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Scratching the Surface: Sexual Assault and Sexual Identity

2011 May 10

Authors’ Note: This piece was written in collaboration with Arianna Travaglini.  Her voice is italicized throughout.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this piece are not those of sexual assault survivors. Rather, the authors are self-identified queer women who have been in relationships with survivors. (For the purpose of this piece, “queer” will be used as an “umbrella” term to refer to the whole of the LGBT community.) The questions posed and thoughts explored should in NO WAY be read as an attempt to discredit, invalidate, or otherwise question any person’s identity or experience.  On the contrary, this piece seeks to explore whether sexual assault among queer women is in fact a trend, and if so, what does it mean for the queer community and how can we begin to discuss it in respectful ways? Due to a complete lack of available scholarship or information on the topic, the authors felt compelled to ask these questions, and invite any feedback, criticism, or inquiries.

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I’ve identified as queer for the last two or three years, and in that time have experienced the intimate companionship of half a dozen women, during which a disproportionate number of those women (over fifty percent) came out to me as survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by men. After the third confession, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a commonplace experience within relationships between queer women. I’ve had scores of close friendships with straight women, but even though they’ve opened up to me about private issues such as health scares, personal loss, and feelings of sexual inadequacy, none have ever admitted to being abused. That doesn’t mean they weren’t abused, certainly, but so began an intriguing train of thought. Is it possible that more queer women than straight women have been victims of sexual assault? Did they come into their queer identity before or after the assault? If it was after, does that mean that sexual assault could be one of the many constructs of one’s sexual identity?  What implications, if any, does this have for the queer community?

Among my gay/queer female friends, I am one of very few who has never had sex with a man.  They call me a “gold star lesbian.”  This was a choice, to a certain extent, but also the product of teenage years spent swallowing little blue pills that crushed my sexual curiosity and delayed my coming out by a year or two until I got to college.  In the pool of women I’ve dated, the majority has had sex and/or relationships with men.  In that same pool, however, a disproportionate number are survivors of sexual assault.  Of course, this is not a piece of information that the average person volunteers right after meeting a dating prospect, so in each of these cases I learned of this history only after we had settled into an intimate relationship.  Finding the right thing to say when someone you care about (let alone someone with whom you are in a sexual relationship) confides that they’ve been assaulted is difficult.  With absolutely nothing in my personal history that comes close, I cannot imagine what the experience is like, or its lasting effects.

As a “gold star lesbian,” my sexual orientation could be described as “organic,” as if I were somehow more “purely gay” for not having sex with men. Yes, I preferred my brother’s hand-me-downs to pink dresses, and yes I played baseball instead of softball, but I never had negative interactions with men.  Is my sexual orientation, my identity, somehow different than a lesbian who has been assaulted, or a queer woman who has had consensual sex with men?  In the gay community, “gold card gays” are put on a sort of pedestal; our orientation is accepted without question.  But this is totally unfair.  There is no one journey to queer identity.  And if survivors of sexual assault are ostracized from the queer community, we only prolong their pain and magnify their sense of isolation.  As these dialogues evolve, perhaps people will come to see sexual assault as an important part of- though not necessarily the sole determinant in-the development of a queer identity.

There’s a myth circulating around straight culture that lesbians are simply straight women who have had “bad” experiences with men. The severity of the “bad” experience varies, ranging from an unsavory date to rape, but the theme is the same. I used to wave away these claims as the insecurities of overconfident, uninformed men, but throughout my education as a psychology student, there were claims that some female victims of sexual abuse who previously identified as straight may seek the intimacy of women after the assault, seeing them as a “safer” option. As such, is it possible that there is an element of conscious deliberateness in the ways some of us construct our sexual identities?  I know full well that even pondering this aloud makes me eligible for traitor status within my own community. While individually, most of us would agree that sexual orientation is a muddy, masterful mix of nature and nurture, politically we adhere to a “born this way” mentality, having watched the opposition use the alternative as ammunition against the validity of homosexuality. Many in the queer community believe that if we publicly acknowledge that being gay isn’t always predetermined, that we’ll set the movement back irreparably. Additionally, as more than one person has voiced to me upon hearing my plans for this piece, even suggesting that such a horrifying experience as sexual assault could be a birthplace for an identity now cherished and protected could be perceived as downright insulting. I agree with my peers who insist I let a survivor broach these topics, but the fact of that matter is, no one’s making a peep.

