sealPurdue News

May 1995

Professor: Child abuse therapy must be culturally sensitive

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Minority victims of sexual child abuse are among the most voiceless people in society, says a Purdue University researcher.

Lisa Aronson Fontes, assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at Purdue, says intervention and therapy programs must become culturally sensitive if they are to help. Fontes has studied sexual child abuse for the last decade. Her book, "Sexual Abuse in Nine North American Cultures: Treatment and Prevention," is being published this month by Sage Publications.

"The current social service agencies are not adequately serving minority communities," Fontes says. "African-Americans are not getting as good a service as whites. And forget it if you don't speak the English language or if you are gay or lesbian."

The nine chapters in Fontes' book look at sexual child abuse in different cultural groups living in North America. Each chapter is written by a member of the culture who also is a researcher and/or practicing therapist. Findings in the chapters are based on clinical studies and experience. Groups addressed in the book are: African-Americans; Asian-, Pacific Island- and Filipino-Americans; Puerto Ricans; Jews; Seventh Day Adventists; Anglo-Americans; Cambodians; gay males; and lesbians.

Fontes says there is no evidence that sexual abuse occurs more or less often in any one culture or in any one social or economic level. There is plenty of evidence, however, of the differing attitudes of the cultures toward abuse, and of the lack of appropriate help for the victims and their families.

She has found that many agencies don't have bilingual brochures or staff. They say they don't need them because they don't have clients who are bilingual, she says.

"There has to be outreach," she says. "Somehow we have to let these people know that sexual abuse is illegal and, especially, that there is help for them if it happens."

Fontes says there is a danger in basing every therapy program on studies of a general white American population. There also, she says, could be a danger in "Balkanizing" every cultural group into specialized programs of intervention or therapy. "We need to assess people individually -- culture is just one of the factors to consider," she says.

"Agencies need to be user-friendly for people from all groups. They need to have information available in all languages; they need bilingual therapists and protective workers; they need to have flexible hours and offices in a variety of neighborhoods so they are accessible. Therapists and protective workers need to make their interventions culturally sensitive and appropriate. They need to understand the way culture might affect family dynamics."

African-American mothers, for instance, tend to believe a daughter's complaint about sexual abuse more readily than white mothers, while Asian mothers are more likely to think their child is lying, Fontes says.

"The chapter on Asian-Americans says these families reject children's reports of sexual abuse most often because the entire family loses face with the disclosure, and the victims' mothers may be exceptionally dependent on their menfolk," Fontes says. In one study of 60 Asian-American families where incest was disclosed, only four mothers separated from their perpetrator husbands.

According to the chapter on Puerto Rican families, they may suffer from a "machismo-marianismo" double standard. A Latina female must be chaste and self-sacrificing like the Virgin Mary, while the code of machismo may prompt a Latino male to excessively consume alcohol and constantly signal his sexual availability. Young girls who lose their virginity through rape or abuse are sometimes considered "loose" and later revictimized by someone else.

"Sexual abuse is tacitly supported by cultures that idealize innocent female bodies and portray aging female bodies as spoiled or repugnant," Fontes says. "Every culture has attitudes, beliefs and practices that seem to put children at risk for sexual abuse, and others that seem to protect them."

The chapter on White Anglo-Saxon Protestants says victims often are disbelieved because of denial, isolation and secrecy and the WASP insistence that "nothing bad ever happens in our family." The WASP tradition of individualism makes some WASP men believe that satisfying their own needs at the expense of others is a moral right; and it makes victims feel responsible.

In chapters on gay men and lesbians as U.S. cultures, the book says gay and lesbian survivors or sexual abuse face unique burdens. "These chapters refute the erroneous belief that sexual abuse makes victims gay," Fontes says. "In advising therapists who work with these victims and their families, the chapters point out that the special isolation of gay teen-agers can make them more vulnerable to abuse by predatory adults."

People from all groups need help learning to prevent sexual abuse, as well as with intervention and therapy programs for victims and families, Fontes says.

Her book, "Sexual Abuse in Nine North American Cultures: Treatment and Prevention," is available for $22.95 plus a $2 handling charge from Sage Publications, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, Calif. 91320-2218.

Source: Lisa A. Fontes, (765) 494-1833; Internet,
Writer: Julie Rosa, (765) 494-2079; Internet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: For a review copy of "Sexual Abuse in Nine North American Cultures: Treatment and Prevention," contact Sage Publications, (805) 499-0721. To receive the text of this news release via e-mail, send an e-mail message with the text "send punews 9504fp3" to this address: Purdue News Service also maintains a searchable data base of faculty experts and posts news releases, experts lists and story tips on a web server at and a gopher server at

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