I want to address all of you today on an issue that has received considerable media attention in recent weeks in the wake of the Stanford rape case but that has largely (if unintentionally) excluded people with disabilities from the conversation. I want to talk to you about consent—more specifically, the questions and challenges that arise around the ways that people with disabilities negotiate consent.
In conversations about rape culture, we often discuss the all-too familiar problem of victim-blaming. Victims dress a certain way, speak a certain way, exhibit specific body language, consume too much alcohol, or otherwise “invite” acts of sexual violence. We also address the argument of self-defense; people question (and victims often question themselves) how they might have defended themselves against unwanted advances, which still places blame on the victim. If the victim had screamed, called for help, or physically retaliated, the attack wouldn’t have occurred. Yet any of you reading this who has found yourself receiving unwanted sexual advances can affirm that such claims fail to take into account how fear and shock can be immobilizing sensations, particularly if you’ve been physically restrained or overpowered by your attacker.
This question of self-defense holds particular relevance within the disabled community, for however independently we function, we can’t deny that our various disabilities can sometimes impact our physical mobility, including the ability to anticipate or react to threatening situations. I can only speak for myself and others in the blind and visually impaired community, and we face specific concerns regarding consent that the sighted community takes largely for granted. Anyone who has ever been physically intimate with someone, or even exchanged casual flirtation, knows that the rhythms of physical intimacy and communication rely as much on visual cues and the ability to read body language as on tactile cues. People show interest in one another, for instance, by smiling or making eye contact. The blind or visually impaired, on the other hand, can’t rely on such signals. In a relaxed social or professional environment where we feel comfortable, we often appreciate it, for example, when someone touches our shoulder or arm in a loud room if we can’t hear that person calling us by name. Yet many of us can also agree that we don’t appreciate being touched without warning, particularly by someone we don’t know well—even someone we do.
We all have varying levels of comfort with personal space. If I know you well, I will probably hug you; if I’ve never met you, I will more likely shake your hand and keep my distance. I don’t exhibit this body language out of rudeness, but more out of the desire to maintain the degree of personal space that meets my comfort level.
Physical and sexual intimacy have their own set of personal space ground rules. If you can’t see another person, you can’t see that person reaching to drape an arm over your shoulders, or to take your hand, or to lean in for a kiss. As such, that gesture might catch you off guard if the person you’re with doesn’t announce his or her intention. Recently I found myself in this precise situation. I was spending time with someone I trusted; he wanted to be physically intimate. While I gave my initial consent (initial being the operative word) to be touched, I decided not to move any further when he became rough and I felt uncomfortable. I attempted to stop him; he continued despite my protests. He insisted that he thought I was enjoying it; he insisted that I had given him mixed signals; he insisted that “nothing” had happened because he didn’t remove his clothes, so apparently, lying on top of me and pulling my hair constitutes “nothing.” His argument bore all the hallmarks of classic apologism—making excuses for his behavior that shifted the blame off of himself and onto me.
In the aftermath of the situation, I wondered what more I might have done to protect myself. Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I hit him? Why didn’t I fight harder to extricate myself from him? These responses, responses in which we blame ourselves for the actions of others, are symptomatic of rape culture. Rape culture indoctrinates us with the belief that victims somehow bring sexual violence on themselves through the way they dress, speak, how much alcohol they drink, ETC., ETC., ETC.
Friends, I want to make this point crystal clear: you are never responsible for the actions another person makes toward you without your consent. Never trivialize or allow anyone else to trivialize actions that make you feel uncomfortable or threatened. If you don’t consent when someone wants to hold your hand, and that person insists that “it’s just holding hands,” that argument fails to take your comfort level into account. If the person grabs your hand anyway, you’re being touched without your consent. Trivializing any action that makes you uncomfortable sets up a highly dangerous slippery slope; it’s the reason why Brock Turner only received a 6-month prison sentence for “twenty minutes of action”—a phrase that disgustingly trivialized the rape he committed.
To return to the concern I raised earlier in this post that not having the benefit of reading nonverbal body language can complicate a blind or visually impaired person’s ability to anticipate behavior, people with disabilities are uniquely situated to invite conversation about consent. While sharing my experience with a few close friends, we discussed the fact that at the heart of rape culture lies the problem that we teach the importance of self-defense without teaching consent. A clear understanding of consent would help to mitigate, if not entirely alleviate the need to practice the constant vigilance we’re taught to practice. Because the challenges of reading body language create a greater need to communicate the importance of consent, having a frank conversation with others about your comfort level with physical intimacy can be a productive starting point. I, for instance, generally like to stipulate that someone ask before touching me for the first time. Relationship experience has taught me that, like anything else, once I become intimate with someone and he learns how to communicate physical affection in ways that I’m comfortable with, asking or alerting me to the fact that he’s going to touch me becomes unnecessary. Such conversations serve the dual purpose of educating others about best practices when interacting with a blind or visually impaired person and defining the perimeters of consent. If you lay down such perimeters, anyone who disregards them is acting without your consent. End of story. Anyone who genuinely wants to spend time in your company will respect your wishes.
On a side note, I want to add that we tend to discuss sexual violence along gendered lines of male aggressors and female victims; this wrongly implies that men aren’t victims of sexual violence. As a woman with a disability, my understanding of and response to this issue is naturally informed by my experiences as a woman; however, the rules of consent apply to both genders, and the concerns surrounding consent that I’ve raised here are by no means specific to women. Men with disabilities can and do share these concerns.
How can people with disabilities find voice in the conversation about rape culture and sexual violence? Share your thoughts!