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Rape and selective outrage in the feminist community

Content note: This post discusses sexual assault committed against disabled people.

People have repeatedly asked me to write about a case from Connecticut involving a rape conviction that was overturned on the grounds that ‘No reasonable jury could have concluded that [the victim] was physically helpless.’ And I get why you want me to write about this post. I do. It seems like something that should be right up my alley, right? Disability, sexual assault, horrible legal outcomes.

The thing is that I have opened a new document repeatedly to try and write about it and I just haven’t been able to. Is the case infuriating? Yes. Are cases like this at all rare? No. Does this case make me feel like I’ve been punched directly in the gut, reminding me of my status and the status of other disabled people in society? Yes. 

Part of me wants to be glad that this case is getting so much press, that people are talking about it, that feminists, finally, are engaging with a story involving disability. But that part of me is very small, because the cynical part of me is fully aware that this case will quickly fade from the radar and we’re not going to see meaningful change here. Because this is part of a larger pattern of sexual assault against disabled people, and this pattern is one that people haven’t taken action on, despite the ample documentation indicating that it is a serious problem. I look at this case, and I look at the people demanding that I write about it so they can be outraged, and I wonder. What will it take for people to move from outrage and head shaking and sad facial expressions to action?

Violence against disabled people, including rape, is on the rise. Given that there are a lot of crimes and a lot of impairments out there, I can’t throw out a neat number for you like ‘we’re twice as likely to experience violent crime,’ because ‘we’ and ‘crime’ are highly variable. But I can tell you that if a person has an impairment, that person is more likely than someone without an impairment to experience violent crime over the course of a lifetime. And that goes up a lot for cognitively, intellectually, and developmentally disabled people, as was the case with the victim in this situation. Likewise for mentally ill people.

The Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault has some chilling statistics for you. As many as 83% of developmentally disabled women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. Of developmentally disabled people of all genders who experience sexual assault, 49% will experience ten or more incidents. Many of those, I would note, take place in institutional settings. They estimate that approximately 3% of sexual assault cases involving developmentally disabled victims are reported. That’s three percent, not a typo.

Rape becomes not just a risk, but a probable likelihood. And the chance of a successful report leading to conviction is scarce indeed.

Yet, many rape crisis centres are physically inaccessible. Hotlines rarely offer TTY service. ‘terps and people familiar with disability issues are rarely found at crisis centres. Outreach campaigns don’t acknowledge disability issues and the problems unique to disabled victims and survivors. For example, this case in Australia involving a woman who literally couldn’t testify about her own rape because the police decided that words like ‘penis’ couldn’t be added to her communication book after her assault since that might be construed as leading the witness. Or the fact that many disabled people are raped by their caregivers and partners and are not in a position to report their rapes because to do so could be literally fatal; they can be subject to reprisal in the form of neglect or active abuse.

Or the fact that many disabled people are immured in institutions with limited oversight in an environment ripe for abuse. Despite the efforts of groups like ADAPT to get us living out in our communities, we’re still suing for the right to get out of institutions, and being in them means running the risk of being sexually assaulted by a variety of personnel as well as other patients in some cases. For disabled people who have been effectively given up on, such assaults may occur in a context they don’t understand, and they may lack the tools to communicate about and describe them; for example, people may assume someone isn’t capable of verbal communication, and thus make no effort to establish communication, making it impossible for the victim to say ‘I’ve been raped,’ let alone ‘someone hurt me’ or ‘something happened and I didn’t like it.’

I suspect that one reason this case is getting so much press is because the decision to overturn the conviction is based on the fact that she has the documented capability of communicating and fighting back, and apparently did not. The case reviewers apparently decided this means consent (since we all know a lack of ‘no’ means ‘yes,’ right?), and feminists are outraged by this idea. Rightly so; no victim should ever have to prove that she was raped in the ‘right’ way to lead to a successful conviction, and it’s appalling that in this case, the fact that the victim wasn’t deemed ‘physically helpless’ led to the decision to overturn the conviction of her rapist.

This case was horrific, but where is all the outrage for the thousands of developmentally disabled women raped every year whose cases don’t even go to trial? Where is the push for justice for disabled rape victims and survivors in general? Why this case? 

These are not questions of ‘which case is worse’ but rather genuine questions to a community that exhibits enragingly selective outrage; why is it that cases of rape involving disabled people only attract the attention of the feminist community when they provide an angle that can be worked, whether it be dislike of BDSM or concerns about setting a standard for ‘legitimate’ rape? Isn’t rape itself bad enough?


