RCASA’s Friday Facts: Types and Incidence of LGBT Sexual Violence

In Advocacy, Friday Facts, Sexual Assault Awareness, Systems Advocacy on February 11, 2011 at 8:00 am

Types and Incidence of LGBT Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is defined as sexual abuse occurring at any time in the lifespan, including instances of sexual harassment. Prior to defining the terms of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, it is important to note that the meanings ascribed to these words are influenced by personal, cultural, historical, and societal factors (Scheer, et al., 2003). Ideally, these terms are defined by individuals in the way that best fits their life circumstances. The definitions here are offered to facilitate common understanding between readers and the author’s intended meaning. Lesbians and gay men are individuals that develop intimate and/or sexual connections with members of the same sex. Homophobia is defined as any attitude or behavior that is predicated in the assumption that heterosexuality is both normative and desirable, resulting in the marginalization of lesbians and gay men at personal, familial, and/or societal levels. Bisexuals are individuals that develop intimate and sexual connections with people regardless of that person’s sex. Biphobia is defined as any attitude or behavior that is predicated in the assumption that engaging in intimate/sexual behavior solely with those of the opposite sex is both normative and desirable, resulting in the marginalization of bisexuals at personal, familial, and/or societal levels. Transgender individuals are broadly defined as individuals who feel that their gender is not congruent with their biological sex. Transphobia is defined as any attitude or behavior that is predicated in the assumption that biological sex and gender are binary and synonymous, resulting in the marginalization of transgender individuals at personal, familial and/or societal levels.              

Sexual Harassment            

Research has often failed to differentiate verbal harassment that is specifically sexual in nature from that which is predicated upon other aspects of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Based on available information, however, sexual harassment is a form of sexual trauma that many LGBT individuals experience. Fineran’s (2002) work on sexual harassment in junior and high school settings found that sexual harassment must be considered one of the factors correlated with the fact that “when gay, lesbian and bisexual students were compared to their peers, they were four times more likely to have attempted suicide and five times more likely to have missed school because of feeling unsafe” (p. 67). These post-harassment reactions are understandable when one considers that i n addition to typical age-appropriate developmental tasks, LGBT youth often face the realization that their sexuality and/or gender identity expression is in conflict with the societal standards held by many for normalcy. Failing to find positive depictions of sexual and gender minorities in the media, and, as is too often the case, to receive emotional and/or financial support from families and friends, the harassment experienced by some LGBT youths may be especially traumatic (K. Fountain,  2009).

A 2006 American Association of University Women (AAUW) national survey of college students found that 73% of LGBT college students experience sexual harassment (both noncontact and contact forms of abuse), and that 61% of heterosexual and non-transgender counterparts report similar experiences. This harassment is perpetrated not only other by other students, but also by faculty and other college employees. In addition, LGBT students report being more upset by the sexual harassment than their heterosexual and non-transgender peers; ” an estimated 6 percent of all LGBT college students either change their school or their major as a result of sexual harassment” (AAUW, 2006; p. 32). S exual harassment is a concern for adults in non-educational settings as well. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), a coalition comprised of 35 organizations dedicated to monitoring, researching, and eliminating violence owing to bias against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender individuals, states that over one-third of the hate crimes reported to them in 2007 were verbal and sexual harassment. In the National Lesbian Health Care Survey of 1,925 lesbians, 52% had experienced verbal harassment based in homophobia (Bradford, Ryan & Rothblum, 1993). Almost a quarter of the 213 transgender-identified respondents in the Transcience Longitudinal Research Survey reported experiencing sexual harassment based in gender bias (Kidd & Witten, 2007/2008).

Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)  

While only a few studies were identified that included heterosexual as well as lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents in the same study, in each instance the rates of trauma were higher among the LGBT participants. Further, the research that has compared the rates of CSA experienced by lesbians of color versus white lesbians is limited. What exists suggests that lesbians of color often experience victimization, including CSA (Bradford & Ryan, 2000), at higher rates than do white women (Morris & Balsam, 2003). The authors clearly state that future research needs to have larger samples allowing for different races and ethnicities to be examined separately versus grouping together all women of color in the analysis (Austin, et al., 2008; Bradford, et al., 1993). We are reminded that “women of color’s multiple marginalized status may leave them particularly vulnerable to victimization” (Morris & Balsam, 2003; p. 82).

Similar to research focusing on general community studies – and therefore presumably on largely heterosexual samples (Filipas & Ullman, 2006) – CSA experienced by lesbians and bisexual women is associated with stress, an overall increased rate of psychological distress, revictimization later in life, depression, alcohol abuse, and high risk sexual behaviors ( Morris & Balsam, 2003; Saewyc, et al., 2006).

