Surviving and Thriving: Understanding Asian Americans’ Experiences of Relationship Trauma

By Leena Batra, Ph.D.

This article is in response to a request made by the Director of Gift From Within, seeking information regarding the psychological issues which Asian American survivors of trauma confront as a result of assault and abuse. Dr. Batra has written this article as a guide for therapists, and for survivors who are beginning the stages of recovery and healing.

Aditi is a 2nd generation Indian American college student who is engaged to marry Anish, also a 2nd generation Indian American male student who attends her university. Their relationship is described as “ideal” by friends and family, who see them as a loving couple. Aditi’s friends envy the way Anish seems to “adore” Aditi, not wanting her to leave his sight, sending her red roses several times a week, calling her several times a day. Initially, Aditi was charmed by Anish and his immediate devotion to her. But soon she began to see a darker side to his outwardly loving behavior: “At first I was thrilled by his attention,” Aditi said, “but later I started to see that it’s really all about keeping me in control.” Aditi was afraid to leave or to tell anyone the truth: Anish was hitting her whenever they fought, often leaving bruises and injuries that Aditi tried to hide from friends and family. Aditi’s biggest fear was that her supporters would see her as weak and “damaged,” and that she would be unable to marry anyone else.

Mai is a 20-year-old international college student from Vietnam who has been dating Alison, a 22-year-old student who she met in class. Mai came out as a lesbian to friends in college, but not to family in Vietnam. She feels passionately in love with Alison, though friends have tried to share their concerns with her regarding the relationship. Friends have told Mai that they notice Alison’s dominant and controlling behavior towards her when they are in public. Though Mai minimizes this as “just Alison’s way of showing me how much I mean to her,” she cannot admit to friends that their arguments often end up with Mai getting hit, and that Alison often physically forces Mai into having sex when she does not want to. She cannot turn to family for support, fearing that coming out as a lesbian, as well as telling them about the sexual and physical violence, would devastate her reputation in her family and community.

A 12-year-old girl from the Hmong community in Minnesota is gang-raped by five boys she barely knows. Out of shame and fear for her future and her family’s reputation, she does not tell anyone – not police, not family, not a doctor. Instead she calls one of the attackers. “Are you prepared to marry me?” she asked the boy. 1

Two female Japanese students from Spokane, Washington are blindfolded, handcuffed, and raped by two White men. The assailants videotaped and photographed the assault, and told the women that if they told anyone, the tapes would be sent to their fathers. A woman who assisted the attackers in kidnapping the students told police that Asian women were targeted because the attackers thought Asians would be too ashamed to report the crime. The attackers lost their gamble: The students, ages 18 and 19, reported the crime, and saw the assailants convicted. 2

According to Asian American author Helen Zia, stereotypes about Asian women are responsible for many of the sex crimes targeting Asian Americans. “It’s happened on an epidemic proportion,” Zia writes. “It’s this image of the Asian American woman being exotic and passive …. Predators think they have free rein with Asian American women.”3 Sheridan Prasso writes of “Western fantasies … where submissive women cater to every desire, where conquerable men pose no masculine threat, where compliant nations fall into line under Western dominance.” Asian women, she writes, “find themselves perceived as submissive, obedient, and obliging – or the opposite – but rarely as well-adjusted mothers and professionals.” 4

Asian Americans and Interpersonal Violence

How, then, do these stereotypes of Asian and Asian American women fuel the occurrence of violence? The problem of sexual and relationship violence exists in every culture. Many theories suggest that interpersonal violence originates from power imbalances between men and women, between classes, races, and other groups. Norms, myths, and misconceptions in all cultures play a role in how survivors of abuse respond to the violence, whether they report it or seek medical/psychological help, and their perception of the availability of support for their recovery. Though Asian Americans comprise a highly diverse group originating from diverse cultures and backgrounds, some commonalities will be explored in understanding and responding to violence against Asian American women. In this section, some of the stereotypes, myths, and attitudes towards violence against Asian American women will be explored as a means for examining how best to help an Asian American survivor of sexual or relational trauma.

Statistics of Violence Against Asian/Asian American Women 569

  • 21.1 % of Asian American women have a history of child sexual abuse.
  • The rates for adult rape show Asian Americans reporting at 10.5 %.
  • One quarter (25%) of the Asian American women who were sexually abused in childhood reported rape as an adult.
  • A study of South Asian women in heterosexual relationships found that 40% of the participants revealed that they had been sexually or physically abused by their current male partners.
  • 32% of 178 Asian American women reported experiencing physical or sexual abuse at least “occasionally” during the previous year. Of the 23 women who reported not having experienced intimate partner violence themselves, 64% said they knew of an Asian friend who had. 11
  • 28.5% of survey participants knew of a woman who was being abused by her in-laws. 11
  • Each year, 5200-7600 Asian women and girls are kidnapped, tricked or sold into prostitution and smuggled into the United States. Thirty-three percent of all women and 23 percent of all girls under 18 who are smuggled across the border are raped and forced to work as prostitutes. 1

