Rape of Individuals with Disability in the Age of AIDS:
The Folk Belief of “Virgin Cleansing”
Nora Ellen Groce, Ph.D.
Reshma Trasi, MD
Global Health Division
Yale School of Public Health
Recent Lancet articles have discussed “virgin cleansing”, the belief that persons who are
HIV+ can rid themselves of the virus by transferring it, through sexual intercourse, to a
virgin. (1-3) The practice long predates the AIDS epidemic, having first been reported
in 16th century Europe in relation to syphilis and gonorrhea. (4) The prevalence of the
practice is unclear. For example, Jewkes et al. report the folk belief is widespread but the
actual practice, rare.(1,2) Bowley and Pitcher argue that it is more widespread.(3)
Accounts of the belief are reported from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Europe and the
A variant of this practice has been identified in our Global Survey of HIV/AIDS and
Disability that warrants attention: “virgin rape” of individuals with disability, by people
who believe themselves to be HIV+. While the evidence for “virgin rape” of infants and
young children maybe debatable, we have identified numerous reports of rape of
individuals who are blind, deaf, physically impaired, intellectually disabled or who have
mental health disabilities. (7) These rapes are being perpetrated in the belief that having
sex with a disabled individual will transfer the virus from the infected person to the
individual with disability. Individuals with disability are apparently being targeted
because they are often incorrectly assumed to be sexually inactive –hence virgins. (8)
The belief that sex with an individual who is disabled can rid one of a sexually
transmitted disease is old. According to Smith, brothels in Victorian England were
"stocked with intellectually disabled „virgins‟ because it was believed that a syphilitic
man could lose the infection by having sex with them.” (9)
Individuals with disability are presumably at risk not only because it is assumed that they
are virgins, but also because they are often easy targets. Even before the AIDS crisis,
individuals with disability (both male and female) were already at equal, to up to three
times the risk of stranger and acquaintance rape as non-disabled peers. (10-13)
In part this is due to the fact that many individuals with disability are physically
vulnerable.(11) Some must relegate part or all of their care to attendants where abuse
can be rife. (12) Hundreds of thousands live in institutions where heterosexual and
homosexual abuse has been widely reported in facilities from New Zealand to Kosovo to
Uruguay. (13) Additionally, some researchers speculate individuals with disability are at
increased risk of sexual abuse because they are psychologically vulnerable. Nosek,
Howland & Hughes (2001) for example, suggest that overprotection and internalized
societal expectations make women with disability more vulnerable to psychological
pressure for sex and intimacy.(14) Womendez & Schneiderma (1991) note that disabled
young people have few opportunities to learn to set boundaries. (15) Studies from Great
Britain report that men with intellectual disabilities living in the community often are
pressured into having sex with non-disabled men whom they meet in public restrooms,
participating because they are lonely and anxious to please their new 'friends.‟ (16, 17)
A variant on this has been reported by several women with disabilities from southern
Europe and North America.(7) These women, who were unaware of the folk belief, state
they were avidly courted by HIV+ men from Africa and south Asia. Their partners hid
their HIV+ status and abandoned them as soon as the women began to show symptoms of
the virus. The women, who believed they were in long term relationships, were only then
informed by their partners that the relationships had been initiated because the men
assumed the disabled woman were virgins, capable of ridding them of the infection.
Individuals with disability are also at increased risk to be targeted for "virgin rape"
because they frequently have few legal protections. Police, lawyers, judges - even rape
crisis councilors, often have no knowledge of how to serve citizens with disability.
Officials frequently dismiss individuals with disability who report rape, assuming them
to be confused or victims of a „misunderstanding.‟(11,16) In many countries, individuals
with disability are not allowed to submit police reports, take oaths or give testimony in
court. Police stations and courts are often inaccessible, lacking sign language
interpreters, ramps, and support systems for individuals with intellectual impairments, or
those with mental health disabilities. (13) Because of these barriers, reporting of sexual
abuse by individuals with disability is low and perpetrators can expect to go unpunished.
(18) Low rates of reporting not only has legal implications, but can also mean that
potential ARV prophylaxis is not made available to disabled individuals.
Although no epidemiological data is yet available, interviews with disability advocates
and service providers, as well as literature review found reports of "virgin rape" of
disabled individuals in association with HIV/AIDS in 14 of the 21 countries reviewed.
Moreover, in 12 of the 14 countries, from sub-Saharan Africa, south and southeast Asia,
North America and Europe, a significant increase in such rapes has been reported over
the past five years.(7) For example, the Down‟s Syndrome Association of South Africa
(DSSA) reports this phenomenon now of serious concern among the young people they
serve. (19) Field studies by one author of this report (Groce) also elicited numerous
personal accounts. A wheelchair user from southern Africa reported being raped three
times within one month by men in her neighborhood who believed themselves to be
HIV+. (7) The woman interviewed stated that a number of disabled women in her
township had had similar experiences.
Research is needed to ascertain how widespread the problem of „virgin rape‟ for
individuals with disability is, and what legal, social and medical interventions can be
implemented. Additionally, public education campaigns are needed to inform individuals
with disabilities and their families about the risk, and to debunk the myth of "virgin
cleansing" within the general population.
Acknowledgement: The authors wish to acknowledge funding for the Global Survey on
HIV/AIDS and Disability from The World Bank’s Office of the Advisor on Disability and
Development, and The World Bank’s Global HIV/AIDS Program. We also take this
opportunity to acknowledge continuing assistance from Yale University’s Center for the
International Research on AIDS (CIRA).
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19. Personal Communication. Venessa dos Santos, National Chairperson, Down‟s
Syndrome Association of South Africa, February 17, 2004.