The Campus Sexual Assault Epidemic Is Even Worse For LGBTQ Students

Sarah Grumet

On Halloween, a student attending a university in Florida decided to attend a frat party. The student, who wishes to remain anonymous, but whom we’ll call Jennifer, worried about her safety at a frat house, given the reputation they have as unsafe places for women.

“It was my first party and I kept worrying, ‘What if I get assaulted here?’” Jennifer told me on the phone.

Jennifer left the frat party safely, however. Instead, she was assaulted that night in a place where she felt safe: the home of an acquaintance, who was also a women’s studies major and a classmate of hers. Before he sexually assaulted her, Jennifer had reason to trust her acquaintance, whom we’ll call Jack for the purposes of this story. For one thing, they had spoken about the importance of consent on previous occasions. For another, they both belonged to the LGBTQ community on campus.

Jennifer is a cisgender, queer woman and Jack is a transgender man. Jennifer says she’s uncertain of his sexual orientation, though she believes he is straight.

“I hate to say it, but you know you really can’t label any one person as the type who would do this. It’s not that one group will do this and one group won’t,” Jennifer says. “It just comes down to the person, and it’s easy to talk about the star football player being the person who does this, but when it comes down to things that are more uncomfortable for people, it doesn’t get talked about as much.”

We Need To Talk About LGBTQ Campus Rape Survivors

When prominent feminist critics discuss rape culture, they typically don’t reference LGBTQ experiences. This may be due to heterocentrism more than deliberate omission, but the truth is, the experience of LGBTQ survivors is just one more way that rape culture manifests itself.

LGBTQ people may face violence and harassment from those outside the community, who use sexual force to reinforce heterosexuality and gender norms, or they may be hurt by people within the community who have internalized those norms. When we ignore these experiences, we do serious harm to LGBTQ survivors. These problems are exacerbated on college campuses, where the community is smaller and students may feel more isolated. Students’ quality of education can easily suffer as they continue to be ignored by faculty and counselors who don’t understand the nature of the crimes committed against them.

Rates of sexual violence for LGBTQ students are actually higher than for heterosexual and cisgender students, a fact that is rarely acknowledged in conversations about how to prevent and deal with the aftermath of campus rape. Among female undergraduates, 73% of gay women and 77% of bisexual women experienced harassment, intimate partner violence, or stalking, compared to 61% of straight women, according to last fall’s survey from the Association of American Universities, which included responses from 150,000 students at private and public research institutions. Rates of unwanted sexual contact involving force were also higher for LGBT students: 19% for gay women and 32% for bi women, versus 18% for straight women (still a startling number). The disparities between gay and bisexual men and straight men were similar. Those identifying as TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, questioning, or otherwise non-conforming) consistently reported more incidents of forced or coerced sexual contact than either men or women.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ recent data on sexual assault also shows higher rates of sexual violence for LGBTQ students. Earlier research from the American Association of University Women, conducted in 2006, found sexual harassment, in terms of both non-contact harassment and contact harassment, such as making students perform sexual acts, were higher for LGBT students.

But still, the conversation about campus rape centers on the assumption that the perpetrator is a cisgender heterosexual man and the survivor is a cisgender heterosexual woman.

Jennifer, who filed a complaint with the school last fall, found out that she had to take a class with the same person who sexually assaulted her. Twice a week, she spends an hour and 15 minutes in the same room with him, listening to him speak about issues of gender and oppression, unable to tell anyone who spends time with him that he assaulted her, lest she hurt his reputation before there is a full investigation.

She sometimes avoids events and meetings relating to her major because she thinks he will be there, and she will come to class an hour early in the hope of securing a seat at the front of the class because she knows that if he sits up front first, she will have to sit further in the back to comply with their no-contact agreement. Jack doesn’t have as much respect for the agreement: In a recent class, he insisted on sitting only about a foot away from her.

Why Aren’t LGBTQ Students Safe On Campus?

Why are rates of sexual violence higher for LGBTQ people? We don’t have all the answers yet.

Despite the effects of sexual violence on LGBTQ students, there is scant research on why rates in this community are higher, says Nicole Bedera, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland who studies gendered violence. Bedera says that part of the reason our understanding is limited is because of bias in the research community.