The National Asian Women’s Health Organization (NAWHO) found that 9

  • 16% of Asian American women aged 18-34 reported experiencing “pressure to have sex without their consent by an intimate partner.”
  • 27% experienced emotional abuse by an intimate partner.
  • In a 1995-1996 telephone survey of 8,000 women and 8,000 men across all ethnic backgrounds, researchers found that 910
  • 12.8% of Asian and Pacific Islander women reported experiencing physical assault by an intimate partner at least once during their lifetime.
  • 3.8% of Asian and Pacific Islander women reported having been raped.
  • The rate of physical assault was lower than those reported by Whites (21.3%), African Americans (26.3%), Hispanic/Latino of any race (21.2%), multiracial respondents (27%), and Native Americans and Alaskan Natives (30.7%).
  • However, according to a 1991 Massachusetts study 11, 13% of women and children killed in domestic violence-related homicides in that state were Asian, although Asians represented only 2.4% of the state’s population.
  • Researchers speculate that the low rate for Asian and Pacific Islander women may be attributed to underreporting. 9

Coming forward

Shame and guilt, and the taboo nature of sex, often makes it difficult for Asian American women to report physical and sexual abuse. Immigrant women worry that perhaps their residence status may be threatened if they make the abuse public, and illegal immigrants are even more fearful of repercussions to disclosure. 3

“It’s really hard for Asian Pacific American women to come forward because there’s a ton of shame, self-blame and embarrassment,” Yin Ling Leung, organizational director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) said. “You get a room of five Asian American women together, and they all have stories about sexual harassment.” 3 However, Asian Americans often promote the myth within their own communities that “there is no sexual violence or battery in our community.” 3 Cultural norms often still stigmatize the woman and hold her responsible for the breaking of a family. Adherence to the “model minority stereotype” – that all Asian Americans are hard-working, successful, self-reliant, and not in need of outside assistance – also serves as a barrier for many Asian Americans in reporting sexual and relationship violence.

“The secret of being beautiful,” writes Syeda Kisa Zehra, is to be “purely and truly dutiful.” 8 Duty and obedience are often values highly prized among Asian families. Asian American women are often expected to fulfill the “model minority” stereotype and attain both higher education and career success, while remaining self-sacrificing, obedient, and dutiful in their family and community roles. One Pakistani value regarding female chastity states, “How weak she is, who gets stares by her ‘revealed’ body; how strong she is, who bends eyes by her ‘covered’ body.” 8 Asian American women are often expected to remain “chaste” and virgin as young women, and sexually faithful as wives. Thus, after a sexual assault, an Asian American woman may experience debilitating shame and fear as a result of “losing her virginity.” She may blame herself for not having stopped or prevented the attack. In a traditional family structure, patriarchal norms and values may in fact stigmatize the woman after a sexual assault. Some may experience barriers to future marriage prospects (particularly if the expectation is that of an arranged marriage). Traditional families and in-laws may foster a sense of shame for the married survivor of an attack. Expectations that the male has supremacy in a traditional marriage relationship can silence women who experience trauma at the hands of their spouses. Many times married women fear that they will be blamed for the violence towards them, and thus choose not to tell extended family members about the assault.

Many Asian American women have difficulty reporting sexual and physical violence to police, medical professionals, or even family. Police brutality and sexual objectification towards women of Asian, Latin, and African descent have deeply damaged trust in the protection and sympathy available for victims of sexual or relationship violence. 7 Distrust of the counseling profession, and the expectation that family problems should be dealt with by elders in the family, prevent many Asian Americans from seeking psychological help. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals often experience heterosexism and homophobia when reporting sexual and relationship violence. Combined with cultural myths such as the belief that “we Asians do not have homosexuality in our community,” GLBT Asian Americans may face a double burden when attempting to seek support from family, police, or medical professionals. Disclosure of the abuse often necessitates coming out, perhaps to individuals who will stigmatize them further.

Seeking Help

In the Project AWARE study, researchers found that the majority of women (78%) who did confide in someone about their experience of abuse or assault felt better afterwards. However, within that group 35% said they also felt ashamed. 11

Help-seeking in traditional Asian/Asian American families often involves turning to elders within the family for advice. However, for the survivor of assault by a family member, this may have implications for the family system that pose significant consequences. Counselors can assist Asian American clients by first understanding that Asian women often primarily consider the impact of their disclosure to their communities and families. Insisting on an individualistic approach (such as advice that the client first “take care of herself”) may not be received well by an Asian American survivor. Assisting survivors in identifying and relying upon supportive members of their communities (including individuals within and outside of their families) can be helpful in working with Asian American clients.

Counselors can assist Asian American women by understanding the cultural barriers that may prevent them from seeking help. Language and resources may pose one such barrier for immigrants and refugees. Inability to afford or communicate with healthcare providers often prevents Asians from reporting assault or abuse.

