A new study, published in the Journal of Women’s Health, explores sexual violence (SV) and intimate partner violence (IPV) in college women with mental health related disabilities. The qualitative study examines factors related to sexual and intimate partner violence in this population, as well as the psychological, physical, and academic consequences. The authors, led by Amy Bonomi, a professor at Michigan State University, write:
“Our study provides new information that women in longer term abusive relationships commonly experienced disability-specific abuse (such as name calling that specifically targeted their disability), along with threats/intimidation, social isolation, and technology-related abuse.”
Sexual violence, especially for women on college campuses, is a significant issue. In 2014, President Obama put forth a memorandum to establish a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in order address the problem.
“Women with disabilities, including those with physical, mental, or emotional conditions, are at particularly high risk,” report the researchers.
One in five college women with a disability has experienced abuse within the previous year. One study found that 39% of women who experienced rape in the last year had a disability at the time of the assault. Being diagnosed with depression or ADHD have also been shown to increase the risk of sexual violence for college women. College women with disabilities are also at higher risk for intimate partner violence and for experiencing greater mental distress after experiencing violence.
The authors note, “Within our patriarchal society, whereby men hold positions of power and have authority over women, sexual scripts tend to fall along traditional gender lines, with men as sexual initiators/aggressors and women as gatekeepers.” The researchers call on intersectionality theory to understand how the “intersecting experiences of identifying as female and having a disability might amplify the risk of experiencing sexual or intimate partner violence. They write:
“With prolonged exposure, women experience constant perceived threat, eroded identity, disempowerment, and entrapment, which increase their susceptibility to repeat victimization and poor outcomes.”
The researchers sought to understand better how sexual and intimate partner violence are experienced by women with disabilities across partners, and how these experiences impact the women’s lives (e.g., psychologically, behaviorally, physically, and academically). The authors conducted a qualitative study, engaging in semi-structured interviews with participants. They used thematic analysis to review the interview data and develop themes. The authors explain that “the goal of qualitative research is not to quantify experiences” but to better understand the lived experience of participants.
Students included in the study were women with disabilities who had previously experienced sexual or intimate partner violence. A total of 27 women were interviewed (67% White, 67% heterosexual). All women in the study reported disabilities related to mental health (e.g., depression, anxiety, PTSD) or behavioral conditions (e.g., ADHD). Seventy-four percent of women reported having a mental health or behavior diagnosis before experiencing at least one event of sexual or intimate partner violence.
The authors find that sexual violence is “pervasive in college women with a disability” both in casual sex settings and within the context of a relationship. They identify the following themes:
Sexual Violence in Hookups: The researchers identify that perpetrators often physically isolated participants and that alcohol was commonly involved. One participant described, “I felt that consent was not given at all because I was very, very drunk at the time… I only remember flashes of what happened.”
The authors also report that abusers sometimes used the participant’s mental health diagnosis as a means “to manipulate an emotional connection.” For example, a participant stated, “He had also just been diagnosed with depression… so we were on the same medication, and I think he was sort of using that as a, as a way to uh, sort of like common ground like uh sort of trying to relate to me.”
Sexual Violence in Ongoing Relationships: Sexual violence within the context of a longer term relationship often involved verbal intimidation and at times physical violence. A participant described:
“He would tell me things like I had to do certain things cause that’s what girlfriends do… and then he would like play a mind game… pretending to get really depressed and upset about it and pretending to have really low self-esteem, so I’d be like ‘Okay,’ and I would do it just to kind of make him feel better and that kind of went on for years.”
Intimate Partner Violence in Ongoing Relationships: The researchers report:
“Disability-specific abuse manifested in several ways, such as the abuser using disability-specific name calling such as “crazy, “bipolar,” and “moron”; putting women down because of a disability (e.g., “[He would say] ‘you always get so emotional, you need your safe space’”); saying women are undesirable because of a disability (“He would call me every name in the book [laugh] and uh similar things like ‘No one else is going to love you’ and like ‘I’m all that you’re going to ever have.’”); and blaming women’s prior sexual victimizations on their disability.”
Social Isolation, Threats/Intimidation, Technology-Related Abuse: The researchers find that abusers often relied on social isolation and threats. They often used technology, such as sending threats over social media or texts or requiring partners to send pictures to prove their whereabouts. The authors report, “as an extension of threats and intimidation, in addition to name calling directed at women’s disability (e.g., “bipolar”), other misogynistic name calling was commonplace (e.g., “bitch,” “whore,” “slut”) in these longer term SV/IPV relationships.”
Consequences of Abuse: “All but one participant experienced exacerbated mental health consequences (e.g., depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation/attempts, and stress) associated with SV/IPV victimization,” state the researchers. Adverse experiences were behavioral (e.g., being less social, increased substance use), physical (e.g., difficulty sleeping, pregnancy concerns) and academic (e.g., skipping class, worse grades).
One participant described, “Just like I thought, yeah I think, I like my anxiety got worse, I think, like physically, you know, like I was just kind of, you know, emotionally needy, I like gained weight, I think it’s just stress levels and eating and not going to class, like all of it together, like I think my health declined.”
The authors recommend that colleges create safe spaces for women on campus and ensure that campus sexual assault programs collaborate with disability services. The researchers also call for more research on how and when college women with disabilities seek services after experiencing sexual or intimate partner violence.
The authors conclude, “Our study adds information about what is needed, nationwide, to continue improving campus programs for SV/IPV, including prevention programs and support services tailored to the specific needs and vulnerabilities of women with underlying 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. Advance online publication. doi:10.1089/jwh.2016.6279 (Abstract)