Members of the LGBT community are used to fielding all kinds of questions about their sexual orientation, questions such as, “How did you first know?,” and regardless of individual experience, there seem to be a scripted set of answers. Answers that paint a picture of the person in question displaying atypically gendered childhood behaviors – little girls climbing trees, little boys playing with dolls, etc. These are the seemingly acceptable ways to come into an “organically” queer identity. For as accepting and inviting as I’ve found the queer community to be, there definitely seems to be an ongoing competition for legitimacy. As Genya has mentioned, “gold star gays” are held in high regard, and unfortunately, especially in the lesbian community, women who identify as bisexual or admit to attractions to men are regarded with skepticism.  This leaves little or no room for “political lesbians,” women who historically advocated lesbianism as a positive alternative to heterosexuality, eschewing their desires for men in hopes of elevating the role of women in society, nor for sexual abuse survivors who may make a deliberate decision to pursue intimacy with women, seeing them as the “safer” alternative. Going back to “How did you first know?,” you never hear anyone answer, “Oh, well, I used to be really into softball, and then there was that sexual trauma…”  The point here isn’t to trivialize assault; it’s to acknowledge the possibility that sexual abuse may play a role in a more mindful constructing of sexual identity- in this case, queer identity – and to explore the reasons why no one is talking about it.

I cannot imagine how hard it is to envision yourself in an intimate situation with anyone after your person, space, and dignity have been violated in such a way.  And in each situation where a woman “comes out” to me as a survivor, I can’t help but let it change some small piece of our relationship.  I start to worry if I’ll trigger her, if I should ask questions before touching her, and if I- in ways big or small- am just there to be a “filler” of sorts, a safe, intimate partnering that bears little or no resemblance to the violence of an assault.  I do not believe that people choose their sexual orientation, nor do I believe that most lesbians have sex with women as a reaction to a bad experience with a man. But sometimes it’s hard not to wonder what role the trauma plays in partner selection.  This feeling is magnified when the relationship ends and a partner begins to date and/or sleep with men.  When this happens (and it has happened to me many times), I’m left to wonder what space I occupied in my former partner’s history. Was I irrelevant?  An experiment?  A coping mechanism?  I’m not interested in demonizing any person I’ve been involved with, or questioning anyone who makes these choices, because it’s not my place.  I’ve never suffered this kind of trauma, and thus can’t comment on what is or isn’t an appropriate reaction. But I do feel comfortable saying that queer women need to find better ways of talking about sexual assault in our community.  We need to support survivors, and find new ways to support their partners. These conversations often happen too late or not at all, and leave both people wounded.

As I see it, an alternative explanation for this perceived phenomenon is that, generally speaking, the queer community tends to be more pro-woman than society at large. Women within it tend to be more invested in feminism as a social agenda, political movement, and public discourse. My experiences with feminists have proven them to be savvy, empowered, and acutely self-aware, so then isn’t it conceivable that queer women aren’t more likely to have been assaulted, but, feeling the solidarity of a strong, supportive community, are more likely to articulate their assault? After all, recollecting evenings spent marching around my college campus participating in “Take Back The Night” rallies, I couldn’t help but remember that many of the fiercely defiant women standing up and speaking out about sexual violence were familiar faces from my university’s Queer Student Union. Perhaps embracing the queer community can be cathartic for a survivor, even cited as a stepping stone on the road to successfully re-claiming your voice after an assault.

