Fighting Ableism Fights Sexual Assault

This guest post is a part of the Feministe series on Sexual Assault Awareness Month. abby jean writes for FWD/Forward and at her tumblr, think on this.

Trigger Warning

Women with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be victims of rape or sexual assault than women without disabilities. More than twice as likely than what is already a terrifyingly high probability of being a victim of rape or sexual assault. I myself am a woman with a mental health disability who is also a victim of sexual assault, and seeing this statistic always makes my stomach drop and my muscles tense. But when I think about it, what influences that statistic, it makes perfect sense. Rape and sexual assault are crimes of power and control. Women with disabilities are subject to sets of interlocking, intersecting oppressions on the basis of their gender and their disability status. Both gender-based oppression and disability-based oppression separately accept and even encourage abuse and denigration of people in those groups. So of course it makes sense that sexism and ableism would add to each other, reinforce each other’s power, resulting in the heightened vulnerability to assault reflected in the statistics. I find the following chart – taken from a presentation by Nancy Fitzsimons of Minnesota State University – helps illustrate the idea that intersecting oppressions make an individual increasingly vulnerable to gendered violence, culminating in rape or sexual assault:

A chart, titled Sexual Violence Continuum. In the center, a circle labeled 'Oppression' overlaps smaller circles labeled 'Sexism' 'Hetero-Sexism' "Classism' 'Anti-Semitism' 'Abelism' and 'Racism.' Around the edge of the chart are circles, growing increasingly darker, illustrating the continuum of sexual violence, ranging from 'Misogynistic Practices' and 'Sexualized Media Depicitions' at the lighter end to 'Rape,' 'Marital Rape' and 'Rape/Murder' at the darker end.

I’m sure that readers here are familiar with the societal and cultural messages and assumptions that make women vulnerable to sexual assault and rape, so I want to explore some of the components of ableism that interact with and reinforce those sexist tropes. For me, it is always striking to see that for women with disabilities, as is true for all rapes, the vast minority of assaults are done by strangers: 33% of abusers are acquaintances; 33% of them are natural or foster families, and 25% are caregivers or service providers. This echos my own experience – the man who raped me was my boyfriend at the time. And one of the most powerful tools he used against me was my own sense that, as a person with a disability, I was an inherent burden on those around me and so owed an immeasurable debt to anyone who would bother to put up with me. This meant when he demanded things of me sexually, I felt I had no right to refuse. This was colored by my recognition, my insistence, that every woman has the inalienable right to define her own sexual boundaries – but I felt that didn’t apply to me, because I was so worthless, so broken, so less-than, that I didn’t deserve any more.

This theme of dependence and burden is a significant component of ableism. The social model of disability argues that while all people have physical and mental variations, it is systemic barriers and societal attitudes that cause some of those variations to be “disabling,” because the world is not set up to accommodate those variations and therefore pathologizes them. (For more, see this post by amandaw at FWD.) For example, a wheelchair user might be unable to get to and from the grocery store without assistance, but only because the local public transit system systemically excludes people with disabilities, not because they are inherently unable to do so. The wide array of socially created dependencies force people with disabilities to be dependent on their families, on their romantic partners, on their caretakers, to function on a very basic level. People with disabilities are less likely to be employed or to be financially independent. Anyone who uses a device to communicate – a computer with speech software, a TTY phone – can be dependent on a caretaker for access. People with disabilities can be dependent on others for access to food, shelter, or even going to the bathroom.

This dependence has two effects. The first is obvious – someone with control over someone’s access to food and water is an extraordinary position to exploit that vulnerability through sexual assault or rape. It will be more difficult for the victim to challenge the assault, report the assault, or leave the abuser’s control when she is so dependent on that same abuser for the fundamental components of her life. Any resistance on the victim’s part can be immediately countered by withholding transportation, medications or medical treatments, communication, and even food and water. When this is combined with the sense of burden and being indebted that is also reinforced by social construction, the caretaker -whether a family member, romantic partner, service provider, or otherwise- is vested with monumental power over the woman with a disability.

