Why Stories of LGBTQ Sexual Assault are Underreported
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Why Stories of LGBTQ Sexual Assault are Underreported

Mainstream narratives about sexual assault rarely focus on LGBTQ survivors, rendering many of their stories invisible.

Photo by kaybee07 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by kaybee07 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The first time Sarah S.* was sexually assaulted, they weren’t sure that what happened to them was wrong. They were just 18, spending a weekend at their friend’s cottage to celebrate the end of their high school career. As friends around them slept in bunk beds, a young man began propositioning them to “fool around.” He never asked for consent, and didn’t stop when Sarah asked him to.

“It felt like a grey area,” the Scarborough-born 21-year-old says. There was no stranger danger; her assailant was someone they knew—and that made Sarah question if what happened was truly sexual assault.

It was.

In my conversation with Sarah, I learn they have been sexually assaulted three times, all by men they knew as friends. In each case, the perpetrator ignored that Sarah had not consented to his actions. They never went to the police, out of fear they would not be believed.

Sarah identifies as bisexual and non-binary. They are among a larger group of LGBTQ-identified survivors of sexual assault who pass under the radar, their stories underrepresented in the media and in society in general.

We regularly hear stories of sexual assault—from the Jian Ghomeshi trial to the landmark Jane Doe case—that involve cisgender heterosexual male assaulters and cisgender heterosexual female survivors.

But what about LGBTQ people and their experiences with sexual assault?

Historically, LGBTQ people have been persecuted as perpetrators of sexual assault, even when their actions have been consensual. Gross indecency laws, for instance, vilified gay men who had consensual sex with other men. These laws were used against the community in the Bathhouse Raids of 1981. Today, they’re being used in Nova Scotia against Toronto Reverend Brent Hawkes for incidences that occurred in the 1970s; that trial is ongoing.

The stereotypes that arise from this history, along with general attitudes that lead many to overlook the queer community, often render LGBTQ sexual assault survivors invisible. It has its consequences: while the past years alone have made it easier for survivors to come forward, I struggled to find LGBTQ sources willing to speak on the record about their experiences.

Yet, statistics speak volumes about the number of those affected. One Ontario study found that 20 per cent of transgender respondents had experienced physical or sexual assault; those respondents are at higher risk for suicide as a result. Another study found that lesbian and bisexual women were up to three times more likely to report having been sexually assaulted than their straight counterparts, while gay men were up to 15 times more likely.

By comparison, in the U.S., the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2010 [PDF] that one in eight lesbian women and almost half of bisexual women surveyed have been raped in their lifetimes, while four in 10 gay men and half of bisexual men surveyed experienced sexual violence—numbers that are disproportionately high for a small community.

For young people, like Sarah, there have also been concerns about LGBTQ sexual assault on campus. Research has found that, while there has been greater awareness about rape culture on North American university campuses, there has been little emphasis on how it affects LGBTQ students—and their assaults are highly underreported.

“People need to understand that sexual assault is about power—it’s not about gender or sexuality,” says Nadine Sookermany, executive director at Springtide Resources in Toronto. “It happens in all contexts.”

In addition to not going to police, Sarah has not told many of their friends and their parents about the assaults. They kept much of their lived experiences under wraps. “I worried they would think I just regretted it,” they say. “Or that I was lying about what happened.”

It’s not an uncommon way for someone who identifies as LGBTQ to grapple with the experience. Underreporting is a major issue for the queer community, just as much so as for cisgender heterosexual survivors. There’s a lot at stake: some may not be out, and fear that coming forward about an assault could leave them exposed when they aren’t ready to be. In cases where an intimate partner is the perpetrator, the survivor may have had to give up a lot to be with the person—such as leaving home, especially if they are young. Trans sex workers are among the most vulnerable, but fear of repercussions could hold them back from reporting a sexual assault. And, as Sarah notes, in some communities, “everyone knows everyone, so you don’t always tell in fear of not being believed.”

Entrenched in these experiences is an additional layer of concern. For individuals who already experience high levels of discrimination, disclosing information about an assault can be seen as yet another opportunity to face hatred, disbelief, or even more violence. “When you’re queer in our society, you’re already experiencing high levels of queerphobia, transphobia, and homophobia,” Sookermany says. “Folks aren’t as willing to talk about those experiences because they aren’t finding enough safe spaces to talk about them.”

Establishing those safe spaces is the first step in improving awareness about this issue, Sookermany says. And, in the least, we must believe survivors.

It’s the latter that Sarah emphasizes in our conversation together. It was that fear of not being believed that kept her from sharing her story for a long time.

But with improved education comes greater awareness—so survivors, like Sarah, can live without that fear.

*Last name has been withheld to protect their identity.

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