Study Explores Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence in College Women with Disabilities

Content Note: This article discusses sexual violence and intimate partner violence experienced by college women with disabilities. The article includes direct quotes from survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence describing their experiences.


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.”

Photo Credit: Meg Nicole, Flickr

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)


  1. Women can dish it out too. I met one in AA. I knew better when she said that her ex said she has borderline personality disorder when the subject of mental health stuff came up as it usually does in conversations about recovery. I totally ignored that red flag right in my face.

    I kept landing in these no win situations, its was like she had a calculator or computer program like a chess game algorithm to move me into one no win situation after another.

    Ok so I admit it in one fight I called her a borderline psycho, but no one reading this was there, she was being a total borderline psycho.

    That’s it I am not sure I want to make these confessions here but this article is so one sided. Women with so called mental health conditions can tear a dudes to piece, rip out hearts and stop on them over and over like its a sport. I know enough about the condition no one I would assume no wants all that turmoil and chaos that goes with it but I had to run away from it.

    But then a friend of mine she dated a guy who was like the article described, he was such a POS hypomanic all the time, gambling, relapsing and getting arrested in her car and she would call me to help fetch it out of the impound yard. I did not know how bad it was but she started asking what should I do and I just kept pointing to the gambling that’s such a looser activity cause the house always wins no matter what the game. Horses and online poker there is no future in that complete dumbshit . He had her as like a hostage till he pulled the relapse and get arrested thing happened again and she finally took off for another state. I don’t know what I would call her diagnosis to make the story more clear. Ttotal ADD and I guess bipolar her grasp on reality let go sometimes. Dumb labels but they were the I guess the disability that he took advantage of. He was mental too but you can be “disabled” and a POS at the same time.

    I did not like how the article painted the guys as automatically at fault but then thinking about what that dude put my friend through something needs to be done to help these women. This story is 3 years long and she never once told me the extent of how bad it was until it was over and she moved, that is the scary part.

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  2. Boo fucking hoo, cat.

    Rape can happen to men, too. But the odds are that the perps are MEN.

    25% of American women suffer from sexual violence…in my own life I have *very nearly* been raped numerous times. My mom was raped, my sister was raped and countless friends of mine have been raped. Sexual trauma is pivotal for those seeking mental health ‘services’ only to have the mental health ‘services’ inflict further damages.

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    • I think the important point you may be missing, Cat, is that while abuse and even sexual violence can happen to men at the hands of women, our CULTURE justifies and minimizes the presence and impact of sexual violence and rape culture on women. While a man may have a specific bad experience with an abusive female, almost ALL women have to almost constantly work to assure their safety from rape and abuse. As one person said wisely, “When a man gets a woman’s number, his biggest fear is that she gave him a fake number because she doesn’t like him. When a woman gets a man’s number, her greatest fear is that he might rape or kill her.” Women have to put up with a constant onslaught of come-ons, unwanted touching, lewd remarks, “jokes” about their sexual value, and put downs about their appearance, day in and day out throughout their lives. There is simply no comparable experience in a man’s life, unless he’s part of some other disempowered group, but not just because he’s a man.

      I hope that clarifies things. Men and women have very different cultural experiences, even if some men do experience abuse by women in relationships.

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      • Additionally, I think the inclusion of this article on MIA is important because of the number of women who experience sexual assaults and trauma who have these experiences discounted and are told they are “mentally ill” because they are anxious, depressed and/or angry about their experiences is enormous. When I briefly did involuntary detention evaluations in Vancouver, WA, I found many women who were diagnosed with “bipolar disorder” who were sexual assault or child molestation victims. It seemed that their history of trauma was either not known or was intentionally discounted in favor of a biological explanation and a drug-based solution. So this issue is very relevant to our work here.

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        • Absolutely correct, Steve, “this issue is very relevant to our work here.” Especially given that “the prevalence of childhood trauma exposure within borderline personality disorder patients has been evidenced to be as high as 92% (Yen et al., 2002). Within individuals diagnosed with psychotic or affective disorders, it reaches 82% (Larsson et al., 2012).”

          What the “mental health” industry does not seem to understand is that drugs don’t “cure” child or sexual assault injustices – justice, by incarcerating the perpetrators, does. Yet there was zero talk in this blog about the importance of arresting and convicting the rapists, the theorized “solution” is “safe spaces”??? No, it’s time to start arresting the rapists and child molesters, instead of turning sexual and child abuse victims into the mentally ill with the psychiatric drugs en mass, to shut them up.

          And just an FYI, the “borderline” and “psychotic or affective disorder” treatment recommendations, which call for combining the antidepressants and/or antipsychotics, can create what appears to the doctors to be both the negative and positive symptoms of “schizophrenia,” via what is actually neuroleptic induced deficit syndrome and anticholinergic toxidrome.

          Today’s “mental health” industry is nothing but one gigantic, very profitable, child and sexual abuse covering up industry, and that’s according to their own medical literature. Arresting the child molesters and rapists would be much more beneficial to the majority within our society. Although that would greatly decrease the number of people requiring “mental health services,” which is likely why the need for “mental health providers” to abide by the laws of our country was not even mentioned as a possible solution to this “patriarchal” societal problem.

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      • I think it’s important to also understand the definition of intersectional feminism as well, which at its most basic simply says that the lower down on the totem pole you are socially (via gender, race, national origin, religious identity, educational status, wealth, family origin, age, etc) the greater impact negative life experiences can have on you. This is a concept that even women struggle with when told that another woman with less social status could have life even harder than she does. When all you can see is your own struggle it’s hard to acknowledge a place of relative privilege compared to another person. So white women often struggle to acknowledge that life could be harder for a black woman, affluent women struggle to see things from the point of view of poor women, able bodied women can struggle to understand the perspective of a dis/abled woman, and many women struggle to acknowledge their own advantage over, for example, a non-English speaking first generation immigrant man or an undocumented man.

        This comes round full circle to the idea of privilege and, personally, I believe it takes a great degree of empathy to acknowledge the ways in which one is privileged even while being part of a minority or marginalized group.

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