In my case, struggling with an overwhelming depression that told me I was worthless and evil and everyone would be better if I were dead or had never existed, my boyfriend provided me with reassurance that I was a person deserving of love, that I need not be a perpetual outcast, and that I had worth and value – all reassurances he explicitly withdrew when I hesitated to comply with his sexual demands. Part of my beliefs came from the depression, but part came from an overwhelming sense that “crazy” people didn’t have very much worth. It came from a friend telling me that my depression made me “broken” and I should come back “when I was fixed.” It was reinforced when someone told me I should be happy I was raped because that was the only way someone was ever going to be with me. It was underlined when, during a particularly bad bout of depression, I was kicked out of campus housing lest I “disturb” other students. The message I’ve gotten was clear – as a crazy person, I do not deserve typical relationships, my needs are less important than the complacency of the non-disabled, and my very existence is intolerable until I’m “fixed” enough to pass as non-disabled. Add that on top of all the messages I get as a woman about my primary worth being as a sexual object and I start feeling fortunate that I’ve only been subject to one sexual assault.

There are a number of other aspects to ableism that make women with disabilities especially vulnerable to sexual assault and rape. Women with disabilities have seen their sexuality be treated as common property. Think of all the caretakers that have gotten court orders to give women hysterectomies on the caretaker’s wishes – that makes a woman with disabilities’ sexuality explicitly the property and control of the family and caretakers (which can also make later rapes in institutions or nursing homes undetectable as the women do not become pregnant). Think of the long history of sterilizing women with mental health disabilities, a history explicitly endorsed by the United States Supreme Court. Think of the skepticisim and distrust that usually meets women with disabilities when they present their lived experience – combine that with the inherent skepticism of society and law enforcement towards rape victims and imagine how hard it is for a woman with disabilities to be believed when reporting these assaults. Police will question why anyone would want to rape a person with a disability, or point out past delusions or hallucinations to undermine the credibility of the victim. My own assault was dismissed by authorities because my emotional intensity while struggling with the onset of my bipolar meant I was categorized as an “overly dramatic” girl already, so was surely exaggerating or over dramatizing the events I recounted.

Thinking about all of this can leave me feeling rather powerless and hopeless. But then I remember that if the increased vulnerability of women with disabilities comes from the interlocking forces of sexism and ableism, all I have to do to combat this is continue fighting those forces wherever I encounter them. Even if not directly connected to social violence, fighting ableism helps undermine the messages which make women with disabilities more vulnerable. Fighting for better public transit to serve people with disabilities can make a woman more independent and less dependent on her caretaker, reducing her vulnerability to assault. Fighting against ableist language or ableist tropes in pop culture helps undermine the messages that could convince a woman with a disability that she doesn’t deserve more than sexual assault. Fighting ableism is fighting sexual assault. And, to extend that, fighting racism and classism and homophobia and trans oppression also fights sexual assault, by fighting the interlocking and intersecting forces that make women more and more vulnerable to rape and sexual assault.

There’s a lot to this topic and this post simply scratches the surface. For more, I suggest this post by Anna and the full presentation by Prof Fitzsimons from MSU (pdf). There are also a number of posts at FWD/Forward on this topic, including the need to provide teens with disabilities access to sexual education, barriers to justice for women with disabilities who are victims of sexual assault or rape, and how disabilities complicate escaping abusive relationships. I of course recommend all of the content at FWD/Forward on ableism in general, which connects to sexual assault and rape for the reasons explored above.

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23 comments for “Fighting Ableism Fights Sexual Assault

  1. Anna
    April 5, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Highly unhappy with that diagram as it suggests there are categories of rape/sexual assault that are of differing severity..

  2. April 5, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    Oh abby. <3 This post is like a punch in the gut.

    To add to it, if I may – although it stands on its own, I just want to add some personal experience here.

    Women like me aren’t believed when we talk about sexual assault because we all know that crazy women are just attention-seekers who don’t really need help. They “act out”, they “indulge in risky sexual behaviours”, they “do it for the attention”. When I tried to talk to a psychiatric care nurse once about my trip to the Sexual Health Clinic, relating it to my sexual assault, I was told “Well, don’t keep doing bad things just to get their attention, no matter how nice and supportive you think they are.”