CSA experienced by gay and bisexual male survivors is characterized by high levels of forced penetration, physical force, instances of multiple perpetrators, and abuse that occurred over an extended period (Paul, et al, 2001). Paul and colleagues (2001) report that the vast majority of gay and bisexual male survivors of CSA found the abuse upsetting at the time of the victimization and approximately half continue to find memories of the trauma upsetting. A range of additional adult difficulties including mood disorders, chemical dependency, and HIV/AIDS subsequent to high-risk sexual behaviors is associated with histories of CSA for gay and bisexual male survivors (Brady, 2008; Saewyc, et al., 2006). CSA that occurred on a regular basis was found to be associated with having a “HIV-positive status, a history of exchanging sex for payment, and current use of sex-related drugs” in a sample of gay and bisexual men (Brennan, et al., 2007, p. 1110).

In a review of the research examining the violence experienced by transgender individuals, Stotzer (2009) states that “what becomes clear from surveys of trans-people is that there is a high prevalence of sexual assault and rape starting at a young age” (pp. 171-172). Xavier, Honnold, and Bradford (2007) state that while their respondents reported on their lifetime victimization rates, the median age of the respondents’ first sexual abuse experiences was 14-15 years of age. Similarly, Kidd & Witten (2007/2008) did not differentiate child from adult abuse experiences experienced by transgender respondents, but state that “much of this abuse and violence is suffered before the age of 18” (Kidd & Witten, 2007/2008, p. 38).

In view of the high rates of child sexual abuse experienced by LGBT individuals, it is important to address the cultural mythology that seeks to explain homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender identities as a pathological response to child sexual abuse (King, 2000). This deficit-oriented explanation posits that individuals become members of the LGBT communities due to the trauma of child sexual abuse. Recent research refutes this contention. For example, Morris & Balsam (2003) found no evidence that CSA influenced sexual identity of lesbians and bisexual women in their large community-based quantitative study. Tomeo and colleagues’ (2001) research echoes this finding, as the majority of both gay men and lesbians in this sample stated that they identified as homosexual prior to their CSA experiences.       

Sexual Trauma in Adulthood

Bias related to homophobia, transphobia and biphobia is often directed at LGBT adults in the form of sexual violence. In their 2007 study of anti-LGBT violence, NCAVP states that “reports of [adult] sexual assault rose 61% from 70 to 113” in one year (p. 2). It has been estimated that 3-7% of LGBT individuals have experienced sexual trauma due to bias (Herek, Gillis & Cogan, 1999; Rose & Mechanic, 2002). Gays and lesbians are more likely to experience sexual assault, sexual harassment/attempted assault, assault and stalking compared to other groups typically targeted for bias-oriented aggressions known as hate crimes (Dunbar, 2006, p. 323). In addition, crimes against LGBT individuals are likely to be more violent than those motivated by race/ethnicity and religious bias (Dunbar, 2006). The bias-oriented sexual violence experienced by LGBT survivors is often characterized by multiple perpetrators: “any incident involving multiple perpetrators takes on a more menacing quality when the victim is confronted by a group of assailants” (Rose & Mechanic, 2002, p. 24). Perceived life threat and the severity of the sexual violence likely contribute to the finding that sexual violence based in bias results in long-term difficulty, including PTSD symptomatology (Rose & Mechanic, 2002). Despite the violence of the crimes, hate crimes motivated by homophobia and transphobia are much less likely to be reported to authorities than other types of hate crimes due to perceived bias in the criminal justice system towards members of LGBT communities (Dunbar, 2006; Herek, Cogan & Gillis, 2002).

Clearly, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are not the only reasons LGBT individuals are sexually abused in adulthood, however. For instance, while lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals were quite similar in the rates of bias-oriented sexual violence reported, lesbian and bisexual women experienced markedly more instances of sexual violence that were not attributed to homophobia/biphobia compared to gay and bisexual men (Herek, Gillis, Cogan, 1999). It can be inferred that this difference underscores the risk for sexual abuse associated with being female in US culture. While lesbians are slightly less likely to be sexually abused in adulthood than heterosexual women (Bernhard, 2000; Hughes, et al., 2000; Long, Ullman, Long, Mason & Starzynski, 2007), lesbians are more likely to experience gang rape than heterosexual women (Hughes, et al., 2000). In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that lesbians are more likely to be sexually abused after age 14 by relatives than bisexual or heterosexual women (Long, et al., 2007).