There is a tendency to consider lesbian and bisexual women in particular as immune to sexual assault and, often, the research is focused on LGBTQ people’s childhood sexual abuse. This creates a barrier between researchers and research subjects. Bedera says there needs to be a rebuilding of trust, and it’s up to the researchers to do that:

“If you look at the academic research of sexual abuse of LGBT people, [researchers are] interested in whether they were sexually assaulted as children and whether or not that would affect their gender or sexual orientation. I think that’s going to create a barrier when it comes time, and it is time, to start doing this research on LGBT people who have been sexually assaulted as adults, or as young adults, because I think there still is that fear that if ‘I come in and talk to a researcher, they’re going to say this is why I’m wrong,’ or ‘This is why I’m not the way society thinks I’m supposed to be.’”

The data we have on non-heterosexual women’s experiences of sexual assault is still a bit thin and sometimes flawed, so it would make sense that for campus sexual assault in particular, the research is still developing. But Bedera is trying to close the gap by performing ongoing research. This summer, Bedera plans to research lesbian and bisexual women’s experience of college sexual assault, and will conduct interviews to understand how their experiences may be different from straight women. Other researchers are also stepping up to start correcting the imbalance. Dr. Leila Wood, senior project director for the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work, is currently looking at the types of violence LGBT students are experiencing as part of the school’s Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments project, which is still in the data collection phase.

This isn’t just about having thorough research — it’s also about students’ immediate safety. Bedera notes that the lack of information about sexual violence against LGBTQ students may prevent some students from reporting their assaults. It’s hard to come forward as a survivor of sexual violence if your perpetrator is a woman, because women are rarely considered capable of violence and other types of abuse.

“We also have trouble believing heterosexual women, but at least it fits into this script of a man abusing a woman,” Bedera says. “If it’s a woman abusing a woman, there is this idea that it was a mutually terrible fight. There is a question of, ‘Well, who really did what and did you both assault each other?’”

In a college campus environment, gay or lesbian-identified women may be targeted for corrective rape, Bedera says, because there is a perception that their exclusive attraction to women is simply a phase, and that they only need to meet the right man to change their minds. She has also noticed a perception that bisexual women will have sex with anyone, fueling a sexual entitlement toward them.

“I’ve spoken to bisexual victims who say their bisexuality was invoked by their perpetrator, something like, ‘Well, you’re bisexual, you would have sex with anybody, so you have to want sex with me.’ There is this idea that bisexual women are promiscuous, so they don’t have the option to say no,” she says. “Additionally, I think there’s a lot of sexual hostility toward women in general who show romantic affection and sexual attention toward women.”

Emily Waters, research and education coordinator at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, says both bi women and trans women have been oversexualized, which “leads people to think that [their] sexuality isn’t for them — it’s for others. And then this is often used against them, too, when they are seeking services.”

When men perpetrate sexual violence against other men, Bedera says, it’s more common that both the victim and perpetrator are straight, but when the victim identifies as gay, he tends to be treated with more brutality. She says there needs to be more research as to how the gender expression of men plays a role in sexual assault, in order to better understand why rapists target some men more often than others. And there also needs to be more research, though there is some, on women perpetrating violence against both straight and gay men.

LGBTQ people may also be hesitant to ask for help from law enforcement, both on campus and off. Trans women are often profiled for solicitation, and are more likely to experience police discrimination and violence, so it’s not shocking that they would feel uncomfortable reporting their crimes to police or making a complaint with the school. Survivors may also not be open about their sexual orientation or gender, making it difficult to tell family about any form of sexual violence perpetrated against them in its full context.

The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, where Dr. Wood is performing her research on LGBTQ victims, has released a blueprint for campus police that acknowledges many common rape myths, such as the idea that survivors need to have bruises and cuts or that absence of a no is a yes. The blueprint is fairly inclusive of LGBTQ people, and includes male survivors of rape and sexual assault, whether committed by a man or a woman. However, it does not explicitly mention women assaulted by other women; for instance, “men cannot be sexually assaulted” is addressed as a “rape myth,” but “women cannot sexually assault other women” is not. Many law enforcement officials still have trouble understanding a sexual assault without the involvement of a man.

The blueprint does mention that LGBTQ survivors may fear being outed, which is the case for Jennifer. She says she isn’t out as queer to her family members yet, and so she hasn’t told them about her assault.

“I’d love to be able to tell my family, but I know they’d be upset if they knew I’d been drinking and I don’t really want to get into my sexuality with my family right now and tell them this whole story,” Jennifer says. “And also, you don’t want to tell your parents about something that a) they can’t do anything about and b) will break their heart.”

The Role Of Sexual Violence Advocates

The fact that she couldn’t turn to family for help meant that Jennifer had to rely on friends and her school’s victim advocacy office. Although she says her friends have been supportive and given great advice, she adds that she needed the professional capabilities that the victim advocates offered her. The office has provided her affirmation when she was frustrated with the way the university handled her case, when the process seemed to be moving along far too slowly. Since the victim advocacy office doesn’t have to report anything she tells them, she feels free to open up.

