In epidemic of campus sex crimes, LGBT cases often neglected

Nearly 4 million gay men, lesbians and bisexuals suffer sexual violence, but scope of problem in higher ed is unclear

LGBT sexual assaults on college campuses are underreported, experts say.
Sarah Rice/Getty Images

Amid a growing debate over sexual violence on campus, one community has mostly been absent from the conversation: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

"We've made LGBT people invisible in this country for decades," said Sharon Stapel, the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for LGBT issues. "Women are conditioned to think that sexual violence is their issue. We really have to look at who is the victim."

According to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in eight lesbians and nearly half of bisexual women have been raped in their lifetime. Four in 10 gay men and nearly half of bisexual men have experienced some form of sexual violence.

Despite a push over the last decade to improve reporting of same-sex sexual assault on college campuses, most such crimes go unreported, Stapel said.  

The CDC study found that 1.7 million lesbian or bisexual women and more than 2 million gay or bisexual men experience sexual violence in their lifetime.

By comparison, 19 million heterosexual women are raped in the U.S. during their lifetime. But the LGBT numbers are disproportionately high for a community of about 9 million people, according to research from the Williams Institute, an LGBT research and advocacy organization.

LGBT attacks not reported

In a recent study, more than 42 percent of students who identified as being LGBT reported being forced to have sex against their will, more than double the rate of heterosexual students.

The vast discrepancies between these and the few other studies done on LGBT sexual assault are the result of underreporting, which makes it near-impossible for researchers to accurately track the number of incidents within the community.

"The data is alarming, and it's a challenge because we need more education and awareness for communities to understand the impact," said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride.

Whether because of fears of being "outed," concerns about physical retaliation or the perceived humiliation of reporting an attack, LGBT sexual assaults have not been accurately documented.

“(The police) may ask a woman, ‘When was the last time you had sex with a man?’ and the woman has to out herself.” said Eric Stiles of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). “Or they may ask a gay man, ‘Where did you meet this person?’ It may have been an online dating service. In general, we live in a culture where, if you come forward, people label you as promiscuous, that you shouldn’t have been there or you knew better or things like that.”

This same problem is found when a straight person reports a rape. Nearly 25 percent of victims don't report an attack out of a fear of hostile treatment by police.

Even when cases are reported, many universities and hospitals are ill equipped to handle sexual assault and rape in the LGBT community.

According to research from the NSVRC, gays and lesbians are more likely to experience sexual assault, sexual harassment, physical assault and stalking than any other group targeted in hate crimes.

"Sexual violence against individuals who identify as LGBTQ (the Q can stand for either queer or questioning) has been perceived as a violent attempt to oppress those who are challenging social norms around gender and sexuality," the study reads.

The problem is even more complex for men, gay or straight. They often feel they have nowhere to go if they are victims of sexual assault. The Forge Sexual Violence Project has issued guidance for sexual assault service providers to help them understand when they are sending unintentional signals that make men feel they aren't welcome, and to help them address those signals.

One problem the group spotlights for service providers is the failure to include statistics on their websites about male survivors of sexual assault.

"A surprising number of 'FAQ' sections do not admit that men can be sexually assaulted," the guidance says. "This omission contributes to male survivors’ perceptions that what happened to them is literally unspeakable."

By omitting pictures of men in marketing materials, or housing all sexual assault resources in women's health facilities, organizations may unwittingly turn off men who need their services, the group says.

Blaming the victim

Much like their heterosexual counterparts, LGBT victims of sexual crimes are often blamed for the attack, and attackers can perceive victims as unconsciously wanting to be victimized, the NSVRC study said.

Stiles said popular myths about sexual violence make reporting sexual assault even more difficult because people don’t believe the victim's story.

The myths that “lesbians just need a good man, and gay men wanted it” represent the same kind of problem that heterosexual women face when people blame them for drinking too much before they are raped.

And it's not just sexual assault that is a problem.

A study by the American Association of University Women found that more than 70 percent of LGBT students encounter sexual harassment at college from fellow students, faculty members and campus employees.

The harassment is so severe that 6 percent of such students either transfer schools or change their major as a result, the study says.

Experts agree that more research is needed to better serve LGBT victims of sexual violence, but they won’t be able to do that if victims aren’t willing to come forward, and the people to whom they come forward aren't better equipped to help them.

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