How you can help prevent sexual assault of people with disabilities

Reading Time: 10 minutes Studies of sexual assault consistently show a higher rate of victimization of people with disabilities compared to nondisabled people. The good news? You can get involved.

Sexual assault on campus: Survivors look to their community

Reading Time: 9 minutes

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Note: This feature contains graphic details about sexual assault and violence.

We asked about sexual assault, and you told us. The incidents you described occurred in residence halls and a “rape closet,” at parties and in parking lots, at high school, at home, on social media, and beyond. They included indecent exposure and groping, stalking and sexual coercion, and rape. The aggressors were friends, acquaintances, strangers, coworkers, intimate partners, and relatives.

The vast majority of accounts came from women who had been sexually assaulted by men—as children, teens, or adults (often, as college students). We also heard from men who had been assaulted, sometimes by women. They had struggled with the societal unwillingness to recognize their experiences as assault.

Student Health 101 thanks every student who responded. The students quoted here are identified by their year and college or university, or not, depending on their preference.

In the residence hall and the rape closet

Among women students who’d been sexually assaulted as adults or children, shame and self-doubt were common themes. Survivors’ self-blame reflects the blame that comes at them from society.

“I was raped in my residence hall room”
“Many questions were asked. ‘Had you been drinking?’ ‘What were you wearing?’ ‘Who?’ ‘Did you fight back?’ ‘What time?’

“What I really needed to hear was ‘I believe you,’ ‘I love you,’ ‘It’s not your fault.’

“The society we live in teaches us to ask questions rather than listen. Survivors deserve more than that. We deserve to know that those who love us will be there for us no matter what.

“I was raped in my residence hall room, in sweatpants and one of the largest T-shirts I own and a sports bra, hair up and no make-up, without a drop of alcohol or drugs in my body. It was late, and this young man was someone I had had relations with before, but the fact of the matter was that I said ‘no’ and he did it anyways. That is what rape is: sexual intercourse without consent.

“Please listen to someone, rather than question them, the next time they come to you in confidence. Tell them you believe them. Tell them it wasn’t their fault. Tell them you love them. Tell them until they believe it.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Lasell College, Newton, Massachusetts

The “rape closet”
“I was a freshman at a party. My ex-boyfriend and a roommate put me in a closet under the stairs to sleep off my drunkenness. I was told later that a male I did not know told them they should all ‘run a train’ on me (have sex with me). They said no. At around 5 a.m., that man came in and choked and raped me.

“My ex and his roommates started blaming me for the rape and making references to the ‘rape closet’ on Facebook. They told me if I wasn’t drunk that night it wouldn’t have happened. They called me and my roommates (who were very supportive of me) the ‘rape pity party brigade.’

“I started having panic attacks. My heart would race and I would hyperventilate with no cause. I was diagnosed with PTSD, put on anxiety medication, and underwent counseling. I ended up going through with a court case. Getting justice is possible. He got three years in prison and had to register as a lifetime sex offender. I found out that when he was 14 he raped a 5-year-old. I highly doubt I was his only adult victim.”
—First-year graduate student, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, California

“I bet I can make you love men”

In the residence hall and the rape closet

“I bet I can make you love men”

“He laughed. ‘You’re too pretty to be a lesbian! Have you ever had sex with a guy?’

“I said I hadn’t had my first experience with either gender. He replied, ‘If you haven’t slept with a guy, you have no idea whether or not you like it; I bet I could make you love men.’ He grabbed me by my hair. I was kissed and touched with force and without consent. He kept telling me to stop fighting it, learn to enjoy it, and not to be a prude.

“I felt so empty. I felt like a part of me had been taken away with him and that I had been made dirty. I have come to terms that this was an act of violence and had nothing to do with who I am. People need to know that [by speaking up] they can prevent other people from getting hurt too.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Utah State University, Logan

“It’s true what they say: You freeze”

“It’s true what they say: You freeze when it happens. When you see stories like this and it hasn’t happened to you, you know you’d yell for help, you’d push him/her away in disgust. But it never happens that way.