    Because I woke up one morning and decided to get myself raped to get attention from the Sexual Health Clinic.

    But, you know, crazy women. We’re just in it for the thrill of the STI exam.

  3. Anony Mouse
    April 5, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Is there some kind of key or explanation for the diagram that we could see? I’m not sure how to interpret it.

  4. April 5, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    oh goodness – the diagram was an afterthought to the piece and i certainly don’t want it to be the focus of discussion. to me, the diagram shows various forms of oppression in the center, all of which combine to heighten vulnerability. on the outside is the continuum of sexual violence, ranging from non-assault (sexualized depictions in the media, sexist jokes, etc) to violations of bodily integrity (all of which i would classify as assault of equal severity). the point is just that more oppression leads to more vulnerability to sexual violence – that’s it.

  5. April 5, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Word to this post abbyjean.

    With the way PWD are desexualized, I’m not surprised anymore when I see comment about how when we are assaulted, at least we are lucky to get some and it sickens me.

    People already seem to feel an entitlement to the bodies of PWD, to know about or medical issues, personal history and so on and that just seems to combine with sexism to create a breeding ground for the idea that we aren’t really human, just things to be used.

  6. April 5, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    This post speaks to me in so many different ways I’m not sure where to begin.

    I myself have struggled with bipolar disorder for over a decade, and have experienced the same treatment from other people, particularly from relationship partners who by in large didn’t necessarily love me as much as I loved them, but kept me around anyway because I stroked their egos so hard. I felt so bad about myself that I would take any attention at all, even if it was highly conditional and required I jump through hoops to attain it.

    I carry with me a tremendous amount of guilt and shame based on how I was perceived during both manic episodes and depressive episodes. The way I felt during those episodes was bad enough, but add to it the way I was perceived and it was doubly awful. The manic episodes in particular were so destructive but no matter where I was it was difficult to find people who had the ability to see past my illness and in so doing treat me with respect. There were also those who could only see the illness and acted accordingly.

    I was sexually assaulted much earlier, in childhood, but as I think back on it, a then-undiagnosed anxiety disorder and underlying depression probably made me a much easier target.

    Thank you for sharing this, Abby Jean.

  7. April 5, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Wow this is a lot of good, important information. Thanks for posting this.

  8. April 5, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Abby, I don’t have enough spoons today to say much of consequence, but this is an amazing post (just like all of your other posts). Thanks for writing it, and I am so glad to see it here on Feministe!

  9. Butch Fatale
    April 5, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    I’m not able to muster a cogent response to this right now, but I am very glad to see this said here. Excellent post.

  10. Dominique
    April 5, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    @Anna – This: “Women like me aren’t believed when we talk about sexual assault”. It’s one of the worst possible feelings in the world, enough to compound despair. Even when women *don’t* have a diagnosis of a mental illness they are too seldom believed; or, conveniently for the rapist, a diagnosis is conferred upon them. Discredit, discredit, discredit: what power does to truth.

  11. April 5, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Thank you abby jean for writing this, and thank you Cara for posting it!!!

    This is exactly why I get so angry when feminist blogs allow ableism (and transphobia and racism). Bigotry is always infuriating but on feminist blogs it is intolerably so, because it says “we only care about the human rights of white non-disabled cis women”, which is *not* feminism.

  12. Atheistchick
    April 5, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Thank you for writing this. While I am familiar with some of the powerlessness that people with mental illnesses or physical impairments face, I never thought very critically about the relationship between “disabilities” and vulnerability to sexual assault before, especially the relationship between a mental illness and sexual assault. Very powerful idea.

  13. BW
    April 5, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Thank you.

  14. bellareve
    April 5, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    Thank-you. I am a feminist with multiple disabilities, and a rape survivor. My experiences are quite similar to what you have described here.

  15. April 6, 2010 at 4:27 am

    Thank you for this, abby.

  16. Bagelsan
    April 6, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    This was an amazing post. I would love to see people expand on this to address various flavors of “disability” and assault — do people with particular disabilities get assaulted in particular ways more often, for example? Does society sympathize with the rape of a blind woman more than a “crazy” one? Etc.

