Study finds nonhetero women face more institutional betrayal

Image shows a scene from a 2016 Sexual Assault Awareness Month demonstration on the UO campus

Digging deeper into data gathered almost five years ago, University of Oregon psychology researchers found that gay and lesbian students experience institutional betrayal at a higher rate than their heterosexual peers.

The impact was especially true for non-heterosexual women, said Alec M. Smidt, a doctoral student who led the study, which is online ahead of print in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.

That higher risk, a little under twice that for heterosexual women, was reflected in greater negative consequences, particularly in anxiety levels, as reported by study participants. The study did not focus more deeply on the health outcomes.

“Institutional betrayal happens,” Smidt said. “We know that, not only from this study but also from studies that have come before it. We also know that from this study and at least one other study that institutional betrayal disproportionally impacts sexual minority students and has tangible negative psychological outcomes.”

The data came from a 2014 study on sexual violence and institutional betrayal done by surveying about 1,000 UO students. In it, nearly one in five undergraduate women reported attempted or completed unwanted sexual penetration. The new study focused on a subset of 88 men and women in that sample who identified as sexual minorities.

It’s a small sample size, but the research team says the findings signal a continuing need for education about the threats of sexual violence against students and the need for all institutions to adopt courageous policies that effectively and equally address student complaints. The findings, Smidt said, may provide a baseline for comparison.

“We’re confident that these data fall in line with previous research at several other universities, not just in the rates in institutional betrayal broadly but to some extent the differential between non-heterosexual and heterosexual students,” Smidt said. “Given that our findings were from just one institution, it’s possible this may be emblematic of institutional betrayal based on local factors. We do have reason to believe, however, that our findings are not isolated to this particular university.”

The UO, he noted, is known for its openness to sexual and gender minorities, so the results may represent a best-case scenario.

Research on institutional betrayal to date has focused mostly on what institutions have not done in responding to reports of sexual violence.

“We now want to look more at the antidote, which we are calling institutional courage,” Smidt said. “First and foremost is education, especially for those who deal with complaints, about what institutional betrayal looks like, what forms it takes and for whom is it more likely to happen. We don’t see this as a one off, a reaction, rather ongoing continuing education so that the message can be better internalized and improve responses.”

The new study reflects an intersectionality involving race, gender and sexual identity, said the study’s principal investigator Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology who coined the term institutional betrayal as a result of extensive research on sexual assaults.

“The results suggest that approximately 20 percent of non-straight men have experienced sexual assault compared to about 10 percent of straight men, whereas non-heterosexual and heterosexual women are at approximately 31 percent and 35 percent, respectively,” Freyd said. “Gender and sexual orientation intersect. It is similar for institutional betrayal. Here, we see another intersection that puts non-straight women at unique risk.”

The findings also reflect an intersection of social inequality and power, whereby sexual minorities face higher rates of both sexual victimization and institutional betrayal, said Freyd, who this academic year is a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

“For us to really prevent sexual victimization, we will need to address the underlying inequalities,” she added. “But just as true, to promote equality we will need to address sexual victimization and institutional betrayal.”

Co-authors on the study were former UO doctoral students Marina N. Rosenthal and Carly P. Smith. Rosenthal, who earned a doctorate in 2018 is now a postdoctoral researcher at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Smith, who earned a doctorate in 2016 is now an assistant professor of humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine.

By Jim Barlow, University Communications