“I was in an art gallery and he just started talking to me. He was nice and had a soft voice. We talked about God. We walked around the gallery together; ‘Come on, let me show you something.’ We’d pause in front of pieces of art for some time in silence. That’s the only part of the story I can bring myself to talk about.

“It’s true what they say: You blame yourself. Before, he looked down at my legs and asked, ‘Aren’t you cold?’ But he was smiling. I should’ve known.

“I feel strange when men touch me, even by accident. I feel hot inside and I just want to curl up. It has affected me to this day. And it wasn’t even that bad compared to other stories. It wasn’t rape. Other women are much stronger than me.”
—First-year undergraduate, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon

In no-man’s land

Men’s stories involved male and female aggressors. A recurring theme was society’s resistance to the concept that men can be sexually assaulted.

“You’re gay—you must be liking it”
“I was part of a sports team at my high school, trying to be a normal teenager. The other guys on the team labeled me gay, homo, fag, and I couldn’t tell them otherwise. One late night after practice, they locked the door of the change room. They stripped me naked. Each guy held me down so I couldn’t escape, and took their turn forcing me to do things I did not want to do. ‘You’re gay so you must be liking it anyway,’ they said.

“It haunts me to this day. There are times when I go to sleep and all I can see are their disgusting faces holding me down. People who haven’t been sexually assaulted never understand. How could they? You need to seek closure within yourself. The only reason I can wake from the nightmare is because I took it upon myself to charge every single one of them. I made sure that they either spent time in jail or were charged a huge chunk of money.

“Although someone might not understand what you’re going through, you need to tell someone. You need to report what happened, who, when, where, everything, to the best of your abilities. To the people who are trying to help those who have been victims, be an open hand, a shoulder to cry on.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton

“My friends would say guys can’t get raped”

“My friends would say guys can’t get raped”: Frat party, friends, and foster care

“My girlfriend trusts me less after I told her”
“At the end of the academic year, I became homeless, simply because my off-campus leases ended/started one week apart. Twice in that week I felt very pressured to perform sex acts with female friends who let me sleep over. I felt diminished by both events.

“I’ve been completely honest with my new partner, and she has judged me, held me responsible because I’m the man in the situation. She trusts me less because I was honest with her. She is also a victim, and it hurts a lot that she can’t seem to understand my side.”
—Undergraduate, New York

“My friends would say guys can’t get raped”
“We were dancing and kissing at a frat party. Without asking, she reached down my pants and tried to give me a hand job, and made motions toward having sex there and then. I was uncomfortable doing it in front of people in a crowded basement. She was very drunk and ended up causing more pain than pleasure.

“I wasn’t sure what to do. It’s a rare situation where a guy stops a girl from initiating sexual contact. Her friends dragged her away, probably thinking I was trying to take advantage. I haven’t spoken to her since. I haven’t mentioned it to anybody. I feel my male friends would wonder why I am not happy about it, and my female friends would tell me that guys can’t get raped.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

“I was assaulted by my caregiver”
“I was sexually assaulted by the caregiver when I was in a foster home. Her husband (a truck driver) was gone, and she took advantage of me. I was 13 years old at the time and unsure of what was going on. I tried to report it to DHS and was told it was all a fantasy. I became very reserved toward everyone, became a loner for many years. I didn’t trust anyone for a long time.”
—Undergraduate, Iowa

Abused online, coerced, and stalked

Survivors described abuses across the continuum of sexual assault and harassment.

“I could not look in the mirror, I hated myself so much”
“I was hanging out with some older people I was trying to be friends with, but was having a hard time getting into the group. The group leader said he would let me be friends with them if I gave him head. Desperate for acceptance, I did it. He kept his word and let me hang out with them, but afterward all I wanted was to be alone. I could not look in the mirror without wanting to yell, scream, cry, and pull my hair out because I hated myself so much.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of North Texas, Denton

Clicking, grabbing, homophobia, and stalking

Clicking, grabbing, homophobia, and stalking: The continuum of sexual violence

Homophobia at the mall
“I’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend for three years, and am proud and happy to hold his hand in public. One time when we were at the mall, a group of about 10 men followed us. They said, ‘Yo, my boy needs some lovin,’ and ‘You gaga don’t belong here.’ I do not believe in confrontation, but the moment we got into the car I cried my eyes out. I could not believe grown men could treat us like that. They have no idea what we are like, where we come from, etc. For them to demean us in such a way is inexcusable. But I am stronger than those men. I use that incident to allow me to be strong and always smile at the haters. I am happy where I am, and they will not bring me down.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey

