Our cultural conversation about sexual violence has excluded LGBTQ survivors

Not all victims are cisgender heterosexual women, and not all perpetrators are cisgender men.

Cast member Anthony Rapp poses at the premiere of the new television series "Star Trek: Discovery" on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, in Los Angeles. CREDIT: AP/Chris Pizzello
Cast member Anthony Rapp poses at the premiere of the new television series "Star Trek: Discovery" on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, in Los Angeles. CREDIT: AP/Chris Pizzello

It’s been more than two months since news broke about sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. But still, much of the discussion around how to prevent sexual violence revolves around the same people: cisgender straight male perpetrators and (usually white) cisgender straight female victims.

There have been reports of harassment and sexual assault allegations that fall outside of that paradigm, including of gay and bisexual men sexually assaulting and queer men and boys. Anthony Rapp, who identifies as queer, said actor Kevin Spacey made sexual advances on him when he was 14. Cesar Sanchez-Guzman said he met film director and producer Bryan Singer at a party in 2003, one of a number of parties which were known in the queer community for lots of alcohol and young men, when he was just 17 years old, and Singer “[forced] him into acts of oral and anal sex.” And there have been reports where, regardless of sexuality of the people involved, someone raped another person of the same sex. Melanie Martinez, a singer and star of The Voice, was accused by her female former best friend, Timothy Heller of the band Dresses, of rape earlier this month. “I beg you to imagine her in this role being a man. Girls can rape girls. Best friends can rape best friends,” Heller wrote in a statement posted to Twitter.

But these examples are far and few between, and much of the discussion around how to address the problem of sexual harassment and violence has still excluded same-sex incidents and queer and trans victims. Our cultural reckoning around sexual misconduct needs to involve creating space for others to share their stories and an understanding that abusing power through sexual violence works in myriad ways. Men are usually the perpetrators of sexual violence and women are usually the victims, but there are also male survivors and female perpetrators. Bisexual women and trans women face higher rates of sexual violence and are targeted in ways that are specific to their sexuality and gender. Sexual abuse happens within the LGBTQ community, and although people might not talk about it out of fear of playing into stereotypes about LGBTQ people being sexual predators, queer and trans survivors who have been abused by people in the community shouldn’t be silenced.

The prevalence of violence against LGBTQ people

Certain groups within the LGBTQ community experience higher rates of sexual violence than straight people do, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bisexual people and transgender women have particularly high rates of sexual violence. Twenty-six percent of gay men and 37 percent of bi men experience rape, physical violence, or stalking in their lifetime, compared to only 29 percent of straight men. Another 2012 study found that bisexual women and gay men had higher rates of intimate partner violence. Almost all of the incidents experienced by bisexual women involved a male perpetrator. A 2017 Anti-Violence Project report found that transgender women were 2.5 times more likely to be stalked. Transgender and gender non-conforming survivors were three times more likely to experience violence from an ex-partner.

Fitting with this general trend, rates of sexual violence for LGBTQ students are also higher than for heterosexual and cisgender students. Among female undergraduates, 73 percent of gay women and 77 percent of bisexual women experienced harassment, intimate partner violence, or stalking, compared to just 61 percent of straight women, according to last fall’s survey from the Association of American Universities. There were similar disparities between gay and bisexual men and straight men.

Harassment based on gender or what people perceive one’s gender expression to be is also still prevalent, and many state laws don’t protect people from discrimination. In 28 states, there is no employment non-discrimination law covering sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, queer people — and especially trans women — face high levels of workplace harassment. Earlier this year, for example, a trans woman sued McDonald’s for harassment on the job, after she was groped by a coworker and repeatedly asked about her sex life and about whether she was a boy or a girl. There are countless other stories like this.

Still, there aren’t proper resources for victims. Experts on sexual violence told ThinkProgress that people in the LGBTQ community, who often don’t fit into common assumptions about sexual assault and intimate partner violence, have more barriers to coming forward about sexual assault, have fewer support systems and services designed for them, and are less likely to want to turn to the criminal justice system for help.

Naomi G. Goldberg, policy and research director for the Movement Advancement Project, who co-authored the 2012 study on queer survivors of sexual violence, said that although most perpetrators have been men, there needs to be better acknowledgement of the experiences of people who have been raped by someone of the same sex.

“If you’re in a relationship with a man that is a bigger indicator or risk factor. Gay men have higher rates [of being sexually assaulted] as do bisexual women, and there are lower rates for lesbian women,” Goldberg said. “That said, it’s important to note it can happen in all communities and we do a disservice when we say it doesn’t happen among women. It does happen in the queer community, it does happen between women, and it’s important we don’t hide that because then people might not share that information.”

Who is targeted more often and why

There isn’t a lot of research on why these groups experience sexual violence at higher rates. Goldberg said there are limits on the data on sexual violence and intimate partner violence by sexual orientation due to things like the limitations of using data in police reports and the fact that few surveys ask about sexual orientation.

Nicole Bedera, a graduate student in the sociology department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, whose research focuses on gender and sexuality with an emphases on sexual violence, said that another “central problem” is that both queer people and survivors are stigmatized groups and may be less likely to trust researchers.

“Both groups have had a tumultuous relationship with researchers in the past who have misrepresented their stories or actively harmed them in the process of research,” she said. “Recruiting participants for our work is extremely difficult. Additionally, in the current political climate, it’s a tough time for any survivor to choose to talk about sexual assault more often.”

