BU Today

Health & Wellness

Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals at Increased Risk for Sexual Assault

New SPH study reveals need for more trauma-based care


Emily Rothman, an SPH associate professor of community health sciences, says it’s necessary to change “oppressive social norms in our culture that support violence against LGB people, including homophobia and the use of violence to control others.” Thumbnail by Rick Braatz

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women may have increased risk of being sexual assaulted compared to heterosexual people. Several factors could account for the higher risk, among them that these groups have fewer rights and are more discriminated against.

A new study led by School of Public Health researchers has found that across 75 different research reports, lesbian and bisexual women may be up to 3 times as likely as heterosexual women to report having been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and gay men appear to be about 15 times as likely as heterosexual men to report the same.

The study, which appears in the current issue of Trauma, Violence and Abuse, is the first to systematically review and analyze the results of research investigating sexual violence against lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people, according to lead author Emily Rothman, an SPH associate professor of community health sciences.

“Practitioners who work with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients or patients should be aware that the prevalence of sexual assault among this population is high. Trauma-informed practice is critical,” Rothman says. “Continued advocacy is needed to change oppressive social norms in our culture that support violence against LGB people, including homophobia and the use of violence to control others.”

home-cover_traumaRothman and colleagues reviewed 75 studies, all published between 1989 and 2009, that examined the prevalence of sexual assault among 139,635 lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents in the United States. The authors reviewed the reported prevalence of lifetime sexual assault, including childhood assault, adult assault, intimate partner assault, and hate crime–related sexual assault.

Rothman says it was not clear from the various studies how many sexual assaults can be characterized as hate crimes. “My assessment would be that hate crimes are a portion of this, but clearly not all of it,” she says.

The research team found that taken collectively, the studies’ findings suggest that gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women may be at increased risk for sexual assault, compared to heterosexual people. On average, 43 percent of lesbian and bisexual women and 30 percent of gay and bisexual men reported having experienced at least one form of sexual assault during their lifetimes. Estimates of lifetime sexual assault for all U.S. residents range from 11 to 17 percent for women, and 2 to 3 percent for men.

While the study did not examine why LGB individuals are at increased risk for sexual assault, Rothman speculates that there may be several factors.

“It is not surprising to me to see increased rates of violence victimization among groups with fewer rights in society, or who experience more discrimination,” she says.

One of the most important lessons from the study, Rothman says, is that “medical professionals, teachers, parents, and others need to be aware that a high percentage of LGB people may have experienced a sexual violence trauma, either recently or in the past. Providing trauma-informed medical care, dental care, mental health care, substance abuse treatment, classroom education—all of it—may be critically important for these survivors’ well-being.”

Massachusetts recently received a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to formulate a statewide plan to address sexual violence, and the lesbian, gay, and transgender population will be one focus of that effort, she says. Currently, only a few agencies in the state offer prevention and counseling to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people who have been assaulted.

Rothman’s study did not include transgender people.

“Most sexual assault programs began in order to deal with male violence against women, and only some have gradually expanded to LGBT populations,” says Beth Leventhal, executive director of the Network/La Red, a Boston agency specializing in stemming domestic violence in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. “I think there’s still a great need to make sure that the work being done by agencies that are dealing with sexual assault is culturally competent.”

The violence recovery program at Fenway Health is another Boston program that provides counseling, advocacy, and referral services to LGBT victims of bias crime, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

“There are only a handful of us,” Leventhal says.

Researchers and practitioners often struggle to estimate the prevalence of sexual violence among gays and lesbians and need more specific information to proceed with funded initiatives, the study authors say. For example, some states want to use CDC funding to support education, awareness, and training to prevent sexual violence among the LGBT population because they are perceived as having heightened risk. Similarly, school program planners have concerns that lesbian and gay youths are disproportionately the targets of bullying and physical violence.

“As they develop these programs, and propose policies to deter the perpetration of violence against GLB youth, the prevalence of sexual violence against these youth would be critical to consider,” say Rothman and her coauthors.

Read the full study on the Trauma, Violence and Abuse website.

Lisa Chedekel can be reached at chedekel@bu.edu.


7 Comments on Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals at Increased Risk for Sexual Assault

  • Jenny on 04.13.2011 at 8:32 am

    I am questioning if this has a large sampling bias. The gay sample size is way smaller, and when you actually look at the scientific paper it states 2/3 gay subjects came from non-probability samples (often gay bars, etc)…and of course people who frequent bars are more likely to report this. According to the article “With some exceptions, studies using non-probability samples reported higher sexual assault prevalence rates than did population-based or census sample studies. ” And it’s not shocking that gay men would be 15 times more likely to report, given homophobia in society. Nonetheless, sexual abuse in the gay community is something we should be very concerned with even if it ended up being at a closer rate to heterosexual sexual abuse.