“People think the assault made me asexual”
“I was studying abroad. I was walking under a bridge in daylight, with people around, when the man who had been sleeping there grabbed my chest. I have dysphoria [emotional discomfort] about my chest, and being forcibly reminded that I am not flat at the same time as being assaulted was a really bad combination. I spent a while crying. It was a good month before I was able to go back under the bridge.

“The school had already tried to have me sent home because of my autism. I realized that presenting them with an actual safety issue was an involuntary ticket home, so I didn’t report it. Now that I am home, my dysphoria is a lot worse than before. My asexuality helps me avoid some possible triggers, since there’s not going to be any consensual sexual acts and flashbacks. But people assume the asexuality is because of the assault, when actually I was asexual before.

“Even if your story fits none of the dominant narratives, what happened is still real, can still be traumatizing, and it’s OK to need support dealing with it, whatever support looks like for you.”
—First-year graduate student, University of Rhode Island, Kingston

“One click can really hurt”
“My information was pulled from Facebook and Snapchat and manipulated to be posted on websites that contained adult sexual content. I was confused: I was receiving calls and messages from people on those sites. I tried going to the police and university staff. Now, I always tell people to be wary of things they post. If I see cases like that, I try to make my friends understand how one action, click, or hurtful message can really harm someone else.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of California, Irvine

The impact on survivors and communities

Survivors lost their trust in others, their sense of safety, and their self-belief. Some described the impact on their relationships, capturing the harm that sexual violence inflicts on communities and social networks.

“My feelings would never matter”
“It heavily impacted my college life, how I felt about myself and my social environments. I was just an object. My opinions or feelings would never matter. I wasn’t good enough. I felt used and scared. I was repulsed by myself, by my reflection. To this day, what happened to me has given me a general distrust for everyone.”
—Undergraduate, Massachusetts

What sexual assault means for survivors and communities

“I couldn’t hang out with my guy friends”
“Afterward it was hard to hang out with some of my best friends, because they were guys. I was so afraid of guys.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of West Georgia, Carrollton

“I haven’t trusted anyone since I was 15”
“That was the moment I stopped trusting anyone. Literally, if you said the sun was shining, I would go and verify. I am constantly worried someone is trying to hurt me.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, University of Alaska, Anchorage

“I was always on guard”
“I ended up leaving the apartment complex [at college] so I didn’t have to see the guy again. I didn’t want to go out as much, I didn’t want to be alone with people, I didn’t want to drink with other people. I was always on guard. I started making up excuses. I would say, ‘I have so much homework,’ or, ‘I don’t feel well and I just can’t go out.’ Since I switched to a different college in another state, I’m starting to open up a bit more. Now I feel that not every person is the same. Nine times out of ten, nothing will happen.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Survivors’ messages to survivors

“You still deserve good in the world”
“Your body isn’t ruined or dirty because someone else touched it without permission. You deserved good in the world before it happened, and you still deserve good after. Please don’t let someone else’s ill intentions become your new view of yourself and your body. Talking to someone you trust really helps.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Lowell

“My boyfriend listened without judgment”
“Looking back, I wish I had told more people. Everyone needs support, whether they recognize it or not. It’s not something that you need to experience alone. My boyfriend was very supportive. He was almost as mad as I was at the police. The biggest thing he did is that he listened without judgment.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

“I can move on and do great things”
“Something that helped me is to first tell someone who you trust and who you trust will have the right reaction. Second, to know that even though it hurts, it is not yours to carry. I believe God wants me to give him the sadness and anger so that I can move on and do great things. I was not in college at the time. I was only two years old.”
—Undergraduate, New Hampshire

“Everyone has the right to safety on campus”
“Being stalked during college is terrifying, especially when your stalker lives in the same dorm. Seek help, make it known, let as many people know about your situation as possible. Let staff, educators, directors, etc., know. Do not stop until results have been made that ensure your safety. Everyone has the right to live in safety while attending campus.”
—Graduate student, Canada

How to take that knife out
“There’s not a thing I can do to change what happened, but through prayer and forgiveness I was able to walk away from it. If you don’t forgive, it’s like that knife of pain they put into you; you’re just digging it around in your belly, saying, ‘This is what happened to me, look how they hurt me! Look how sharp this knife is!’

