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Cory Silverberg

Research on Sexual Violence Against Men with Disabilities

By October 17, 2011

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The numbers vary, but every research enterprise that has asked young people and adults who live with disabilities about their experience of sexual violence reports that their experience of sexual violence is substantially greater. In fact many studies around the world have found that in any given group, if you're disabled you're more likely to have experienced sexual violence than not.

Researchers and service providers who are interested in working on reducing sexual violence usually focus their efforts on women and children. More often than not when they go out to learn about people's experience with sexual victimization, or when they create a service (like a counseling center, a hotline, a website) for people who have experienced sexual violence, they exclude people with disabilities. This is an aspect of ableism which keeps people who are already at an increased risk of violence even more at risk.

So it should come as no surprise that when it comes to sexual violence one of the most marginalized populations, a group of people we know the least about, are people who identify as men and are disabled.

A new research paper published last week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine used data from an annual telephone-based health survey to look at how many men with disabilities have experienced some form of sexual violence. It's the first population-based study to examine sexual violence against men with disabilities. The paper drew on data from over 25,000 people collected between 2005 and 2009.

For the survey people were identified as having a disability if they indicated that they "had limitations because of physical, mental, or emotional problems; any health problem that required use of special equipment; trouble learning, remembering, or concentrating because of a health problem or impairment; or a physical, mental, emotional, or communication-related disability." Sexual violence was broken down into three categories: "rape" "unwanted sexual touching" and "unwanted sexual exposure".

13.9% of men with disabilities reported experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime, compared with 3.7% of men without disabilities. Other findings include:

  • Men with disabilities were 4.4 times more likely to have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives compared to non-disabled men.
  • They were 4.9 times more likely to have experiences sexual violence in the past year.
  • Disabled men were also more likely to experience sexual violence than non-disabled women.

They analyzed data for women and found that women with disabilities were also at significantly greater risk than non-disabled women, something we already know well because there has been more research with disabled women.

Even though the discrepancy is terrible, as someone who works with lots of people with disabilities and has many people with lived experience of disability in my own life, I have to say that these numbers seem low to me. One likely reason for this is that the people who filled out this survey were not living in institutions (where abuse rates are much higher) and they had to be able to take the survey on the phone, which would exclude people who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (who are themselves 2 to 6 times more likely to experience abuse).

In their conclusion, the authors call for large scale sexual violence research to be more inclusive of people who live with disabilities. The paper is an important contribution to a conversation that needs to change. My one wish for this paper, and ones that follow, is that they try to think of inclusion a little more broadly. In this paper, as in practically all research and action in the area of sexual violence, gender is treated as if it's a binary, two options, men and women.

But whenever we artificially divide people into two groups, in this case men vs. women, we are leaving a whole lot of people out. It's true that we need to be thinking about sexual violence always in the context of gender. But we need to move past the binary and past single-identity understandings of people, so we can find ways to have conversations about sexual violence that include gender, race, class, and embodiment (or disability). People don't experience life (or violence) as if they only have one identity, and when researchers carve experience up in these ways, the work not only stops resonating without the people it's meant to help, it actually leaves out those who are often experiencing the greatest amount of violence.

Read more - Yahoo News: Men With Disabilities More Vulnerable to Sexual Assault

Related:
Sexual Violence Research Initiative: Sexual Violence Against People with Disabilities

DAWN Ontario: Sexual Assault and Women with Disabilities

About.com's Guide to Deafness: Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault of Deaf Women

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