Yes, #MeToo: Sexual Assault and Disability

Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I consider myself an open person, someone who gazes unflinchingly down the barrel of reality. In my writing, I’ve covered controversial topics: entitlement, domestic violence, promiscuity, child custody, disability discrimination. I’ve exposed and explored my own past discretions as living proof for others. Writing about social mores shifts my experience from shame into an open dialogue.

But, it would be honest to say I don’t know how to tell you this one. As women, as a nation, we’re taught to stay silent. Like one in five women in America, I’ve been sexually assaulted on multiple occasions. Like most of us, I never came forward. Only 16 percent of sexual assault victims will.

I knew if I filed a report, I would first face humiliation, the cruel torture of self-exposure unrelated to the incident itself. There would be questions like, did I want it? Did I like it? Was I sober? How long had I known them for? How long ago did we date? Did I love them? Did I sleep with them before? Did I sleep with them after? Do I have a mental health diagnosis?

(Read: am I a liar?) I do. I have not one, but three mental health conditions. With this, the questions worsen. Schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? OCD? Have I had delusions before? Was this a delusion? When was I last hospitalized? Was I on medication? Am I on medication now? Was it all in my head? Was it just a misunderstanding? He’s very accomplished, he has an excellent work history; this must be a misunderstanding.

For me, the label “victim” is worse than the questions implying blame. Victim suggests I’m helpless, hopeless, vulnerable, and broken. Like my diagnosed mental disorder, it’s an identity aspect outside of my own control. Like a sexual assault, I can’t change that it happened to me. It’s permanent and outside my control. Statistics show 83 percent of disabled women are victims of sexual assault. As an umbrella category, disability includes women with mental illness, developmental disabilities, or physical disabilities. In the state of California, where I reside, 35.2 percent of disabled individuals have a serious mental illness (SMI).

For the 13.6 million Americans with a SMI, myself included, our daily functioning — the ability to work, provide housing, or to integrate with society — is limited by our symptoms. For 90 percent of individuals with an SMI, if we’re not already on disability, we’re currently unemployed. I happen to be both. Without a steady income or reliable health, we rely extensively on others. Our meals, housing, finances, health coverage and social support are often maintained by our loved ones. Our lives are a web of family support, understanding friends, and health care providers.

But exactly who are we relying on? Even for non-disabled women, eight out of 10 women knew their perpetrators. 80 percent of women know who raped, assaulted, or molested them. For disabled victims, our perpetrators are nearly always part of our support network — 33 percent of our perpetrators are acquaintances or friends, 33 percent are family or foster relatives, and 25 percent are our personal or professional caregivers.

Considering that we’re often perceived as vulnerable, there’s no question why we’re one of the highest targeted populations for rape. In her testimony, the Stanford victim said if she hadn’t been there that night, the victim would be the next weakest girl at the party. “I was the wounded antelope of the herd,” she said, “completely alone and vulnerable, physically unable to fend for myself, and he chose me.”

In the Stanford assault, alcohol intoxication was the active weapon. Other common date-rape weapons include date-rape drugs, such as Rohypnol, or prescription medications. With effects ranging from sedation to a complete loss of consciousness, date-rape drugs render the victim helpless.

My perpetrator’s weapons were my own medication. I took several drugs to treat my insomnia, in addition to those for my schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and OCD. These drugs enabled me to keep my personality intact, to be a loving mom, daughter, and friend. I took a handful of different pills twice a day, when I woke up and before I went to sleep. Without medication, I went weeks without sleep, steadily losing my grip on reality.

My medications relied on the sedating effects of benzodiazepines and anti-psychotics. Including Rohypnol in their class, benzodiazepines cause deep sedation by depressing the central nervous system. In elevated doses, my anti-psychotics caused slurred speech, difficulty coordinating, and cognitive stupor. After my nightly dosage, I could expect an uninterrupted eight to 12 hours of sleep. That is, if I slept alone.

But I didn’t. I was a single mom; I was dating people. I felt comfortable around these men, trusted them, even loved one of them. I felt safe taking my medications and falling asleep in their beds. But it happened, over and over. I woke up to hands, mouths, genitals touching my body. My clothing was peeled from my motionless frame. I was penetrated, physically adjusted, pulled, gripped, shoved, groped, yanked- all while barely conscious. I was awakened by their contact, but I couldn’t respond.

Semi-conscious and sedated, I couldn’t coordinate my body or articulate speech. I remember my sexual assaults, but I couldn’t react or protest to them. This may be exactly what my perpetrators wanted. In a 2014 New York Times article, titled “When a Rapist’s Weapon is a Drug,” Benedict Carey suggests for some sexual predators, an unconscious victim is not only more convenient, but also a preference, a fetish.

Somnophilia, or sleeping beauty syndrome, means to gain erotic pleasure from sexually engaging with an unconscious victim. In clinical psychology, it’s grouped in with other sexual fetishes. However, in the context of rape, it’s anything but benign. Anna Randall, a San Francisco Bay Area based clinical psychologist, spoke to Live Science regarding somnophilia’s ethical implications. “If somebody is doing something that is violating people’s personal rights, they’re more likely to have anti-social personality disorder — where they don’t know what right or wrong is or they don’t care.”

I’m no psychologist. Despite exhaustive efforts to make sense of what happened, I can’t. While I can’t interpret my perpetrators’ motives or rationale, I don’t need to in order to stay safe. By observing a future date’s behavior, I might prevent a dangerous situation from escalating. In a Babble article, “13 Characteristics of Date/Acquaintance Rapes,” Me Ra Koh chronicles the common red flags to watch for in potential date rapists. While individuals might exhibit concerning behavior in different ways, they share core qualities.

I didn’t want to be so quick to judge, but looking back, there were concerning aspects in each man’s personality. Over time, each of my offenders exposed a buried temper. Each were critical, judgmental, with a deep disdain for others that they blamed on depression. Each outright dismissed or denied my opinions, blaming me for problems if I expressed my own needs, or ignored me entirely. Despite dating each man under the pretense of a relationship, at the core these were one-way relationships. Each would demand my personal time without any reciprocal effort. They lacked empathy.

Reading through Koh’s list, I remembered a magazine article I once read on how to fight off a predator. If held against your will, it said, look the person in the eye. Share something intimate. Quickly, as time is of the essence, the article said, say your name. Your birthday, where you grew up, where your parents met. Your favorite movie, favorite sweater, how you like your coffee. Predators, the article said, don’t want to harm an individual. They want an object, a nameless face, a body.

The night before the last one started violating me in my hazy, drug-induced sleep, he took me out for ice cream. He’d raved about this particular creamery, in a hipster town I loved to visit. He warned me of the winding 15-minute line; it was just that good. Inside, we stepped into a deep charcoal grey store, with tin panel walls, I felt like I’d been transported to Portland. All around us, Edison lights were strung from the ceiling. The smell of salt wafted in the air, from caramel and cones.

“I can’t believe you’ve never been here before,” he said, “This place always reminds me of you.”

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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Thinkstock photo by sSplajn.

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