“Forgiveness is the act of pulling that knife out and dropping it. It hurts. It’s not because they deserve to be forgiven. It’s because you deserve to walk free of it. Forgiveness is the only way to take that knife out.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington

Intimate betrayals: Abuse by partners and family members

For many, sexual assault and coercion were part of intimate relationships with boyfriends and husbands (occasionally, girlfriends). Others had been sexually abused by family members during childhood.

A bomb went off
“I didn’t realize it was rape until I was in a social problems class and the professor was talking about date rape. It was like a bomb went off—a total whirlwind, and I was the only one experiencing it. The room was actually spinning.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin-Parkside

“I’ve tried to suppress this memory”
“I would have never called it rape or sexual anything at the time, but lately I just flashback and relive the experience. When I was 12, my uncle told me to lay with him to play a game. He began touching me and asking if I feel ticklish. He told me that these were the places boys will touch and it will make me feel good. He inserted his fingers inside me and kept asking how it felt. All the while my sister, who was about six, was sitting in the corner playing with her dolls. I went to my mother’s room, but I knew she would never believe me. I didn’t want my father angry either. I stood over her bed and walked out and cried on the bathroom floor.

“I never spoke to anyone about this. I never saw a reason to mention it. Thinking back, I feel vulnerable, used up. Whenever I see my uncle at reunions, I just wonder if he truly chose to forget or he knows what he did and regrets it every day, just how I regret I never told my mother. I have tried to suppress this memory for the longest of times. I hope this helps at least someone.”
—Undergraduate, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark

“He said he was thinking of suicide”
“I became roommates with another gay male and he told me he loved me. I said nothing would happen. Every other night he would ask to be with me. He’d turn into a wreck, saying it would make his life better and he’d thought about suicide. One night, when we saw each other at the bar, he sexually assaulted me there.”
—Student, Omaha, Nebraska

How professionals responded

Several survivors who participated in our survey had successfully reported assaults to the police or campus authorities. Others described unhelpful responses from professionals.

The college reporting process
“I was 20 and a student during winter term. I made sure to not lead him on, but it was still out of my control. It made me feel powerless. I had tried to be his friend. I reported to my area coordinator and then later the public safety staff. I had to give a statement at the student board. Long process. Took three months to come up with a verdict.”
—Undergraduate, Oregon

Facing police skepticism
“My boyfriend gave me the courage to go to the [town] police. The police said, ‘You had some history with the guy; is it possible that you said yes in the moment, or that your boyfriend is making you say this?’ I tried to convince the police that I was going to them with the best intentions, that this wasn’t a case of me having regrets the next day. They took a report and sent me on my way. There wasn’t any follow-up. I didn’t talk to anyone on campus about what happened. I didn’t tell my friends. I figured if the police can’t do anything, what could anyone else do?”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Blocked by a school counselor
“I was a freshman in college. It was during a snowstorm, after a beer and a round of MarioKart. He grabbed my neck and threw me into his bedroom, where I was sexually assaulted. The school counselor told me that since I had been drinking and had willingly gone to his apartment, I shouldn’t report it. It took me a long time to get the support I needed to move forward.”
—Undergraduate, Massachusetts

Recovering from camp
“After my first year of college, I worked as a summer camp counselor. I was sexually assaulted by two male counselors in the safe lounge while 15 other counselors watched and did nothing. The camp found me at fault and gave me the option to get over it or quit. It was three years until I told anyone. The aftermath left me depressed, nervous, and afraid of men. When I was 21, I finally decided I wanted to take my life back. That is when I told my parents. After years of therapy and baby steps, I finally feel like I am back to the 18-year-old who left for camp five years ago.”
—Undergraduate, Virginia

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