Sexual violence in LGBTQ communities: How we can help prevent it

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Gabe Murchison is senior research manager at Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy organization in the US. He focuses on research that “helps us understand the unique challenges that LGBTQ people deal with and the resources we have for tackling them.”

Murchison has a master’s in public health from Yale University. As an undergraduate, he spent three years with Yale’s sexual violence prevention program, Communication and Consent Educators. His master’s thesis examines sexual assault risk factors affecting LGBTQ people and how to make our communities safer.

Why did you do this research?

“To prevent sexual violence, we have to understand how it happens, and while we know a bit about how sexual violence against straight, cisgender women tends to look, there’s very little research on violence against LGBTQ students. As a result, most prevention efforts are designed for straight, cisgender women. There’s very little research telling us whether they serve LGBTQ students equally or at all.

“Overall, our data suggests that LGBTQ students’ unwanted sexual experiences (coercion or assault) are similar to what we know about heterosexual, cisgender women’s. For instance, in the research we conducted, many of the perpetrators were friends, romantic partners, exes, or hookups, and coercion and alcohol incapacitation were more common tactics than physical force.

“However, students with more internalized homophobia were more likely to have experienced sexual assault and coercion, while students with a stronger sense of LGBTQ community were less likely to have had those experiences. We found that 82 percent of perpetrators were male—surprisingly, that number was similar regardless of the survivor’s gender.”

This list is adapted from the Glossary of Terms published by the Human Rights Campaign. Terminology relating to gender and sexual identity is variable (e.g., a non-cisgender person may identify as transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, queer, or genderqueer). Always respect individuals’ preferences.

Asexual The person does not experience sexual attraction or desire for other people.

Bisexual The person is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to more than one sex, gender, or gender identity.

Cisgender A person’s gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth.

Gay The person is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to people of the same gender.

Gender identity A person’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither; how individuals perceive themselves, and what they call themselves.

Gender non-conforming The person does not behave in a way that conforms to the traditional expectations of their gender, or their gender expression does not fit neatly into a category; also termed “non-binary.”

Genderqueer The person rejects static categories of gender and embraces a fluidity of gender identity (and often, though not always, sexual orientation); may see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female, or outside these categories.

Homophobia The fear and hatred of, or discomfort with, people who are attracted to those of the same sex.

Lesbian The woman is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to other women.

LGBT An acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.”

Queer Fluid gender identity and/or sexual orientation; often used interchangeably with “LGBT.”

Transgender The person’s gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth; transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.

Transphobia The fear and hatred of, or discomfort with, transgender people.

Full glossary HERE 

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison

“I use transgender to refer to people who identify with a different gender than they were assigned at birth. I use gender non-conforming to refer to people who consistently and noticeably express themselves outside of the norms for their gender.

“Like anyone else, a transgender person could be gender-conforming or non-conforming after they transition. Some transgender men dress and act in stereotypically masculine ways, while others are more feminine than the average man, and the same is true of transgender women.

“There are also many transgender people who don’t identify exclusively as men or women, but as neither, or a combination of both. I use the umbrella term ‘non-binary’ for these identities, because they are outside of the male-female ‘gender binary.’

“Many health researchers use the umbrella term ‘gender minorities’ to describe transgender and gender non-conforming people. In the study we’re discussing, I didn’t ask participants about being gender non-conforming, so I can only talk about transgender students’ experiences.  Other research has found that LGBTQ youth who are gender non-conforming have different experiences than those who are gender-conforming—for instance, they are more likely to be bullied in school. Whether being gender non-conforming affects the likelihood of experiencing sexual violence is an important question for future research.”

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“Living in a culture that stigmatizes one or more of your identities—your race, status, sexual orientation, or many others—can affect your health negatively. One way is through internalized stigma: when you come to consciously or unconsciously believe the negative cultural ideas about yourself. Internalized homophobia is internalized stigma about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer.

“Absorbing negative beliefs about one’s LGBTQ identity can cause a range of problems, like making someone more prone to depression or anxiety, or affecting their sexuality and relationships.

“For instance, it appears that some abusers take advantage of internalized homophobia to control their partners. When we were planning our research, we thought that sexual aggressors could do something similar, and there was some qualitative research (interviews with LGBTQ people about their unwanted sexual experiences) backing that up.

