By Amber A. Milks, The Post Journal
Sexual violence includes nonverbal, verbal and physical sexual harassment; sexual assault; rape; sexual battery; and forced sodomy.
Sexual violence occurs most frequently between those who are or have been in an intimate relationship as well as between new or former acquaintances, but it can also occur between strangers in both opposite and same sex encounters.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention divides sexual violence into five categories: a completed sex act without the victim’s consent, an attempted sex act without the victim’s consent, abusive sexual conduct, non-contact sexual abuse and unspecified sexual violence.
To satiate their desire for dominance, offenders often seek out victims they perceive to be the most accessible, vulnerable and isolated. According to the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, members of the disabled community may be at greater risk of sexual violence than the general population.
A disability is characterized by the CDC as ”limitations in mental or physical function, caused by one or more health conditions, in carrying out socially defined tasks and roles that individuals are expected to be able to do.”
Disabilities vary from difficulties with mobility to cognitive, visual, hearing or speech impairments. Perpetrators that prey upon the disabled are typically male, with 88-98 percent being known to the victim. According to the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, victimization of disabled persons often occurs within the home by health care providers, family members, acquaintances or others with disabilities.
The dynamics involved with having a disability make the already devastating offense of sexual violence even more difficult to bear. In most cases, the disability in itself creates barriers which prevent the victim from advocating on his or her own behalf.
The perpetrator may have a financial hold or social control over the victim. There may also be little access to victim support services due to lack of transportation or knowledge, especially in cases that involve the perpetrator being the primary caregiver which would enhance isolation of the victim.
Disabled victims may also have difficulty holding credibility as they may be perceived as less competent when disclosing abuse. Sexuality also plays a role in that some may view members of the disabled community as asexual beings that are incapable of being sexually abused.
A number of statistics regarding sexual violence within the disabled community are outlined below:
Among developmentally disabled adults, approximately 83 percent of females and 32 percent of males are victims of sexual assault. Johnson, I., Sigler, R. 2000. ”Forced Sexual Intercourse Among Intimates,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 15 (1).
15,000 to 19,000 persons with developmental disabilities are raped each year in the United States. Sobsey, D. 1994. ”Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities: The End of Silent Acceptance?”
Of the developmentally disabled victims, 49 percent will experience 10 or more abusive incidents in their lifetime. Valenti-Heim, D., Schwartz, L. 1995. The Sexual Abuse Interview for Those with Developmental Disabilities.
One study reported that 40 percent of women with physical disabilities reported being sexually assaulted. Young, M.E., Nosek, M.A., Howland, C.A., Chanpong, G. Rintala, D.H. 1997. ”Prevalence of Abuse of Women with Physical Disabilities.” Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Special Issue. Vol. 78 (12 Suppl. 5) S34-s3
Among persons with psychiatric disabilities, the rate of violent criminal victimization including sexual assault was two times greater than the general population (8.2 percent vs. 3.1 percent) Hidday, V.A., Swartz, M., Swanson, J., Borum, R., Wagner, H.R. 1999. ”Criminal Victimization of Persons with Severe Mental Illness.” Psychiatric Services 50: 62-68.
Only 3 percent of sexual abuse cases involving people with developmental disabilities are ever reported. Valenti-Heim & Schwartz, 1995. The Sexual Abuse Interview for Those with Developmental Disabilities.
Up to 99 percent of women with disabilities who are assaulted know the perpetrator. Network of Victim and Assistance & Berkeley Planning Associates, 1997.
It is vital to remember that it can be extremely difficult for any survivor of sexual violence to report the incident or seek assistance. Victims may carry a stigma believing that they will be blamed for the assault or that they will not be taken seriously. Members of the disabled community have the additional barriers affiliated with their disability that enhance reluctance of reporting.
Sexual violence is a crime of power and control, not lust or sexual desire. The Chautauqua County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault has scheduled a variety of awareness activities throughout National Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April.
For more information, contact Project Crossroads at 483-7718 or the Chautauqua County Domestic Violence/Rape Crisis Hotline at 661-3897 or 800-252-8748.