Blog, The Sex and Disability Study

Abuse Statistics

This is the second of several posts containing portions of my feasibility study looking at the need for an independent sexuality and social skills agency serving teens and adults with ID/DD and their supporters.

Sexuality needs to be addressed proactively is to aid in abuse prevention. Because self-reporting is rare and in the past, was seen as unreliable which made prosecution of crimes against people with ID difficult, most information about abuse statistics come from recorded histories, word of mouth, and medical evidence of sexual activity. Rates of abuse and assault are at epidemic levels.

While no one would outwardly say they are for the assault and abuse of people with disabilities, lack of forethought and training of direct service staff, as well as systemic issues in hiring, such as insufficient background checks and the lack of follow through in defining relevant policies and expectations until a problem has occurred, contribute towards those ends. Pat Carney, the sexuality and social skills staff trainer for the Commonwealth, had this to say about this dichotomy: “We must challenge ourselves to act in ways that are congruent with what we say we believe.  Our conversations should focus on identifying the skills people need to pursue healthy relationships, and creating environments where it can happen with manageable risk. We need to teach people social skills and the legal, social and safety rules that guide healthy relationships.” (Q&R Brief #4).

People with disabilities are at a higher risk for sexual abuse, assault and rape than any other socially constructed population with estimates placing the level of abuse at 1.5%-3.4% higher than typical peers. With the national statistics for prevalence of sexual assault or abuse being 17% for men and 25% for women, it is more likely than not that a people with disabilities will be assaulted in their lifetime, with reported statistics putting men with disabilities at 32% and women between 39 and 83%. One of the best strategies for preventing abuse is sexuality education, starting from an early age.

Figure 1 (DPPC, NCDSV)

Although the general stigma attached to the sexuality of people with disabilities is becoming less, many people still hold on to the belief that comprehensive sexuality education is inappropriate for young people with disabilities, citing a plethora of reasons.  People with disabilities will find sex education confusing or won’t understand it. People with disabilities will get the idea that sex is ok. If we teach people with disabilities about sex, they will become sexual predators because they can’t control their impulses; if we teach people with disabilities about sex, they will want to have sex and then they will make babies, who will be a burden on society. People with disabilities have no interest in sex.

Contrary to public opinion, people with disabilities are interested in sex, and demonstrably have an earlier entrance into the sexual world than their typical peers. In their paper, “Sexuality of 15/16-Year-Old Girls and Boys With and Without Modest Disabilities, “ Elinor Brunnberg, M. Lindén Boström and Mats Berglund used the Swedish Life and Health: Young People 2005 and 2007 survey to support the theory that young people with disabilities are engaging in sexual concourse. The survey was voluntary and self-reporting, meaning that the students were answering the questions and data was culled without corroboration.

The collected data was from approximately three thousand students in what would equate to their junior year of high school and asked them to complete a survey regarding their sexual debut, living environment, use of drugs or alcohol and attitude towards school. When the data was interpreted by the authors, it showed not only that people with disabilities were engaging in sexual intercourse, but were more likely to have had sexual intercourse than their typical peers. The margin between the categories of non-disabled youth and several categories of people with disabilities (including hearing impairments, learning disabilities, motor disabilities and intellectual disabilities) ranged from 10-25%.

Furthermore, a study from Pamela Pinkston Scenario at University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh offers more a more detailed breakdown of abuse. Compared to the typical population, people with disabilities are 70% more likely to be assaulted. Another startling gap between the typical population and people with disabilities regards the likelihood of multiple assaults. In the typical population, women who have been assaulted once are 39% more likely to be assaulted again. In the disabled community, the likelihood is only 49%, but represents an incidence of ten or more assaults.

Figure 2 (DPPC, UWOSH, NCDSV)

The largest disparity is between the percentage of disclosed assaults and assaults that are reported to law enforcement. In the typical community, of the 25% of assaults disclosed to interviewers, counselors and crisis workers, 16% (of the total) are then reported to the authorities. (NCDSV) According to the DDPC, of the 62% of assaults that are reported, only 3% are filed with law enforcement.

Figure 3 (UWOSH)

The UWOSH data shows in the disabled community, the biggest danger lies at home. Nearly all assaults are perpetrated by people known to the victim, with only 9% of perpetrators falling into the “strangers” category, compared to 20% in the typical population. Knowing that the majority of perpetrators are also in the category of people who identify as protectors informs the course of action for reducing assaults: education of staff and people with disabilities.