Sexual 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.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.
- 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
- 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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