Grand Challenges

Linking Sexual Stigma and Dating Violence

Katie Edwards

Intimate partner violence, which includes physical, sexual and psychological abuse, carries enormous costs, including physical and psychological distress and increased school dropout rates.

Sexual minorities experience higher rates of intimate partner violence than heterosexual people. One explanation for this pattern is sexual stigma: negative attitudes and discrimination from individuals and institutions. This external stress can lead to increased alcohol use, failure to seek mental health services and heightened conflict in relationships – all risk factors for intimate partner violence.

In a first-of-its-kind study, Nebraska’s Katie Edwards is exploring the ties between sexual stigma and dating violence for young adults enrolled at higher education institutions across the nation. By surveying nearly 12,000 heterosexual and sexual minority students and almost 4,500 faculty and staff, and pairing that data with objective measures of institutional policies, Edwards aims to paint a clearer picture of the effects of organizational practices.

“Essentially, we’re trying to better understand how campus climate factors impact sexual minorities’ experiences with intimate partner violence,” said Edwards, associate professor of educational psychology in the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools.

Essentially, we’re trying to better understand how campus climate factors impact sexual minorities’ experiences with intimate partner violence.

Katie Edwards

The study takes a unique longitudinal, multi-informant, multicampus approach. Instead of deploying a one-time survey at a single institution, Edwards’ team is collecting data at 20 institutions over an academic year for a more accurate snapshot across time.

Also innovative is the team’s inclusion of objective information, such as the Campus Pride Index. That tool, and others like it, assess campuses’ LGBTQ-related practices and policies.

Using the data, Edwards’ team will develop interventions for universities and initiatives to help LGBTQ students cope in healthy ways with minority stressors.

Participating institutions will receive a tailored report to guide them in strengthening LGBTQ-related practices and policies.

Systemic change is the ultimate goal, Edwards said. Eliminating stigmas against sexual minorities would mitigate not only intimate partner violence, but other stressors that influence long-term health.

“Intimate partner violence is the outcome that we’re focused on, but chronic stressors affect mental and physical health and even things like immunological functioning,” Edwards said. “Minority stress is a leading cause of health disparities among sexual minorities.”

She collaborates with Heather Littleton of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

The National Science Foundation supports this research.

+ Additional content for Linking Sexual Stigma and Dating Violence

Nebraska Asked & Answered Feature: Edwards takes research into communities to prevent violence