Spectrum of Assault: Why Inclusivity is Critical in Sexual Assault Prevention

On June 26, 2015 in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans on gay marriage. Although this was a victory in the recent push for marriage equality specifically and GLBTQ rights more generally, much work remains to be done within the arena of gay rights. One area that is of particular concern is the alarmingly high rate of sexual assault within this population. To illustrate this fact, let’s start with the comparison point—data on assaults within the heterosexual population.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NIPSVS). The data in the corresponding report, suggest that nearly 20% of all women experience a rape across their lifetime (defined as forcibly completed or attempted vaginal, oral, or anal penetration), 13% of women experience sexual coercion (unwanted sexual penetration after being verbally, but not physically, pressured to engage in sex) and nearly 30% experience unwanted sexual contact, such as kissing, fondling, or groping.  Among men, the corresponding figures are 1.4%, 6%, and 11.7%, respectively. These data draw much needed attention to the issue of sexual assault and they illustrate that assault is a social problem for both women and men. In this initial report, however, the effects of sexual orientation on assault rates were not considered. As a consequence, it falls short of offering a complete picture of sexual violence.

The CDC filled in this gap in 2013 when they released a report accounting for sexual orientation. Unfortunately, the data are alarming. The report notes that nearly half of lesbians and gay and bisexual men experience some form of sexual violence during their lives and that rate goes to 75% for bisexual women. In fact, being bisexual, whether a person is male or female, is associated with significantly higher risk of assault. In other words, sexual orientation matters, but it is not something that is often addressed in sexual assault protection programs.

Our program team shared the goal of making Elemental explicitly inclusive of the needs of sexual minorities from the beginning of our development process. We reviewed others’ research on assault among sexual minorities and, when we did not find all of the answers that we needed, we conducted our own to find out more about the processes and patterns in assaults in the LGB community. We augmented this information with additional input and stories shared firsthand by local members of this community. The resulting program both speaks to the unique realities of LGB experiences and underscores common themes that cut across lines of gender and sexual orientation. We are proud to say that everyone is welcome—and everyone’s experiences acknowledged and respected—at an Elemental seminar.

Although this inclusivity is extremely rare among sexual assault self-protection programs, a truly comprehensive approach to prevention would be impossible without it. Some social norm projects, such as the Red Flag Campaign, now include messages designed to build awareness and foster bystander intervention when signs of dating violence in a friend’s same-sex relationship arise. It is time for effective self-protection programming to become equally inclusive—and it is necessary, because assaults happen so often in private, and because cultural change will not happen overnight. We hope that our model will serve as a template for others as we work together to achieve a more equal, just, and fair world. Everyone deserves safety as they seek intimacy.

~The Directors