It is possible that negative stereotypes about bisexual and transgender people contribute to increased sexual violence. Our culture often portrays bisexual people as promiscuous and duplicitous, and since bisexual people are less likely to come out, information about their sexuality could be used to abuse them, sexually coerce them, or keep them silent about abuse.

“We know that less bi people are out and one can imagine that one’s sexuality could be used in a situation where someone may threaten outing someone. That may mean bisexual people are less likely to leave a relationship if being outed is held over them,” Goldberg said. “… There is a lot of stigma going on and unfortunate and unfounded stereotypes might play into what’s going on in a relationship and unfortunately, what someone may end up doing.”

Catherine Shugrue dos Santos, co-director of client services at the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), which advocates on behalf of LGBTQ people affected by domestic violence, said violence against cisgender men, queer women, trans women, and gender nonconforming people needs to be included in the discussion about sexual harassment. Shugrue dos Santos said corrective rape, in which a rapist is trying to make their victim conform to a certain gender expression or sexuality, is something she sees less often than she did a few years ago, but it still occurs to many lesbian and bisexual women who come to AVP.

“I think there is something that is related to corrective rape — this assumed promiscuity of bisexual people … I think it’s similar to trans women, who we see objectified a great deal,” she said.

The intersection of transphobia and racism is particularly deadly, she pointed out, since most of the trans people murdered this year have been Black trans women.

Goldberg said there needs to be more attention on the sexual violence and broader intimate partner violence trans women experience, but there isn’t enough data about their experiences. “I think that there are a lot of conversations we need to be having about what support trans women need and to talk about what trans women need to end that cycle of violence for trans women,” Goldberg said. “There isn’t a lot of data about trans women’s experience in intimate partner relationships and I think we’re kind of stuck, knowing there is a problem but not really knowing how to fix it.”

Problem LGBTQ people face in seeking help

Whether it’s seeking support from friends and family, going to the police for justice, or going to the hospital after their rapes or looking for counseling services, queer and trans people, as well as others whose experiences don’t fit the expectation of straight male rapists and female rape survivors, are at a greater disadvantage than other survivors.

Bedera is conducting a qualitative study on queer survivors of campus sexual assault, and she said that many of the people she spoke with are trying to contend with how their sexuality will intersect with their status as survivors of sexual assault. Queer women raped by men face two different sets of problems.

“In some cases, the people the survivors in our study told about their sexual assaults responded with comments like, ‘Oh! No wonder you think you’re gay now!’ Responses like that are extremely invalidating,” Bedera said. “And on the opposite end of the same spectrum, some survivors in our study have been accused of lying about their sexual assaults to cover up sexually experimenting with men. The critiques leveled at these women are so painful.”

The issue of disclosing one’s sexuality or gender identity is another challenge for survivors of sexual assault, especially for students. 

“Let’s say a college student wants to disclose sexual violence to us,” Shugrue dos Santos said. “Maybe they don’t want to go to their parents because they don’t want to disclose that they were in a relationship and the [identity of] the person they were in a relationship with reveals that that person’s sexual orientation or gender identity that maybe they haven’t been out about, so we see outing in these situations.”

Cesar Sanchez-Guzman told the Los Angeles Times he was afraid to come forward with allegations against Bryan Singer in 2003 out of fear as being out as gay.

Hospitals that have not been trained to provide sensitive and nondiscriminatory care to trans women may also revictimize trans women after they have experienced sexual violence, Shugrue dos Santos added.

“They literally begin to scrutinize that person’s body and not provide trauma-informed care and that person may experience bias and discrimination based on their gender identity when they’re trying to get help,” she said. “People don’t understand that their gender identity and or sexual orientation and they don’t understand what happened to them. Then they’re more interested in asking questions about that than in helping them or they might find themselves subjected to more violence based on their identity, which compounds trauma and revictimizes them.”

There are many reasons queer and trans survivors of sexual violence often choose not to come forward to police, experts said, including distrust of police, since people in the LGBTQ community have reported harassment, bias, and sexual assault from officers, as well as a disinterest in subjecting their assailants to the justice system. Bedera said the queer women she interviewed were conscious about “reproducing inequality.”

They worry that their perpetrators will be mistreated in a way that reproduces inequality more broadly. The women we have interviewed are extremely empathetic about inequalities related to race, sexual orientation, and gender identity in the criminal justice system and on university campuses, which is their version of a workplace,” Bedera said. “They worry about exacerbating inequality for another group in the process of advocating for themselves.” 

Given the myriad ways that sexual violence happens, experts say we should open up the #MeToo conversation.

“So much of the discussion in the mainstream media is all about women and all focused on heteronormative gender paradigm, and while I think it is really important to focus on patriarchy and misogyny and ending those, we really need to look in these issues in a more inclusive way,” Shugrue dos Santos said.

That also means that publications avoid queerphobia as they report on same-sex sexual violence, Bedera said, referencing how newspapers shamed queer sexual assailants for being queer rather than for sexual assault.

“Shame assailants like them for being perpetrators of sexual assault,” Bedera said. “But leave their queer consensual sexual practices out of it. Oppressing these men — and the rest of the queer community that gets dragged down with them — is exactly what keeps sexual minority victims from speaking up about what has happened to them.”