Category Archives: sexual assault

Who Is The Victim Here?

Content warning: This post contains discussions of physical abuse and sexual assault perpetrated by caregivers.

Last week, I read a horrific story in the Los Angeles Times about an employee of a retirement home who was sentenced to life in prison for torturing the residents. The story in the Times describes patients as ‘dementia ridden’ and ‘wheelchair bound,’ dehumanising them for readers and putting the focus squarely on friends and family. It’s not awful that this man kicked patients, punched them in the stomach, body slammed them, sexually assaulted them. It’s awful that he got caught and that their families know. The defense? That the accusations came from employees who ‘committed similar abuse themselves.’

This man was named ’employee of the month.’ A medical examiner described the injuries to the body of one of his victims as like ‘being hit by a train.’

“Society is judged by how we care for people who can’t care for themselves,” Herscovitz said. “What could be worse than to have someone abused and not be able to communicate, to be trapped in their own body… and endure the abuse?” (source)

Again, the focus here is not on what happened to the victims, but what the abuse says about society and the perpetrator and the families of the victims. On the guilt experienced by family members who placed their loved ones in the facility. I see a parallel between the language used in these articles and the rhetoric from animal rights organisations like The Fund For Animals, which ‘speaks for those who can’t.’ It’s a pretty stark example of how people with disabilities are viewed by society.

This is not the only report of a ‘caregiver’ abusing people that has showed up in the news lately. In Santa Barbara, a man who sexually assaulted a disabled woman recently reached a plea bargain. Another graphic rape case from El Monte, California. In Des Moines, a disabled woman was raped by a ‘caregiver’ and her rape resulted in a pregnancy; the case would have gone undiscovered if it were not for that.

There is a consistent theme in the way that stories like this are reported. I wrote recently about how rapes of disabled women are framed as a crime against society, not the victim, and the same holds true for abuse. I get the impression, from the way that these articles are written, that the problem isn’t that human beings were tortured, sexually assaulted, and abused, but that ‘the helpless’ were subjected to cruelty and this reflects poorly on society.

It reflects poorly on society that we consider people with disabilities to be helpless. It reflects poorly on society that these narratives reinforce the idea that people with disabilities are incapable of protecting themselves and cannot report crimes committed against them, because this tells people who commit crimes like this that as long as they don’t get caught, they can act with impunity. The dehumanisation of these victims focuses on how awful it must be for their family members, how terrible it must be for them. Not on how awful it is to be a victim of violence.

Sometimes, I read stories where it seems to be implied that the victim doesn’t really understand, so the real source of heartbreak and tragedy is the knowledge of the family members. Never do these stories mention cases where people are not provided with the tools to communicate what is happening to them. Never do these stories talk about situations when people have reported abuse and have been ignored. Surely both of these things reflect poorly on society, don’t they? Why aren’t we talking about them?

These stories do not explore the structural problems involved. They do not talk, for example, about what it is like to be dependent financially and physically on someone who¬† is abusive. On what it is like to know that reporting could end in retribution, institutionalisation, or even a return to the abusive caregiver. They don’t talk about the creation of enforced dependence, or why it is so hard to report abuse. Why it is that inmates of institutions can report abuse and nothing happens, but when their family members get involved, sometimes action is taken.

These stories are also presented in a way that suggests these cases are unusual. They are abhorrent, but they are not unusual. I wish that they were unusual, that caregivers who abuse were so extraordinary that such stories were blazoned across the major networks on the evening news. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Indeed, a quick perusal of Google News turned up a stack of cases from the last week documenting abuse perpetrated by caregivers. Some of these cases were so awful that I couldn’t bring myself to link to them, even with a warning.

People wonder why people with disabilities don’t universally trust caregivers, have concerns about institutionalisation, why sites like this one that centre the voices and experiences of people with disabilities exist. It’s because these kinds of cases are far from being uncommon, and because in most places, the myth that facilities that warehouse people with disabilities provide ‘care’ is alive and well.

As long as these stories keep being reported like they are unusual, as long as they keep dehumanising victims, the social attitudes that contribute to the abuse of people with disabilities will continue.

In Which Rape Makes Me Angry

Content warning: This post discusses rape and sexual assault of women with disabilities.

One of the persistent problems with rape and sexual assault cases is that they tend to be very poorly reported in the media. They aren’t reported at all, for the most part, if they involve nonwhite women, sex workers, disabled women, trans women, and other women living in marginalised bodies, and when they are, it is treated as regional news, instead of a systemic and serious problem. In the case of women with disabilities, rapes are often reported as a crime against society, rather than against the victim.

This tends to create a situation where it’s hard to get accurate information and where people underestimate the frequency of rapes of people in marginalised bodies. Indeed, there’s a widespread social attitude that rape of people with disabilities doesn’t occur because ‘why would anyone want to have sex with them‘ when, in fact, people with disabilities are deliberately targeted by sexual predators. People who cannot report crimes, who will not be believed when they report them, who are not provided with the tools for reporting, who can be easily threatened and intimidated by their rapists, are viewed as ideal targets for rape and abuse.

Especially in institutions, rates of sexual assault and physical abuse are, to be blunt, revoltingly high. Even more revolting are practices such as sterilisation, ostensibly for ‘convenience,’ but really to prevent rape victims from getting pregnant so that no one recognises that they are being abused. Depriving people who use communication books and boards of the terms and concepts they need to describe what has been done to them. Dismissing rape reports made by people with mental illness. There’s a reason that women with disabilities experience rape at levels much greater than the average.

It’s really hard to find statistics on rape of disabled women. There are a lot of reasons for this ranging from poor reporting to varying definitions of disability, but generally speaking, estimates seems to suggest that disabled women are twice as likely to experience rape than nondisabled women.

For women with developmental disabilities, these statistics become even more distressing. To grab one statistic, at least 70% of women with developmental disabilities experience rape. This rather stark statistic (others put the numbers closer to 83%) illustrates that rape is not just a feminist issue, but a very probable risk for women with developmental disabilities.

In the last week, I read a report about a man who raped a woman with developmental disabilities in her home a few hours south of me. A man in Cleveland groomed and then molested a women with developmental disabilities. A Census worker in Indiana was charged with breaking into a home to burgle it and rape a woman with developmental disabilities who lived there. In Lombard, Illinois, a protective order was not enough to prevent a man from raping a woman with developmental disabilities.

These are all stories I read in the last week, without actively seeking out stories about the rape of women with developmental disabilities.

The. Last. Week.

And what do these stories tell us? In Cleveland, the molester ‘befriended’ his victim. The Lombard man ‘had sex with‘ his victim. The typical narrative that surrounds reports of rape and sexual assault, one where the words ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ and ‘raped’ are rarely used in lieu of euphemisms that distance the rapist from the crime. Words that leave room for interpretation and debate. Words that are designed to dilute the power, the intensity, and the violence of the crime.

These women had their hair pulled. They were physically attacked and left with bruises and black eyes. They were raped. Their rapists were not ‘friends’ who ‘had sex with’ them. They were rapists. They were rapists who groomed and targeted victims, looking particularly for women who would have difficulty fighting back, who would not be able to report their rapes, who would have to rely on their caregivers to fight for them because they are deprived of autonomy.

Does that make you angry? Because it’s certainly making me angry. Rape already makes me angry to begin with, so this is an entirely new and incendiary level of anger.

This is a systematic denial of personhood and bodily autonomy at every level.