MSU study examines sexual violence against female college students with disabilities

MSU Today

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.

The researchers, reporting in the Journal of Women’s Health, show how sexual violence and disability-specific abuse can worsen mental health outcomes for women with a disability. These negative health effects were typically accompanied by other adverse behavioral, physical and academic outcomes.

“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,” Bonomi said. “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).

One study participant with three relationships involving sexual violence (two victimizations that occurred during hookups and one with a long-term boyfriend) told interviewers that her depression “got significantly worse,” she contemplated suicide and worried about failing school: ‘‘… I decided my options were either I was going to fail school, I was going to commit suicide or both, so … I was definitely feeling that I … was only good for sex and I wasn’t useful for any other thing and I was just feeling super worthless and blaming myself for everything that had happened.”

Susan G. Kornstein, a medical doctor and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Women’s Health, said the study contributes to our knowledge about the potential mental health and related impact of violence against women committed by sexual partners.

“By demonstrating the particular vulnerability of women with a disability to the adverse health effects of sexual abuse, these results highlight the need for appropriate mental health services and sexual violence prevention programs on college campuses,” said Kornstein.

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.