RCASA’s Friday Facts: LGBTQ Survivors of Sexual Violence

In Education, Friday Facts, Sexual Assault Awareness on October 1, 2010 at 8:00 am

Sexual violence is a public health issue and epidemic (Basile, Chen, Black & Saltzman, 2007; Hammond, Whitaker, Lutzker, Mercy, & Chin, 2006; Irwin & Rickert, 2005). Nationally, “11.7 million women and 2.1 million men…experienced forced sex at some point in their lives” (Basile, et al., 2007, p. 441). While the expansion of sexual violence intervention and prevention in the last three decades has been remarkable, a focus on the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) survivors of sexual violence has been largely missing (Morris & Balsam, 2003).

Much is still to be learned about the prevalence of LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence, their needs, and how best to serve them. Sexual violence research has often failed to differentiate heterosexual and/or non-transgender respondents from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ones. This lack of attention to LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence may be due in part to bias that result in rendering these survivors invisible (Girshick, 2001; Waldner-Haugrud, 1999).

The rape and domestic violence intervention movements began with the understanding that the cultural underpinnings of and reliance on power and control lead to sexual and domestic violence. Sexual violence has been conceptualized as one mechanism used to maintain unequal and discriminatory sex role rights and expectations and support a status quo that empowers males and disempowers females (Robinson, 2003; Women’s International Network News, 2002; Witten & Eyler, 1999). Similarly, sexual violence aimed at lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender individuals has been perceived as a violent attempt to keep those who are deemed socially inferior in terms of sexual and gender expression “in line” (Gentlewarrior, Martin-Jearld, Sweetser, Skok & Langevin, 2007/2008; HaleyNelson, 2005; Kidd & Witten, 2007/2008; Lombardi, Wilchins, Priesling & Malouf, 2001; Sullivan, 2003; Wilets, 1997; Witten & Eyler, 1999).

People perceived to be deviating from sexual and gender norms are often sexually targeted. Willis (2004) summarizes this point: “society’s constructions of sexuality, socio-erotic identity, and gender identity have consequences” (p. 125). For example, boys who display behaviors typically viewed as feminine in nature are at an increased risk for all kinds of victimization – including sexual trauma (Brady, 2008); this can place gay and bisexual boys at greater risk for child sexual abuse. Lesbians and bisexual females experience sexual abuse based in both gender bias and homophobia/biphobia. When speaking about sexual violence across the lifespan, HaleyNelson (2005) states:

“the penalty for women who do not conform to gender and sexuality standards is sexual violence such as rape, forced sodomy, and sexual slavery. Lesbians [and bisexual women], as more obvious gender and sexuality non-conformers, are targeted more frequently and severely for sexualized, physical violations” (167).

Transgender individuals are often targeted by sexual perpetrators because of their gender non-conformity (Kidd & Witten, 2007; Lombardi, et al., 2001; Mizock & Lewis, 2008). This point was illustrated by a transgender female respondent in a qualitative research study when she discussed her “‘punishment for deviating from gender norms. She shared how prior to her gender transition she was raped as an 11-year-old boy by two older boys who said, ‘You wanna be a girl? Well this is how girls get treated'” (Gentlewarrior, et al., 2007/2008, p. 15).

In addition, when gay men are raped by strangers they – like heterosexual women – are likely to be blamed for their trauma experience and perceived as unconsciously desiring victimization (Wakelin & Long, 2003). Finally, Aoesved & Long (2006) suggest “that there are interrelationships between sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, classism, and religious intolerance and rape myth acceptance at both the individual level and across individuals at the cultural level” (p. 489). Our work must include LGBT survivors not only because it is right, but as suggested by this information, because it is necessary in order to create a comprehensive response to sexual violence.

Due to historical and current patterns of individual and societal oppression directed at members of LGBT communities, members of these groups are often reluctant to self-identify to others such as service providers or strangers administering surveys, making accurate statistics on the size of these groups difficult to obtain. While the research on lesbian, gay, and bisexual survivors of sexual violence is limited, there is even less information available on transgender survivors of sexual trauma. In addition, when researchers do invite the participation of LGBTQ survivors, some survivors may hesitate to either report their victimization or identify themselves as sexual or gender minorities in an effort to protect themselves from prejudice and/or discrimination (Bauer & Wayne, 2005; NCAVP, 2008).  This review of the research focusing on LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence points to the lack of work in this area. “Data are a cornerstone of any public health system, and the lack of data on sexual minorities [and transgender individuals] correlates with the failure of public health to address this group’s needs” (Kadour, 2005, p. 31).


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