Sexual assault can happen to anyone—yet it often is not random. Studies of sexual assault consistently show a higher rate of victimization of people with disabilities compared to nondisabled people.
People with disabilities (including mental and emotional health conditions, learning, and/or developmental disabilities) are often disadvantaged in the social hierarchy, and that disadvantage creates vulnerability, says Dr. Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs at Yale University. “Community power dynamics have enormous impact: Social status can dictate who gets targeted, who is granted the right to advocate for themselves, [and] who is seen as a legitimate self-advocate.”
Studies of sexual assault consistently show a higher rate of victimization of people with disabilities compared to nondisabled people. For example:
- Women with disabilities are more than four times as likely as women without disabilities to experience sexual assault, in a study of women in North Carolina (Violence Against Women, 2006).
- Men with disabilities were more than four times as likely as men without disabilities to have experienced sexual violence, in a 2011 study in Massachusetts (American Journal of Preventive Medicine).
- Women with disabilities are significantly more likely than women without disabilities to experience intimate partner violence, which can include rape and sexual assault, according to a 2015 study in the Annals of Epidemiology.
Some studies examine sexual assault victimization and specific types of disability. For example:
- Among people with developmental disabilities, 83 percent of women and 32 percent of men are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, according to a 1991 Canadian study that is still widely cited.
- In a small study, more than three out of four (78 percent) adults with autism had experienced sexual victimization; they were more than twice as likely as their nondisabled peers to say they had been raped, according to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2014). The adults with autism also had less sexual knowledge than their typically developing peers.
- Students who were deaf or hard of hearing report unwanted sexual contact at nearly double the rate reported by the general student population, according to a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Maryland.
- Children with disabilities are more likely to be abused than nondisabled children. The risk of sexual abuse appears to be particularly high for children with communication disorders, behavioral disorders, intellectual disability, and multiple disabilities (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000).
“No one is paying attention; that’s the message we receive,” says J. E., a writer and disability advocate who graduated in 2007 from a private university in the Northeast, where she had been a student athlete. “I was sexually assaulted in college and none of my teammates intervened. I was basically forgotten.” J. E. is autistic and has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an inherited condition that can affect mobility. In a survey by Student Health 101, more than 70 percent of students who responded agreed that the sexual assault and abuse of people with disabilities is largely hidden. Only one in three said colleges are proactively addressing the issue.
The good news? You can get involved. Here’s how you can help prevent sexual assault of people with disabilities and emotional health issues.
1. Reconsider how you think about disability and mental/emotional health issues
We can all help build a culture in which everyone’s bodily autonomy and communication is respected. This includes recognizing that every adult has the right to consensual sex and the right to be heard and presumed competent. Negative attitudes toward disability and mental health issues are everywhere, and this places people with those conditions at greater risk, according to a study in World Psychiatry.
How not to be part of the problem
As with any stereotype, it’s on us to catch ourselves in the act. That woman with speech issues may have a lot to say. The man with PTSD is almost certainly a reliable reporter of his own experience. When we applaud a student without disabilities for inviting the autistic student to the prom or describe the ordinary activities and achievements of a person with disabilities as “inspirational,” we’re doing it wrong. Activists with disabilities point out that these responses are condescending.
Our assumptions about disability—what it is, what it means, and what it’s like to live it—are often wrong, research shows. For example, people without disabilities assume people with disabilities have a low quality of life, while people with disabilities rate their own quality of life as high—a contrast known as the “disability paradox” (Social Science and Medicine, 1999).
Students’ instincts are promising
A recent survey by Student Health 101 (with 1,249 respondents) suggests that students are aware of certain key issues:
- Two out of three students who responded (68 percent) felt that society is uncomfortable with the sexuality of people with disabilities.
- Seventy percent of respondents believed that almost every adult is capable of learning what they need to know about sexuality and sexual choices.
- Only 8 percent said they were “very familiar” with disability advocacy issues; many students expressed willingness to learn.
2. Rethink your social norms and rituals. Ask: Who wouldn’t these work for? How can we broaden social accessibility?
Being inclusive is not only more ethical but also more rewarding, says Dr. Boyd, who oversees Yale University’s Consent and Communication Educators program. “Inclusive groups work and play better because everyone is engaged,” she says. This calls for you to think constructively about social experiences you may take for granted, such as the annual dance or group/club initiation rituals.
Social cohesion benefits all students
Social isolation (resulting from disability or another reason) can make some students more vulnerable to sexual assault. Developing social inclusion norms and practices can help. This means welcoming students who may not otherwise be able to join in, and ensuring that events and rituals do not expose students to demands they may find unduly difficult or even intolerable. Here’s how to approach it, says Dr. Boyd: “Instead of directing energy into social hierarchies, put it instead into making sure everyone feels included and is watching out for each other. For example, consider your social and cultural norms that feel ordinary: half-time at the big game or the annual dance. As a group, what can you do to demonstrate cohesion?”
