Multiple oppression increases risk for sexual violence

Educate yourself on how oppression and discrimination makes diverse groups of people more vulnerable.

Individuals, families and communities experience multiple forms of oppression and discrimination because of their identity, ability, ethnic and cultural diversity. Discrimination is like a ‘piling on’ of social disadvantage that makes it harder for anyone to be successful in life. Research has shown that poverty, diversity and child welfare too often overlap or intersect.[One Vision One Voice: Changing the Ontario Child Welfare System to Better Serve African Canadians. September 2016.]  This is one of the reasons why Indigenous, racialized and LGBTQ children and youth are over-represented in the child welfare system.

Once in care, young people who are non-white and non-conforming in sexual orientation or gender identity and/or are differently-abled have unique challenges that can make them more vulnerable to sexual violence. Increasing your understanding of their challenges makes you a more informed ally.

Groups who experience higher rates of discrimination include:

  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth
  • Indigenous peoples and two-spirited youth
  • Racialized families and youth
  • Immigrants and refugees
  • Young people with physical and mental disabilities
  • Street involved minority youth

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth are more at risk

LGBTQ children and youth fear disclosing their sexual orientation and gender identity. When they do disclose, rejection, discrimination and violence often follow. The no-win consequences of staying invisible or ‘coming out’ are profound.[MCYS Survey.  Serving LGBTQ2S Children and Youth: A Resource Guide for Child Welfare Staff and Caregivers.]

In care, LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system face distinct challenges, including:[ibid]

  • Difficulty finding a “safe” person with whom to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Hostility, harassment or violence from other children and youth in group settings
  • Punishment for engaging in age-appropriate conduct that might be accepted between youth of different sexes
  • Reluctance on the part of families and adults to include an LGBTQ youth in their lives (e.g., through adoption or legal custody)
  • Child welfare providers and caregivers often lack awareness of the needs of LGBTQ youth and the community resources available to support them
  • Reluctance on the part of LGBTQ youth to develop lasting relationships or to access services, due to their experiences with stigma and exclusion

Half of all transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives.[Forge: Transgender Rates of Violence, 2012.]  Bisexual girls will have higher lifetime rates of sexual assault (75%) when compared to both lesbian (46%) and heterosexual girls 43%). Bisexual boys will have the highest rates (47%) when compared to gay (40%) and heterosexual men (21%).[The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2010). Findings on victimization by sexual orientation. Centers for Disease Control]

LGBTQ young people frequently experience violence and sexual violence in the different environments they find themselves.

Street involved youth:

  • They are preyed upon by sexual predators and more at-risk for sexual coercion, physical and sexual assault[Grace, Andre. (2015) Growing into Resilience: Sexual and Gender Minority in Canada.]
  • Are three times more likely than straight peers to engage in survival sex, with an increased exposure to sexually transmitted diseases because they have limited access to healthcare, education and prevention resources compared to middle-class youth[See: National Coalition of STD Directors]

At school LGBTQ children and youth in care report that:

  • 21% have been physically harassed or assaulted about their sexual orientation
  • 37% of trans youth have been physically harassed or assaulted about their gender
  • 45% of youth with LGBTQ parents have been sexually harassed at school

LGBTQ youth in care who ‘cross over’ into the youth justice system:

  • Face extreme forms of harassment and violence
  • Are at increased risk of suicide
  • Are more vulnerable and at risk for sexual abuse
  • Experience discrimination based on myths that LGBTQ youth are sex offenders[Child Welfare League of America & Lambda Legal (2012) Keeping Youth Safe in Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Placements]

Indigenous, transgender and racialized LGBTQ children and youth experience multiple and varied oppressions for being non-conforming and non-white. Consequently they have higher risks and rates of negative impacts.

Transgender youth are the most targeted

While youth who actually identify as trans are comparatively small in number, they are highly visible targets of harassment. They experience higher rates of verbal abuse, physical and sexual harassment than their LGB peers.[Tayor, C. Every Class in Every School: Final Report on the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Canadian Schools. 2011. Egale Canada.]

