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The Monster We All Feed

There’s a thing no one wants to talk about. Let’s talk about it.

Let’s talk about rape culture and the disability community.

The topic makes us as a society uncomfortable, and it makes us as individuals EXTREMELY uncomfortable. For parents of kids with disabilities, this is a subject that slips under our mental and emotional doors like smoke. It hits us hard because we understand exactly how vulnerable our children are, and we’ve experienced how hard the world can be to our kids and to the adults they will become. It keeps us up late at night because we understand, better than anyone and certainly better than the people professionally charged with the protection of those we love most in the world, just how vulnerable our kids are.

For something that receives as little attention as it does, the problem of sexual violence committed against members of the disability community is absolutely astonishing. The studies are revealing, in ways that stagger the imagination.

  • While any type of disability contributes to a higher risk of victimization, a 2000 study shows that intellectual disability, communication disorders and behavioral disorders result in dramatically elevated levels of risk, and having multiple disabilities increases that danger even more.
  • People with intellectual disabilities are four to ten times more likely to be victims of sexual assault.
  • 25% of girls and women with intellectual disabilities who were referred for birth control had a history of violence.
  • Men with disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual violence as men without disabilities.
  • 49% of people with intellectual disabilities will experience ten or more sexually abusive incidents.
  • Between 15,000 and 19,000 people with intellectual disabilities are raped each year.

And here’s the “up at three am staring at the ceiling” one:

  • More than 90% of people with intellectual disabilities will experience sexual abuse of some kind in their lives, and 49% percent will experience ten or more sexually abusive incidents. 68% of girls and 30% of boys with intellectual disabilities will be sexually abused before their eighteenth birthday.

Ninety percent of people with intellectual disabilities will be sexually abused at some point in their lives. NINETY PERCENT. As the parent of a daughter with a disability, I have a difficult time processing that number. Ninety percent feels very much like a sure thing. Ninety percent is a thing you bet on every time. Ninety percent is quite simply an unacceptable number. For ninety percent, we should be marching in the streets. For ninety percent, we should be burning things down.

But we’re not. The statistics for sexual abuse in the disability community, like the unemployment rate among disabled job seekers, are outrageous, literally. They deserve outrage. Not empathy, not charity or pity or thoughts and prayers, but actual outrage. These facts are outrageous most of all because they don’t originate with the disability. Schuyler’s little monster makes some experiences harder for her, but it shouldn’t make it more dangerous for her to walk in the world without being sexually assaulted. Her polymicrogyria shouldn’t make her more vulnerable to predators.

It shouldn’t, but of course it does. People with intellectual disabilities are uniquely vulnerable to sexual violence. They may not fully comprehend what is going on. They may not be able to fully communicate what has happened when speaking to the people they love and trust. They may not understand that they have rights and that what is happening is illegal. And since those assaults are most often committed by trusted professional caretakers or, and this is the worst, by trusted friends and family members, victims with intellectual disabilities may never even report what has happened to them. And when they do report, they often face credibility issues with law enforcement. When it comes down to “he said, she said”, victims with disabilities, particularly intellectual and developmental disabilities, have a difficult time being taken seriously.

We live in a society where rape culture isn’t just a thing, but a gigantic thing. It’s a monster that we feed constantly, with our popular media and our societal privilege and an institutionalized misogyny that permeates our judicial systems and is now entrenched and protected at the highest levels of the executive. I wish I’d done more in the course of my life to fight that culture of rape and misogyny. I wish my commitment to fighting it had begun in my heart because I’m a human being and not because I’m the father of a daughter. Like the roots of my disability advocacy, it’s a shitty reason for me to care. As a privileged white male in this country, I’m the problem. I should have been talking about this for decades. I have a lot of catching up to do; many of us do.

Where that rape culture intersects with the disability community, there are deep wells of shame that we all own. As a society, we don’t talk about sexual assault where it concerns the disabled. But let’s be honest. As a society, we’re just not comfortable talking about sex and the disabled. We don’t want to deal with that topic at all. We like to pretend that people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, simply aren’t sexual beings. We consider them children, without agency and forever pre-adolescent, and so we deny them one of the very core fundamentals of the human experience.

It’s only been a year since the inexplicably popular and irredeemable comic Gary Owen caught heat for his televised comedy routine in which he mocked an intellectually disabled relative. (See “The Very, Very Worst”.) That situation got a great deal of attention within the disability community but not much elsewhere. Why was his “they’re having sex, isn’t that HILARIOUS??” shtick such an easy laugh, where making fun of any other vulnerable group having relationships wouldn’t be? Imagine that joke told about a gay relative, or one of another race. Imagine laughing at any other vulnerable group in our culture simply because they were involved in a consensual sexual relationship. And do that while keeping in mind that having a disability is the one truly intersectional condition in our society. Disability transcends everything else, and that includes wealth or privilege.

As the father of a daughter with a disability, the question of Schuyler’s safety in a world with that NINETY PERCENT stamped on it is paramount to me. It’s also complicated by the fact that many of the interactions she has are with other people with disabilities, including the young man with a developmental disability from her school who recently sexually harassed her. Yeah, that happened. It’s complicated, because I’m sympathetic, and at the same time I’m not. I’m reasonable and detached, except of course I’m absolutely not. I want this boy to learn, I want the world around him to teach him. I want the men in his life to guide him, and for the impressions he takes away from popular culture to stop telling him how cool it is to subjugate and objectify women. I’d like for him to become a better young man, but yeah, I’d also like for him to never speak to my daughter again. Go be better, someplace else. Yes, I’m as imperfect an advocate and ally as you’ll find.

I want to be a better advocate, and I desperately want to be a better father. I don’t always know how to do that, and in this area maybe more than most, I’m a little lost. I want a world in which Schuyler the young woman walks in safety and surrounded by respect, and dignity. I want Schuyler the disabled person to have opportunities in a truly inclusive society, not just in education or employment but in the very basic pieces of her humanity.

I want the rest of us to do better, to be less horrible. I want Schuyler and her friends and her sisters to walk unafraid and undiminished. I want our silence in the face of intolerable sexism and ableism to taste bitter. I want our inaction to hurt in our bones.

I want Schuyler’s world to deserve her.

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