Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory

Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory: The Impact of Culture on the Effects of Trauma

by Jennifer M. Gómez, MS, University of Oregon
© 2012, Jennifer M. Gómez

Antonia, a studious adolescent girl, abruptly stops attending high school. Not typically one to miss school, she gets dressed each morning and eats breakfast with her family. After everyone leaves, she curls up under the covers and cries for most of the day. She tries to escape in sleep, but whenever she closes her eyes, she sees Juan-Carlos on top of her and feels him violating her. Sometimes, she cuts her wrist with a razor just so she can feel something, anything, other than that pain.

What’s worse, she refuses to tell anyone. The police have been hassling the boys in her neighborhood for as long as she can remember. She doesn’t want them, or anyone else, to think that all Latino guys are like this. They’re not. She knows they’re not. She just can’t get rid of the pressure of it all.

More than refusing to tell the police or even her family, she refuses to tell herself what has happened. What would it mean if a Latino guy had hurt her like this? The thought of betraying Juan-Carlos and the Latino community is too much. She pushes what happened that night out of her mind. Now, if only she could push herself to go back to school with him...


This example illustrates a new theory I am developing called Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory, which explains how membership in a cultural minority (such as ethnic minority status or queer identification) may worsen the psychological symptoms associated with trauma (such as self-blame, PTSD) if the perpetrator and victim are of the same cultural minority.

Cultural betrayal traumas include physical assault, sexual assault, child abuse, incest, and domestic violence. Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory states that the psychological effects of a trauma, such as shame, may be exacerbated by a cultural betrayal, reducing the likelihood of disclosure.

Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory is not only relevant for American society. The meaning and effect of being a cultural minority may vary substantially across nations. Therefore, countries outside the United States could examine how cultural betrayal traumas may impact different cultural minorities. For instance, researchers could see if Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory applies to Northern African Muslims living in France. 

Additionally, because cultural identity is plastic, the meaning of cultural identity varies as a function of the cultural context. For example, members of a White American heterosexual couple are part of the dominant culture in the United States. Therefore, though Betrayal Trauma Theory—which states that traumas perpetrated by someone known to the victim carry a level of betrayal and are associated with increased negative psychological symptoms— may help explain the psychological effects associated with domestic violence victimization in this couple, Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory could not.

However, let’s say this same couple moves to Australia to accept a job offer. Because the status of this couple has changed—from membership in the dominant culture to the cultural minority—the outcomes associated with domestic violence can be explained with Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory.

How might the effects of the same behavior, in this case, domestic violence, differ based on whether the abuse occurs in America or Australia? Well, contrary to when the couple is in the United States, the American victim of domestic violence in Australia now faces a host of additional pressures—not wanting to disclose about the abuse for fear of making Americans look bad to Australians; shame and guilt about feeling psychologically triggered by American accents, etc. These additional effects may be the result of the cultural betrayal—as a fellow American in a foreign country, she is dependent on her partner.

It is also possible for cultural betrayal traumas to occur in situations where the perpetrator and victim do not know each other. How? Well, in order for a betrayal to occur, there needs to be a violation of trust. Cultural minorities who experience discrimination and oppression may react to their lowered societal status by fostering trust in each other.

Therefore, when a trauma, such as rape, occurs between two members of a cultural minority, a cultural betrayal has occurred as well.

For Antonia, being the victim of rape elicited psychological symptoms (e.g., PTSD) that research has shown to be related to sexual assault. But, it was the cultural betrayal within the trauma—being raped by Juan-Carlos, a member of the same cultural minority—that exacerbated not only the symptoms of PTSD, but also guilt and self-blame. Through cultural betrayal unawareness, she was able to remove the event, at least temporarily, from her mind. However, the damage to her body, soul, and psyche would remain, as the cultural betrayal trauma reduced the likelihood of her acknowledging, and subsequently healing, from the rape.


Recommended Reading

Devos, T., & Banaji, M. R. (2005). American = White? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 447-466.

Fisher, B.S., Daigle, L.E., Cullen, F.T., & Turner, M.G. (2003). Reporting Sexual Victimization To The Police And Others: Results From a National-Level Study of College Women. Criminal Justice & Behavior, 30(1), 6-38. doi: 10.1177/0093854802239161

Freyd, J.J. (1997). Violations of Power, adaptive blindness, and betrayal trauma theory. Feminism & Psychology, 7(1), 22-32. doi: 10.1177/0959353597071004

Freyd, J. J. DePrince, A. P., & Gleaves, D. (2007). The state of betrayal trauma theory: Reply to McNally (2007)- Conceptual issues and future directions. Memory, 15, 295-311. doi: 10.1080/09658210701256514

Platt, M., Barton, J., & Freyd, J.J. (2009). A betrayal trauma perspective on domestic violence. In E. Stark & E. S. Buzawa (Eds.) Violence against Women in Families and Relationships (Vol. 1, pp. 185-207). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.