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Gay, Lesbian Teens at High Odds for Physical, Sexual Abuse
  • Posted March 10, 2020

Gay, Lesbian Teens at High Odds for Physical, Sexual Abuse

Lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are far more likely than their straight peers to suffer physical and/or sexual violence, new research warns.

The warning stems from surveys of nearly 29,000 teens, aged 14 to 18, conducted in 2015 and 2017 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overall, LGBQ teens (lesbian, gay, bisexual and teens who are questioning their sexuality) face roughly twice the risk of physical violence compared with straight youth, the surveys revealed. And that risk can come from a romantic partner -- or anyone else.

Lead author Theodore Caputi said the study is the first to use a recent, nationally representative sample to gauge the scope of physical and sexual violence among LGBQ teens. He described the findings as "striking."

Caputi is a research consultant with the Health Equity Research Lab at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

"Unfortunately, physical and sexual violence are commonplace in the daily lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning adolescents," he said.

Over one in 10 LGBQ teens reported intimate partner violence in the past year, Caputi said. And more than one in five said they had been sexually assaulted.

"Given the severe physical, mental and emotional health consequences of violence victimhood, this high prevalence represents a public health crisis," he said.

That thought was seconded by Caitlin Ryan. She's the director of San Francisco State University's Family Acceptance Project, an LGBTQ child and youth research, education and advocacy group.

"These high levels of physical violence, forced intercourse and sexual assault towards lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are very alarming, and call for targeted violence prevention and intervention services," Ryan said.

In both 2015 and 2017, survey respondents were asked to indicate their sexual orientation, and whether they had experienced violence in the prior year at the hands of a partner or someone else. In 2017, participants were also asked if they had been sexually assaulted.

In total, about 87% of respondents identified as straight, just over 2% as gay or lesbian, 7% as bisexual and nearly 4% said they were unsure.

Lesbian and bisexual girls had nearly twice the risk for engaging in a physical fight, either at school or elsewhere, compared with straight girls, the surveys revealed.

Gay and bisexual boys, meanwhile, appeared to be particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. They faced nearly five times the risk for sexual assault or forced intercourse, compared to their straight peers, the findings showed.

Meanwhile, teens who identified as bisexual were found to face a high risk for both physical violence in an intimate relationship and sexual assault in general.

Caputi stressed that his team did not investigate the specific underlying causes.

"Previous research suggests that bisexual individuals may be hurt by the popular misconception that bisexuality is 'just a phase,'" he said. "And it is possible that this misconception contributes to the increased violence committed against bisexual adolescents that we observe."

Caputi characterized the findings as a call to action.

"All adults have a role to play in fostering accepting and safe environments for LGBQ children," he said, calling on teachers, parents and physicians to condemn hate speech and promote acceptance of LGBQ youth.

Ryan agreed.

Although policies have been adopted to prevent discrimination against LGBTQ people, she called for a redoubled focus on the social environment.

"This means building supportive environments that affirm LGBTQ children and youth, and increasing support in families, schools, congregations and community institutions," she said.

The findings were published online March 9 as research letter in JAMA Pediatrics.

More information

Learn more about promoting LGBTQ well-being at Family Acceptance Project.

SOURCES: Theodore Caputi, M.P.H., research consultant, Health Equity Research Lab, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D., director, Family Acceptance Project, San Francisco State University; March 9, 2020, JAMA Pediatrics, online
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