Supporting Queer Survivors Of Campus Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Nicole Bedera is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality with emphases on sexual violence, masculinity and queer women. Dr. Kristjane Nordmeyer is an associate professor of sociology at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Her teaching and scholarship focus on gender, sexuality, research methods, cats and Scandinavia.

Queer women are commonly the targets of sexual violence on college campuses. Approximately one in five lesbian students and one in three bisexual women students are sexually assaulted before they graduate. Beyond these statistics, little is known about the experiences of queer survivors of sexual violence.

To fill these gaps in the literature, we are conducting a qualitative study using interviews with queer survivors of campus sexual assault. In this article, we will offer recommendations for how university faculty members, staff members and administrators can effectively support queer survivors.

First, we share two women’s stories — one who used campus resources and another who intentionally did not — to discuss some of the challenges of providing campus resources to queer survivors. All names are pseudonyms, and some details have been changed.

Ashley, a pansexual woman, was deeply involved in social justice initiatives at her university. When another member of the LGBT club raped her, her proximity to social justice organizations made her feel trapped. Originally, Ashley wanted to keep her sexual assault quiet, but she told her supervisor at work to access scheduling accommodations, not knowing that her supervisor was a mandatory reporter. Ashley was forced into an unwanted investigation of her assault.

Because her friends were involved in social justice groups, including the judiciary board that would hear her case, Ashley felt pressured to tell everyone about being raped. Her friends were initially supportive, but their roles in campus proceedings around sexual violence made it difficult for Ashley to know how much of what she shared would stay between them. Rumors and controversy about her sexual assault led her to feel unwelcome in the campus LGBT club.

Taken together, the investigation and the LGBT club’s reaction to her sexual assault pushed her out of the club, making Ashley feel as though she had no control over what happened after her rape and that she had lost her safe space on campus.

Lydia, a lesbian woman, was sexually abused as a child, struggled with drug addiction and had little support from her family since they did not approve of her sexual orientation. When she was raped twice during her first year of college, it never occurred to her to seek out campus resources. Trauma was commonplace in her life, and she felt more traumatized by events in her past than by being recently raped.

Lydia did not think that campus resources were intended for people with histories of violence, trauma and addiction — people like her. She doubted that she would relate to other survivors or that service providers would understand her nonchalance toward victimization. Although she displayed many signs of trauma, including self-blame and flashbacks, her past experiences with other service providers made her reluctant to seek support. And Lydia was probably right; the campus support network for sexual assault survivors was likely unprepared to manage the complexities of her sexual orientation and other past traumatizing experiences.

These two women’s experiences may appear to have little in common, but their stories overlap a great deal. Both survivors felt a mismatch between their needs and what campus resources could offer. Ashley experienced that mismatch firsthand. Lydia’s fear of a mismatch kept her from seeking help altogether. Both survivors suffered from their colleges’ inability to adequately provide for queer victims.

Below, we present seven suggestions for campus service providers and others who work most closely with students about how to better support queer victims through campus resources.

Represent a diverse array of victimization experiences. Knowing about and preparing for victims with a variety of experiences and identities is important. Be honest about what groups you have considered and display the information openly to help victims make the best decisions for themselves. Remain open to hearing about other types of victimization and varied effects on victims and take their criticisms of your organization to heart — and to your next policy meeting.

Recognize the prevalence of revictimization. Revictimization is incredibly common among all sexual trauma survivors, but especially pervasive in queer populations. Further, previous trauma related to coming out or sexual orientation-based harassment may change the way they see and experience sexual victimization. Queer survivors may have already had bad experiences with service providers that pose an additional barrier to effectively supporting them. They may also be so used to trauma that they struggle to recognize when they need help, especially since they often need different services than those typically offered. For example, Lydia did not need someone to walk her through what to expect as she coped with trauma, but she could have benefited from speaking with someone who could help her to understand a cycle of abuse perpetrated by many different people.

Provide opportunities to get to know campus services. Opening an official investigation or agreeing to the emotional labor of months of therapy is a big commitment, especially when a survivor is unsure of an office’s support for queer victims. Hosting other lower-impact events that allow survivors from diverse backgrounds to meet recognizes the needs of queer survivors in a way that can build trust and helps them find a supportive community.

Link survivors to a range of different services, including those offered off the campus. Survivors who are well integrated in social justice groups on the campus probably know some of the people who run or participate in campus services. Provide them with alternatives that will not force disclosure of their sexual assault to a friend, employer, professor or staff member. Help them plan for and navigate conflicts of interests on the campus and choose other sources for support. In case the institution is ill equipped to support queer survivors, such guidance should include external resources — but that option should not be offered in place of improving on-campus programs.

Help queer survivors understand what they have to lose. Just as with other victims, queer survivors are often sexually assaulted by people they know. Disclosing the details of their sexual assault may destabilize their social group — which may be one of the only safe spaces for them on the campus. Service providers must strategize with queer survivors about how to choose whom to trust with their story and how to navigate a once-safe space that is now dangerous. Similarly, facilitators of campus queer spaces must know how to remove sexual assailants and manage the controversy surrounding violence within the group.

Be candid about mandatory reporting requirements. Investigations like Ashley’s can disempower victims. Students should know that they are speaking to a responsible employee before they disclose information that will force them into an investigation. This is especially important for students whose relationships with faculty and staff members have become blurred through friendship. Remind students who hint at disclosure of your responsibility to report through the U.S. Department of Education mandate and Title IX policies. Allow them to feel out their options by answering their questions about a “hypothetical situation” about the reporting process and available resources to survivors.

Collaborate. Whether you belong to a queer organization or you provide services to sexual assault victims on campus, you need to extend a hand to work together, particularly with the students most affected.

Queer sexual assault survivors in higher education deserve autonomy and resources to meet their distinct needs. By working with them, we can create a more inclusive approach to victim advocacy.