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Minority college students are more likely to face sexual assault, study finds


On Friday, two studies were released by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health about sexual assault and minorities on college campuses.

The first study found that students who perceive their campus as being more inclusive of sexual and gender minority students have lower odds of being victims of sexual assault, and the second found that certain minority groups are at much higher risk of sexual assault than their majority counterparts.

Robert Coulter, the lead researcher on both studies, said the first study was prompted by research that showed LGBT people were at greater risk for being victims of sexual assault than their heterosexual, cisgendered peers.

“Unfortunately, there’s little empirical understanding about what puts LGBT people at greater risk for sexual assault victimization on college campuses,” Coulter said to The Daily Free Press. “However, we do know that homophobic, biphobic and transphobic environments may put LGBT people at greater risk for sexual assault, so we sought to examine whether or not campus climate for LGBT people was associated with the risk of sexual assault victimization.”

Coulter and his team analyzed 71,421 undergraduate student surveys from 120 universities in the United States between 2011 and 2013. The results showed a significant association between a campus’ culture of inclusivity toward LGBT students and lower rates of sexual assault, Coulter said.

However, the study only accounts for correlation and not a direct cause and effect between the two figures.

“It is just an association study so it could be very likely that people who are sexually assaulted were more likely to say that their campuses were worse for LGBT campus climate[s], so reverse causality could be a thing here,” Coulter said. “However, our study provides a proof of concept that environments are associated with sexual assault victimization, so we do need to try and understand this relationship better.”

The second study that Coulter led examined the intersections of sexual and gender identity, race, ethnicity and the risk of sexual assault.

“That kind of research can identify subgroups that are at particularly high risk for sexual assault victimization, thereby informing prevention and treatment research, showing that they need to reach these vulnerable populations,” Coulter said.

Coulter said there are many ways schools can go about creating a culture of inclusion.

“One of the important ways is to make sure that they have antidiscrimination policies that enumerate sexual minorities and gender minorities as protected classes in these antidiscrimination policies,” Coulter said. “Additionally, having LGBT student groups and LGBT resource centers might be really helpful in preventing these kinds of problems and creating more inclusive campus climates.”

BU spokesperson Colin Riley said BU’s Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Center’s Step Up Step In program works to address issues like these.

“We work hard to ensure a welcoming and inclusive environment for all of our students,” Riley said. “We care about supporting a healthy and safe climate for interpersonal relationships. The BU SUSI training by SARP certainly fits in with the recommendations and touches on a wide range of relationships and issues.”

Coulter said the first step in solving this problem is knowing that LGBT students and specific racial and ethnic minority subgroups are at greater risk for sexual assault victimization.

“That’s really important because schools like BU need to be prepared to treat these students for any sexual assault victimization, but they also need to be prepared to prevent sexual assault among these minority groups on their campuses, and I think that’s the greatest takeaway,” Coulter said.

Carrie Preston, the director of BU’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, wrote in an email that BU, like all institutions in our culture, needs to work harder to ensure that people of all genders and sexualities, races, ethnicities and socioeconomic classes feel included.

“To achieve that goal ‘inclusion’ is actually a problematic term,” Preston wrote. “When we speak of inclusion, we imagine that we can simply invite others into our institution without changing it. That is not the case. BU, and our entire culture needs to transform itself, not just include minorities in ‘the way things are.’ ‘The way things are’ is fundamentally exclusionary.”

Preston wrote that although it is good that BU has acknowledged it lacks significant diversity, more needs to be done to make effective changes across campus.

“The Sexual Assault Climate Survey conducted last year indicated that we are doing no worse, but no better than any other college,” Preston wrote. “We are in the normal ranges in terms of the prevalence of sexual assault and the attitudes about assault on campus, and that’s not good. Boston University is working hard to combat sexual assault but we need to do more, and again, we need a vast cultural transformation.”

Several students said they thought BU did pretty well at creating a positive climate.

Arianna Davis, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the culture of acceptance that you experience depends upon whom you spend time with.

“I am very accepting towards people of varying groups, so I surround myself with friends who have similar views on acceptance,” Davis said. “But outside of my friendship bubble, I think BU presents an image of progressiveness that they don’t always live up to.”

Serene Bahi, a sophomore in the College of General Studies, said she thinks BU has a lot of options available to help prevent sexual assault.

“It’s even on your BUID, so it’s really accessible,” Bahi said. “And they also have an escort service, so if you’re not feeling safe walking somewhere, it’s nice to have that available, they make it really easy to feel comfortable.”

Logan Capone, a CAS junior, said that without personal experience, it’s hard to tell whether BU has an inclusive climate toward minorities or toward preventing sexual assault.

“I don’t have that much personal experience, so I can’t really speak to it,” Capone said. “But from what I hear and see on the campus, I think they do a pretty good job having services you can call if you have an experience, but I’d say they do a good job.”

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