Trigger Warning:Extensive discussion of sexual assault and ableism, including a survivor's firsthand account and a lot of sexist and ableist phrases.
Imagine that you are raped.
Then imagine that the first person you tell afterward accuses you of misconstruing the facts.
You're crazy. You're insane. You're imagining things. Surely you don't remember right. He's such a nice boy. A perfect gentleman. He'd never do that. And we would never let that kind of thing happen here. It just doesn't happen. You must be out of your mind. You need help.
After all, it wasn't really rape. It couldn't have been.
This isn't a rare situation.
This is the reality for many rape survivors, with little regard to race, class, ability, education, or age.
Over the last few days, this account of former Amherst student Angie Epifano's rape and the school administration's utter failure to punish the perpetrators has gone viral from the Amherst student paper website. You may have also read this story about former Notre Dame student Lizzy Seeberg's rape and subsequent suicide. In Angie's case, the school officials not only dismissed her account and suggested that it wasn't really rape but a hookup gone wrong, but after she spoke to school counselors, she was involuntarily hospitalized in a psychiatric ward with the not so subtle assumption that she wasn't entirely lucid or competent to be making accusations.
Some excerpts from the articles linked above, starting with Angie—
Eventually I reached a dangerously low point, and, in my despondency, began going to the campus’ sexual assault counselor. In short I was told: No you can’t change dorms, there are too many students right now. Pressing charges would be useless, he’s about to graduate, there’s not much we can do. Are you SURE it was rape? It might have just been a bad hookup…You should forgive and forget.
How are you supposed to forget the worst night of your life?There's more.
She began rattling off the Administration’s policy regarding students released from psychiatric care. In order for students to be allowed back they had to have parental supervision while on campus in order to make sure that the student did not relapse into substance abuse again (the most common reason for student admittance into the Ward). This meant that a parent would stay in a hotel near campus and would then follow their child around for two weeks until the “all clear” period was reached. “And since you don’t have parents…”
She trailed off awkwardly and began to resolutely examine the upper left-hand corner of the dining room.
Panic welled up inside of me.
Did this mean I was trapped on the Ward forever? God, no, I couldn’t handle that. I wasn’t crazy!
Claustrophobia and paranoia dropped on top of me and I wildly scanned the room. I met my roommate’s eyes. She was looking at me with worry: What’s wrong?
The room stopped spinning, the walls went back to their normal locations, I could breathe again, and now I was angry. I told her flat out: Let me get this straight. I was raped on their campus. I had an emotional breakdown because I didn’t feel safe and felt harassed on their campus. I went to their counseling center, like they told me to, and I told them how I was feeling. They decided that I should be sent to the hospital. And now they won’t allow me back on their campus? They allow rapists back on campus, but they won’t allow the girl who was raped back? The girl who did nothing wrong.And after Angie was released from her involuntary hospitalization.
What was the point of staying at Amherst? I had been stuck on campus for eleven months straight; each day had been more challenging and emotionally draining than the previous one. I had been feeling better recently, but each time I met with my dean I felt more emotionally distraught than I had beforehand. Her comments reminded me that in the Administration’s eyes I was the most base individual: a poor and parentless humanities major who was the school’s token-Deep-Southerner. I was sullied, blameworthy, and possibly insane.And she ultimately decided to withdraw from Amherst.
I became even more resolute about my decision to leave, and decided to talk with the Victim Rights Law Center, a pro-bono law firm based in Boston that my survivor group had recommended to me several weeks earlier. My preliminary intake with the VRLC was quite eye-opening: Oh Amherst? Yeah, unfortunately I know Amherst all too well. I’ve been down there many times to deal with the administration and their constant mistreatment of survivors. Our law firm keeps trying to force them to change but they just don’t seem to understand, they keep doing the same old thing.
Amherst has almost 1800 students; last year alone there were a minimum of 10 sexual assaults on campus. In the past 15 years there have been multiple serial rapists, men who raped more than five girls, according to the sexual assault counselor. Rapists are given less punishment than students caught stealing. Survivors are often forced to take time off, while rapists are allowed to stay on campus. If a rapist is about to graduate, their punishment is often that they receive their diploma two years late.
