May 1, 2009
Which Women Matter? Ableism and Sexual Violence
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.