NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Sexual-assault injuries may be tougher to detect in darker-skinned women -- potentially putting them at a disadvantage in both the health and legal systems, according to researchers.
In a study of women who voluntarily underwent forensic exams after consensual sex, the researchers found that white women were significantly more likely than black women to have injuries to the external genitalia detected.
There were no such differences, however, when it came to more internal injuries.
When the researchers analyzed the findings in terms of the women's skin tone, they found that dark skin -- more so than race, per se -- appeared to reduce the likelihood of finding an injury to the external genitals.
They report the findings in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.
"This finding is novel and important with respect both to clinical assessment and the decisions made within the criminal justice process," lead researcher Dr. Marilyn S. Sommers, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, said in a statement issued by the university.
"Practitioners," she added, "need to increase their vigilance when examining individuals with dark skin to ensure all injuries are identified, treated, and documented."
The study included 120 healthy women who volunteered to undergo a forensic exam within 24 hours of having consensual sex. The exams looked for evidence of sexual assault, such as tearing, redness, abrasions and bruising.
Overall, Sommers and her colleagues found, the examiners identified such injuries in white women 68 percent of the time, but only 43 percent of the time in black women.
With other factors taken into account -- such as age and use of condoms -- white women were three times as likely as African Americans to have a genital injury detected.
"We suspect that differences in injury prevalence occur because of difficulties with injury detection in dark skin," the researchers write.
The findings, they say, call for improvements in forensic-exam techniques that will reduce any racial disparities.