I eventually reported my rapist.
He graduated with honors.Lizzy's story is as appalling.
In a sense, Lizzy’s ordeal didn’t end with her death. The damage to her memory since then is arguably more of a violation than anything she reported to police -- and all the more shocking because it was not done thoughtlessly, by a kid in a moment he can’t take back, but on purpose, by the very adults who heavily market the moral leadership of a Catholic institution. Notre Dame’s mission statement could not be clearer: “The university is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” But in this case, the university did just the opposite.
In life, Lizzy was both politically and personally conservative, a brand new member of the College Republicans who led her parish youth group and spoke openly about saving herself for marriage. But Notre Dame officials have painted and passed around a different picture of the dead 19-year-old. Sotto voce, they portray the player as wrongly accused by an aggressive young woman who lied to get back at him for sexually rejecting her the first moment they were ever alone together.
And the rapist's lawyer, Joe Power, who is also a Notre Dame alumnus, "also suggested that Lizzy’s parents should never have let her go away to college because Effexor is such a powerful drug that those on it require 'close supervision.' (The prescribing physician, Dr. Claudia Welke, called that an 'absolutely false' characterization of the widely prescribed antidepressant, and of Lizzy’s mental state prior to Aug. 31, 2010.)" He also suggested that the reporter who wrote the article was racist and ought to have been writing for the Ku Klux Klan because the rapist happened to be Black. (Power is white.)
This is a pattern.
Let's rank oppressions, shall we? Let's claim that a white rape victim (and anyone supporting her) accusing a Black perpetrator is racist because her rapist happens to be Black. Now, is it wrong when Blacks or other people of color are arbitrarily accused of crimes simply because of their race or blamed collectively for the crimes of other Blacks or other people of color? Absolutely. Is it wrong that our prison system disproportionately incarcerates young people of color at rates staggeringly higher than for white offenders accused or convicted of comparable crimes? It's deplorable. Is it wrong that people of color face the terrible ramifications of racial profiling and the prejudices of predominantly white judges and juries? It's appalling. Of course it is. No one is suggesting otherwise, at least not here.
But to suggest that white rape victims shouldn't come forward when the rapists happen to be people of color is equally horrific. And it's disgusting, because it suggests that the fear of being perceived (wrongfully, at that) as racist should outweigh the need for justice. It's disgusting because it perverts the very real struggles of Blacks and other people of color against a racist and oppressive society for the purposes of sweeping rape under the rug. And because the attorney making this ridiculous accusation is white, well, it reeks of plain old appropriation.
The trouble with ranking oppressions is not only that it gets you nowhere but that it does absolutely nothing to challenge the very systems of power and privilege that perpetuate the oppression in the first place.
The intersectionalities between marginalized communities are not solely that members of one such group may also be members of others but also that the oppressions that affect one marginalized community intersect and overlap with the oppressions that affect others. You cannot operate in silos. You cannot draw attention to a set of issues purportedly belonging to only one marginalized community while ignoring their consequences for other marginalized communities. What happens to the queer community is wrapped up intimately with what happens to the disabled community and to the undocumented community and to the Black community and to the Jewish community and to the poor community. You cannot separate oppressions because they feed from one another.
Our society is complicit in perpetuating rape culture—that is, a culture in which rape and other forms of sexual violence are not only common but are normalized and justified through attitudes and social structures that legitimize and condone them. One major component of rape culture is the ever-prevalent practice of victim blaming, or suggesting that the victim should be blamed for allowing the rape to occur. The easiest example is the "short skirt" scenario. If the victim was wearing a "short skirt," or any other form of dress considered "sexually provocative," then it's her fault, because she was "asking" to be raped. She was "asking" for the sexual attention.
But victim blaming happens in a scarier way, and in a way all too familiar to those of us in the disabled community.
More frequently than not, a common tactic of victim blaming employs ableism as its ammunition for scapegoating the victims of rape as either ultimately complicit in the violence enacted against them or otherwise somehow incompetent and therefore incapable of making judgments about consent or rape. Historically, the power to involuntarily commit another person to a psychiatric institution under the supposition that the person was "insane" or otherwise mentally incompetent was often abused for economic extortion or even simple social retaliation, regardless of whether the victim of this abuse did or did not actually have any mental health, developmental, or intellectual disability. Today, this power is used to silence rape victims.