Arianna and I are very different women who took very different paths on the way to claiming our queer identities.  But when we began talking about our experiences with assault survivors, it became clear there was a lot of common ground.  We are both intensely curious women who ask a lot of questions and have a lot of theories and ideas.  This piece was a labor of love, born out of the joy and pain and challenge of loving women who have been assaulted.  We are desperate to find better ways of supporting our partners and friends, and hope that this piece will open the conversation to people who share our experiences, and those who have survived assault.

Arianna Travaglini (aka “Roma Mafia“) is a burlesque(er) performer, activist, yogi, and blogger who spends most of her time taking her vitamins, chasing after stray animals, and verbally defending her home state of New Jersey.

5 Responses
  1. Emilia permalink
    May 10, 2011

    Thanks for this great piece.

    As someone not in the queer community, I can say that I have known straight women who have survived abuse and assault in various guises since I was in middle school and we started talking about it. I’m not someone who has loads of intimate female relationships, but I still think that most of the women I know can point to at least one sexual violation in their life. I don’t know what that says about the prevalence of assault survivors in the queer vs. non-queer populations, but I am fairly sure that the queer community is better about being vocal about assault.

    Also, I have a relative who is lesbian who has stated in the past that the reason she is gay is because, in early childhood, she saw the way her parents’ relationship worked and knew she didn’t want that. I haven’t voiced that often because I know it does violate the “born this way” origin story, but I’ve long wondered whether early childhood experiences do, in some people, help to form sexual identity. I do know that it’s something no one can choose and that no one should have to defend, and that that is what matters.

  2. Andi Greco permalink
    May 10, 2011

    Genya and Arianna, this is a wonderful piece. I’m a bit blown away by the sensitivity and nuance of your questions, as well as your bravery in broaching this subject in the first place. It is a true “third rail” for straight women as well as queer women — perhaps in a sense that differs somewhat, but still a “dangerous” idea for both.

    Unfortunately I have known too many straight women who will always see trauma in their rearview mirror. I think Arianna is on to something when she conjectures that queer women might be more comfortable articulating such an experience. The pressure to be pleasing to men — a pressure that is a major part of the experience of being a straight woman — figures enormously in whether women ever let themselves talk, or even think, about past assault.

    Another point, which is perhaps “dangerous” or politically incorrect in its own way, is that “nurture” seems to figure into women’s sexual identities more than men’s sexual identities, which seem less fluid to me. This is not an assumption I can back up with statistics or social science, but feels true according to my experience. Of course I bring my own baggage to the table in making that claim, and I don’t mean to deny any man his own sense of his sexuality. My sense is that women who have been through trauma might be more inclined to choose “political lesbianism” as a result, and that women who make this choice might be more likely to gravitate toward male partners before or after their female partners. However I’m a bit out of my depth there.

    I also wonder whether perpetrators might be more likely to victimize young men and women who are beginning to self-identify as queer, precisely because these young people’s isolation makes them less threatening and less likely to “tell.”

    Thank you to both of you for stepping into this minefield; I think we ladies ignore it to our own detriment, wherever we reside on the wide and wild map of sexual identity.

  3. May 10, 2011

    you forgot platinum gays… born by c-section, never touched a vagina.
    thank you very much, tboltkid.

  4. Jacqueline Moss permalink
    May 15, 2011

    A few weeks ago I tabled for Planned Parenthood at the Take Back Night Rally, and it was the first time I ever attended that event. It was a really valuable experience, to experience that rally. It was held in Monument Sq., which is a large, prominent square that gets a lot of foot traffic. There were a lot of women there, and many were LGBT. The speak-out was really moving, and it was incredible that women got up there and talked about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault in front of a microphone in a public street.

    I have never been assaulted. But like many women I have experienced street harassment, and it was really awful. It upset me far more than I expected it to. My point is that maybe queer women are targeted, or maybe straight ladies aren’t talking about it was much, but I think a lot of this violence against women is a more general reflection of how women in our society valued.

    Like Andi, I am also out of depth, but I think this is an important conversation, and you both articulate your opinions so thoughtfully.

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