Category Archives: sexual assault

Private Practice: All in the Family: Rape, Apologism, and Spousal Abuse

I am slowly catching up on all the television I missed while AT&T left me without phone service for over a week (long story), so this writeup is actually about an episode of Private Practice that aired, uh, two weeks ago, but it filled me with rage, so, there you go. Spoilers ahead! Additionally, please be advised that this post talks about rape as well as abuse of people in institutions.

The A storyline in ‘All in the Family’ involves a woman believed to be in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband thinks she can be revived1 and asks for a consult with Amelia. Amelia does some screening, Addison notes that the test results reveal the woman is pregnant.

I thought ‘is Private Practice actually going to talk about rape and abuse in long term care facilities?’ And then I looked at the way the husband looked at his wife during the ultrasound and thought ‘oh, no, they are not.’ (Although Sam did helpfully tell us ‘this isn’t that kind of place’ when supporting the institution’s director in his pleas to not call the police to report the rape of a patient. Fail the first, Sam.)

Addison can’t even bring herself to say the word rape. She says ‘had sex with’ and ‘impregnated,’ but she doesn’t say ‘rape.’ The R-word did not cross the screen once during this episode, although at one point Addison mentions ‘consent.’ This is an episode that revolves around rape, and no one ever says the word.

Here’s where things start to get infuriating. Addison maintains that this is wrong, full stop. Ultimately, she calls the police to report that the husband molested his wife. If you are in a coma, you cannot freely consent to sex. If you are married to a person in a coma, your marriage license is not a marriage license for sex any time you want it. Georgie, the patient, was raped. No one says this, and everyone fights Addison on it and vigorously opposes her decision to pursue this to the fullest extent of the law.

Sam attempts to separate work/home life, not understanding why Addison is so enraged. In one scene, she tells him to go home because she has no intention of having sex with him while he’s being a disgusting rape apologist (I would say ‘I do not plan on having sex with you ever again‘ myself, but, hey, that’s just me). But, don’t worry, at the end of the episode, they kiss and make up, even after Sam informs her that she was wrongity wrong wrong and that poor husband was just a troubled man who needed some counseling, that was all. He’s not a rapist or anything, ew! (Although of course they don’t say that word.) And makes sure to let her know how angry he is, and how they will fight about it later.

Personally, I find the thought of being in the same house with someone engaging in that level of rape apologism (or any level, really) utterly abhorrent, let alone having sex with that person. The takeaway from this episode was that Addison was just being oversensitive and unreasonable; Sam says over and over again that she was wrong, the director of the institution wants to avoid culpability for a rape that occurred in his facility on his watch, and Sheldon even says ‘[Georgie’d] be appreciative about everything you’re doing’ to the husband, because evidently there’s nothing women appreciate more than being raped.

Private Practice completely stepped over and elided the very real problem happening right now of rape in institutions, where pregnancies of institutionalised women do occur, when the facility doesn’t insist on sterilising them or putting them on birth control against their will. It completely ignored the very real problem of martial rape, suggesting that marriages and relationships are like sex contracts, whether you are Georgie, comatose and unable to consent, or Addison, having sex with your partner even though he is a dirty dirty rape apologist scumbag. The conflict between Sam and Addison is treated as ‘a work-related spat,’ instead of what it is, which is a fundamental ideological problem; Sam believes it is ok for people to rape people, and Addison does not.

The episode closes with a scene of Charlotte King being pulled into her office by a stranger, who hits and abuses her. As the lights dim, the implication is that she is being raped. The following episode is All About the Rape and How Everyone Deals With It, and even involved consultation with RAINN, evidently. This makes this episode all the more horrifically distasteful; you do an entire episode about rape and apologism in which the word ‘rape’ is never used and the characters identifying it as nonconsensual sex are pooh-poohed, and then you follow up with a Very Special Rape Episode For Ratings and Awards?

Spot the differences here: One episode involves marital rape, the other involves stranger rape. Private Practice, trolling for ratings and praise, goes for the stereotypical stranger rape storyline (featuring, as an added bonus, a mentally ill rapist) while completely erasing a marital rape, even though it’s estimated that less than one third of rapes involve strangers (and that people with mental illness are far more likely to be rape victims than rapists). Thanks, Private Practice, for reinforcing the idea that the only rapes that ‘count’ involve mentally ill strangers who physically assault you.