When you suggest that a rape victim must be insane or crazy, not only are you perpetuating ableism but you are using ableism to justify violence and blame the victim.
When you suggest that a disabled rape victim is incapable of giving or denying consent, you are denying that person's agency and you are presuming incompetence.
When you suggest that a disabled rape victim who does not speak or who was rendered temporarily incapable of producing speech (whether because of selective mutism, dissociation, or a panic attack), you are silencing the victim and de-legitimizing the victim's account.
When you suggest that a rape victim must be insane or crazy, you are implying none too subtly that if the victim were to have a mental health or psychiatric disability, the accusation of rape would be meaningless.
Because if you don't take it seriously when the victim is presumed neurotypical and non-disabled, how are disabled people supposed to believe that you will take it seriously if they are raped when you use accusations of mental health and psychiatric disability to de-legitimize and silence non-disabled victims?
And it does happen to disabled people. The least studied and tracked category of hate crimes are those perpetrated against the disabled. And when disabled people are raped, particularly those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, it becomes not only easy but common to use aspects of their disabilities as reasons to disbelieve their accusations of rape or sexual violence. When people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are the victims of rape, the usual response is to ignore the allegations and suggest that the victims are inherently incompetent and incapable of understanding rape, let alone making accusations against their abusers. And this frightening trend is part of a vicious cycle that both repeatedly re-victimizes disabled rape survivors and victim-blames non-disabled rape survivors within an ableist framework.
(Despite the media portrayals in crime dramas that would lead you to believe that people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities are frequently rapists and murderers, these people are far more likely to be victims of such crimes than to be perpetrators of them.)
You see, it's not enough merely to critique victim blaming that labels rape survivors "insane" or "crazy" as sexist and complicit in perpetuating rape culture. This dangerous practice must also be critiqued for the egregious ableism that lends it any credence whatsoever. To critique victim-blaming solely in the context of sexism and rape culture is to ignore the intersectionality that allows victim-blaming to occur as an outgrowth of ableist attitudes that see disabled people (and people with mental health and psychiatric disabilities in particular) as incompetent, incapable, overly-sensitive, and unaware—to perpetuate a particularly virulent form of ableism that not only sees the disabled as less-than but that also justifies violence committed against us as not as bad as violence committed against the non-disabled.
A quick Google search for "intellectual disability rape no charges" brings over half a million results. Disabled people are disproportionately likely to be victimized by violent crime, including sexual crime, because of the ableist attitude that sees people with disabilities (and especially intellectual and developmental disabilities) as particularly vulnerable, gullible to deception, and incapable of communicating about crimes committed against them. In keeping with this blatant ableism, a man convicted of raping a non-speaking woman with cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability was freed because the justices on Connecticut's Supreme Court ruled that despite a significant mobility impairment, she could have communicated non-consent to sexual intercourse by biting or kicking her rapist—both of which are not actions of which she is physically capable. (See the Johnson article in the sources below.) By holding the disabled to the higher standard of physically resisting an attack when many non-disabled (including non-physically disabled) rape survivors have also not offered physical resistance for a variety of reasons (such as shock, trauma, restraint, fear, or direct threat from the rapist) and are not necessarily blamed for not resisting, the court has essentially ruled that it is within legal realms to rape people with physical disabilities and mobility impairments.
After all, if we don't fight back, we must have wanted it.
Ableism and sexism are ugly enough on their own. Combined? They're a dangerous force to reckon with, capable of freeing and exonerating rapists and silencing and de-legitimizing the victims of rape, all while dehumanizing millions of disabled people and leaving us legally and socially vulnerable to further sexual violence.
Epifano, A. (2012, October 17). An account of sexual assault at Amherst College. The Amherst Student. 142(6).
Henneberger, M. (2012, March 26). Reported sexual assault at Notre Dame campus leaves more questions than answers. National Catholic Reporter.
Johnson, J. (2012, October 2). Man convicted of sex assault on disabled woman freed - court: she could have communicated dissent. Newser.