“It’s important to note that internalized stigma is not something to be ashamed of. It’s an almost unavoidable consequence of having any stigmatized identity, but most people find positive ways to cope with it.”

For research references, see Sources.

Internalized transphobia may occur at a higher rate than internalized homophobia, research suggests. In a 2016 study, transgender participants reported higher rates of discrimination, depression symptoms, and suicide attempts than cisgender LGB participants. Among transgender people, depression symptoms were associated with a lack of self-acceptance around identity, researchers wrote (Transgender Health).

Transgender, gender nonconforming, and genderqueer people experience pressure from multiple sources. “According to research, stressors include being bullied at school and work, reduced access to housing, loss of friends and family, physical violence, harassment and assault, and reduced medical access,” says Joleen Nevers, sexuality educator at the University of Connecticut.

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“Trans students report facing more discrimination on campus than their cisgender LGBQ peers. Trans students deal with a number of challenges that don’t affect cisgender LGB students, like difficulty accessing housing and restrooms that match their gender. School policies may have a serious impact: Transgender people denied access to these facilities are more likely to have attempted suicide.

“On average, trans students also seem to have a weaker sense of community on campus, even though they’re equally involved in groups and leadership activities.”

For research references, see Sources.

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“We surveyed about 700 LGBQ college students at hundreds of colleges and universities, using questions that measured their levels of internalized homophobia and their sense of LGBTQ community on campus. We also asked them about some things that are related to sexual violence risk among heterosexual women, including how many romantic and sexual partners they’d had during college. Finally, we asked them about different types of unwanted sexual experiences they may have had, and about how and with whom those experiences happened. We used this data to look at three big questions:

  1. “First, is sexual violence against LGBTQ undergraduates basically similar to what heterosexual, cisgender women tend to experience? While those women’s experiences vary, common themes include assault while incapacitated by alcohol or drugs; assault or coercion by a dating partner; and initially consensual hookups that end in assault. I guessed that LGBTQ students would report similar experiences, but many people assume that ‘hate crime’ attacks play a big role, so it was an open question.
  2. “Second, do LGBTQ students have unique experiences that affect their risk of sexual violence?
  3. “Third, we knew very little about gender: Do LBQ women tend to be assaulted by men, women, or both? What about GBQ men? And what about people with a non-binary gender? That would help us understand whether this violence tends to take place within LGBTQ relationships or communities, or whether it’s mostly perpetrated by heterosexuals.”


How different is trans students’ experience?

“Technically, our study was about sexual orientation, not gender. However, many transgender students are also LGBQ. In my sample and another recent study by the Asssociation of American Universities, transgender students experienced the highest rates of sexual assault and coercion.

“Trans students report facing more discrimination on campus than non-trans LGBQ peers. Some students are even targeted for sexual assault because they are trans. On average, trans students also seem to have a weaker sense of community on campus. We don’t know how transgender stigma on campus relates to sexual assault and coercion, but given the high rates of both discrimination and sexual violence, the question deserves more attention.”

How can we support LGBTQ students?

“We researched how feeling that you belong to a community affects the incidence of sexual assault. A strong sense of LGBTQ community is beneficial, potentially because it helps people deal with internalized homophobia and transphobia.

“The peer education program I worked with in college is based on the idea that changing how students think about sexuality, sexual pressure, and even ‘going out’ can make sexually aggressive behavior harder to get away with and help all students feel more empowered.”


“Campus programming sets the tone for LGBTQ students and straight, cisgender students,” says Gabe Murchison. The following approaches can help build an inclusive community, he says:

  • Health services should use inclusive language—like “students who need a Pap test” instead of “women who need a Pap test,” since some transgender students will need that service as well.
  • All programming should include LGBTQ students among its examples.
  • Health, sexuality, and sexual violence workshops should feature characters with gender-neutral names and point out that both consensual sex and sexual violence can occur in any gender combination.

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“It’s important to have friends who support your sexual orientation or the fact that you’re transgender—but that doesn’t mean they have to be LGBTQ. Many LGBTQ students make their closest friends through athletics, Greek life, arts, religious organizations, or housing assignments. For some, most or all of those friends are straight and cisgender.

