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Victims Too

December 3, 2012

At Southern Methodist University in September, a Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity member who was prominent in student government senator and other campus organizations admitted to forcing another male student to perform oral sex on him. As police listened in on the phone call set up after a male student filed a complaint, John David Mahaffey, a sophomore whose great-great grandfather was on SMU's founding committee, said he knew the victim didn't want to do it but had to say it was consensual "or lawyers, parents, and the school will be involved."

A little over a month later, a student named Trey Malone killed himself after being sexually assaulted by an unidentified perpetrator at Amherst College. In his suicide note, the successful student and athlete lamented a culture that blames victims for sexual assaults and glorifies the use of derogatory terms.

Both institutions have struggled with allegations that officials mishandled or ignored sexual assault allegations in which women were raped by men, and both have taken measures to improve their procedures and responses. But these two cases in particular highlight the unique dynamics and stigmas that make same-sex assaults, and those perpetrated against males, particularly challenging to address.

Colleges do seem to be improving on, or at least paying more attention to, their work on preventing and addressing same-sex assault. This is evidenced in increased reporting of those cases, which last month at the annual conference of SCOPE: School and College Organization for Prevention Educators, multiple institutions said they were seeing.

Addressing sexual assaults among non-straight students is made more complicated, experts say, by many factors. Some victims fear the impact on their own, small circle of out gay friends. Others, who are not out, fear that reporting would involve revealing one's sexual orientation. And of course, the common stigma and victim-blaming associated with reporting an assault has the potential to be multiplied when the incident involves same-sex violence or where the man is the victim.

"I think we've come a long way, but I don't think we're there yet in terms of larger societal acceptance. Being a GLBT survivor in some sense means they have to come out as a GLBT survivor, and they may not be ready to do that," said Susan Marine, a former victim advocate who is now an assistant professor and program director in higher education at Merrimack College. "When you add to that another stigmatized identity, I think that can pose a really significant challenge to a lot of students."

At the University of Southern Maine, rates of sexual assaults overall and among LGBTQ students have nearly doubled in the last year; the total figure went from 18 to 33. This points to more awareness across the board, but targeted outreach to gay students has also helped those students access campus resources, said Joy Pufhal, deputy Title IX coordinator at Southern Maine.

That has included using gender-neutral language on the college's website (also important because of the common misconception that males are never assault victims) and creating a gender-based misconduct policy that covers relationship abuse, sexual misconduct and stalking. The conduct board is trained on the nuances of certain types of cases. Once students feel safe going through the complaint and judicial process, and have a positive experience with it, they tell their friends, who are then more likely to use the resources when they need to.

Pufhal recalled one case last spring involving two female students who worried about what their hearing would mean for the campus LGBTQ community. The complainant said afterward that she felt safe and trusted throughout the process, Pufhal said, and she's hopeful that the student's experience will encourage others to come forward.

"It's something that we want to focus on even more, and really make sure that we are explicitly articulating our commitment to helping all students," Pufhal said. "Almost always in these cases, there's peer dynamics and people weigh in and there's victim blaming and there's a lot of things that make it difficult for complainants to come forward.... I think there's probably been a natural progression of how institutions have responded."

Marine found in a random survey of college websites that about 20 percent have explicit language acknowledging that "GLBT people can be and are survivors of sexual violence, and they would offer culturally specific resources to that population."

"It's certainly not where we want to be in terms of people having awareness of this issue," Marine said. "Schools are doing it, but not every school is doing it, and certainly not in any kind of comprehensive way."

The colleges that are doing more also have some sort of educational programming. That might include specialized LGBTQ during sexual assault awareness week or month or Take Back the Night, or lectures focusing on sexual assault in LGBTQ communities. Inclusive language is "not the be all and end all, but it's an important way to start," Marine said.

Reporting of same-sex assaults is definitely on the rise, and not just among college students, said Beth Leventhal, executive director The Network/La Red, an anti-domestic violence organization that focuses on LGBT communities.

"I'm guessing that it's easier to come out and report, at least in some areas of the country and on some campuses," Leventhal said. "To be able to say: 'This is something that happened to me, I deserve protection, I deserve to be taken care of.' "

Language is a huge part of that, she said; not just using gender-neutral pronouns, but giving a name to these incidents -- "hate violence" and "partner abuse" rather than a "bad relationship" or "oh my God, I shouldn't have been out at night." Taking it a step further, some colleges bring in Leventhal's organization every year to do education for sexual assault centers, or to co-sponsor events.

Whatever forms of support exist, the key is making sure students know about them.

"I would never suggest it's worse than being a non-GLBT survivor," Marine said, "but it's definitely more complicated."

 

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