Aug 23, 2018 | essay

Who Gets to Say #MeToo?


Edited by elsa-sjunneson

This essay is part of a larger conversation about harassment. We’ve invited different voices to join this and work towards unpacking the problem and finding solutions. You can find the rest of the essays on this index page).

Content Note:

This essay describes multiple instances of sexual assault.

The #MeToo movement is about breaking the silence that builds up each time a man ignores your “no.” Unfortunately, the movement has been so focused on telling the story of abuse committed against non-disabled victims that it has left disabled victims without a voice. We are continually excluded from the conversation. While so many others finally seem to have a voice, disabled victims of sexual assault and abuse are left in silence. Our stories are ignored by the movement instead of uplifted.

I remember saying no. I remember saying no more than once. I remember saying no more than once, but he kept pushing his crotch against my ass to the beat of the bass drum kick echoing in my ears from the band onstage, until I turned around and punched him in the nose. Then I ran, dipping and ducking between the crush of bodies until I was far enough away to know I was safe from retaliation. I was 18.

That wasn’t the first time. It wasn’t the last time, either.

I remember saying no. I remember saying no more than once. I remember saying no more than once but then I simply stopped saying no because he wasn’t listening, so I just stayed quiet until he finished and rolled over. Then I lay in the bed beside him as he drifted off into sleep, wondering whether this “counted,” since he was my boyfriend. I couldn’t fall asleep for hours. I didn’t break up with him. I was 20.

That wasn’t the first time. It wasn’t the last time, either.

I remember saying no. I remember saying no more than once. I remember saying no more than once, but then somehow I was leaving the party, forced into a cab by the man who became my ex-husband and another couple, dizzy and too drunk to consent to anything. The night was a blur of discarded clothes and skin against skin. They got what they wanted while my skin crawled. I stopped saying no because no one was listening, so I just stayed quiet until they finished. When I finally got home, I curled in a ball beneath the comforter and shook with silent sobs. When he tried to touch me, I flinched. He didn’t understand why I was crying. I was 24.

That wasn’t the first time. It wasn’t the last time, either.

The ubiquity of the #MeToo movement has clearly illustrated to anyone willing to listen that nearly all of us—femmes, females, transwomen, women with vaginas, women without, AFAB, AMAB, and everyone in between—has at least one story about being sexually assaulted or abused. Many of us have more than one story, and most of us will never experience a moment in our lives where we can be absolutely, positively certain that the harassment will stop, regardless of our age.

The hashtags that define our internet are reflections of our societal values, and the erasure of disability within the #MeToo movement accurately illustrates the desire to eradicate disability entirely. Many people are broadly familiar with the concept of eugenics—the idea that flaws should be bred out of our species in order to perpetuate a stronger, better version of ourselves. Nowadays, eugenics are often linked to Nazism and viewed as a discriminatory movement of the past. Unfortunately, very few non-disabled people recognize that America’s history is deeply steeped in eugenics.

Early eugenics movements painted any type of disability as unwanted, and began to link disability with negative traits like criminality. (Unsurprisingly, those deemed “unfit” often included people of color and women as well as disabled people.) By the early 20th century, the eugenics movement in America had infiltrated nearly every aspect of society, from academic communities to women’s associations. Public acceptance of the concept led to enactment of legislation that included eugenic criteria—first by prohibiting anyone who was “epileptic, imbecile, or feeble-minded” from marrying, and then by the introduction of compulsory sterilization laws. From 1909 to the 1960s, over 60,000 forced sterilization procedures were performed nationwide. California was responsible for one-third of all those sterilizations performed—its movement was so effective that members of the Nazi party asked eugenicists for advice. Thirty-two states had eugenics programs; 50 had compulsory sterilization laws. Forced sterilizations were still being performed on female inmates in California all the way up until 2013. Compulsory sterilization remains common for disabled people around the world—at least 47 disabled Australians were forcibly sterilized by court order between 2004 and 2014—and the 1927 Supreme Court Case Buck v. Bell, which legalized the forcible sterilization of intellectually disabled people, has never actually been overturned.

Through modern history, disabled people have been forcibly segregated from healthy, normal sexual activity and inaccurately linked to undesirable behavior. The resulting assumption is that disabled people shouldn’t or can’t have sexual desires, needs, or relationships in the same way non-disabled people do—that disabled people should be fixed, altered, made to be more like their non-disabled counterparts instead of accepted as we are. Because society doesn’t think we should be having sex to begin with, they sure as hell aren’t paying attention when we’re victims of sexual attacks and abuse in the same way non-disabled people are.

I am one of those disabled victims. For many years, I mistakenly believed that silence was a way to protect myself from my hurt. Words have power. They say that when you give something a name, you also give it power. I did not call what had been done to me by their names. Naming them meant remembering exactly what I was trying to forget. Naming them meant dragging them forth from the furthest, dankest recesses of my mind, dusting off the cobwebs that I had hoped would keep them hidden. Naming them meant confronting the sick feeling that settled in the pit of my stomach when I realized how far my boundaries had been violated. Naming them meant facing the inevitable victim-blaming criticisms—why didn’t you fight back? What were you wearing? Why didn’t you break up with him? Why didn’t you leave?

I held my tongue without realizing that my status as a disabled person meant that I was significantly more likely to experience sexual assault and abuse than my non-disabled counterparts. The #MeToo movement doesn’t talk about it, but sexual assault and abuse of the disabled population is an ignored epidemic of epic proportions. Our disabilities often put us in uniquely vulnerable positions that are all too frequently twisted and tangled for the perverse edification of abusers.

Disabled people are twice as likely as the general population to experience rape or sexual assault. Disabled women are 40% more likely to experience intimate partner violence than non-disabled women. More than 90 percent of intellectually disabled women will experience sexual assault—at almost 12 times the rate of what non-disabled people experience. Disabled people are more likely to be assaulted by someone they know, and we’re more likely to experience sexual assault or abuse that lasts longer and is more intense than the abuse experienced by non-disabled people.

Once we are abused or assaulted, it’s significantly more difficult for us to escape, and equally as challenging to find justice in a court system that already fails more often than not at persecuting the perpetrators of sexual violence.

The #MeToo movement aims to “support survivors and end sexual violence.” The reality is that we can never achieve the goal of a society that does not tolerate sexual assault or abuse in any form without including disabled people in the discussion, especially given how disproportionately it affects us. If we aren’t allowed to speak up—if we aren’t actively included when discussing sexual violence—there will never actually be a world without. Without our voices, the world isn’t hearing the full story. Without shining light on our experiences, the darkest, dirtiest secrets inflicted upon those of us who need protection the most will simply continue to fester and ferment.

I thought that keeping quiet about what had happened to me would protect me from my memories. I thought that not naming my experiences would make them disappear. Words have power, and naming what I’ve gone through—what we have experienced—is the first step towards fixing a dark, hidden secret that has destroyed disabled lives for too long. My silence only contributed to a systemic erasure that kept my story from being told with the same dogged coverage that non-disabled victims have finally begun to receive with the coverage the #MeToo movement.

I am disabled.

I was assaulted.

I was raped.

This isn’t the first time I’ll be talking about it.

I promise you that it won’t be the last time, either.

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