Disabled sexual assault victims have a right to be believed too
Our disability should not mean that issues around consent become blurred
“There was a time when disabled people’s sexuality was deemed dangerous – a universal taboo.” Photograph: iStock
Recently, in the company of five women with various impairments, all of different ages, there was an acknowledgement among us that our underwear was lacy or expensive lingerie. The why, where and when we chose to wear this type of underwear is connected with confidence, self-esteem and a reclaiming of our bodies.
Owning your sexuality was expressed with pride. Predatory non-consensual sex in any context has nothing to do with what underwear you’re wearing.
There was a time when disabled people’s sexuality was deemed dangerous – a universal taboo. Conversations often took place in an abstract, absent vacuum without our presence and voices. The pathologising of our sexuality by medics and service providers makes cultural questions concerning consent complex. Moving from the general elements of sexism involves engaging with particularities relating to intersectionality. The disability lens widens the narratives of misogyny, gender-based violence, trafficking, sex work, sexual abuse, rape and femicide. These fears are also realities for women like us.
The experience of ableism and sexism coupled with ingrained notions suggests that we as women should be controlled and contained. The management of our sexuality can involve cohesive contraception, forced sterilisation, and dangerous medical interventions. Finding ourselves under surveillance brings with it an imposed vulnerability. Privacy, independence, the freedom of bodily integrity and the right to be sex positive is often framed in the category of us being positioned and labelled vulnerable.
The women in my company acknowledged that any sex education they received was mostly focused on heterosexual relationships. It called upon the female to be responsible rather than the initiator of pleasure.
Recent changes in the law mean it is now legal for a person with a mental-health difficulty or a learning disability to be in a sexual relationship. This law emphasises capacity rather than disability. Two new categories of ‘protected person’ and ‘relevant person’ are there to safeguard those of us who are presumed incapable of consent. There are three dimensions as to how we interrupt this law. Consent as being able to understand the nature of and consequences of sexual acts. Having competence to make a decision to engage in a sexual act. Being capable of communicating consent. All this is dependent on whether a person who has any or a variety of impairments is believed.
Ironically, it’s only people identified as having a disability who are bracketed into the capacity question.
Alcohol and drugs
As the conversation continued, the women spoke of being in clubs or other events where alcohol and drugs were part of the mix. Inferred connotations and a suggestion of poor judgement is often expressed – blaming women as why they were not more responsible about their own safety in these environments. Blatantly implying we have no business being in these public spaces.
As humans, all our interactions with other people are dependent upon context. Metaphors are over-simplified when discussing the realm of where, when and who initiates sex. Who wants it and who doesn’t becomes a trajectory of sequences and events that are reliant on reshaping our understanding of the rules of intimacy. These rules often conflict with the rules of the courtroom. The victim entered into this connection with the hope that she could and should say no at any juncture. The perpetrator believes they are owed something on the basis of nuisance and circumstances.
Feminist Catharine MacKinnon’s stark analysis is that “women’s sexuality is, socially a thing to be stolen, sold, bought or bartered or exchanged by others”. There can be little doubt that the legal process prolongs and exacerbates the pain and trauma of rape where the person relives the experience during questioning. The prosecution is acting on behalf of the State, the defence for the accused and the victim is often alone. Women’s services, working on very tight budgets, don’t always have routes of support for deaf and disabled women. Information and awareness is not always in an accessible format. The law is often interpreted due to circumstances rather than the actual question of mutual consent.
There are hurdles too in getting past the investigation stage where the police or prosecution may deem a complainant too weak for cross-examination due to victim credibility or evidence issues. Capacity or disability adds to the complexity of the case. This is pertinent for women with learning disabilities or those of us with speech or other such impairments. Also, if the perpetrator is a person with an impairment, the crime may not be taken seriously. Generally, sexual assault by its very nature is unlikely to have witnesses. The parading of underwear to convince juries of promiscuity whilst belittling the victim should have no place in the court. Modesty has never protected a woman from assault.
The conversation with these five women was both exhilarating and exhausting. It’s very concerning that the second SAVI report is going to be delayed. This means documenting the experiences of diverse and minority categories of women on the issue of sexual violence will be slowed down.
The conversation closed with Fiona saying: “A woman’s body is hard to mind.”
Platform Series: Rosaleen McDonagh
1) He’d look for a kiss from his gypsy girl
2) Perniciousness of racism and ableism
3) Life should be about living, not existing
4) The disabled spoil the presentation
5) When will there be an official apology?
6) Theatre access for those with a disability
7) Believing disabled sexual assault victims