Nationwide studies of sexual assault indicate that racial minorities, transgender people and people with disabilities are targets of sexual violence at greater rates than the general population.
The studies, conducted at universities, health centers and hospitals across the nation, all support one emergent truth: that sexual violence, and the harmful psychological impacts of it, fall disproportionately on minority groups.
Transgender students, which included individuals who identified withthe opposite sex they were biologically born with, were three times as likely to be sexually assaulted than non-transgender men, according to a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Other sexual minorities were also reported to be victims of sexual violence at greater rates than their heterosexual colleagues.
Transgender students who were bisexual, for instance, experienced sexual assault at rates nearly six times those of white heterosexual males. Black transgender students suffered sexual assault most severely relative to their peers, at 55.6 percent, in comparison to white cisgender women, at 8 percent. (Cisgender refers to people who are not transgender.) Similar rates of disproportionality were found in a 2015 study commissioned by the National Center for Transgender Equality, a nonprofit organization that advocates for changes in federal discrimination and health care policies.
Thea Cola, coordinator for Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention at the University of Arizona’s Women’s Resource Center, believes that these results flow from disproportionate power dynamics between minority groups.
“Sexual assault is based off of power and control,” said Cola. “People in more marginalized groups, like members of the LGBTQ community, are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence because they’re on the receiving end of a harmful power dynamic.”
The disproportionate rate at which transgender people and sexual minorities are targets of sexual violence is also shown in data from campus studies. According to the 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault & Sexual Misconduct for the University of Arizona, non-heterosexual students are victimized at nearly twice the rate of heterosexual students. Students with registered disabilities also report increased rates of sexual violence.
“Campus sexual assault research is a new field, so there’s not a lot of information,” said Cola. “But what people are uncovering so far tends to reflect more national studies, which show that race and sexuality are associated with higher rates of assault.”
Racial minorities are also disproportionately impacted by acts of sexual violence. One study, conducted in 2011 and published in the Journal of Women’s Health, indicated that non-Hispanic black, Native American and Hispanic women reported greater rates of intimate partner violence (43.7, 46 and 37.1 percent, respectively) than non-Hispanic white women (34.6 percent). Another 2011 study, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, also revealed that sexual violence fell disproportionately on black and Native American females in relationships.
Studies also reveal that victims of a minority race tend to experience more severe trauma in recovering from their experience with rape or assault. Theorists indicate that this could be because the combination of sexual and racial victimization magnifies the impact of a violent experience. A study published in the Journal of Family Violence in 2015, which relied on a sample of 905 women over three years, concluded that racial minorities were more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their assault.
But in addition to power dynamics between majority and minority populations, some studies theorize that certain cultural attitudes – particularly ones that place greater blame on female victims for not doing more to avoid assault in the first place – can result in greater rates of sexual violence.
“Rape culture is basically a culture or environment that trivializes rape, makes it seem normal, or shifts responsibility from the rapist to the rape victim,” said Cola. “On college campuses, it’s a form of harmful socialization – where people can fall back into victim blaming, which is not supportive or survivor-centered in any way.”
Attitudes that trivialize rape or explain it as a failure of the victim aren’t limited to college campuses. One 2003 study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology indicated that Asian, black and Latino Americans were more likely to blame victims than Caucasian Americans. This study involved presenting 336 undergraduate students with a short story about a rape victim and then subjecting them with a battery of tests to measure their empathy.
But one running theme in almost all studies about race and sexual assault is the difficulty of disentangling race from several other factors that can influence one’s vulnerability to sexual assault. These include an individual’s socioeconomic status, level of education, employment, marital status and location.
For instance, a caucasian female living in a rural area, where resources like law enforcement and legal services are harder to access, may be more vulnerable to sexual victimization than a Latino woman living closer to legal aid in an urban area. Heterosexual individuals who are poorer and lesser educated, and not fully informed of their rights or resources, may also be more susceptible to sexual assault than homosexuals who are wealthy and well educated.
“There’s honestly not that much research showing how sexual assault affects different groups in different ways,” said Cola. “In addition to addressing sexual assault in our own personal lives, we need to encourage more research and education about how it affects communities we aren’t directly a part of.”
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