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?