In a first-of-its-kind national report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a comprehensive set of data on intimate partner violence, titled “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.” This data provides insight into the prevalence of sexual violence, categorized by factors such as gender, sexual orientation, frequency and age at first victimization. The intent of such a report is to serve as a benchmark for prevention, education, and social service efforts at reducing sexual violence.
While reviewing the data, I was struck by the astronomical rates of sexual violence against individuals identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. According to the report, 46.4% of lesbian women, 74.9% of bisexual women, 40.2% of gay men and 47.4% of bisexual men report being victims of sexual violence, respectively. These numbers highlight the frightening reality of sexual violence facing individuals identifying as LGBT.
To help shine some light on what factors may be driving this data, I sat down with Alicia Allen, of Spectrum Recovery Solutions. Allen, a relationship counselor and sex researcher, answered some of the questions I had and offered her unique perspective on this staggering problem.
1. According to the study, the rates of sexual violence among individuals within the LGBT community are significantly higher than in the heterosexual community. What are your thoughts when you see these statistics?
I find it incredibly tragic when I hear about sexual violence against any individual, but especially against those who are marginalized by society because they don’t fit the mold. For me, these statistics show how we, as a society, have not done our part to protect all our members. While the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 was extended to include the LGBTQ community in helping those affected by domestic and sexual violence access resources, this is not enough. We have failed to create a safe space for those who have been assaulted and to provide adequate outreach and education to those who are at risk. We need to have these programs starting in the schools and going into the communities. Bottom line is that we are not providing protective factors or practicing harm reduction.
2. It is interesting to note that the rates of sexual violence among bisexual men and women are much higher than in gay men and lesbian women. What might be a reason for this?
This is a very important question that needs to be addressed. As for why this is, I have to say that we need further research before we can start speculating on causation. As the study shows, almost half of the bisexual women who responded experienced their first rape between 11 and 17 years old, as opposed to only 17.4% of the heterosexual women surveyed. Not only that, but both bisexual and heterosexual women reported that their perpetrators were exclusively male. So, people are taking those two statistics to try to say that women become bisexual because they were raped by a man. This simply is not true. Unfortunately, we as a society do not accept the natural fluidity of female sexuality over the lifespan. Regardless, we have no concrete answers as to why bisexuals are at the greatest risk for abuse. However, we do know what is needed is prevention and education. We need to be proactive to help combat intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
3. What role, if any, do factors such as discrimination, social norms, and policy play on the rates of violence against members of the LGBT community?
This is a really good question. As I stated before, society plays a large role. It’s a dialectical role. The LBGTQ community has gained momentous rights in the past couple of years through advocacy, education, and rallying of the public. However, there are still big pockets of our society that hold onto antiquated and inaccurate notions about sex, sexuality, and gender. We are still struggling with the “blame the victim” mentality. “She was dressed like a slut.” “What was he doing out that late at night in that guy’s apartment?” Things like that. Then there’s policy. In the same year where the US Supreme Court upheld marriage equality, they also shot down The Student Non-Discrimination Act that was created to protect LBGTQ children from bullies. The wonderful organization dedicated to advocating for the LGTBQ, Give A Damn Campaign, has reported that almost 90% of LGBTQ youth have experienced verbal and physical abuse AT SCHOOL. What message are we sending when we do not protect the most vulnerable among us, our children?
4. How can social workers and mental health professionals be more sensitive to the needs of LGBT clients who may have a history of sexual or physical violence?
With this study, we as clinicians know that the possibility of a trauma history is increased when working with our LGBTQ clients. The first thing we have to do as clinicians is understand our own value system. Do we hold even the most benign of prejudices? Then we need to use a systems perspective to look at how well informed we are of the environment of our clients. Do we know what our clients face on a day-to-day basis in their homes, workplaces, school, etc… And finally, and I cannot stress this enough, we need to have a trauma-informed practice. When we use the trauma informed approach to therapy, we appreciate how intrusive the trauma is on our clients’ lives and how it can be an obstacle to both physical and mental wellbeing. Having a trauma informed practice means integrating this knowledge into our policies and procedures. With this approach, we are saying that from first contact we will create a safe place for growth and healing for our clients.
5. Is there anything social workers and mental health professionals could be doing better to help reduce the rates of sexual violence among members of the LGBT community?
There are three things that we can start with:First, know the community. That means be aware of what the LGBTQ community experiences from both a macro and a micro level. Keep yourself educated on laws, practices, and policies that are discriminatory in nature. Know what resources are out there to help combat this. If there aren’t any or they are not enough…then get involved.
Second, educate the community on what bulling, intimate partner violence, and the bystander effect looks like in our everyday lives and strategies to combat these.
Finally, advocate. Advocate for equal protection. Advocate for effective and accessible resources. Advocate for change.
Paul C. Milford, MSW is a social worker specializing in the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families. Milford has a passion for helping others find the keys to their own success and draws from a variety of therapeutic modalities to help them do so. Milford received his Master of Social Work degree from the University of South Florida. Milford's clinical areas of interest include behavior management, depression, chronic disease management, relationship issues, school performance, and anxiety within the individual and family systems.