  1. Morwen Edhelwen wrote:

    Thank you for writing this. I agree with you about the case being horrific, but I think that the systemic issues are far more horrific and life-shattering.

    Monday, October 8, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Angie unduplicated wrote:

    The stats are appalling. Thank you for publishing them. I work in lower-income housing and we have rented to developmentally disabled people. Men will seek out such women and purchase sex from them for, literally, the price of a Happy Meal. One was violently raped and the police simply did not care. My boss the neocon, got the rapist fired; the cops did not even bother to inform his employer.
    The issue of rapes and predation against the disabled should be cross-posted everywhere.

    Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink
  3. Nym wrote:

    As a disabled woman I’ve long since given up on mainstream feminists giving a shit about disability issues.

    There are no safe blog/discussion places solely about disability as it relates to feminism, and vice versa.

    I’d hoped the gap FWD left would have been filled, but as most PWD lack the spoons to take on a project like that, and nobody else cares, then the gap remains.

    When I try pointing out ableist language or concepts in feminist space I get “Look at the armchair social justice warrior!”, and jibes about cookies. Obviously I can’t really be severely disabled myself, not if I talk and act like a “real person”.

    It’s lose/lose.

    Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  4. Nym wrote:


    See what I mean? Crickets. Normally a story like this would attract scads of comments and howls of outrage. But nobody cares.

    I’m saddened and scared by how little my people matter to feminists and social justice activists.

    Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  5. Sara wrote:

    Hi everyone! I just stumbled upon this blog and YES to everything about this. I am a long-time feminist and recently diagnosed autistic woman. I am so, so thrilled to find someone speaking from AND about the intersection of disability and feminism!!! It’s sure as hell not the popular topic I naively thought it would be. And the lack of outrage!!!

    NYM mentioned that there aren’t any safe blog/discussion places in this vein. I haven’t found any either. If anyone knows one, could you point me that way?

    Thank you for this. For having the guts to speak up.

    Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Permalink
  6. Tamarind wrote:

    For what it’s worth I am outraged by this. I usually don’t comment when I feel there’s nothing I can add. Thanks to s.e. smith for raising this issue.

    Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Permalink
  7. As a pretty boring mainstream feminist, I thank you for this post, because it’s absolutely true that I need to learn more about this issue. I had NO IDEA about the statistics that you quote, NONE. I will definitely repost this. Thanks again.

    Friday, October 12, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  8. Earswithfeet wrote:

    Thank you for writing this. Unless you have a disability or are close to someone with a disability, the incredibly high rates of sexual assault of people with disability are not widely known.

    Friday, October 12, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  9. misspiggy wrote:

    Thank you for this. Why are these figures not known? Because few people have really wanted to do anything about them.

    However, sometimes there is a public moment where people see their own society with new eyes. The Jimmy Savile furore in the UK is opening up a lot of soul searching about how people in hospitals and similar institutions are routinely abused. You never know, some positive change may come out of it.

    Monday, October 15, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  10. Jen wrote:

    I work 1:1 with a student who has a disability in a public high school, and these things weigh heavily on my mind. I am constantly disappointed in the triage mentality of public education, and as our economy has stalled and education funding is slashed, much of it gets cut from Special Ed due to the fact typically-abled admins feel that SpEd gets “too much $” per capita in relation to GenEd.

    Also, I apologize for the rangy tangent, let me bring it full circle. One of the students I work with is routinely sent to school in low cut tops, and due to her disability, spends most of her day leaned over inher wheelchair. No matter what I said, her parents would continually send her to school with cleavage exposed until I started taking pics with my smart phone, sending them to parents with the caption, “this is what the teenage boys are looking at today,” and yet without constant reinforcement of this type, she still gets sent to school exposed.

    I need to start appendeding sexual assault statistics to those photos. :/

    Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  11. k wrote:

    Thank you, s.e.

    There really are no words for this horrifying epidemic of abuse.

