Stop Erasing Sexual Violence Survivors With Disabilities
We know that people with disabilities are often among the most underserved or marginalized people in Canada, but we so seldom hear their stories.
When it comes to sexual violence, people with disabilities are often the most vulnerable. Research shows that women with disabilities are 3 times as likely to be forced into sexual activity (Vecova). But where are the stories of sexual violence survivors with disabilities?
femifesto spoke with two gender-based violence activists, Jess Reuger and Marianne Park, to get to the root of the issue.
Jess Rueger is a community mobilizer dedicated to ending gender-based violence. Jess began her education and advocacy work with the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, and then obtained a degree in Sociology at Brescia University College. As a queer person with a disability, Jess recognizes the need for an intersectional lens when confronting sexual violence and barriers to access. Jess is now locally organizing with London Ontario’s own Women’s Events Committee, creating safer and more accessible spaces for women and trans folks.
Marianne M. Park has the distinction of being a woman with a disability (low vision/albinism). She has worked in
the violence against women field for 28 years as a court advocate, group facilitate and researcher. She is the founder of the UPI.
The main challenge that Jess and Marianne see in media reporting on sexual violence against people with disabilities? The lack of conversation that makes these survivors invisible. Read the full interview below.
Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence enacted against people with disabilities?
Marianne: “I would like it to be acknowledged that it actually happens to us. You may think of the context as ‘caregiver’, but those of us with disabilities and who are deaf have relationships with people. Because we sometimes need more assistance, we have more intimate relationships in the sense of people crossing our boundaries more than temporarily able people. It’s not even acknowledged that it happens to us. The ‘It’s never OK’ campaign commercials ran on the mainstream media in various languages, but not in described video. For those who depend on described video, a whole population was ignored.”
Jess: “What I see as a challenge is how aggressive online harassment can be. Perpetrators are protected by the screen, protected from acknowledging the humanity of those they target. What needs to change is for people with disabilities to be acknowledged as human in the first place.”
Marianne: “People with disabilities in general, but particularly women with disabilities, are ‘othered’ so much. With the anonymity of the internet, there’s that ‘otherness’ that impacts us even more. On one hand, technology gives us a forum and a voice, but on the other hand, it marginalizes.”
“There’s also the legacy of residential schools and the legacy of institutionalization. Although many of the institutions have been closed for a few years, we are still dealing with their legacy. For particularly women with developmental and intellectual disabilities, institutions cast a long shadow, and what was normalized and accepted in that format, we know now is abuse, and we know it was wrong.”
Interviewer: How would you like to see or have seen people with disabilities creating consent culture?
Jess: “I watched a documentary on a woman with a physical disability who was an activist advocating for sexual rights of people with disabilities. She went around wearing a T-shirt with a slogan saying “I am a sexual being”. It was radical because the media infantilizes people with disabilities. That’s further dehumanizing when we combine it with understanding of sexual violence in this desirability discourse, where perpetrators are viewed as unable to control their overwhelming feeling of attraction towards the victim. She challenged the stereotype of people with disabilities as being un-sexual by wearing that T-shirt. She got negative feedback in the form of disgust; that reaction was evidence of her statement’s power, because it challenges the idea of people with disabilities not having agency. Her activist work illuminated her agency and put her in a position of being able to consent to sexual activity, which is something we don’t normally acknowledge. So when everyone’s infantilising them and saying they are not capable of giving consent, and no one would want to have sex with them anyway because it’s undesirable, this activism challenged the desirability discourse that would normally downplay the ability of victims to give consent, and gave them agency and power to consent.”
Marianne: “People still don’t want to acknowledge [disability]. People want to give you the compliment of saying “I just think he was normal”. Normal is nothing more than a dryer setting and also denying who we are. I know my albinism and my low vision, particularly my albinism, is just part of me. Is it inconvenient at times? Most definitely, but I would not change it. Yet, temporarily abled people have the idea that we want to be like them, that we want to be ‘normal’.”
Jess: “People with disabilities have desires and are capable of having desire, and having healthy sexual lives.”
Interviewer: Often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cisgender able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about sexual violence against survivors that no not fit this description/narrative?
Marianne: “Often [when we are] depicted in media, it is centered around our disabilities, rather than our joys, frustrations, disappointments, grief, love, hate, which is the same as all people. On one hand, it’s minimizing, particularly around sexual abuse not being acknowledged. On the other hand, [coverage of sexual violence] is sensationalized, like ‘they must be a monster because why would they do that to a woman with a disability’. I don’t see people on television or media like me, that share the struggles I do.”
Jess: “I think our focus on disability still needs [to be to] give it visibility. I don’t think that there is an excuse for keeping disability invisible. It’s not just the characteristics you’ve described above: the person who’s seen as a perfect victim is also virtuous, has a boyfriend and that’s the only person she’s ever had sex with, has good marks, and is a contributing member of society because she is not limited by disabilities or other debilitating factors. We can challenge this stereotype by [not] painting the perfect victim every time. We have a dichotomy of those who are deserving and undeserving of justice; people who deserve sexual violence because ‘oh, they were drunk’ or ‘they went down that dark alley’ or ‘they went up to his room’. Stop painting perfect victims, stop implying someone is deserving or undeserving of justice.”
“Seeing folks like us being reflected positively in the media, [would be good], period. Having visibility in the first place, but also positively when we disclose. When I see someone I can identify with, that tells me that someone like me could be victimized. In processing my experiences, I would have never recognized what happened to me as sexual violence until I saw someone I can identify with describe their experience as sexual violence and report that.”
Marianne: “For anyone to disclose, there are so many barriers, but for those of us with disabilities, they are incredible. Society is not acknowledging those barriers, whether you want to go down the official channels through police or through campus tribunal work. Even if you go through sexual assault centres. My sexual assault centre has not done the work on working with women with disabilities and women who are deaf. They take a cookie cutter approach, and [think] that would work. At every turn, road blocks are placed in our way to disclosing. We know some disclosure is the first step to healing, and that’s why, even if it’s just disclosing to your pet that this happens to you, that’s beginning work to heal.”
Interviewer: There has been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What conversations are you glad to see happening, and what do we still need to address?
Jess: “I am seeing more awareness about reducing barriers for people with disabilities. One of those barriers was a lack of training for police, but these days police are getting more training, and some of that training is coming from Marianne. On social media people with disabilities [are] being included in the conversation about street harassment and having their voices heard.”
Marianne: “Street harassment happens to everyone, but particularly for those of us with disabilities. We think that’s what happens to teens. But for those of us with disabilities, we’ll experience street harassment at a much higher rate. I am glad to see some things are changing. I can be a bit jaded and say they’re not changed, but I want to be part of that change and even if I don’t see that change in my lifetime, then young women such as yourself and Jess, I am hoping you’ll be the beneficiaries of seeing that change and push it further down the road.”
This blog is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.