May 1, 2009

Which Women Matter? Ableism and Sexual Violence

Posted in Rape Culture at 5:51 pm by sacetalks

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009
A lot of people have a picture in their head of the kind of woman who experiences sexualized violence. They think she is pretty, slim, young, (probably) white, able-bodied—what our culture calls attractive. We think about sexual violence in the same way that we think about sex. We expect survivors to fit the same standard that we place on “sexiness”.

Sexualized violence is about power and control, not who is the “hottest”. Women survivors are as diverse as the population of women. They are young and old; they are white, brown, black, Aboriginal, Asian; they are rich and poor; they are thin and fat; they experience mental illness or do not; they may have a developmental disAbility, a physical disAbility, or be currently able; they may or may not be neurotypical.

And yet we only talk about some kinds of survivors. Women who are not in wheelchairs, are not autistic, do not have Down’s Syndrome, do not have schizophrenia, are not living with rheumatoid arthritis. Women who don’t currently have disAbilities.

Women with disAbilities face sexualized violence at an astonishing rate—83 percent of them experience sexual assault at some point in their lifetime. For women with developmental disAbilities, the incidence is even higher at 90 percent. In Canada, girls with developmental disAbilities experience sexual abuse at four times the rate of the national average.

The trust relationship that exists between a person with a disAbility and a caregiver is one that is too often exploited. When a woman relies on another person to help her dress, use the bathroom, eat, perform daily living tasks or make her way outside her home, she hopes that person will treat her with dignity and respect. Sadly, that person may instead use their power to sexually abuse or assault the person in their care. That woman might be unable to report because of barriers to her accessing police or other agencies. She might fear reporting because it might mean a loss of support. She might not even be believed when she tries to tell.

Some offenders seek out women with disAbilities—women who are marginalized, vulnerable, less likely to be believed. They may look for a woman whose disAbility makes it easier for them to take advantage of her physically or cognitively. Kenneth Peter MacWatt, for example, has been convicted multiple times, and each time, he targeted women with disAbilities. Perpetrators know that women with disAbilities are less likely to be believed, too.

When women do tell, their ability to consent or even to understand sex is constantly in question. In some cases, courts may assume that a person with a developmental disAbility has simply gone along with the accusations without understanding the nature or implications of the case. Offenders know this. They manipulate and lie to commit their crimes and then to cover them up.

Or even worse, sometimes people do believe, but they think that women with disAbilities should be glad to be getting any at all. The notion that sexual assault is the only kind of sex a woman with a disAbility can get is deeply offensive and devalues women’s sexuality. All kinds of women are sexual, and they can and do enjoy engaging in sexual activity. And this attitude ignores the vast difference between consensual sex and the trauma of sexual assault.

Too often and for too long we have ignored the victimization of our sisters because it is too uncomfortable to face the truth. Ableist attitudes leave women suffering alone or trying to communicate with people who choose not to pay attention.



  1. JackP said,

    Sorry to sidetrack slightly from the main purpose of the post – it’s just that I’ve not come across the term capitalised as disAbility like that before – is there a specific reason/reference?

    Sadly, having heard of cases of abuse, the statistics you quote, while horrifying aren’t really that surprising to me. It seems particularly likely that those most vulnerable, and least able to speak out will be more specifically targeted.

    However, this also leads to people – such as Otto Baxter, who I’ve talked about before – finding it difficult to have a sexual relationship because the perception is that “these people” aren’t in a position to make the decisions for themselves.

    We need a solution to protect vulnerable people, but also to protect the rights of people who are willing and able to give informed consent…

  2. sacetalks said,

    The use of the term “disAbility” is a recognition of the language used by some people in the activist community here in Canada. The capitalization recognizes that people’s abilities are more significant than their disabilities, and it reminds us of where the importance lies.

    We here at SACE definitely believe that people with cognitive/developmental/learning disAbilities are definitely able to consent to sexual contact. All people have a right to express their sexuality. We recently participated in a presentation of The Vagina Monologues with an organization that supports people with developmental disAbilities, and a big part of that effort was to recognize that women with disAbilities are equally deserving of enjoying and exploring their sexuality as any other women.

    However, there is a dangerous conflation that occurs between sex and sexual assault. The comparison works a bit like a baseball bat: people can have a lot of fun playing baseball together, but if someone hits someone else with a baseball bat, it’s not the same thing at all. In the same way, consensual sex and sexual assault are two very different things, even if some aspects might look similar.

    We’ve recognized this difference in our post:

    “Or even worse, sometimes people do believe, but they think that women with disAbilities should be glad to be getting any at all. The notion that sexual assault is the only kind of sex a woman with a disAbility can get is deeply offensive and devalues women’s sexuality. All kinds of women are sexual, and they can and do enjoy engaging in sexual activity. And this attitude ignores the vast difference between consensual sex and the trauma of sexual assault.”

  3. NTE said,

    I had never heard your baseball bat analogy before, but I am sure to use it now, in explaining the difference between sexuality and sexual assault: it is just perfect for helping ppl understand.

    I really thought your whole post touched on so many important topics, and was a great BADD contribution.

  4. […] Which Women Matter? Ableism and Sexual Violence From the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, on the very high rates of sexual violence experienced by women with disabilities, and the need to remember all women when thinking about sexual violence. […]

  5. Thank you for postings and for the important work that you are doing at SACE and your leadership in this area. DAWN-RAFH Canada (The DisAbled Women’s Network of Canada) recently completed a national survey of women’s shelters across Canada. The preliminary findings are published in the Spring 2009 Issue of Abilities Magazine and available through our National Head Office.