    (Also, and this isn’t directly relevant to this particular post, but it got me thinking: it would be interesting to see something about the converse of this, where the “disabled” person is the abuser — not as far as rape, necessarily, but other tactics. Particularly with mental illness it seems like it’s easy to hurt the people around you. You get the guys who don’t understand boundaries and cues, for example, who then get pushy or aggressive with women. Or my friend’s neighbor, who was physically a large man but mentally stuck in that sort of selfish, childish mind-set. Or in my case, where undiagnosed various things made me behave just horribly to my little sister when we were kids — and she was in no position to deescalate either, and often flipped out just as much, the two of us having a lot in common.)


  17. April 6, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Bagelsan – i’m glad you like the post. however, your statement that “Particularly with mental illness it seems like it’s easy to hurt the people around you” is one that i consider to add to the ableist assumptions that make people with mental illness particularly vulnerable to rape and sexual assault. that kind of broad generalization helps entrench stereotypes that people with mental illness are violent or predatory, which helps rapists justify their abuse of such people. i don’t consider this thread an appropriate place for that kind of harmful generalization.

  18. Bagelsan
    April 7, 2010 at 3:17 am

    Hmm, I’m sorry you felt that way. I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t saying that by including my own experience.

  19. April 7, 2010 at 7:14 am

    Well, considering that being told you’ll only hurt others is one of the main ways people with mental illness are stigmatized it seems odd to say we need to talk more about besides breaking it down. Why would we want to reinforce it?

    Also, there has been a lot of writing on the different stereotypes as they relate to different disabilities.

  20. Sarah
    April 7, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Thank you for this article, thank you, thank you…that’s all I gotta say.

  21. Sarah
    April 7, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    Something else to add to the thank yous (trigger warning)…when I was a teenager, I lived with my parents in a very nice apartment in an upper-middle neighborhood, and a guy one floor above had been accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl with a mental health history–I think he was her caretaker in some institution. Having been institutionalized for a few days myself, I was sure he’d done it–could see very easily how that could take place under the guise of “check-ups” done every few minutes at all hours on patients on suicide watch. The charges had been dropped. I found this all out through dinner table gossip with my parents, who urged me to be polite and nice to him as always, which led to a fight between me and my parents. Before hearing this story I had once seen him in the hallway and exchanged pleasantries and then he insisted on a hug goodbye–I should have refused, but didn’t, and during the hug he was grunting, like “oh, yeah”, I didn’t feel a hardon but could tell he was turned on. I told no one about this, but years afterwards, as an adult living on my own, I told my mom, and she changed her mind about his being innocent regarding the other girl.

  22. Bagelsan
    April 7, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    i don’t consider this thread an appropriate place for that kind of harmful generalization.

    Yeah, I certainly wasn’t intending to get into it on this thread. My thinking was more a discussion *among* people with disabilities rather than *about*, more of an introspective thing. I’m thinking of, for example, PWD being hurt by other PWD, especially people with mental health issues; when it’s a whole family and multi-generational you get feedback loops of trouble that can result in basically *everyone* in that situation getting hurt.

    33% of abusers are acquaintances; 33% of them are natural or foster families

    The above was where I’m coming from — I know tons of people with mental health issues who have been mistreated by their parents/sig. others who *also* have mental health issues. When it’s fairly heritable you get a lot families where no one has their shit entirely together. (Whether it’s a side effect of being in pain, or not being great with other people, or medications, or internalized ableism, whatever, you can get clumps of people all suffering without any help from “able” types at all.)

    But yeah, I wasn’t intending to get into a huge discussion about it. I just thought that it would be interesting to look at the other side of the coin, PWD as victims of the able and PWD as victims of each other.

  23. Grant
    April 8, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Regarding the diagram– sexual violence is an umbrella term that often describes a category of behaviors ranging from rape-supportive jokes, to harassment, to physical acts of sexual assault. This diagram is a tool for discussing those range of behaviors while also framing sexual violence within a context of oppression, and illustrating the root causes of sexual violence (sexism, racism, ableism, etc).

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