August 3, 2020

A new study from researchers at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health finds that certain groups of sexual minorities are more likely to experience physical, psychological and sexual violence at the hands of a romantic partner.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) has well-documented links with sexual risk taking, STDs and unplanned pregnancies in heterosexual populations, but few studies have examined IPV among young adults of sexual minorities. Additionally, previous research has focused on victimization but not perpetration of violence.

Dr. Carolyn Halpern

Dr. Carolyn Halpern

Dr. Nicole Kahn

Dr. Nicole Kahn

Alison Swiatlo

Alison Swiatlo

Wanting to fill these information gaps, three researchers from the Gillings School’s Department of Maternal and Child Health are the first to examine IPV perpetration among sexual minorities in a nationally representative sample. Lead author Alison Swiatlo, MPH, is a doctoral student; Nicole Kahn, PhD, is an adjunct assistant professor; and Carolyn Halpern, PhD, is a professor and chair of the department.

Their study, published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, used data on 13,653 women and men ages 24 to 32 years old who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. With insights into so many relationships, the researchers examined associations between sexual orientation and IPV — both victimization and perpetration.

Previous studies estimated the prevalence of IPV among sexual minorities to be anywhere from 11% to 40%, but they generally used convenience samples and collapsed distinct categories of sexual orientation (e.g., “gay,” “lesbian” and “bisexual”) into one group: “sexual minority.” This approach does not capture the full spectrum of sexual orientation nor the unique experiences of these subpopulations.

Of the study participants, around 94% of males and 80% of females identified as 100% heterosexual; 4% of males and 16% of females as mostly heterosexual; 1% of males and 2% of females as bisexual; and 2% of males and females as either mostly homosexual or 100% homosexual.

Compared with their heterosexual counterparts, mostly heterosexual women were more likely to report having perpetrated or been a victim of physical IPV, having threatened violence, and having been a victim of threatened violence and forced sex. Mostly heterosexual males were more likely to have been a perpetrator or victim of physical IPV and a perpetrator of forced sex and threatened violence. Bisexual males had elevated odds of physical violence as well as forced sex victimization and perpetration.

These findings are especially important when taken in the larger context of health outcomes for people in sexual minority groups. Minority stress theory posits that individuals who do not identify as heterosexual experience stress resulting from stigma, and that stress may breed or exacerbate partner violence and encourage victims to remain silent out of fear of perceived discrimination from sources of help.

In addition, an emerging body of literature suggests that all nonexclusive groups (including mostly heterosexuals, bisexuals and mostly homosexuals) may be at elevated risk of negative health outcomes compared with the two exclusive orientation groups (heterosexuals and homosexuals). This is an importance nuance, because people who identify as mostly heterosexual greatly outnumber both the bisexual and the homosexual populations in the United States.

“To our knowledge, our study is the first to find that mostly heterosexual males and females are also more likely to report IPV perpetration,” the co-authors write. “Our examination of IPV among bisexual men resulted in another major finding: Bisexual males were more likely to report physical IPV victimization and forced sex perpetration and victimization than 100% heterosexual males.”

The researchers point out that additional studies are needed to tease out the relationships among intimate partner violence, gender and social stratification in sexual minorities. For example, gender and gender expression have already been linked with rates of IPV, with higher scores of masculinity being associated with higher levels of violence among both lesbians and gay men. Lower socioeconomic status is another IPV determinant.

“[Our] findings indicate that some sexual minorities in the United States are disproportionately affected by violence in their romantic relationships,” the co-authors conclude. “In contrast, individuals who identified as homosexual had the same or even reduced odds of experiencing IPV compared with heterosexuals. Identifying the latent mechanisms underlying partner violence among people of all orientations — including any mechanisms that may be unique to sexual minorities — would inform and promote inclusivity in education, prevention and intervention efforts, as well as in policy.”

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