By Koa Beck published
Alaina was 18 in March of 2012, a college freshman in the middle of spring break. She was visiting her friend at an Ivy League school for the weekend, bag packed with her favorite dress: a cotton rainbow halter that she had helped design.
The following night, Alaina's friend hosted a party in her dorm. Other freshmen arrived early to get ready and put on makeup—"nerdy outcast" types, Alaina remembers of the tightknit group who were all acquainted with her host. Alcohol and Coca-Cola had been bought for mixing, but Alaina opted just for the Coke; she didn't feel like drinking that night.
The party sprawled into two other adjacent dorm rooms, and suddenly Alaina felt her vision begin to blur. By 10 p.m., she'd lost the ability to speak coherently—her thoughts started to fade along with her control over her body. By midnight, she remembers being led into an empty dorm room down the hall. There, drugged and nearly unconscious, she was raped.
"I tried to repress it," she says of the memory that plagued her when she went home the next day. "I pretended it was a bad dream."
For five months, she didn't tell anyone about the assault, trying to focus on getting through her classes despite recurring nightmares. But after rumors started to circulate about what had happened that night—and after, horrifyingly, a video surfaced that her attacker had taken as "proof" of their encounter—Alaina had had enough. She found the number for campus security online, took a deep breath, and dialed.
Alaina explained to the officer who answered that she had been sexually assaulted by a current student—that she'd been drugged, choked, and penetrated by her assailant's fingers as she faded in and out of consciousness one night five months ago.
"The officer who spoke with me didn't even think to ask the gender of my assailant until I gave her the name," she remembers. "A girl's name."
Sexual assault is perceived as a straight issue, perpetrated by men against women. Thanks in part to the battered women's movement of the 1980s and the growing awareness of the current rape culture in the United States—from assaults on college campuses to abuse within relationships—we've been hearing a predominantly heterosexual story. But there's a scenario that, while less frequent, is no less damaging to the victims it claims: rape between women.
The issue's lack of national attention means that data is slim, but a 2005 survey by the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) concluded that one in three lesbian-identified participants had been sexually assaulted by a woman, and one in four had experienced violence within a lesbian relationship. Eight years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted the first-ever national survey of intimate partner violence by sexual orientation and discovered that lesbians (and gay men) experience equal or higher rates of partner violence than the straight-identified population.
Stephanie Trilling, manager of community awareness and prevention services at the Boston Area Rape Crisis (BARCC), observes that for her queer female clients who have been assaulted by women, the first hurdle is simply understanding the assault as rape. Since this scenario is rarely portrayed in the media or in educational programming, "it can be especially challenging to identify their experience as violence," she says. "Many people have a difficult time believing that a woman could be capable of inflicting violence on another person."
These gender norms can directly contribute to distrust of a victim's claims, says Lisa Langenderfer-Magruder, co-author of a recent study of LGBTQ intimate partner violence in Colorado. "When someone is confronted with a situation that doesn't quite fit that major narrative, they may question its validity," she says. All of this amounts to a culture in which most research on partner violence focuses on heterosexual relationships. "So, in some ways, we're playing catch up."
Survivors are trapped in a cycle that delegitimizes their experience: first by downplaying the likelihood that it could happen at all, then by not validating it once it happens, and finally by not analyzing the data—and therefore creating awareness—after it does.
Woman-on-woman assault doesn't just happen on college campuses or at the hands of strangers—just like their straight counterparts, queer women often experience sexual assault within relationships. Not that they have the same protections. All states passed laws against marital rape by 1993 (with some exceptions per state), but while some of the legal language employs the gender-neutral "spouse" to explain assaults within a marriage, other states, like Alabama and California, default to "wife" for victim and "husband" for attacker. The implication is that rape only occurs in heterosexual marriages or long-term partnerships—which is, of course, not the case.
Sarah, 32, and her girlfriend had been dating long-distance for about a year—Sarah in California, her partner in North Carolina—when they decided they wanted to live together. Her partner was "very kind and very loving" before they moved in, Sarah says. But when after they'd hauled the final box into Sarah's Oakland apartment, Sarah learned that her new live-in girlfriend suffered from bipolar disorder, and had a terrible temper. She became increasingly demanding and physically aggressive when Sarah would disagree with her, particularly about money. The relationship started to feel like a rollercoaster, with extreme highs and lows.