Dr. Boyd also urges, “Ask: What are we taking for granted about our group members that allows them to participate? For whom would this feel different? Who gets marginalized or excluded? By getting rid of those status-enforcing elements, you’ll make the occasion more inclusive and also more powerful; the group will form deeper bonds once everyone can fully participate.”
Picture this: A group that you’re in is planning a celebration for new members. You volunteer to be on the planning committee. You enjoyed the event last year; it introduced you to some of your favorite group traditions, and it was fun to spend time with the older members, but there were other parts that made you uncomfortable.
At one point in last year’s event, all the members drew a series of challenges from a bowl and competed against one another to complete the most challenges. Some of the challenges were sexual; for example, kissing an older member or talking about sexual experiences. At the end of the night, the person who won the most challenges was awarded a title.
At your first meeting, the other members of the planning committee say they are looking forward to keeping the existing traditions going. The person who won the challenges last year is particularly excited about the challenge bowl and says that having the title has been one of their favorite parts of being in the group.
What dynamics are at play here?
- What is fun about this game? Why might some people enjoy it?
- What are some problems with this game? Which members of the group might feel particularly uncomfortable?
How might the planning committee decide to make change?
- What kinds of questions might you ask other people on the planning committee to get the conversation about making a change started?
- What resistance are you likely to encounter? How would you respond to it?
- What kinds of changes might the planning committee make?
- Generally, how could they preserve the fun elements while avoiding the uncomfortable ones?
Source: Consent and Communication Educators, Yale University
3. Hold yourself and others to the standard of enthusiastic mutual sexual consent
Mutual desire is key to any great sexual encounter. This standard applies across the board, regardless of who’s involved. When your sexual experiences are based around what all parties truly want and the goal is quality, not quantity, they become more like the sex of your fantasies. All partners deserve respect and open communication.
When one or more of the people involved has a disability, sexual communication may require accommodations. For example:
- While most people are adept at reading nonverbal signals, a student with autism or a social communication disorder may need verbally explicit communications (see below).
- A student who has speech issues may use an adaptive communication device (e.g., a tablet computer) that needs to be on hand throughout.
- A student with mobility issues (e.g., cerebral palsy, a broken leg) may need help getting physically comfortable.
What if nonverbal communication doesn’t come easily?
A small minority of people (including those with social communication issues or some types of autism) have difficulty interpreting nonverbal language and social cues. This has implications for establishing mutual sexual consent. In these situations, be verbally explicit.
What to say to your partner if understanding body language is hard for you
“Please tell me directly what you want and what you don’t want. I don’t always pick up on body language, so if I misunderstand you, it’s not intentional.”
What to say if understanding body language is hard for your partner
“Let’s be direct so we’re sure to understand each other. I’ll tell you what I want and what I don’t want. What do you want?”
How misunderstandings can happen
“This issue is mainly about the ability to read other people’s intentions and thoughts,” says Dr. Isabelle Hénault, a sexologist and psychologist based in Quebec, Canada. “Especially with individuals with autism conditions, they rarely act out with a negative intention. Any problems are most likely about misreading situations.”
How to communicate clearly
“With consent, you have to be very concrete, very explicit, very clear,” says Michael Glenn, a clinical social worker and sex educator based in Massachusetts. He recommends that students consider disclosing a diagnosis that affects social communication. “I really believe that at this point in time, enough is known about autism. You may as well label it and discuss it more openly.” Alternatively, acknowledge the specific issue (rather than the diagnosis), as in the example above.
4. Support efforts to build networks for students with disabilities
In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 95 percent of students who responded agreed that students with disabilities need more disability-informed allies, mentors, and advocates. Ideally, colleges will work toward establishing those networks of support. In the meantime, students with disabilities likely need to be proactive in finding mentors and allies on campus. Peers, staff, and faculty can provide a supportive community.
If you have a disability or ongoing health condition, think about which faculty, staff member, or RA you can most comfortably talk to. “Most students have ‘that’ professor,” says J. E. “That’s a good start for discussion. There is a reason for that connection. It may not be disability, it may be other things, but ‘that’ professor is already a mentor.” All students can support each other’s efforts to build connections (e.g., by encouraging their peers to reach out, or offering to accompany them to meetings that may feel intimidating).
What a supportive network looks like
We can all support efforts to establish networks for students with disabilities, including:
- Designated faculty and staff, preferably including some with lived experience of disability
- Specific office hours and spaces for confidential support
- Victim advocacy and counseling services with professionals who have expertise in disability
- Organized representation in student government to help advocate for appropriate programming, awareness, and support
Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean in student affairs; lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Yale University, Connecticut.
Colby Bruno, Esq., JD, senior legal counsel, Victim Rights Law Center, Massachusetts.
Michael Glenn, LICSW, clinical social worker and sex educator, Massachusetts.
Isabelle Hénault, PhD, director, Clinique Autisme et Asperger de Montréal, Quebec.
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