“Since LGBTQ people are just as diverse as any other group, it’s very likely that you’ll meet like-minded LGBTQ friends throughout your life, even if you don’t fit in with the LGBTQ students you’ve met on campus.”

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“There are not a ton of data on LGBTQ undergraduates specifically. From what exists, it appears that:

  • “Gay, bi, and queer men are at higher risk than other men (but still at lower risk than women).
  • “Lesbian, bi, and queer women seem to be at similar or slightly higher risk compared to other women.
  • “Transgender students, particularly those with non-binary gender identities (not exclusively male or female), seem to be at higher risk than cisgender students.”

For research references, see Sources.

“‘Queer’ is how respondents self-identified. Thirteen percent of my sample described their sexual orientation as queer. The term has been adopted by the major US advocacy organizations and is used in some (not all) research on this population.”

What cultural problems did you identify in your peer work?

“Some students who wanted to make friends with other LGBTQ people felt like the only way to do that was to be part of a hookup scene. That led to them having consensual sex they didn’t really want and sometimes made them targets for coercion. Also, some people talked about experiencing sexual aggression when they were newly out and thinking maybe that was normal or acceptable among LGBTQ people—because they didn’t yet have many LGBTQ friends to discuss it with.”

How did you aim to build a safer culture?

Create nonsexual spaces and conversations
“We decided that building a stronger sense of community could help. First, we got LGBTQ student leaders on board to help change the way people in their circles talked about hooking up, and also to be intentionally welcoming to younger students. Second, we started hosting LGBTQ events that were not at all sexualized—like a fantastic pie-baking event that’s become an annual tradition. Third, we made sure that the more sexualized spaces were still low-pressure. For example, after an LGBTQ dance, we showed Mean Girls until 3 a.m. People loved it, and it showed that you can go out and dance without ending the night in someone’s bed.”

How can all students reach out to LGBTQ peers?

Check in with friends and younger students
“Checking in is really valuable. If someone is in an intense relationship and you’re not sure if it’s good-intense or bad-intense, you can ask some open-ended questions like, ‘How are things with Ryan?’ Even if everything is fine, they’ll feel supported. Reaching out to younger or newly out students can be especially effective. They may be particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, or just plain loneliness.”

Pay attention to who seems left out
“Some students don’t participate in the LGBTQ community because they feel excluded—most visible LGBTQ social groups might be mostly white, mostly a particular gender, mostly secular. Also, not all LGBTQ communities are great at supporting transgender, non-binary, or bisexual students. Set an example by learning more about being bi- and trans-inclusive, and asking your friends to do the same.”

Gabe Murchison:Gabe Murchison
“Do your best not to assume someone is heterosexual or cisgender. My college had a dance where first-year students set up dates for the people they live with. Some people made a point of asking each suitemate about their gender preferences for the date. For some LGBQ people, that was the first time they felt comfortable coming out to the people they lived with.

“Be an advocate. Student affairs staff often take students’ opinions seriously. These staff can affect the decision-making process on issues that affect LGBTQ students, like funding an LGBTQ center or creating mixed-gender housing options. If you know LGBTQ students on your campus are advocating for this type of goal, you can write or talk to student affairs staff and explain why you feel it’s important.

“Speak up. If an LGBTQ person (or anyone else) hears stigmatizing comments all the time, they may be too afraid or frustrated to address them. Try to respectfully but firmly shoot down any anti-LGBTQ remarks you hear.”

Slideshow - Students talk: The social and sexual pressures of being LGBTQ+

Get help or find out more

Sexual assault is never the fault of the survivor. Become familiar with your campus and community resources. Campus resources for survivors of coercion and/or sexual assault include the counseling center, student health center, women’s center, and sexual assault center. Community resources include rape or sexual assault crisis centers and hotlines.

LGBTQ hotline and meetup groups: Trevor Project

How to support a male friend: 1in6

Help for survivors: National Sexual Assault Hotline and Online Hotline

Guide for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse: Colorado State University

Find local services and other resources:

Student activists who are survivors of sexual violence: Know Your IX

National campus safety organization: Clery Center for Security on Campus

Sexual violence resources: National Sexual Violence Resource Center


Article sources

Gabe Murchison, senior research manager, Human Rights Campaign. Murchison’s master’s thesis (not yet published) was advised by Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean of student affairs at Yale University, and John Pachankis, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health.

