How Universities are Trying to Prevent LGBTQ Sexual Assault

By Alexandra Peirce

Emily Smith*, a 20-year-old psychology major, is in a long-term relationship with a male classmate. However, she also identifies as bisexual. During her freshman year at a large private university, a female friend sexually assaulted her after they went to a Halloween party together. The assault happened after she stayed the night in her friend’s dorm room. “We had kissed for the first time that night, so when she tried to go further I said no. When she took off my skirt anyway, I just froze.” The next morning, Smith did not know how to process the incident and did not report the assault. “At first, I didn’t realize what happened to me was rape. I had never heard of a girl sexually assaulting someone before; I didn’t know it could happen.”

As a bisexual rape victim, Emily is not alone. One in ten college students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ), and they are more likely to be sexually assaulted. A national survey by the Association of American Universities released in September found that 15% of LGBTQ students had been sexually assaulted. According to Bonnie Fischer, one of the co-principal investigators of the study, “The AAU study is one of the first to have a relatively large number of campuses and a large sample at each one of the campuses.” The large size of the study makes it possible to make conclusions about underrepresented groups such as LGBTQ students. This study correlates with a University of Michigan Campus Climate survey released in June that found LGBT students were 2.5 more times likely to be sexually assault victims. Universities such as the University of Michigan and Stanford University are taking note of this issue and altering sexual assault prevention programs and sexual misconduct policies to be more inclusive of students with diverse sexual identities.

Stanford University is one of the most LGBTQ friendly universities in the country according to the Princeton Review. Carley Flanery, the Acting Director of the Office of Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse Education and Response, is currently working with transgender students to change campus policies. “There needs to be a explicit and inclusive policy, the acknowledgment that they exist and that trans folks can be assaulted,” says Flanery. She is also developing education programs required for panelists in Title IX hearings on how sexual and gender identities are relevant to sexual assault cases. In addition, her office is collaborating with the LGBT campus resource center to create a peer education program on sexual assault. They are currently hiring consultants to develop the curriculum with diverse identities that are knowledgeable about LGBTQ-specific issues. The program will stray from a typical presentation format. “One way conversations are inherently not inclusive. It is important to dialogue with the folks we are trying to educate, otherwise the impact is minimal,” says Flanery.

The director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan, Holly Rider-Milkovich, is also working closely with students. In early October, Rider-Milkovich pioneered a focus group with LGBTQ students to discuss ways to improve the university’s sexual misconduct policy. Students asked to change the gender-neutral policy about sexual assault. The students additionally opposed the proposed revision that witnesses in investigations would be named in reports. According to Rider-Milkovich, “Being named a witness in an investigation could be outing to that student, and that was a concern because we do not have anti-discrimination laws in Michigan.” Rider-Milkovich says they are still in the policy revision process, but she is she is optimistic they will be able to change the policy to protect LGBTQ students.

According to Rider-Milkovich, coercion could also be one of many reasons for the increased risk of LGTBQ sexual assault. Perpetrators could threaten to disclose a student’s sexual identity. This is a particular concern for college students. “Being outed could have significant repercussions in terms of potential parental financial support.” Coercion also makes LGBTQ students “vulnerable to being isolated from an already small community where their identity is recognized and confirmed,” says Rider-Milkovich.

Laura Palumbo, the Communications Director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Philadelphia, thinks that LGBTQ students have a higher rate of sexual assault due to the stigma surrounding their identify. “A lot of the risk factors in the LGBTQ community relate to broader issues of oppression and inequality.” LGTBQ students may not feel represented in prevention programs. “There are still a lot of misconceptions about who experiences sexual assault, people assume it only happens or is happening is a heterosexual context,” says Palumbo. She thinks that more universities need to have education programs that teach prevention efforts specific to LGBTQ students, similar to the programs at the University of Michigan and Stanford University.

However, Matthew Pavlovic, a 20-year-old Resident Advisor at a freshmen dorm at the University of Michigan, thinks the university needs to do more. “Freshmen have to take an online alcohol course and a follow-up during the school year. I think the best thing would to make a similar program around sexual assault prior to coming to college with regular follow-ups,” says Pavlovic. He is passionate about this issue and regularly holds information sessions for his residents, but since it is not mandated by the university attendance is usually low.

Two years later, Smith has started to talk about her assault. “After it happened, I was devastated. I stopped seeing my friends and didn’t go to class, but I didn’t get help. I didn’t want to tell anyone I was raped by a girl.” It took her months to tell her Resident Advisor about the assault because she felt no one would understand her situation. She wishes that her university would have had more resources for non-heterosexual students. Currently a junior, she volunteers at her campus sexual assault resource center. “I’m trying to raise awareness about LGBTQ sexual assault. I hope that if more attention is brought to this issue no survivors will ever feel as alone as I did.”

*Name has been changed

IMG_5382 (2)

Matthew Pavlovic puts up a poster with information about the University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness and Center for his residents at Oxford Houses


Resources for survivors:

National Sexual Assault Hotline:

1-800-656-4673 or


The Anti-Violence Project:
Hotline: 212-714-1124 or


GLBT National Help Center
Hotline: 1-800-246-7743 or










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