Transgender and nonbinary adolescents are twice as likely to experience sexual violence as their cisgendered peers but are less likely to attempt rape or commit sexual assault, researchers have found.
The study, which was published online June 2 in JAMA Network Open, is among the first on the sexual violence that trans, nonbinary, and other gender nonconforming adolescents experience. Previous studies have focused on adults.
“In the busy world of clinical care, it is essential that clinicians be aware of potential disparities their patients are navigating,” said Michele Ybarra, PhD, MPH, president and research director of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, California, who led the study. “This includes sexual violence victimization for gender minority youth and the need to talk about consent and boundaries for youth of all genders.”
Ybarra said that while clinicians may be aware that transgender young people face stigma, discrimination, and bullying, they may not be aware that trans youth are also the targets of sexual violence.
Studies indicate that healthcare providers and communities have significant misconceptions about sexually explicit behavior among trans and nonbinary teens. Misconceptions can lead to discrimination, resulting in higher rates of drug abuse, dropping out of school, suicide, and homelessness.
Ybarra and her colleagues surveyed 911 trans, nonbinary, or questioning youth on Instagram and Facebook through a collaboration with Growing Up With Media, a national longitudinal survey designed to investigate sexual violence during adolescence.
They also surveyed 3282 cisgender persons aged 14–16 years who were recruited to the study between June 2018 and March 2020. The term “cisgender” refers to youth who identify with their gender at birth.
The questionnaires asked teens about gender identity, race, economic status, and support systems at home. Factors associated with not experiencing sexual violence included having a strong network of friends, family, and educators; involvement in the community; and having people close who affirm their gender identity.
More than three fourths (78%) of youth surveyed identified as cisgender, 13.9% identified as questioning, and 7.9% identified as transgender.
Roughly two thirds (67%) of transgender adolescents said they had experienced serious sexual violence, 73% reported experiencing violence in their communities, and 63% said they had been exposed to aggressive behavior. In contrast, 6.7% of trans youth said they had ever committed sexual violence, while 7.4% of cisgender teens surveyed, or 243 students, said they had done so.
“The relative lack of visibility of gender minority youth in sexual violence research is unacceptable,” Ybarra told Medscape Medical News. “To be counted, one needs to be seen. We aimed to start addressing this exclusion with the current study.”
The findings provide a lens into the levels of sexual violence that LGBTQIA+ youth experience and an opportunity to provide more inclusive care, according to Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD, FSAHM, Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics, director of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, and medical director of community and population health at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study.
“There are unfortunately pervasive and harmful stereotypes in our society about the ‘sexual deviancy’ attributed to LGBTQIA+ individuals,” Miller told Medscape Medical News. “This study adds to the research literature that counters and challenges these harmful ― and inaccurate ― perceptions.”
Miller said clinicians can help this population by offering youth accurate information about relevant support and services, including how to help a friend.
Programs that providers could incorporate include gender transformative approaches, which guide youth to examine gender norms and inequities and that develop leadership skills.
Such programs are more common outside the United States and have been shown to decrease LGBTQIA+ youth exposure to sexual violence, she said.
Miller said more research is needed to understand the contexts in which gender minority youth experience sexual violence to guide prevention efforts: “We need to move beyond individual-focused interventions to considering community-level interventions to create safer and more inclusive spaces for all youth.”
Miller has received royalties for writing content for UptoDate Wolters Kluwer outside of the current study. Ybarra has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
JAMA Netw Open. Published online June 2, 2022, Full text
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