Research on the general population—and therefore on largely heterosexual and non-transgender respondents—indicates that child sexual abuse is a risk factor correlated with adult sexual trauma experiences (Filipas & Ullman, 2006). Lesbians, gay men and bisexuals who have histories of child sexual victimization are also more likely to report being sexually traumatized in adulthood (Heidt, Marx, & Gold, 2005). Research examining the sexual violence experiences of lesbians and bisexual women estimates that women who were sexually abused as children are “four times more likely” to experience sexual violence and “about twice as likely” to experience physical violence in adulthood than those who were not abused as children (Morris & Balsam, 2003, p. 77). Bisexual individuals and gay men who were sexually abused in childhood appear to be even more likely to be revictimized in adulthood than lesbians (Heidt, et al., 2005). As research shows that men are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence than women, this difference in revictimization rates may “simply be due to the fact that these individuals are more likely to have male sexual partners in adulthood” than are lesbians (Heidt, et al., 2005, p. 538).

In general, “the transgender community is disproportionately affected by violence” (Mizock & Lewis, 2008, p. 336). This is true when considering experiences of sexual violence as well. While research has focused on the lifetime sexual violence experiences of transgender individuals (Lombardi, et al., 2001), making it impossible to know when the trauma occurred, rates of sexual violence directed at transgender people over the course of their lives are extremely high: “the most common finding across surveys and needs assessments is that about 50% of transgendered people report unwanted sexual activity” at some point in their lives (Stotzer, 2009, p. 172).

In recent years, empirical attention has been placed on the sexual violence perpetrated by intimate partners. In the National Violence Against Women Survey, 7.7% of women and 0.3% of men reported a history of sexual violence in their intimate relationships; this study combined heterosexual and lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). Between 44-60% of battered women have reported also being sexually abused in their intimate relationships; the researchers did not inquire about the sexual orientation of respondents (Cattaneo, Deloveh & Zweig, 2008; Howard, Riger, Campbell & Wasco, 2003). Almost a quarter of the heterosexual women seeking services at a medical clinic reported partner-perpetrated sexual violence (Coker, et al., 2000).    

Before considering available information on sexual violence that occurs in LGBT relationships, it is important to acknowledge that many academics, intervention workers and survivors are reluctant to call attention to sexual coercion occurring in LGBT intimate relationships due to concern that the information will be used to further solidify prejudice and discrimination against LGBT individuals (Chavis & Hill, 2009; Walder-Haugrud, 1999). While this information must be used in a sensitive and nonbiased manner, it is essential that research and intervention efforts focus on sexual violence in intimate relationships in order to help LGBT survivors face the compounded difficulties of being at risk both in society (Chavis & Hill, 2009), as well as in the most intimate of personal acts.

Due to the lack of adequate research examining prevalence rates of sexual victimization in intimate relationships of heterosexual and LGBT respondents within the same studies, comparison across groups is difficult. One study did find that similar strategies were used by sexually coercive partners in both heterosexual and same sex relationships: perpetrators used alcohol and drugs, guilt, and the perceived emotional vulnerability of their intended victims as part of the sexual coercion (Christopher & Pflieger, 2007).      

Little is known about the post-victimization experiences of LGBT survivors of adult sexual abuse. In terms of coping behaviors, the most common post-trauma responses of lesbians and heterosexual women to sexual abuse are to avoid the perpetrator(s), do “nothing,” and tell someone the survivor trusts about the sexual victimization (Bernhard, 2000, p. 78). When survivors do tell others about their trauma experiences, bisexual women not only receive less favorable support subsequent to their post-trauma disclosures, but also tell more people about their trauma – likely in an attempt to receive support (Long, et al., 2007). Bisexual female survivors also reported higher levels of depression and PTSD than the heterosexual or lesbian women; the authors encourage future researchers to examine whether this reaction was due to the lack of support they receive post-disclosure (Long, et al., 2007). LGBT survivors appear to experience greater symptoms of psychological distress after bias-oriented victimization than victimization that is not predicated in discrimination (Herek et al., 1999).

The studies discussed above have focused on samples largely residing in the United States. Ample evidence exists that sexualized violence directed at LGBT individuals is a world-wide problem as well (Dworkin & Yi, 2003; HaleyNelson, 2005; Hawthorne, 2005/2006; Amnesty International; Kidd & Witten, 2007/2008; Mizock & Lewis, 2008; Wilets, 1997).

The preceding was taken from the article: Culturally Competent Service Provision to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Survivors of Sexual Violence written by Sabrina Gentlewarrior with contributions from Kim Fountain.

Sabrina Gentlewarrior

  With contributions from Kim Fountain

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