HomeAsian AmericansFor API sexual assault survivors, cultural identity can add to struggles

For API sexual assault survivors, cultural identity can add to struggles

From Asian Family Support Services of Austin (AFSSA)

By Jennifer Zhan, AsAm News intern

When Deepika Modali first read Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement in 2016, she cried. 

“I related to it, I understood it,” said Modali, who became a survivor of sexual assault in her senior year of college. 

Miller revealed this week that she was the victim of Brock Turner’s sexual assault. It turns out the two women have something else in common: they are both Asian American. 

According to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence (API-GBV), 23 percent of API women have experienced some form of contact sexual violence and 10 percent have experienced completed or attempted rape. Nine percent of API men have experienced some form of contact sexual violence.

from API-GB

Now 35, Modali runs the sexual assault direct service program for the Asian Family Support Services of Austin (AFSSA), which also addresses domestic violence and trafficking. AFSSA, like many other organizations in the country that provide culturally specific support to API survivors in America, grew out of concern that work around sexual violence lacked representation of API voices.

In an interview with AsAmNews, Modali said that she believes seeing Miller and others coming forward may help survivors in their communities feel brave. For now, though, she said organizations like AFSSA are still really working on meeting the communities they serve where they are. 

“Something that’s so important to survivors from API communities is feeling that someone ‘gets it’ and understands them and wants to make the effort for them to feel free to express themselves,” Modali said. “Although I had advocates from a mainstream agency that were great, there were some cultural things that I couldn’t really explain to them as an immigrant kid.”

Asian women are among the least likely to report incidences of sexual assault to not only authorities, but also family and friends, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Nina Jusuf, the co-founder of the National Organization of Asians and Pacific Islanders Ending Sexual Violence (NAPIESV), told AsAmNews there’s many things to keep in mind regarding API survivors. There may be fears of retaliation or worry about “rocking the boat” of a family or community. Additionally, justice might not always mean the criminal justice system in API communities.

“The key here is that coming forward is not the best option for everybody,” Jusuf told AsAmNews. “Remember that after #MeToo, one of the [responses] was #WhyIDidNotReport.”

According to a 2006 Department of Justice report, emotional control, respect for authority, self-blame, perseverance and the acceptance of suffering are considered highly valued virtues and traits in API communities. As a result, culturally based responses can result in unwillingness to express victimization. 

Modali said that like in many API families, sex was demonized and treated as a negative subject in her household. It took her over a year to share her experience with her parents. 

“This isn’t something that is actively talked about in our communities,” Modali said. “Some of the languages that [AFSSA] serves – there isn’t even a word for rape or sexual assault. Those conversations aren’t happening.”

APIs should not only strive for community-based responses to violence, Jusuf said. They must also begin to articulate community values and redefine the meaning of “community.”


“For many of our communities, preserving our cultures has been a lifelong struggle. Many of us do not know our ancient practices for individual and collective healing and wellness, and we do not want to have to learn it from those who have stolen, co-opted and sold it back to us,” Jusuf said. “How can we remember and reclaim our traditions, while acknowledging that some of our practices are not useful anymore and have also contributed to violence? How do we honor what was and transform what will be?”

Prior to NAPIESV’s founding in 2010, Jusuf said there was no organization focused solely on sexual assault in API communities. According to a statement on NAPIESV’s website, programs serving sexual assault victims find little financial and public support unless they also serve domestic violence victims, since general support for survivors of sexual assault pales in comparison. 

Women of all races except API women are most likely to be assaulted by men of their own race, according to the statement, which notes that this “is more illustration of some of the unique factors at play in our community when it comes to sexual violence.”

A 2017 report from The Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project (DVRP) explored the way that colonization has exacerbated gender-based violence in Pacific Island communities, noting the stereotype of “exotic” women that exist to serve foreign colonizers.

Modali added that there is a history of sexual trauma in many API communities, and having relatives with those experiences can create internalized wounds that may be another reason sexual violence is not discussed. 

In any case, it’s clear that even within the API community, survivors may have many different types of experiences. As Jusuf says, “there is no cookie cutter approach to healing.”

For survivors struggling to cope with their experience through the lens of their API identity, whichever of the many possible barriers they are facing, Modali has a clear message.

“You deserve to be heard in your language, with the cultural norms that you’ve experienced, to really be able to lean into your culture by recognizing maybe there’s some places that you need support,” Modali said. “Know that there are resources out there, and that if there’s something specific that you’re looking for, you deserve to be able to be heard that way.”

A current directory of gender violence programs that specifically serve Asian and Pacific Islanders is posted on API-GBV’s website. 

AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff or submitting a story.


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