Penn Nursing Study Finds Skin Color Plays Significant Role in Failure to Detect Rape Injuries

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Media Contact:Joy McIntyre | joymc@nursing.upenn.edu | 215-898-5074
Media Contact:Jill DiSanto-Haines | jdisanto@upenn.edu | 215-898-4820October 21, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — Researchers the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing found that victims of sexual assault with dark skin are less likely than those with light skin to have their injuries identified, documented and treated, leaving them disadvantaged in the health-care and criminal-justice systems, according to a new study published in the November issue of The American Journal of Emergency Medicine.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, cases of rape/assault of darker-skinned women occur more often but tend to go unreported, when compared with cases involving white women, in part because women do not report sexual victimization when there is “lack of [physical] proof” that an incident occurred.

“This finding is novel and important with respect both to clinical assessments and the decisions made within the criminal justice process,” said Marilyn Sommers, the principal investigator of the study and a professor in the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

Sommers’ study, in which 120 volunteers underwent a forensic examination after consensual sexual intercourse, found:

• 55 percent of the sample suffered at least one post-sex external genital injury, such as a tear, abrasion, redness or swelling, with injuries identified 68 percent of the time in white women, but only 43 percent of the time in women with darker skin. Significant disparities were only evident for external genitalia.

• Nearly three times the number of injuries to the external genitalia were identified in white women.

• In this study, Penn researchers developed a computerized model that’s able to predict the extent of external genitalia injury in an assault case, regardless of a victim’s skin color.

“The findings from this study have clinical ramifications for those performing forensic sexual assault exams,” Sommers said. “Practitioners need to increase their vigilance when examining individuals with dark skin to ensure all injuries are identified, treated and documented.”

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