    Friday, October 19, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  12. whatjustice wrote:

    I am a severely disabled woman whose husband is her caregiver: I have been homebound for about five years and unable to maintain an upright posture because of heart issues for two of those. I was, in college, a passionate advocate for violence against women, safe spaces, shelters, etc. When my husband broke my skull last summer by punching me in a fit of rage, I dutifully called a women’s crisis line and asked to go to a shelter. I never expected what came next. They could not house me. I would not be able to stay in bed. My acute sensitivities to noise and sound could not be accommodated at any battered women’s shelters near my very coastal large city. When I described how much care I relied on my husband for, the DV counselors and social workers I talked to (at the hospital, on the phone, in person) told me that there was no way it could be duplicated on short notice, there was no way for me to leave in an emergency. They praised how much work my husband, who had just fractured my skull, put into caring for me on a daily basis and told me to reconsider leaving. “Caregivers are under stress.” One DV counselor, when she learned that my husband occasionally emptied my bed pan, said that she did not think she could do that if her partner became so ill and called my husband a saint. She said that to me while I sat there with a black eye. I begged for them to find some safe house or shelter for me, so I could go on Medicaid and become eligible for nursing home placement. There was nothing – I was told that I would be a liability because they could not accomodate my disability and their space might cause me to fall or have a heart event. DV counselors tried to reassure me that my husband “went beyond” his duty in our day to day life and had never hit me before, that I really didn’t need to leave or be afraid.

    Would they have told any other woman those things? That, say, being a new parent is stressful? That your husband is usually a nice guy and has just cracked your skull once and you shouldn’t freak out? That your abusive husband is a saint because he provides for you? It was then that I realized I was not a woman first to them – they could empathize more with my husband and the perceived difficulty of caring for a severely disabled person than they could empathize with me, a battered woman in this context. Indeed, when my husband talked to the DV crisis line and begged them to help me find shelter they told him (on speaker phone), “She doesn’t have a lot of options with being an invalid. We don’t have services for that. She just has to learn to forgive you. You sound like a great guy.” Again, any other woman?

    I was not able to leave and I wanted to. All the reporting to various agencies and attempted intervention in the world brought me to a dead end — and I live in one of the biggest cities in the US, which is rich in social services. I was so terrified. My husband went to therapy and he has not hit me again. I was very fearful that the abuse would escalate into my death for awhile – any blow to the chest is potentially fatal for me because of my heart condition. It did not happen yet. I know, though, that there is no safety net for me. If my husband becomes violent again, I will be in that same place. I have not considered myself a feminist ever again. I have no illusion of safety or that my sisters can help me. Several people in my life (family and friends) offered to give me shelter and backed out, due to fear that my disability & presence would be a burden on their home lives.

    The outrage about this news story tweaks me a lot. If my husband does kill me, it will be the most predictable thing in the world. I have been sounding alarms for years. I have reported it to Adult Protective Services for years. My doctors have, too. The outrage wants to pretend that this sort of thing is rare and that this is a limit case we can tie up to prevent ever happening again. This the lived reality of disabled people. When I really wanted to leave after being beaten, one doctor warned me that because of rampant and constant institutional sexual abuse at state Medicaid nursing homes, I might be making the best choice to stay with the devil I knew. That’s not an unreasonable thing to consider in decision making: there are no good options. Obviously, the publicized rape appeal is a terrible miscarriage of justice. But what about the fact that 85% of women with disabilities are victims of domestic violence? That is a structural problem, not an outlying case.

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink
  13. Annafel wrote:

    Whatjustice, I want you to know that I read your comment and I care about you. I am horrified by your descriptions of your treatment by people who volunteer in domestic violence services. Just appalled and heartbroken. That they of all people would fail to recognise your humanity and your need for their help.

    It’s obvious that people without disabilities have a huge problem empathising with people with disabilities. As a person with no disabilities myself, I will continue to bring issues like these statistics to the attention of my friends and acquaintances, and I will argue as passionately as I can to help the ignorant see the humanity of people with disabilities and that there are far more similarities than differences between any two people.

    I don’t know what else I can do, although I am open to suggestions. But Whatjustice, I wanted to tell you that I heard you. I wish you the best, whatever that may look like to you. Thank you for sharing your story. And thank you to s.e. for continuing to fight for more recognition of these issues.

    Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  14. Nym wrote:

    Whatjustice – I am so sorry, words cannot confess how much I hurt for you. I told my partner, she’s horrified.

    She changes my nappies (diapers) without complaint, does everything in the house, still works too, so that we can stay together. I wish she had a clone that I could send to you.

    Even though I do not know you, I want to just say that you are a human, my fellow human. Our humanity is only invisible to bigots and the wilfully ignorant. I love you as a sister, and I hope beyond hope that you are not abused again, or killed, due to the disgusting actions of “care” professionals.

    I’m sorry I can’t come to the US and look out for you. I’m sorry that you’ve been ignored, dismissed, and abused all over again by the people who were supposed to help.

    Please take care.

    Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Permalink