"At first, the sex was good," says Sarah. "But she always wanted more than what I could give. One day she came home with a strap-on; if I loved her, she said, I would allow her to use it." Sarah wasn't interested. "It was just something that I didn't like and didn't want," she says. She declined for months, her partner repeatedly pressuring her, until one night, Sarah's partner assaulted her with the strap-on. "Even though I was crying the whole time, she never stopped," Sarah recalls.
Sarah left their home that night and sat crying in her car. As a child, she had been repeatedly sexually abused by an uncle —this assault felt just as violating. But she still wasn't sure if she would call it rape. "Because we were together, I thought that she had the right to have sex with me the way she wanted," Sarah explains.
For the next six months, Sarah's partner continued to rape her. She eventually mustered up the strength to leave the relationship after her partner made a particularly controlling demand: that Sarah financially support her. When Sarah reasoned that she was unable to, her partner attempted to hit her. She fled the apartment, her partner following her outside with a knife just as she drove away.
For her freedom, Sarah paid dearly: She financed her partner's moving expenses back to North Carolina. "I had to take out a loan so that I could pay for her to relocate." She never reported the assaults, nor has she spoken to her now ex-partner since ending their relationship.
Sarah is not an outlier. "Many of our clients in same-sex relationships are very hesitant to report at all," says Caitlin Kauffman, campus and community outreach coordinator for Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR)—where Sarah eventually sought counseling. The consequences of coming forward with sexual assault allegations are fraught for any sexual violence survivor. But for queer women, who already typically live, date, and make friends within a smaller network of other queer-identified women, the risks can be even more complex.
"Friend groups can become divided and the survivor may fear losing her only LGBTQ support network," Kauffman says. "This can be especially challenging for survivors who live in areas where the community is small or there is a more hostile climate towards LGBTQ people."
There are larger, cultural implications of naming a same-sex attacker. Even as LGBTQ rights are on the ascent, "there's a fear that accusing someone of assault within your community, which is already marginalized, will give society cause to fear or marginalize you further," says Trilling. Queer women's historical legacy as "deviant" is not that far behind. In a climate where more and more openly queer women are assuming public roles—and gaining acceptance in straight communities—naming one of your own isn't just interpreted as a charge on them. It's an attack on your community's hard-won progress to be seen as equal.
And then, for women who might not be "out," shame about their sexual orientation or a fear of being outted significantly hinders their ability to report. If you're closeted—or even semi-closeted—formally coming forward with sexual assault allegations could mean compromising your professional or familial relationships by revealing your orientation. (The guarantee of keeping your job as an LGBTQ American currently varies per state.) The downward economic spiral of losing one's job to report a same-sex rape that won't even be deemed legitimate is simply not worth it—literally.
Weeks passed before Ella, 25, began to confide in her friends that she had been raped. While she didn't find them to be exactly unsupportive, there was still a consistent and major hurdle: "They are oftentimes surprised when they realize it was a woman who assaulted me."
In 2015, Ella was on a lunch date with a woman she had met at a restaurant near her Berkeley apartment. After lunch, they found themselves very close to Ella's home—and she invited her date up. But after they had consensual sex, Ella's date refused to leave.
"I stayed up all night assuming she would leave in the morning," she remembers, still haunted. "She didn't. She didn't understand 'no' after that." Ella's date then sexually assaulted her, took a shower, and finally left for work back at the restaurant where they had met.
Ella never reported her attack either, and has since relied on herself and her friends—not the police—to keep her safe. She ignored repeated texts from her attacker insisting to "make it right." And then her attacker started showing up at her home unannounced.
"One time a friend was dropping me off after lunch, and she saw me before I saw her," she recalls. "I freaked out." Ella ran up the stairs to her apartment and locked herself in, all the while hearing her attacker call out her name. Ella's friend who had driven her immediately called to let her know he would not be leaving until her rapist left the building. Eventually, she did.
For women trying to escape a female attacker, the process of calling the police, formally pressing charges, or seeking emergency shelter presents unique challenges. Domestic violence shelters typically focus on providing services to cisgender, heterosexual females and their children. "So where a heterosexual female would have little concern about her male partner being allowed inside the facility, a female in a same-sex partnership may have valid concerns regarding the ability of her abuser to enter the facility and perpetrate against her," explains Langenderfer-Magruder.