Joleen Nevers, MA Ed, CHES, AASECT Certified Secondary Education, sexuality educator, health education coordinator, University of Connecticut.

Association of American Universities. (2015). AAU Campus Survey of Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. Retrieved from

Bockting, W. O., Miner, M. H., Swinburne Romine, R. E., Hamilton, A., et al. (2013). Stigma, mental health, and resilience in an online sample of the US transgender population. American Journal of Public Health, 103(5), 943–951. Retrieved from

Braun, V., Schmidt, J., Gavey, N., & Fenaughty, J. (2009). Sexual coercion among gay and bisexual men in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Journal of Homosexuality, 56(3), 336-360

Centers for Disease Control. (2010). National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: An overview of 2010 findings on victimization by sexual orientation. Retrieved from

D’Augelli, A. R., Grossman, A. H., & Starks, M. T. (2006). Childhood gender atypicality, victimization, and PTSD among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 21(11), 1462–1482.

Dugan, J. P., Kusel, M., L., & Simounet, D. M. (2012). Transgender college students: An exploratory study of perceptions, engagement, and educational outcomes. Journal of College Student Development, 53(5), 719–736.

Edwards, K. M., Sylaska, K. M., Barry, J. E., Moynihan, M. M., et al. (2015). Physical dating violence, sexual violence, and unwanted pursuit victimization: A comparison of incidence rates among sexual-minority and heterosexual college students. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 30(4), 580-600.

Grant, J. M., Mottet, L. A., & Tanis, J. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Retrieved from

Haas, A. P., & Rodgers, P. L. (2014). Suicide attempts among transgender and gender non-conforming adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law.

Hines, D. A., Armstrong, J. L., Reed, K. P., & Cameron, A. Y. (2012). Gender differences in sexual assault victimization among college students. Violence and Victims, 27(6), 922-940.

Karlsen, S., & Nazroo, J. Y. (2002). The relation between racial discrimination, social class, and health among ethnic minority groups. American Journal Public Health, 92(4), 624–631. Retrieved from

Martin, S. L., Fisher, B. S., Warner, T. D., Krebs, C. P., et al. (2011). Women’s sexual orientations and their experiences of sexual assault before and during university. Women’s Health Issues, 21(3), 199-205.

Menning, C. L., & Holtzman, M. (2013). Processes and patterns in gay, lesbian, and bisexual sexual assault: A multimethodological assessment. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 0886260513506056.

Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129(5), 674–697. Retrieved from

Student Health 101 survey, February 2016.

Su, D., Irwin, J. A., Fisher, C., Ramos, A., et al. (2016). Mental health disparities within the LGBT population: A comparison between transgender and nontransgender individuals. Transgender Health, 1(1), 12–20. Retrieved from

Williamson, I. R. (2000). Internalized homophobia and health issues affecting lesbians and gay men. Health Education Research, 15(1), 97–107. Retrieved from

Quiz: What’s your bystander style?

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Bystander intervention is about the small things we all do for our friends and communities. When we see that someone is experiencing unwanted attention or pressure, we have a variety of ways we can check in: anything from a simple hello to a more creative disruption.

The best interventions happen early on—right when we notice that something is off, and well before a situation escalates. These interventions are easy, subtle, and safe. They help build a community that doesn’t tolerate casual disrespect and disregard, and prevent pressure and disrespect from escalating to coercion and violence.

How you choose to help others depends partly on your personality. To identify your own bystander style—direct, distraction, or stealth—check out each scenario. Keep track of your preferred responses and use them to score your answers.

1. At a house party, you notice someone from your physics class pulling a very drunk person into the bedroom where everyone dumped their coats. Do you…?

A.  Point this out to the host.
B.  Catch up with your classmate and offer to help with finding the drunk person’s friends or getting medical attention.
C.  Follow them into the room, ask if they’ve seen your coat, and describe it at length.

2. One of your classmates makes a rape joke. Some people laugh, while others look uncomfortable. The professor nods along. Do you….?

A.  Make a sympathetic face at the uncomfortable classmates and check in with them later.
B.  Roll your eyes and say, “Oh yeah, sexual violence is hilarious. But back to our discussion…”
C.  Talk to the professor after class and tell them the joke made you and others uncomfortable.

