Invisible Trauma

LGBTQ Student Rape and Sexual Assault in Higher Education and the Response of the University, Law Enforcement, and Mental Health Agencies

By Sara Wooten

The literature on sexual violence in higher education has predominantly focused on rape and sexual assault committed by cisgender, heterosexual men against cisgender, heterosexual women. While this violent, heterosexual dynamic of campus rape culture has been well established and is worthy of continued investigation and intervention, it also contributes to a larger discourse surrounding who can, and consequently cannot, experience sexual violence, specifically rape and sexual assault. Wooten contends that this discourse silences the sexual violence experienced by non-white, non-heterosexual, and non-gender conforming students. The consequences of this silence have implications for both the type of research that is conducted on sexual violence as well as material effects on the resources and programming available to students in higher education.

Wooten has identified a constructed discourse on sexual violence in higher education. Specifically, this discourse organizes sexual violence into a number of rigid categories: fraternity rape, party rape, and date rape, with alcohol abuse usually associated with all three. Cisgender, heterosexual men are always the perpetrators of sexual violence, and cisgender, heterosexual women are always the victims. The sexuality and gender identities of both parties are never questioned. The discourse on sexual violence in higher education is produced through a constellation of connected messages across the traditional college campus. These messages are then referenced, discussed, and affirmed through implicit and explicit means on a daily basis. Examples of productive sites of the discourse include Rape Aggression Defense classes, separate men’s and women’s sexual assault prevention programs, and sexual violence awareness events like Take Back the Night and Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. The central themes of these and other similar programs and interventions on college campuses are of women as potential victims or survivors and men as perpetrators or empathetic bystanders.

Wooten completed a pilot study on thirteen Boston area schools in 2011. The study utilized an online questionnaire with open-ended and closed-ended questions, as well as the opportunity for narrative submissions. The responses of 186 participants indicated that LGBTQ students do experience sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault during their years in higher education. The LGBTQ students in these studies demonstrated that they observe their institution's messaging on issues of sexual violence and that they resultantly felt underserved and ignored. Their responses support the existence of a heterosexist discourse that presently guides prevention programming and intervention efforts by higher education institutions. They surface the internalized messages about victim responsibility that they use to make sense of their assaults.

A more complicated engagement with campus rape culture research promises to yield critically important information about how marginalized students not only experience sexual violence, but how they survive, heal, and thrive despite not being historical targets of support services and prevention programs. A more nuanced disaggregation of the identities of those who experience and perpetrate sexual violence in higher education is critical. The gathering of this information would be a start, but is still not enough. More needs to be known about the ways that these identities interact with and impact the experience of rape and/or sexual assault. In doing so, a much more complicated, but honest picture emerges of how sexual violence affects affects more students than currently thought.