Understanding trans youth as youth transitioning socially and/or medically from one gender to another is a limited understanding that places the category of trans once again within the confines of a two gender system. Many trans people reject the idea of two genders and some may adopt gender neutral pronouns such as “hir” to replace “his” or “her”.


“I may not want to socially or medically transition in a way that aligns with what most people expect, but I experience daily gender dysphoria, and I don’t feel like ‘woman’ is a word that fits me. I’m interested in openly exploring all the femme, masculine and in between areas of who I am, without worrying about whether or not they fit into what is expected. There’s no wrong way to be trans. If you feel trans, you are.

Ashley Truong

Gender expression or experimentation indicates flux in a gender identity that does not conform strictly to either male or female definitions. How gender is expressed varies greatly from individual to individual (both trans and non-trans) and is influenced by the situation and by intersections such as race, ethnicity and culture. Gender identity and expression is different from the material sexed body - male, female, intersex. 

Experimentation with gender does not erase the importance of understanding the materiality of being born a female in a patriarchal heirarchy that treats women and  feminized (i.e. 'weak') others as a second class to male more privileged class. Understanding the ways that violence committed against girls and women is sanctioned in a patriarchy system, because they are born female, is one of the leaps that need to made if we are to address the root causes of sexual violence.

Indigenous peoples in Canada experience extreme vulnerability that comes from colonization and the legacy of residential schools.

Colonization happens when a country sets up a colony in another part of the world and then takes over to dominate the people who are native to that land. Those who are colonized are forced to accept the language and culture of the colonizing people. It is only recently that Canada has begun to publicly acknowledge the impact of colonization on its first people and to take responsibility for it.[The Canadian Government apologized to former students of Residential Schools in June 2008.]

Europeans colonized North America and imposed European laws and values on the native people of Canada. This has caused centuries of trauma including;

  • family breakdown
  • loss of the spiritual foundation
  • European values focus on male dominated society through their religion and governments; Legislation and government policies enforced male-determined values and breakdown of Native family structures
  • Residential schools destroyed traditional structures (spiritual, family structures, survival off the land, etc.)

Residential schools devastated the indigenous sense of identity between the children who attended and their parents. Children who were brought to these schools were not allowed to speak their languages or practice their customs. They faced inhuman living conditions and suffered all forms of abuse. Children raised with violence are much more inclined to become violent, and since the days of residential schools, three and sometimes four generations of Aboriginal children have been raised in an environment of widespread violence and abuse.[Aboriginal Domestic Violence in Canada, The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2005. See also: Kanawayhitowin: Taking Care of Each Other’s Spirit.] The vicious circle continues as almost half of children in care today in Canada are Indigenous.[Where the kids are: How indigenous children are over-represented in foster care.]

See: Profiles of Indigenous Survivors of Sexual Assault  Ontario Network of Sexual Assault / Domestic Violence Treatment Centres

Two Spirited Youth

The identity of being “Two Spirited” recognizes someone as being both indigenous and non-conforming. Identities like lesbian and gay are sometimes seen as originating in white culture and colonization. Being two spirited literally describes having both a masculine and feminine spirit housed in a single body. It also acknowledges that two spirited people in pre-contact tribes were often respected and influential members of the community. 

Two Spirited is used by native people as an umbrella term because tribes have words in their own language to describe gender-variant community members. For this reason, not all non-conforming indigenous people use two spirit to describe themselves. There are also different tribal connotations for being LGBT. Some might say they identify as two spirited and also claim their tribal-specific identity.

In residential schools, two spirited people were particularly targeted through colonization and labelled as a threat to the sexism and rigid gender roles of European culture. As a result, homophobia and transphobia exist now in indigenous communities. Until recently, there has been little recognition or respect for the history of two spirited people. 

Many two spirit people also experience racism within LGBTQ communities. They are socially isolated under the weight of multiple oppressions.  All too often, they have suicidal ideation and self-harming behaviour. As such, approaches to suicide prevention among two spirited youth requires a culturally competent and intersectional perspective that honours and respects First Nations, Metis and Indigenous traditions. 

Racialized families experience discrimination and social disadvantage as non-white people.

