family members, according to RAINN. “The fact that the survivor knows this person is already traumatic and it prevents them from asking for help,” Lozano said.

Heidbreder said survivors should be empowered to make their own decisions on who and where to seek help.

For Estrella, reaching out to professional help was difficult, she felt distrust in predominantly white institutions. “A majority of white therapists would not understand the cultural differences the same way,” Estrella said.

Heidbreder said for some, reaching out to family or community members may feel much safer than reaching out to the professionals.

Megan Greeson, a psychology and gender-based violence expert, said seeking professional help can help survivors cope with some of the repercussions of sexual assault like anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, disordered eating and more. “The most important thing is to believe them and share empathy,” Greeson said. “Don’t question or judge them or suggest the survivor should have behaved differently.” 

Estrella said survivors should take it minute by minute. “It’s so hard when you realize what has happened to you,” Estrella said. “You just feel so naked no matter how many layers you put on, you try to scrub it off in the shower, you try to do everything you can to get this feeling off. No matter how hard someone holds you, you kind of just stay with that feeling but it eventually goes away. You feel it every once in a while, but it gets better.”

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Names of survivors have been changed for privacy and identities of alleged perpetrators kept out because they were students at the time of the incidents.

This story was originally published by La DePaulia on April 10. Reprinted with permission. 

Resources: If you or someone you know have been abused, resources are available via the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) at rainn.org. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673.

Mujeres Latinas en Accion has three Chicago locations—Pilsen, Brighton Park and North Riverside. Bilingual services are available to anyone regardless of immigration status.

Not By My Own Community offers domestic violence help services located in Hyde Park. 

Center for Advancing Domestic Peace located on 813 S. Western Avenue offers professional resources for substance abuse treatment, psychology and community counseling.

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Jacqueline Cardenas is an undergrad student majoring in journalism with a concentration in Latino Communications at DePaul University where she is the editor-in-chief for La DePaulia. She is a first generation Mexican-American. This is her first story in the Weekly.

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