Additionally, ethnic identity may play a role in preventing survivors from coming forward. Family expectations and standards of success are often strongly internalized among Asian Americans. Counselors should recognize traditional gender-specific expectations that a woman take care of family needs above her own. An Asian American woman may perceive the abuse as representing a deviation from her family’s dreams for her success.

Counselors should understand the role that the “model minority stereotype” may play in how an Asian American survivor responds to assault or abuse. Providers may mistakenly believe in the stereotype that all Asians are self-sufficient and in less need of assistance. In addition, survivors may internalize this myth, creating a sense of shame and reluctance to acknowledge the depth of need they feel. Acceptance of the “model minority” myth can lead to difficulty for both client and counselor in recognizing or acknowledging the indicators of abuse or assault.

With culturally competent services and support from their communities, Asian American survivors of abuse and assault can begin the path of healing, thereby reducing the devastating effects of shame and depression.

Helping a Friend or Family Member 5

Family members and friends can assist survivors of assault and abuse to come forward by providing non-judgmental support as they consider their options for seeking help.

  • Believe what a person tells you about his or her sexual assault or abuse.
  • Listen, do not judge.
  • Offer to assist the person in getting to a safe place, both physically and emotionally.
  • Reinforce that the assault was not their fault. Many victims of sexual assault blame themselves.
  • Reassure them that they are not to blame. The perpetrator is completely responsible for the assault.
  • Be patient and understanding. Survivors have their own timetable for recovery.
  • Accept the survivor’s choice of solution to the assault even if you disagree with what they have chosen to do. It is more important that they feel empowered to make choices and take back control than it is for you to impose what you think is the “right” decision.
  • Let the person know that there are resources to help them. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is one such resource: 1-800-656-HOPE

How Survivors Can Begin the Process of Healing

Beginning therapy can be intimidating and overwhelming for Asian American survivors of trauma. Cultural barriers may hinder the survivor from seeking out therapy, or may prevent the individual from returning after the initial session. It is important to be an informed and proactive consumer of psychotherapy services. Below is a guide to beginning the process of selecting an appropriate therapist.

When considering the field of possible therapists, one should first consider convenience and location. If a therapist is located too far away, it becomes difficult to find the motivation to take time to travel for appointments. Survivors can start by reading the profiles of therapists on insurance networks, or by doing a Web search. Ideally, survivors may find therapists by word of mouth, so friends and acquaintances who can recommend trusted therapists can provide a useful start for the search process. Often, one can narrow the search by gender, ethnicity, or language of the therapist. When searching for a therapist, the individual should look for someone who has experience working with Asian Americans and survivors of trauma.

After reading through the profiles of therapists, a survivor should select two or three and call for an initial appointment. At the first session, the client should evaluate his or her comfort level with that person. Does the therapist understand the issues as presented, or does the survivor feel he or she needs to spend a lot of time “educating” the therapist about cultural background? While every individual is unique, and it will be important for each client to share cultural and family history as it impacts him or her personally, one should not become the therapist’s primary “teacher” regarding his or her cultural background. Fees and payment arrangements should be settled upon at the first session. The client should ask if the therapist accepts insurance, or if they work on a sliding-scale arrangement.

Recognize that it may take several appointments before one feels comfortable enough to trust the counselor with the most important concerns. A client should not feel rushed into trusting too soon. However, one should not get frustrated or discouraged and give up on the appointments if it takes some time to open up to the therapist. Of primary importance is the survivor’s general level of comfort and safety in talking to the counselor. Equally important concerns to evaluate are whether or not the therapist shares similar values on the concerns important to the client, and whether the client perceives that the therapist can understand and empathize with the concerns he or she presents in session.

Additional Resources


1 Louwagie, P. “Shamed Into Silence”, Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune, October 08, 2005. Available at:


2 Dundas, C. “Defendant Sentenced to 16 Years.” Associated Press, July 6, 2001. Available at:


3 Macabasco, L.W. “Princeton incident shows extreme case of Asian fetish.”, April 29. 2005. Available at:


4 Prasso, S. (2005). The Asian Mystique. Public Affairs: New York.


5 Violence Affecting Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities. Available at:


6 National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) Violence Against Women Act 2005. Available at:


7 Project Survive Promoting Healthy Relationships (Cultural Differences)-City College of San Francisco. Retrieved March 16, 2006 from:



9 Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence (2005). “Fact sheet: Domestic violence in Asian communities.” Available at:


10 Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (2000). Extent, nature, and consequences of intimate partner violence: Research report. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at:, or 800-851-3420 (877-712-9279, TTY).


11 McDonnell, K.A., & Abdulla, S.E. (2001). Project AWARE. Washington, D.C.: Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project. Available at:


Dr. Leena Batra serves as a Staff Psychologist and the Asian American Specialist at the Counseling and Mental Health Center of the University of Texas-Austin. She currently serves on the Directorate for the Commission of Counseling and Psychological Services (CCAPS) of the American College Personnel Association (ACPA). She has almost 20 years of experience providing counseling for Asian Americans.