Transgender and gender diverse (TGD) university students experience disproportionately high rates of sexual violence (SV) compared to their cisgender peers. Research indicates that not only are TGD students vulnerable to SV, but their campus discrimination experiences make them less likely to access services. For example, TGD students are more likely than cisgender students to doubt that their reports of SV will be taken seriously or treated fairly, and they expect to encounter discrimination when seeking support. Research on campus climate, sexual violence prevention and response (SVPR), and TGD student wellness have historically been siloed, creating a dearth of information about how to address TGD students’ barriers to reporting and need for primary prevention improvements. To address these gaps, the current study conducted focus groups to identify TGD students' perceptions of SVPR practices and improvements needed to address their needs.
Five qualitative semi-structured focus groups (N=21) were conducted with TGD students from a research university in Pennsylvania. Participants included undergraduate and graduate students who identified as White (n=14), multiracial (n=4), Asian/Asian American (n=1), Black (n=1), and Hispanic (n=1). Focus groups were conducted using Zoom and transcribed. Descriptive and thematic coding were conducted by two coders engaged in an iterative six-stage process using Dedoose. Further thematic coding was conducted by a third team member. A member checking survey was sent to all focus group participants.
Climate emerged as critical to TGD students’ engagement with SVPR resources – participants voiced a need to feel safe, valued, seen, and heard before they would contemplate using SVPR resources. They stressed that barriers to feeling safe include campus infrastructure issues (e.g., lack of restrooms, microaggressions, names/pronouns in documentation) and institutional approaches to addressing TGD student needs (e.g., reliance on Title IX). Participants emphasized that to feel valued, they need to see the university’s financial and programmatic investment in their well-being, as current practices seem anchored in performative commitments to inclusion or protection against liability. To feel seen, students stressed a need for greater representation of TGD identities among campus personnel and ways to access support from those individuals. They also identified the need for expanded SV prevention training incorporating gender competence, awareness of subtler forms of SV, students’ trauma histories, and risk factors unique to TGD communities. To be heard, participants spoke about wanting a seat at the table in building infrastructure and programming to serve their community.
Conclusions and Implications
The SVPR status quo on campuses is not only insufficient for TGD students, its reliance on cisgender, heteronormative, white, ableist notions of victimization and perpetration excludes many students. Our participants want to be a part of a campus that sees and values them, that listens to their issues and works with them to transform harmful norms and practices. Unless TGD students are engaged in this process, the impact of campus SVPR advances will be limited. Researchers and practitioners on university campuses have an important opportunity to create inclusive SVPR approaches that better serve all students.