Sexual Violence & Mattering: Efficacy in Supporting LGBTQIA Students Who Have Experienced Sexual…

Sarah L. Miller & Corey J. Benson

February 27, 2017

The following article was submitted for the 2017 Annual Knowledge Community Conference Publication on behalf of the Gender & Sexuality Knowledge Community. For reference information and to check out the complete publication, please CLICK HERE

Higher education institutions often face big challenges when it comes to supporting those affected by acts of sexual violence. Those challenges present big opportunities for student affairs professionals to forge better practices for supporting marginalized college students who have experienced sexual assault—specifically those students who identify within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, aromantic, asexual, and agender (LGBTQIA) community. Since the publication of the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), higher education institutions have received increased criticism for their practices and policies concerning sexual assault prevention and response (Wilson, 2014). Despite this heightened attention, dialogue addressing sexual assault on college campuses tends to draw on narrowly defined gender assumptions. In a review of research addressing rates of formal and informal disclosure of sexual assault among college students, Sabina and Ho (2014) noted the scarcity of research regarding “disclosure and service utilization among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, disabled male, and international students” (pp. 221–222). This lack of population-specific research can compound the trauma of sexual assault survivors, as heteronormative assumptions may exacerbate victimization experienced by LGB people (Balsam et al., 2005).

Jordan, Combs, and Smith (2014) have found that firstyear college women are more likely to exhibit lower academic performance following sexual victimization. In consideration of the compounded trauma experienced by LGBTQIA students when faced with heteronormative assumptions on campus during sexual assault reporting, further research needs to be conducted on sexual assault support services for LGBTQIA students and their influence on academic performance, sense of inclusion, and retention on college campuses.

Marginality and Mattering
Students are much more likely to engage with the campus community when they feel like valued members of it. Schlossberg (1989) has referred to this sense of value as “mattering.” Moreover, Schlossberg has asserted that a sense of mattering can act as a motivator. Conversely, marginality occurs when students do not feel as if they belong to the campus community. Schueler et al. (2008) offer numerous “strategies for fostering environmental inclusiveness,” including the “identification of LGBTQIA role models and mentors,” critically evaluating language used in documentation, and “hiring multiculturally competent student staff members” (pp. 69–76). Many researchers have identified language as a locus of propagating social norms. The aggregate of the linguistic identifiers that college students encounter on a daily basis, both formal and informal, coalesce to form a student’s sense of mattering. Schueler et al. (2008) have pointed to paperwork and forms as barriers to LGBTQIA students’ feelings of belonging and mattering—forms should not be constructed to communicate a salience of heterosexual and cisgender identities. Moreover, support service staff should receive specialized training on supporting LGBTQIA students. Regardless of the context, “using language (including pronouns) that an individual student identifies with in a given context at a given time is an important part of creating affirming, respectful, and safe spaces on campus” (Jourian, 2015, p. 19). Students already have a great number of traumatic questions to answer while reporting sexual assault, and having to explain aspects of their identity might prove too much for a student to handle. 

The same consideration of language and avoiding heteronormative assumptions applies to prevention programs. Bazarsky et al. (2015) recommend including diverse sexual and gender identities in wellness programming, rather than solely relying on heteronormative examples. Student affairs professionals must develop health programming with which all students can relate. Inclusiveness can be increased before and during programing with conscious adjustments to language and content. If students are marginalized, they will not feel as if they matter and are more likely to mistrust the support services available on campus.

LGBTQIA people with multiple minority statuses can experience additional constraints or barriers to community services (Todahl, Linville, Bustin, Wheeler, & Gau, 2009) and may even regard predominantly used non-heteronormative identifiers as White-centric (Jourian, 2015). When college campuses consider improving the inclusivity of LGBTQIA students on college campuses, they must also keep in mind that other facets of students’ identities, including race, also affect students’ feelings of belonging on campus. Sabina and Ho (2014) have noted the dearth of research on the diverse experiences of minority college students following sexual assault. Lindquist et al. (2013) have examined the context of sexual assaults among undergraduate Black women at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and concluded that “efforts must be informed by cultural sensitivities to sexual assault among African American women” (p. 2456). Although this study was grounded in an assumption of a female gender identity in a heteronormative social context, it raises the important point that students inhabit multiple identities.

More population-specific research is needed for rates of formal and informal disclosure of sexual assault among LGBTQIA students, the efficacy of sexual assault support services for LGBTQIA students, the critical issues and needs of LGBTQIA students, and the varying concerns of students with multiple minority statuses. Moreover, student affairs professionals need to connect research on these topics to college student development theories on engagement, marginality, and mattering in order to more effectively support the academic success of LGBTQIA students who have experienced sexual violence.

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