Incorporating Cultural Humility in Sexual Violence Prevention and Response

Dec 06th, 2017

By Caitlyn Nicholas, MCASA Program Intern

Sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum. Examining sexual violence without taking culture into account runs the risk of excluding the most at risk populations for experiencing sexual violence. Minority populations experience disproportionately high rates of sexual violence, and face additional barriers when reporting sexual assault and seeking services. For this reason, cultural humility is a key component of effective prevention and response efforts that best serve victims and survivors.

What is cultural humility?

Before unpacking the concept of cultural humility, it is important to discuss the social construction of culture. Traditionally, culture has been associated with shared sets of norms, customs, and traditions belonging to a group of people. Learning about different cultural norms and their significance helps us avoid making assumptions and generalizations about a group of people. When discussing culture, it is essential to consider everything that comprises a person’s identity, such as age, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and more. Unfortunately, anyone of these factors can be used to make generalizations and assumptions about people, leading to systems of oppression. In reality, these factors are intersecting and result in dynamic, fluid, and unique individuals. Thus, when thinking about culture, we need to avoid sweeping generalizations and keep in mind the individuals and subgroups within larger groups.

Cultural humility is the “ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented [focused on the other person] in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the [person].”[1] Practicing cultural humility requires us to put aside our own beliefs, generalizations, and assumptions about other people and cultures and instead focus on learning how individuals identify themselves. It requires us to step back and critically assess our own assumptions and values, then acknowledge how these factors affect our interactions with people of other cultures.[2]

Cultural humility differs from cultural competency in a few key ways. Cultural competency implies that individuals can function inside of another culture simply by researching that culture. Cultural humility acknowledges the limitations in fully understanding and functioning in another culture without lived experience. Unlike cultural competency, the practice of cultural humility requires humbleness along with high levels of self-reflection and critique. Due to the dynamic nature of culture, cultural humility is a life-long process, not a goal to be accomplished. Instead, it is a practice that must be continued throughout life.

Understanding the individual experiences of sexual assault survivors

Systems of oppression strongly influence the experiences of sexual assault survivors. These systems of oppression can include racism, sexism, homophobia, and others. The systemic oppression of minority populations has resulted in a culture that enables violence against, and the sexual victimization of, these groups. These systems also create additional barriers to reporting and seeking help after a sexual assault. When an individual has multiple identities, systems of discrimination intersect and often exacerbate their experiences.

For example, survivors of color, particularly African American women, are less likely to report or seek services from rape crisis centers, even though they are more likely to be sexually assaulted.[3] Some people of color may be wary of law enforcement or the criminal justice system because of injustices that they, or people they know, have experienced in the past. A person of color who is also transgender may face even more barriers due to the intersection of their race and gender identity. High rates of poverty, discrimination, and hypersexualization mean that LGBTQ people are at a higher risk of sexual victimization than cisgender, heterosexual individuals.[4] Like many other underserved populations, the LGBTQ community is marginalized further by hate-based violence, which can take the form of sexual assault.  Despite this, the LGBTQ population is often neglected in sexual violence prevention and response.

Cultural humility in sexual assault prevention and response

First and foremost, prevention programs must be culturally relevant and not generic. This means ensuring that your prevention programming is inclusive and tailored to the population’s specific needs. Remember, cultural humility requires you to forego your assumptions, ask questions, and listen.

A good start could be conducting assessments to gain insight into the community. Community assessments could include questionnaires, interviews or focus groups with community members to reveal feelings, thoughts, and concerns related to sexual violence. Assessing recent epidemiological data can identify important trends within the community, such as rates of sexual victimization, reporting rates, barriers to reporting, etc. Additionally, collaborating with organizations within the community you are trying to reach is a great way to gain insight. Most likely, these organizations have a deep understanding of the issues going on within the community, as well its needs and strengths. Within your own organization, implementing ongoing cultural humility training and discussion solidify this best practice for staff members. 

In order to avoid overgeneralized prevention and response practices, we must dig deeper and recognize that individuals come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Cultural humility is a key factor in appropriate and inclusive sexual assault prevention and response. Without it, we risk excluding the populations most vulnerable to sexual violence. With it, we can learn about the various experiences, vulnerabilities, needs, and strengths of our communities and apply this knowledge to our efforts.


[1] Hook, J. N., Davis, D. E., Owen, J., Worthington Jr., E. L., & Utsey, S. O. (2013). Cultural humility: Measuring openness to culturally diverse clients. Journal of Counseling Psychology®. doi:10.1037/a0032595

[2] Kumagai A.K., Lypson M.L., (2009). Beyond cultural competence: Critical consciousness, social justice, and multicultural education. Academic Medicine. 2009;84(6):782–787.

[3] Tillman, S., Bryant-Davis, T., Smith, K., & Marks, A. (2010). Shattering Silence: Exploring Barriers to Disclosure for African American Sexual Assault Survivors. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 11(2), 59-70. doi:10.1177/1524838010363717

[4] Walters, M.L., Chen J., & Breiding, M.J. (2013). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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