How Sexual Violence Affects College-Age Women with Disabilities

Rear view of woman in bedSexual violence is a common experience among college women with mental health or behavioral disabilities, a study published in the Journal of Women’s Health concludes. The study’s authors say the violence specifically targets the women’s disabilities, and colleges need to take proactive steps to address the aftereffects.

The study does not estimate the prevalence of sexual violence against women with disabilities as compared to the general population. However, previous studies have found people with disabilities are more vulnerable to violence, including sexual violence.

Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence

The study used semi-structured interviews of 27 college-age women who had experienced intimate partner or sexual violence. Instead of asking whether a woman identified herself as a victim, trained interviewers used the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) definitions of sexual and intimate partner violence.

Two-thirds of the women were white, and two-thirds identified as heterosexual. Most participants (88.8%) had at least one mental health condition, and 11.1% reported behavioral or learning disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD). For most women, the diagnosis preceded the abuse.

The interviews highlighted the pervasive nature of sexual and intimate partner violence. Women who experienced intimate partner violence also reported disability-specific abuse in addition to cyber abuse, social isolation, intimidation, and threats.

Among women who experienced sexual violence, sexual abuse commonly occurred within both hookup culture and in long-term relationships. Hookup-related sexual violence often included alcohol. In many cases, abusers used a woman’s disability as a tool of sexual manipulation.

How Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence Affect Survivors

Every interviewee except for one reported mental health consequences to their abuse, including posttraumatic stress (PTSD), suicidal thoughts or actions, anxiety, depression, and similar symptoms. Many became less social or avoided common areas on campus. Physical issues such as difficulty sleeping, sexually transmitted diseases (STD), and bruising were common.

Sexual violence also affected women’s academic performance. Many reported skipping or dropping classes. Others saw declines in their grades.

The study’s authors say their research points to the need for an ongoing commitment to programs that respond to the needs of sexual and intimate partner violence survivors. These programs must also address the unique needs and challenges of women with behavioral or mental health conditions.


  1. Bonomi, A., Nichols, E., Kammes, R., & Green, T. (2017). Sexual violence and intimate partner violence in college women with a mental health and/or behavior disability. Journal of Women’s Health. doi:10.1089/jwh.2016.6279
  2. Harrell, E., PhD. (2011, October). Crime against persons with disabilities, 2008-2010 – statistical tables [PDF]. U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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  • Caryn

    May 25th, 2017 at 10:30 AM

    I am pretty sure that any woman who experiences sexual violence is going to struggle for a long time when it comes to learning how to deal with it and actually make strides to overcome that violence.

  • TY

    May 27th, 2017 at 7:31 AM

    Such a huge concern on so many college campuses these days. I certainly know that I was better than that and hope that I have taught my own boys to be better than that.

  • Benjamin

    May 28th, 2017 at 12:55 PM

    I am not too old to be that far removed from the whole college scene. There are guys and girls both who do things while they are in school that they probably regret and could make much better choices than what they have made.
    I know that there have been many things that I have done that I have looked back on with regret but if I know that I can’t change them then I simply have to move forward and vow to do better the next time.
    I am in no way blaming the female when unfortunate things like this happen but we all have to be willing to own up to our part and take responsibility when something is our fault. It can’t be a life of always pointing at someone else and blaming them.

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