Racial and ethnic minority cultures are scrutinized more closely for parenting practices as it relates to child protection.  Research shows African Canadian children and youth are 40% more likely to be investigated compared to White children, 18% more likely to have their abuse be substantiated, 8% more likely to be transferred to ongoing services, and 13% more likely to be placed in out-of-home care during the investigation.[One Vision One Voice: Changing the Ontario Child Welfare System to Better Serve African Canadians. Practice Framework Part 1: Research Report. (2016)] Only Indigenous children showed greater disparities than African Canadians.

The analysis also found that racialized children who experience physical abuse, particularly Asian children, experienced it in relation to corporal punishment. "The extent of physical abuse in visible minority families appears to be closely associated with disciplinary methods and child-rearing practices different from those advocated by the majority culture."[One Vision One Voice: Changing the Ontario Child Welfare System to Better Serve African Canadians. Practice Framework Part 1: Research Report. (2016)]

Racialized LGBTQ Youth

LGBTQ youth of colour, who are also in care, also experience multiple forms of oppression.[One Vision One Voice: Changing the Ontario Child Welfare System to Better Serve African Canadians]

A national study indicates that LGBTQ students of colour are more isolated:[ Tayor, C. Every Class in Every School: Final Report on the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Canadian Schools. 2011. Egale Canada.]

  • They are less likely to know of any ‘out’ LGBTQ students compared to their white and indigenous LGBTQ peers
  • They are less likely to know of any teachers or staff members who are supportive of LGBTQ students
  • One in five racialized youth who had experienced LGBIQ2S-inclusive curriculum reported the class discussions had been negative
  • They were also less likely to see class representations of LGBTQ matters as having been very positive

Youth of colour, both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ, reported the lowest rates of being comfortable discussing gender and sexual orientation with anyone at all, including their coaches, their teachers, their classmates, their parents, and even with a close friend.

The differences suggest youth of colour experience even higher rates of isolation. The intersections of race, sexual orientation and gender identity for racialized LGBTQ youth contribute to increased isolation.[Yan, Shanshan. 2014. Through an Intersectionality Lens: Service Provider Views on the Sexual Health Needs of Racialized LGBT2SQ Youth in Toronto. Wilfrid Laurier University.]

Youth of colour are caught between two worlds, often times being forced to choose membership between two competing communities. They are less likely to ‘come out’ because they have to choose between the black community, where they experience homophobia, and the mainstream LGBTQ community where they encounter racism. They may opt for their racial community because race is more visible and support is more available. A youth’s ethno-cultural community can serve as a buffer against social adversity, with family and community support to help deal with racism.

Serious attention needs to be paid to finding means of reaching out to racialized LGBTQ youth in ways that are appropriate and informed about cultural issues and taboos surrounding LGBTQ matters. Research shows that even families who are very rejecting can learn to modify rejecting behaviour and increase their support through education, guidance and support that resonates for them.[Ryan, C., & Chen-Hayes, S. (2013). Educating and empowering families of LGBTQ K-12 students. New York, NY: Routledge.]

Immigrants coming from conflict zones often have pre-migration trauma and are dealing with all of the challenges of learning a new language and social integration.

Racialized families come under higher levels of scrutiny from child welfare authorities for their child-rearing practices and customs is especially concerning when they are families also dealing with all of the stressors of fleeing violence in their home countries and the immigration process.[One Vision One Voice: Changing the Ontario Child Welfare System to Better Serve African Canadians. Practice Framework Part 1: Research Report. (2016)]

Refugees’ pre-migration stressors influence their feelings of self-concept and their relationships with immediate and extended family members. It can also impact their sense of belonging to their ethnic, national, religious or cultural groups as well as their relationships with individuals from the Canadian society. In addition, the post-migration challenges influence the traditional family structure and gender-roles that may create a shift within the refugee families’ dynamics and inhibit their ability to adapt to the new culture.[Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration. Research paper: Pre and Post Migration Stressors and Marital Relations Among Arab Refugee Families in Canada.]

Immigrant women may be more vulnerable to domestic violence due to economic dependence, language barriers, and a lack of knowledge about community resources. Newcomers who arrive in Canada traumatized by war or oppressive governments are much less likely to report physical or sexual violence to the authorities, for fear of further victimization or even deportation.[Canadian Women’s Foundation. Fact Sheet]

Many immigrants and refugees who experience abuse are isolated due to language and cultural barriers, racism, the ‘strangeness’ of their environment and the power that their immigration sponsors held over them.