3. At an impromptu res hall party, you notice a guy looking uncomfortable about someone who is getting close and grinding on him. Do you…?

A.  Dance toward them and invite some friends to join the circle.
B.  “Accidentally” spill your drink on the handsy dancer.
C.  Sidle up to the iPod, interrupt the hip-hop playlist, blast the Game of Thrones theme song, and look as surprised as everyone else.

4. At morning practice, one of your teammates seems distracted. When you ask if everything is OK, your teammate shrugs and says, “Yeah, I just had a weird hookup last night.” Do you…?

A.  Say, “Weird how? Do you want to talk about it?” Suggest contacting your school’s counseling center, if that seems appropriate.
B.  Text your teammate’s best friend and suggest they get lunch together and check in.
C.  Make yourself available that day for Frisbee or a run with your teammate in case they want to talk.

5. Your roommate recently started dating Riley, who seems OK but is around an awful lot. Tonight, Riley came over while your roommate was out and hung around waiting. When your roommate finally got home, Riley said, “You’re back late. We should get to bed,” and disappeared into the bedroom. Your roommate stayed in the living room, making no moves to follow Riley. Do you…?

A.  Explain loudly that you’re having a personal crisis and need to talk to your roommate about it immediately.
B.  Ask your roommate to help you return some library books before midnight and use the walk over to check in about their relationship.
C.  Make a mental note to get some professional input on how to talk to your roommate about this new relationship, the next time you’re alone.

6. During a small get-together, your friend Alex, who’s been drinking a lot, gets a text from an ex: wanna come over? Alex hasn’t expressed any interest in getting back together with this ex, so you are surprised when Alex gets up to head over. Do you…?

A.  “Accidentally” spill water all over the floor. Ask Alex to help clean up and strike up a conversation about the text.
B.  Offer to walk Alex over, with another mutual friend; you’ll talk it through on the way.
C.  Hide Alex’s shoes, wait for Alex to notice they’re missing, and exclaim “That’s a sign! Why don’t you stay here?”

7. You and a couple of other Orientation Leaders are having lunch with a group of first-years. Everyone is bantering about their favorite football teams. Quinn is mostly silent and eventually says, “I’m not into sports much.” Jamie laughs and says, “What are you, gay?” Do you…?

A.  Say, “Thank you, Quinn! I’m so happy to have an ally at last in this football-fixated world. Perspective is everything.”
B.  Say, “We don’t say ‘gay’ disparagingly here,” and promptly change the subject.
C.  Check in with Quinn after lunch and ask one of the other Orientation Leaders to have a chat with Jamie.

Your score: What type of bystander are you?

Score your responses according to the table below. Note: There are no right or wrong answers, no better or worse answers. This quiz is about finding your bystander style.

Answer scores

What your score says about you

Score 17–21 This much is clear—you’re a direct interventionist

You’re comfortable changing the trajectory when something’s wrong—by being caring and upfront. Sometimes you call people out, knowing this is OK; you’re doing what seems right.

Score 12–16 What’s going on over there, distraction artist?

You’re great at subtly making space for others and changing the tone of an interaction. You’re skilled at getting silly or creative, and finding elegant ways to shift the mood and message.

Score 7–11 You’re a stealth operator (fine, we’ll keep that quiet)

You’re most comfortable working with other people, finding help, and following up. When you see something concerning, you’re building a team to tackle it or thinking about how you can help.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how you intervene as long as you do something. Checking in early enables you to keep things subtle and avoid putting yourself or others at risk. Creating and maintaining a healthy campus community means being aware of what’s happening around us, and saying and/or doing something when we see a situation that just doesn’t look or feel right.

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Help is only a button away—whether you (or a friend) are in a sketchy situation and need assistance, if you’re walking somewhere and feel uncomfortable, or if you witness a situation that appears dangerous or unsafe.
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[survey_plugin] Article sources

This quiz incorporates an earlier quiz created by Lee Scriggins, MSW, community substance abuse prevention coordinator at Boulder County Department of Public Health (formerly health communications and program manager at the University of Colorado Boulder), and Teresa Wroe, director of education and prevention/deputy Title IX coordinator at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Lonnquist, J. E., Leikas, S., Paunonen, S., Nissinen, V., et al. (2006). Conformism moderates the relations between values, anticipated regret, and behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(11), 1469–1481.

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