Someone’s Gotta Say It:
Sexual Abuse & Disabilities: Myths & Realities
By Marina Sampanes Peed, Executive Director of Mosaic Georgia
March is Disabilities Awareness Month, so it is a good time to dispel some myths and talk about how sexual abuse harms many of our most vulnerable kids, friends and neighbors. Disabilities affect a wide range of people with varying degrees of severity. Disabilities include impairments of the body structure/function, or mental function, that limit activities, restrict participation and ability to interact with the world. Not all disabilities are visible to the average observer.
What is Sexual Abuse?
Sexual harms can take many forms including unwanted touching, groping, sexual harassment, sexual coercion, sexual assault, and rape. Other “non-contact” forms include taking explicit images, showing pornography, exposing one’s genitals or asking them to expose themselves.
Invisible Victims & Hidden Harms
In 2022, approximately 15% of the clients we served at Mosaic Georgia had one or more disabilities. Our advocates provide support to the primary victim and non-offending caregivers or loved ones. Working beside survivors, families, law enforcement, and care providers, we see the surprise, fear, and bewilderment after a disclosure. Here are the most common misconceptions we hear, and the untold realities regarding them.
Myth #1: People with disabilities are not at risk for sexual abuse because they are not sexual beings nor sexually active.
Reality: People with disabilities have the same sexual desires and needs as non-disabled people. Because this myth is prevalent, few children and youth with disabilities are taught about their own sexual development and health of their bodies. This information vacuum makes them more vulnerable to people who befriend (groom) them for abusive purposes.
Myth #2: Sexual abuse of people with disabilities is rare.
Reality: Most women with disabilities (83%) will be sexually assaulted in their lives. Half of girls who are deaf have been sexually assaulted compared to 25% of girls who are hearing; 54% of boys who are deaf have been sexually abused compared to 10% of boys who are hearing.
Myth #3: Any sex activity with a disabled person is rape because people with disabilities are not capable of giving consent.
Reality: Consent is a complex issue that depends on many factors, including the individual’s cognitive and communication abilities, understanding of the situation, and level of comfort and safety. While some may have difficulty with communication or decision-making, this does not mean that they are unable to consent to sexual activity. Just like everyone else, it is important to ensure that all parties involved in sexual activity are able to give informed and enthusiastic consent.
Myth #4: People with developmental disabilities are unreliable; they cannot communicate about sexual abuse or understand what is happening to them.
Reality: Most can communicate about sexual abuse – either directly or indirectly. Some may communicate in nonverbal ways, such as through gestures, facial expressions, sign language or assistive technology. It is important for caregivers and advocates to be aware of these communication methods and to take them seriously. It is also important to recognize that people with intellectual or developmental disabilities may understand what is happening to them, even if they have difficulty communicating it.
Myth #5: People with disabilities are not attractive to sexual predators.
Reality: Sexual predators target vulnerable people. Because people with disabilities are often perceived as lacking agency and independence, they can be seen as easy targets for abuse. Issues such as social isolation, dependence on caregivers, lack of sexual health education, and limited resources/support make them more vulnerable to abuse.
Bonus Myth #6: People with disabilities cannot be sexual predators.
Reality: People with disabilities can be both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. It is important to recognize that sexual abuse is a complex issue and can occur in any type of relationship, including between people with disabilities. The Justice Department found that people with intellectual disabilities are even more likely to be raped by someone they know. For women without disabilities, the rapist is a stranger 24 percent of the time, but for a woman with an intellectual disability it is less than 14 percent of the time. Furthermore, often it’s another person with a disability — at a group home, or a day program, or work — who commits the assault. Compiled data from 500 cases of suspected abuse in 2016 showed that 42 percent of the suspected offenders were themselves people with intellectual disabilities. Staff made up 14 percent of the suspects; relatives were 12 percent; and friends, 11 percent. (Shapiro, 2018)
While so many people with disabilities experience some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime, only 3% of sexual abuses are ever reported. This makes a case for increasing awareness of the vulnerabilities, how, when, and where abuses occur, and also develop prevention strategies.
Let us work to create a society that ensures everyone is able to live free from abuse and harm.
For more information:
Shapiro, Joseph (2018)
NPR, The Sexual Assault Epidemic No One Talks About