  • Anonymous on 04.13.2011 at 9:24 am

    It is great that this study brings an increased LGB awareness to the Boston public.

    I am curious to know if the study also looked at the causal vs correlation relationship of sexual assault and the LGB population, i.e. whether LGB populations are at an increased risk for sexual assault BECAUSE they identify themselves as LGB, or that due to a past history/event of sexual assault they identify themselves more strongly as being LGB. It would be interesting to explore this possibility by examining the temporal relationship between sexual assault events and the moment of LGB self-identification. Perhaps this has already been addressed in other studies, however.

    Regardless, patients as a whole can benefit from more trauma based care, and this study pushes us a step in the right direction for reaching that. Thanks BUSPH!

  • Mary Bowen on 04.13.2011 at 9:42 am

    LGB Article Overlooks the T

    I am very disappointed in Ms. Chedekel for downplaying the Transgender community in this article. The Trans community is all too often ghettoized in the LGBTQ community and for the most part rendered invisible in the larger community. BUT TRANS & NON-GENDER CONFORMING INDIVIDUALS ARE FREQUENTLY TARGETS OF VIOLENCE AND WHEN TARGETS OF VIOLENCE, BOTH PHYSICAL AND SEXUAL, THE ACTS PERPETUATED AGAINST THEM ARE BEYOND BRUTAL–TORTUROUS EVEN. Such crimes are often under-reported and mis-reported by the police and the media.

    I urge readers to check out the following sources (AND THERE’S PLENTY MORE) for more information:

  • Anonymous on 04.13.2011 at 9:56 am

    This article suggests poor research and confuses data with other assumptions.

    For example, it says that queers are at “increased risk” of sexual assault, when the data really just says that queers are more likely to be ADMIT to being sexually assaulted than non-queers.

    “Increased risk” suggests either that there has been an upward change in sexual assaults (which the study does not investigate), or that there has been an upward change in the future RISK of sexual assaults (a likely invalid prediction of the future). Either of these conclusions are inappropriate here.

    Further, this study does not define sexual assault or differentiate between different kinds of sexual assault. In fact this study does not even know what definitions of sexual assault were used in various studies that it draws from. There’s a big difference between being hollered at and being forcibly raped.

    Another problem is that heterosexual men are most likely the least willing demographic to admit to being sexually assaulted and is also likely to not define certain experiences as sexual assault that other demographics might readily define as sexual assault.

    The previous commenter also make some good points.

    In conclusion, this article and likely the research it references are misleading and poorly thought out and contain no useful or valid information and is a disservice to queers and victims of sexual assault. I hope that BU will not be approving this thesis, as it is really quite embarrassing.

  • Anonymous on 04.13.2011 at 3:50 pm

    I share the feeling that this article left me with more questions than answers. For instance, sometimes reference is made to LBG people being the ‘victims of assault’ and sometimes the reference is to ‘assault among LGB people.’ There’s a big difference here: violence done to members of a community from the outside (think gay men getting raped for being queer, lesbians being raped to ‘turn them straight’) versus violence happening within a community (one gay man forcing another to have sex, or the same with lesbians). There’s also the question of incidence vs. reporting.

    More clarification is needed!

  • Anonymous on 04.13.2011 at 3:54 pm

    Re: "This article suggests poor"

    This article suggests poor journalism, but not poor research. The previous poster has criticized the authors on a number of methodological points, all of which are clearly and adequately addressed in the authors’ original paper. It will benefit readers to seek out the original article (link above), so that they are not misled by the very poorly constructed title of this BU Today article.

  • Anonymous on 04.14.2011 at 3:15 pm

    This study should be read by as many people as possible. The hatred directed against GLBT persons is staggering.

    Regarding the criticism one commenter had that transgendered folks were “downplayed” in this article, I have several comments. First, it’s true that of all the persons in the GLBT acronym, the T folks are more likely to be victims of violence and rendered invisible by not only GLB folks, but by the larger communities. Second, Ms. Chedekel wrote an article about a published study that looked at other published studies. It’s not so much that she (or Dr. Rothman) “downplayed” T folks, it’s that many of the researchers of the original studies didn’t bother to include transgendered people in their research. The social science scholars rendered transgendered people invisible, in other words.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)