Supporting refugee claimants, immigrants who were facing sponsorship breakdown, and developing programs to address language barriers, ethno-cultural differences, and queer and trans people in immigrant communities emerged as key concerns in anti-violence programs and services. More recently, organizations have identified immigration status as a pivotal factor that increases vulnerability to abuse and neglect in families, exposing them to child protection authorities who may not have appreciation for cultural differences and the impacts of pre-migration trauma.[The Migrant Mothers Project. 2014. This puts these families at greater risk for children coming into care and the associated risks of being in care that include higher rates of victimization.


Young people with physical and mental disabilities are more vulnerable

Youth with disabilities face different challenges and have very different needs based on their ability. Some disabilities may put young people at higher risk for crimes like sexual assault or abuse. 83% of girls with disabilities will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime.[Stats Canada Sexual Assault Statistics in Canada]

Unique risks for young people with disabilities: RAINN: Sexual Abuse of People with Disabilities]

  • A youth who needs regular assistance may be in the situation of relying on the person who is abusing them, a common factor in elder abuse. The person who is abusive may use this power to threaten, coerce, or force the young person into non-consensual sex or sexual activities.
  • An abusive person may take away access to the tools a person with a disability uses to communicate, such as a computer or phone.
  • Young people with disabilities are less likely to be taken seriously when they make a report of sexual assault or abuse. They may also face challenges in accessing services to make a report in the first place. For example, someone who is Deaf or Deaf-Blind may face challenges accessing communication tools, like a phone, to report the crime or get help.
  • Many people with disabilities may not understand, or lack information and education about healthy sexuality and the types of touching that are appropriate or inappropriate. This can be especially challenging if a youth’s disability requires other people to touch them to provide care.

Consent is crucial when any person engages in sexual activity, but it plays an even bigger, and often more complicated role for young people with disabilities. Some disabilities may make it difficult to communicate consent to participate in sexual activity, and sexual offenders may take advantage of this. People with disabilities may also not be given the same education about sexuality and consent that people without disabilities receive. In addition, someone who has a developmental or intellectual disability may not have the ability to consent to sexual activity.

In addition, young people with disabilities face stereotypes and discrimination from the larger population that doesn’t recognize them as sexual beings with the same developmental wants and  needs as other youth.

Street involved minority youth are more at-risk for sexual exploitation, physical and sexual assault

Young people in care are over-represented as street-involved youth. A key risk factor for involvement in sex work and being lured into trafficking is the isolation that goes with being street-involved.

Covenant House, a Toronto youth shelter reports that 30 percent of homeless youth have been involved in some form of sex work, including sex for food.[See Covenant House Toronto for Homeless Youth] While only some of these youth are trafficking victims, the high numbers indicate the desperation and drive for survival among homeless youth that makes them easy prey for sexual predators.

Children are sold for sex each night in most major cities. Some of this country’s most marginalized children are disproportionately at risk of being trafficked or exploited, including minorities.

One clear pattern quickly emerges—a large proportion of victims of commercial sexual exploitation have been involved with the child welfare system.

From Abused and Neglected to Abused and Exploited

Research in Ontario has shown that 90 percent of sex trafficked victims are female and that 42 percent were first trafficked before the age of 18.  LGBTQ youth, new immigrants and particularly Indigenous girls are over-represented among victims.

Major risk factors include mental health issues, body image issues, learning disabilities, social isolation, child abuse experience and poverty.  If there is a common theme among victims, it is that they are usually youth who struggle with low self-esteem. Many are involved with the child welfare system.

A recent study conducted by the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth found that many youth leaving care are struggling to move successfully to independence. Many end up on the street. A government task force looked at improving the outcome for youth who were formerly in care and made recommendations to reform the child welfare system, including extending support for these youth up to the age of 25 to help increase their odds of success.[25 is the New 21: The Costs and Benefits of Providing Extended Care and Maintenance to Ontario Youth in Care Until Age 25, Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, 2012]

Further Reading & Resources