The obstacles don't end there. Experts say that this reticence to involve the authorities can be traced back to a lack of understanding around LGBTQ issues broadly. Data from a 2015 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs survey describes a " historically mistrustful relationship of the LGBTQ community and law enforcement," which has resulted in not only having claims of violence dismissed, but also victims being mistakenly arrested as perpetrators.
When female victims of female assaults do pursue legal action, gender bias can severely hinder their ability to accurately report sexual violence. "Oftentimes, women in abusive same-sex relationships tell us that even when they do call the police, they are treated dismissively," recounts Kauffman. "'Women aren't violent.' 'This is just a girl fight, this is a waste of our time,' is a common attitude." According to the 2015 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, of LGBTQ individuals in Ohio who did report intimate partner violence, 21 percent experienced "indifferent" reactions from police. Another 28 percent experienced hostility.
When Alaina shared her rapist's name with the campus police officer back in 2012, the tone of the conversation changed immediately. "She seemed like she was no longer taking my issue seriously, and asked me questions that I don't think were important to my case, like my own sexuality."
Alaina told the officer that she identified as bisexual and pushed for more details on pursuing legal action. "She told me that if I went through with the case, it would be an on-campus issue and not much could be done because I wasn't even a student, and it was my word against hers in a trial, and there was no longer any evidence of the drugs she gave me in my system." The officer asked Alaina to send her copies of online exchanges with her attacker, but never followed up about her report. Alaina, now 24, never pressed charges and has had no communication with her attacker since 2012.
But there are exceptions to this widespread negligence. A now infamous case of queer rape brought national attention to the issue in 2005, when two young women were charged with assault and sexual battery for raping a 20-year-old student at Smith College in Northampton, MA.
The assistant district attorney on the case, Susan J. Loehn, says the Northampton police performed a "thorough investigation" and treated the victim "in a sensitive manner." According to reports, the victim alleged that what started as a consensual sexual encounter at an off-campus apartment turned violent when she was placed in handcuffs, slapped across the face after withdrawing her consent, slashed across the abdomen with a knife, and sexually assaulted as one of the perpetrators held down her legs. "There was an incredible amount of media attention about this case," Loehn, now executive director of Northwestern Children's Advocacy Center, remembers. Too much, in fact, for the case to make a real impact with a verdict. "This victim was overwhelmed by the media attention. Smith College is a small college. People knew all of the parties involved. There were camera crews on her doorstep." The survivor ultimately decided to drop the charges. Like many sexual assault charges that die in a courtroom, the case now looms as a cautionary tale.
Over 10 years later, same-sex rape on college campuses is just starting to be quantified on a national level. Haven, an online sexual assault and awareness program that logs sexual assaults directly from students, works with self-reported data from over 800 colleges and universities. Haven had never compiled a report on undergraduate women who have been assaulted by women, but teamed up with MarieClaire.com to reveal new information: While the number of reported sexual assaults by women was low compared to assaults overall (only about 2.5 percent), the most striking difference came down to the likelihood of survivors to report the incident: 30 percent of women assaulted by another woman told no one, compared to 25 of women who didn't report an assault by a man.
More information is needed at all levels—government, collegiate, and otherwise. All the experts we spoke to point to an overall dearth of research on intimate partner violence in queer female communities as the biggest obstacle in developing more accessible resources for survivors.
In the meantime, Langenderfer-Magruder asserts that language can be a powerful place to start correcting this oversight. Omitting the standard "he" as perpetrator and "she" for victim in laws, educational materials, and even just general discussion encourages awareness. "Research has clearly demonstrated that intimate partner violence does not happen in a solely heterosexual context—and the way we discuss it should reflect that," she says.
It's been four years since Alaina was raped and she still has no plans to pursue formal charges against her rapist. She says, unflinchingly, that she has moved on in other ways: She's chosen to change her name, and has moved to a new city where she has pursued a successful freelance writing career, often writing about sexual assault within the LGBTQ community.
"I consider myself a vocal survivor," she says of educating those around her, one person, queer or straight, at a time.
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