“They listen to me. They make sure that they validate my experiences and my feelings and give me options, but they’re giving them to me in a very unbiased way, like if you want to do this, great. If you don’t want to do this, that’s also fine,” Jennifer says.

She says the advocate accompanies her to meetings with administrators, where she may need support when she has to recount her assault or criticize the university’s response.

“It can be hard to stand up for yourself with administrators, so [the advocate] helped when I didn’t feel comfortable saying to [the administrators], ‘Hey, you messed this up,’” she says. “It was very helpful to know I had that voice.”

Waters says that services like the ones Jennifer received are really important for LGBTQ sexual assault survivors, because many on-campus services don’t properly acknowledge LGBTQ people and aren’t aware of the unique dynamics they’re dealing with, such as being outed.

“This is a very, very real fear that LGBTQ people often experience after sexual violence: Will I then be outed to people who didn’t know? And how does that affect my relationships? And I’d say to counselors, that is very real and don’t try to discount it,” Waters says. “That leads to the question of, ‘How can we take services on campus and rather than tacking on LGBTQ training at the end, have a total shift in understanding how an LGBTQ person experiences violence on campus, how they are interacting with response services, what their unique fears are, and how we shift our services and campus culture to both prevent and respond to these acts of violence?’”

These are the exact kinds of questions staff at the Voices Against Violence at the University of Texas at Austin are trying to answer. VAV provides counseling and prevention services for survivors of sexual violence.

Erin Burrows, prevention and outreach specialist at VAV, says that instead of having a separate event on consent for LGBTQ people, she wants to make sure LGBTQ people are always included in any conversation about consent. Discussions of consent should include LGBTQ examples, not only for the benefit of LGBTQ students but also so that straight and cisgender people are aware of LGBTQ people when discussing consent and sexual assault. Having events specific to LGBTQ people would also shut out anyone who isn’t yet out or certain of their sexuality or gender identity.

“A volunteer from the audience comes up, she steps in for a short scene to practice having a conversation about sex. If the actor onstage is a woman and they’re playing the same-sex theme, we talk about that too: ‘How might this be different if this was a straight couple having the same conversation? Or what if the person pushing back and not wanting sex right now was male-identified or this was in a gay relationship?’ So it is naturally a part of the conversation,” Burrows says.

VAV also provides therapists for students who are struggling, regardless of whether they choose to report. If, for example, a male survivor of sexual assault wants to talk to someone, but he isn’t sure whether he wants to put it on the record, he doesn’t have to be concerned that parents, faculty, or university administration will have access to that information. VAV can also point students in the direction of a LGBTQ diversity specialist who can better address students’ needs and be available to walk them through the process if they do decide to report their assault to the school.

The Campus SaVE Act, which was included in the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization and passed in 2013, also went into effect last year. Now, sexual assault survivors know they will have confidentiality to report these crimes, which will hopefully increase the likelihood of reporting — especially for LGBT students, who may have multiple or different reasons for not reporting, such as not wanting family to be aware of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Jennifer’s education has been significantly disrupted, both by her experience and the aftermath: She has had to endure being close to Jack and staying quiet about her assault. But she has finally received some relief. After our interview, she informed me that Jack has been charged with sexual harassment, nonconsensual sexual contact, misuse of alcohol, and failure to respond to instruction, all in violation of the university’s code of conduct. He has been suspended, will have to move off-campus, and of course will no longer be attending her class or any future classes. She finally read the report that tells his recollection of events, which she has been anxious to read for months now. He denied it.

For Jennifer, that doesn’t change the fact that she thinks her university didn’t handle her assault well. There are a number of steps the administration could have taken, she says, that would have allowed her to more quickly regain a sense of normalcy and be more able to participate fully at school.

Jennifer’s experience is similar to that of many campus sexual assault survivors: Her assault came from someone she knew and trusted, months passed between reporting the incident and receiving any kind of resolution from the administration, and the quality of her education was marred by having to see the person responsible for her assault on a regular basis. What makes the experiences of Jennifer and many other LGBT survivors of sexual violence different is that they are often invisible to academics, to the media, and to other students on campus. Hopefully, once we know more about sexual violence against LGBT students, we can better understand why these sexual assaults happen and how to prevent them from happening again. Then, the next time we talk about rape culture on campus, LGBT survivors can know that we see them, too.

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