Are you fucking kidding me, Private Practice?

  1. A not unreasonable thing to think, given the revelation earlier this year that this condition is often misdiagnosed.

Human Rights Watch Reports Atrocities Against Disabled Women and Children in Uganda

Content note: This post includes discussions of sexual and physical violence committed against women and children with disabilities.

Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a report, ‘As if We Weren’t Human,’ on the violence, isolation, and discrimination experienced by women and children with disabilities in Uganda. Northern Uganda is emerging from decades of conflict, and as the country works on rebuilding itself, disability rights advocates are very concerned about the role of people with disabilities in Ugandan society. The report documents the conditions for many people with disabilities living in Uganda, and challenges the government to take a more active role in protecting its disabled citizens.

It’s worth noting that several other African nations are in positions similar to Uganda’s, and the findings of the report may be more widely applicable. The report highlights the consequences of leaving the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves.

It is estimated that around 20% of the population in Uganda is disabled. Many of those disabilities are acquired as a direct result of the nation’s conflict; women have lost limbs to landmines, been paralysed by bullets, and have developed disabilities in the wake of things like polio infections caused by a complete breakdown in vaccination programmes. Some women have injuries inflicted during the conflict as punishment, such as having their noses and ears cut off for ‘collusion.’ War tends to be brutal, and it tends to  leave distinctive disabilities behind, both increasing the number of people with disabilities in society and making it easy for people to identify people who have lived through the war, an issue that can come with its own set of problems.

Women with disabilities trying to integrate into society are facing an uphill battle as they attempt to leave refugee camps and return to their communities, find ways to support themselves, and struggle with the fact that many communities have been shattered and the extensive social support networks that once existed are gone now. Poverty is a chronic problem for many disabled women that makes it even harder for them to access services they need. Disconnection and fragmentation of society has very serious consequences for people who need networks of people to survive, including both people who are attempting to establish full autonomy for themselves, and people who need full time care and assistance.

The report also documents that women and girls with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual violence, sometimes repeatedly, and that they lack access to reproductive health services. People with disabilities cannot even get HIV testing to determine if they’ve been infected after being raped. Other gender-based violence and abuse has also been widely documented; as in the rest of the world, people with disabilities are more at risk of experiencing physical violence as well as emotional abuse. Psychological issues often nip at the heels of people subjected repeatedly to sexual and physical violence, creating the risk of a mental health crisis in Uganda.

Discrimination against people with disabilities is also widespread; for example, a woman with HIV named Candace says “I cannot bathe near others. My neighbors think that the water that comes off me has HIV in it. They say I will get the community sick if they touch the water.” Some of the discrimination stems from ignorance, the result of inadequate education and outreach, two common problems in communities torn by war that don’t have the time or personnel to be providing these kinds of services. Other discrimination is the result of unchallenged social attitudes, made harder to challenge by the isolation of people with disabilities. When people aren’t interacting with the subjects of their discrimination on a daily basis, it’s much harder to break down the beliefs and attitudes that contribute to the perpetuation of that discrimination.

The report concludes that the government and NGOs working in Uganda need to take a more active role in ensuring that people with disabilities are not left behind during recovery efforts. This includes actively working on accessibility issues in Uganda, educating government representatives and health care providers about disability issues, and fighting discriminatory attitudes with education and outreach. As it is, people with disabilities are already being left out, and there’s a lot of catching up to do to address the situation before it gets even worse.

Social attitudes like those highlighted in the Human Rights Watch report are not unique to Uganda, nor are they unique to war-torn nations or nations in the developing world. Some of the same problems seen in Uganda can be seen in the United States, for example, where people with disabilities are more at risk of sexual and physical violence than nondisabled people, and where we lack access to reproductive health services and sexual education because of social attitudes about our sexuality. These are global issues, and the globe as a whole needs to fight them. Personally, I would love to see Human Rights Watch generate similar reports for every nation on Earth.

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.