Wednesday, April 12, 2017

We Need to Talk About Disability And Sexual Violence

As the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Intern at the Center for Women’s Studies, I actively strive to bring an intersectional lens into all of the work that I do, particularly given my own positionality. In many ways, I have often failed. One way in which I, and many of us involved in this conversation at Colgate, have significantly failed, is in speaking about disability. I believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to create programming and initiatives that address the issues survivors of color and LGBTQ survivors face, including my own. Similarly, it is up to me to acknowledge the ways in which disability impacts the experiences of survivors, even if I myself do not possess a disabled identity. Though it is impossible for me to delve into the intricacies of the relationship between sexual violence and disability in the confines of a blog post that you all will actually read, I hope this will be the beginning of an ongoing learning experience for all of us.

Sexual violence affects everyone differently. There is no monolithic experience to surviving trauma. Specifically, aspects of identity, such as race, class, ability, gender identity, and citizenship status, can have a profound impact on the experiences of survivors. Beyond simply acknowledging this, we have to ensure that our conversations and support systems truly delve deeply into how survivors’ identities influence their experiences. Just as no two survivors have the same experience, no two disabled individuals are the same. Disabled people can experience sexual violence in vastly different ways, but it is important that we are all aware of how we can strive to support survivors with a range of physical, sensory, psychosocial, and intellectual disabilities. For example, when we fight against street harassment with campaigns such as #YesAllWomen, it is crucial to remember who might be excluded from this narrative. As Kayla Whaley explains in her article Nobody Catcalls the Woman in the Wheelchair “People register “disabled” before they register “woman” and the former always overrides the latter, because in our ableist society, a disabled body is necessarily a desexualized one(Whaley, 2016). When we talk about #BodyPositivity, we need to include all bodies, including those who use wheelchairs or are missing limbs. Just as Whaley says, “Harassment, after all, isn’t actually about sex, but about power” (Whaley, 2016). Exerting power to desexualize disabled women is harassment. Campaigns against harassment must acknowledge that.

In addition to including disabled women in the conversation about street harassment, we must acknowledge how disability plays a role in complicating the notion of consent. Individuals with intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities alike may rely on a caregiver to assist them in gaining and providing consent with a partner. Furthermore, many people view disability as a sign of vulnerability and weakness, which is one reason for the disproportionately higher number of disabled survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Oftentimes, structural power relations and dehumanization within care facilities, such as group homes, facilitate cultures of violence (Gill, 2010). That being said, it is crucial to “question how the predominance of sexual abuse for women with intellectual disabilities can be addressed without making the victims symbols of humiliation” (Gill, 2010). Oftentimes, non-disabled people understand disabled people, particularly disabled women, solely through the lens of victimhood, whereas in reality, disabled people are complex, dynamic individuals with interlocking identities- not victims to be pitied. There is a tendency to deny disabled people agency, both in the context of consent and sexual violence, and beyond. We must resist that tendency. In order to do so, many disability theorists and activists advocate for an understanding of sexual violence that considers power, rather than consent. As Gill states, “The shift to define sexual abuse from a matter of consent to a relation of power and exploitation highlights that those who experience sexual abuse do so not because of a ‘lack’ of intelligence but rather because of unequal power dynamics that might favor professionals, family members, and staff” (Gill, 2010, p. 202). Just as we acknowledge the complicated role of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation in the discourse surrounding sexual violence, we need to consider the disproportionate ways in which disabled people are affected by sexual assault and relationship violence.

While the statistics about the disproportionate impact of sexual violence on disabled individuals are jarring and important, I purposely did not focus on them in order to address the structural issues that create these discrepancies. Highlighting the prevalence of violence against disabled women and disabled gender nonconforming people runs the risk of perpetuating the stereotype of disabled women as helpless, when this is far from the case. In writing this blog, I seek to raise awareness about the impact of sexual violence on disabled people and to push myself and others to continue to think critically about how our anti-violence work and advocacy is failing disabled survivors. Intersectionality is more than just a theory. It is a critical consciousness that we should put into practice each and every day.
-Rachel Drucker '17, Sexual and Gender Based Violence Intern

Gill, M. (2010). Rethinking sexual abuse, questions of consent, and intellectual disability. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 7(3), 201-213.
Whaley, K. (2016, January 26). Nobody catcalls the woman in the wheelchair.


  1. Thank you for this, Rachel.

  2. Thank you for your work on this! Appreciate you!

  3. I think this is something that is incredibly important to acknowledge, and something that our intro to women's studies course has talked about. One student mentioned how disabled individuals that are victims of assault sometimes don't understand that what is happening is sexual assault. Society sees disabled individuals and non sexual beings, they are desexualized essentially as you mentioned. This logic is wrong and needs to be addressed, and this type of dialogue moves the conversation in the right direction-- thank you!