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Sexual Violence of College Women Targets Their Disabilities

Amy Bonomi

College women with mental health or behavioral disabilities are experiencing sexual violence and intimate partner violence that involves intimidation, name-calling and humiliation that specifically targets their disability, according to a new study.

Michigan State University researchers examined patterns of sexual violence and intimate partner violence aimed at female college students with a mental health-related or behavioral disability and the health effects of this abuse.

“Our results underscore that sexual violence and relationship violence continue to be a problem on college campuses and have adverse consequences for women across many life domains – mental, physical and academic,” said Amy Bonomi, lead author and a national authority of sexual violence against women.

“Campuses nationwide must continue investing in programs that improve response to sexual violence and relationship violence,” said Amy Bonomi, chairperson of MSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies. “This includes primary prevention programs and support services for the specific needs of women with mental health conditions.”

The researchers studied female college students with mental health disabilities, such as bipolar disorder, or behavioral disabilities, such as ADHD, who had experienced at least one instance of sexual violence. It’s the first study to explore the detailed narratives of college women with an underlying disability across multiple abusive partners, said Bonomi, chairperson and professor in MSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

Specific findings include:

  • Women reported sexual violence within “hook-up settings” and/or recurring sexual violence with a long-term partner. For some women, sexual violence spanned multiple abusive partners. Hook-ups included one-night stands or sexual relationships over a one- or two-week period.
  • Women in chronically abusive relationships tended to suffer disability-specific abuse (e.g., name-calling and humiliation that specifically targeted their disability), social isolation, threats/intimidation and technology-related abuse.
  • Women experiencing sexual violence in hook-up settings said alcohol was a common facilitator, with some abusers using their disability to manipulate a sexual connection.
  • Women victimized by sexual violence suffered poor mental health consequences, such as suicidal ideation/attempts, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
  • Women also suffered adverse behavioral (e.g., becoming less social, avoiding campus areas such as cafeterias), physical (e.g., problems sleeping, bruising, pregnancy concerns, STDs) and academic outcomes (e.g., skipping and/or dropping class, grades suffering).

Bonomi’s co-authors are Emily Nichols, Rebecca Kammes and Troye Green, graduate and undergraduate student research assistants in MSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

  • excerpted from the College of Social Science website

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