Why is it that black women are more likely to be victims of rape or other forms of sexual assault than white women, yet they are often more reluctant to report the crime? One reason, suggests a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, is that rape victims with dark skin are less likely to have their physical injuries detected, treated and documented as evidence by the sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) or other health care professionals who examine them.

The study, published in the November 2008 issue of The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, was based on a sample of 120 black and white female volunteers who underwent a forensic examination after having consensual sex. More than half (55%) of the women suffered at least one post-sex injury to their external genitalia, such as a tear, abrasion, swelling or redness. However, the examiners were able to identify such injuries 68% of the time in white women but only 43% of the time in black women.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, one of the main reasons why women do not report sexual victimization is “lack of (physical) proof” that an incident occurred.

Because this proof is so often undetected in dark-skinned victims, these women end up disadvantaged in both the health care and criminal justice systems, the Penn study concludes.

“The findings from this study have clinical ramifications for those performing forensic sexual assault exams,” emphasizes Penn Nursing professor Marilyn Sommers, PhD, RN, the study’s principal investigator. “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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