  6. Pragya - SACE Public Educator said,

    Thanks for your comments, Bonnie! I’m looking forward to reading that!

  7. Jewelles said,

    where are the stats you quote from? as in would you share your references? thank you!

  8. sacetalks said,

    Hi Jewelles! Glad to share a few resources.

    Stimpson, L. and E. Best, Courage Above All: Sexual Assault and Women with Disabilities, prepared for DisAbled Women’s Network Toronto, 1991

    Razack, S., Consent to Responsibility, from Pity to Respect: Subtexts in Cases of Sexual Violence involving Girls and Women with Developmental Disabilities, Law and Social Inquiry, Vol 19, No. 4, p. 891-922, 1994

  9. To expand on what you say here:

    Police often assume blind woman cannot identify their attacker because they think only a visual identification is valid — they may ignore feedback about other aspects of the person such as their voice, smell, etc. Attackers also assume a blind woman cannot identify them and exploit this.

    Attackers may assume a deaf person cannot speak out. Deaf women do sometimes face accessibility barriers in the justice system (even in the US where technically we have the Americans with disabilities act to protect our rights but that is hit and miss). Also, for girls, some deaf children do come from hearing families not fluent in sign language which may mean that communication at home is genuinely difficult. This means they may not disclose the abuse at home or to anyone until many years later.

    In developing countries, violence in schools or on the way to school can have profound consequences on a girl’s ability to access education. There are 77 million primary-school aged children around the world who are out of school, and about one-third have disabilities. One contributing cause might be violence (though there would have to be more research into this to verify). In rural areas particularly the nearest school may be a very long walk away — many parents of girls, with or without disabilities, don’t feel safe allowing their daughters to walk to school because they fear sexual assault enroute. If the school has no private, clean sanitation facilities then girls avoid school, particularly during menstruation, so they won’t have to defecate in an open field. This itself can increase the risk of rape — in some countries women only defecate at night under cover of darkness which can increase their risk of kidney disease from “holding it” all day. So violence can have a lot of spill over effect into other aspects of life.

    In some institutions in some countries, at least anecdotally, they respond to the risk of sexual assault against institionalized women with disabilities (developmental disabilities, and psycho-social disabilities) by sterilizing them so they won’t become pregnant when they are raped. This sterilization is often done without their consent, sometimes without even informing them, and is done in place of preventing the assault in the first place. Research into this topic still seems to be scanty so it’s hard to be sure how wide spread it is, but I have heard multiple stories from people who have visited these institutes and talked to the staff here and heard these things first hand. Some people in the field say they see this “all the time.” So unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be as rare as it should be.

    In March, I helped moderate an e-discussion on women with disabilities in development (ie, in the international development field which focuses on fighting poverty in developing countries). The topics included reproductive health and also violence, so the issue of sexual assault, which intersects with both of these, came up twice. We also gathered bibliographical references:

    Maxwell, Jane, Belser, Julia Watts, and David, Darlena (2007) A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities (2007) Published by the Hesperian Foundation, this handbook advises women with disabilities in developing countries in how to take care of their own health. Includes content on sexuality; abuse and violence; pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing; mental health; aging with a disability; and how to organize or advocate for disability-friendly healthcare. Can be downloaded for free, one chapter at a time, at, or can be purchased via the Hesperian Foundation online store at Also available in Spanish translation on-line at

    “UNFPA-WHO Guidance Note on Sexual and Reproductive Health of Persons with Disabilities” (October 2007). This 47-page document offers guidance to developing policies on addressing the reproductive health needs of women with disabilities. Available at (Word document, 227 Kb).

    UNFPA (2007) “Sexual and Reproductive Health of Persons with Disabilities” This 6-page brochure outlines some of the issues that confront people with disabilities in relation to sexual reproductive health and lists UNFPA recommendations. Available at

    There was a baseline study on violence and abuse of women and girls with disabilities conducted in four countries in Southern Africa by the Southern Africa Federation of the Disabled (SAFOD) ( or email

    Ara, Nusrat (March 18, 2009) “Promoting self-help, not sympathy”: Kashmir’s She Hope Disability Centre Provides Support for a New Life” TheWIP
    About the She Hope Disability Center, which provides health care to people with disabilities, including rural women, in Kashmir

    Moving Forward; Sterilisation and Reproductive health of Women and Girls with Disabilities by Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA ISBN 0 9585269 5 8) For more information, contact

    Violence & Access to Justice for Women with Disabilities
    Naidu, Ereshnee, Haffejee, Sadiyya, Vetten, Lisa, and Hargreaves, Samantha (April 2005) “On the Margins: Violence Against Women with Disabilities,” (PDF format, 341 Kb)
    This small-scale exploratory research project on gender-based violence and disabled women was conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in South Africa.

    Nordström, Kicki (January 2007) “Forgotten Again—Violence Against Women with Disabilities” Human Rights Africa The newsletter can be downloaded in either Word format or PDF format at

    Suka, Abigail (October 2007) “Violence against Girls who are Blind and Visually Impaired in Schools in Malawi” Can be read at

    Resource Manual on Violence Against Women with Disabilities (November 2007). By Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA, this resource manual consists of four books. Reviews what is known about the incidence and prevalence of violence against women and girls with disabilities and the consequences of this violence.

    MOHAPATRA, S. and MOHANTY, M. (2004): Abuse and activity limitation: A study on domestic violence against disabled women in Orissa, India. Swabhiman. Orissa.

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  11. This is certainly the third posting, of your blog I actually browsed.

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  12. Noel said,

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  13. sky fta said,

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    • sacetalks said,

      As far as I know this was just a standard design provided through WordPress. This blog was started some time ago though, so I’m not sure if it is still availible!

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