Campus environment tied to sexual assault risk for LGBT people

(Reuters Health) - College students in the U.S. who say their campus is welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are less likely to be victims of sexual assaults at school, a new study suggests.

The researchers found that students who perceived their campus as an inclusive environment for LGBT people were significantly less likely to be the victims of sexual assault.

“I believe this study provides proof of concept for how environment may influence sexual assault violence,” said lead author Robert Coulter, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Coulter and colleagues write in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence that sexual assault affects 2 to 15 percent of U.S. undergraduates.

In earlier research, they found that certain groups are more at risk of sexual assault than others. For example, women and transgender people in general are at greater risk of sexual assault than non-transgender men.

To see whether campus environment is tied to the risk of sexual assault, the researchers analyzed survey data collected in 2010 from 1,925 undergraduates who were LGBT or questioning their sexual orientation.

Overall, 5.2 percent reported that they had been sexually assaulted on campus.

The odds of having experienced sexual assault were 27 percent lower for students who reported that LGBT people were welcomed at their campus than for those who felt their campus was less inclusive.

Similarly, people who had not witnessed LGBT-related harassment on campus were 32 percent less likely to report that they’d been sexually assaulted, compared to those who did see such harassment, but this finding could have been due to chance.

The researchers suggest several reasons why a campus environment that’s welcoming to LGBT people may be tied to reduced odds of sexual assault.

For one, people on those campuses may feel empowered to stop assaults and ultimately reduce their prevalence. Additionally, LGBT people on those campuses may feel empowered to be more defensive against assaults.

“There are great disparities of sexual assault victimization for LGBT people and we need to find ways to reduce their greater risk,” Coulter told Reuters Health.

So far, the researchers write, no programs that aim to prevent sexual assault have been tested among LGBT people.

“I think designing interventions to reduce sexual assault victimization for LGBT people is important,” Coulter said.

The researchers point out that this study can’t prove that inclusive campus environments cause fewer assaults on LGBT people. People who don’t experience sexual assaults may perceive the campus environment differently than those who do, they add.

SOURCE: Journal of Interpersonal Violence, online March 15, 2017.