*All the Trigger Warnings (even if you’re a fan, you DO NOT owe it to me to read this)
In the hospital room after breaking my leg a couple of years ago, I asked my night nurse to go to the bathroom. With more attitude than I have on my worst days, she refused to let me or help me get to the toilet in my room. Within a few short hours, I had gone from being what I had hoped was an ambulatory adult to a woman peeing in a bedpan with a nurse touching my genitals rolling her eyes at me in the process like the whole thing was somehow beneath her. When you’re disabled, you get used to many things that you really shouldn’t have to; one of them being people will touch you all the time with little regard to whether you’ve given your consent. Because our bodies are considered oddities by everyone else, our personhood is often up for grabs—literally.
I can’t count the number of times in which I’ve been touched without haven given permission—all in the aims of what a stranger considers “help.” I’ve been bear hugged by men twice my size in dark parking lots to “help” me get in my car. I’ve had people grab at my arms while using my crutches to “help” me walk more steadily. And, bonus round, I’ve had strangers kiss me in the street because I inspired them while walking home. Even more alarmingly, in the instances in which I’ve had the energy to say “no” I’ve been publicly berated for not being nice, or trying to be brave, and that they’re just “good people.” Well, if the last few weeks have been any indication, even nice people can be predatory.
So, what does any of this have to do with sexuality and the desexualization of disabled people? A hell of a lot, actually. Don’t get me wrong, I recognize sexual assault has little to do with sexuality, it is about power; that must be understood. However, consent is inherent to every human being’s sexuality and personhood, and when society segregates us from discourse around sexuality—whether that be in sexual education classes or hashtag conversations—society fails to allow us to represent ourselves as people able to consent. Representation matters. Disabled people must be seen amongst sexual education classes alongside abled people and consent must be expressed when discussing everyone’s sexuality. According to the The Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, 83% of disabled women (32% for men, numbers for nonbinary persons with disabilities are unknown) will experience sexual assault within their lifetimes.
This makes the recent push by governments for the institutionalization of disabled people all the more disturbing. Hiding us away will not fix the problem as long as those perpetrating assault continue to feel as though they will not face consequences. The World Health Organization reports that institutionalization increases the risk of assault. “Factors which place people with disabilities at higher risk of violence include stigma, discrimination, and ignorance about disability, as well as a lack of social support for those who care for them. Placement of people with disabilities in institutions also increases their vulnerability to violence. In these settings and elsewhere, people with communication impairments are hampered in their ability to disclose abusive experiences.”
Sexual assault amongst disabled people often goes unreported for a multitude of reasons and I don’t believe that statistics adequately express the true scope of the number of victims. It’s fantastic that awareness campaigns like #MeToo has opened the public’s eyes to the prevalence of sexual assault in many industries. I applaud the fact that victims are finding their voice and finding it within themselves to name their accusers (and I support those who are finding the strength just to live day-to-day), I just wish the public listens to and believes victims that didn’t fit the narrative of what a believable victim looks like.
If you are a victim of sexual assault, please consider taking advantage of the following resources. You are not alone.