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Facing the Risk of Sexual Assault as a Disabled Woman

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Like many of my feminine-presenting friends, I learned as a teen to walk home with my keys between my knuckles. We walked in packs when we could. We developed strategies for staying safe when we traveled alone. I’ve heard all the advice – be vigilant, observe your surroundings, cross the street or enter a building if you’re suspicious.

Unfortunately for me as a woman with low vision, much of this advice depends on eyesight. So I’ve sought other means of protecting myself, including walking with a look of fierce determination, talking on the phone, carrying pepper spray and keenly observing as best I can for anything suspicious.

Sexual assault against women is pervasive and tragic. Disabled women are even more at risk, with estimates indicating women with disabilities are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted. In their piece investigating sexual assault in women with intellectual disabilitiesNPR found that women with intellectual disabilities are more than seven times more likely to be assaulted than those without disabilities. According to Disability Justice, 83 percent of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, yet only 3 percent of sexual abuse involving women with intellectual disabilities is reported.

The high rates of sexual assault against women with disabilities may come as a surprise, given the pervasive social tendency to desexualize disability. People with disabilities are portrayed as unattractive, undesirable, and broken. Yet women with disabilities are especially vulnerable to sexual assault. This seems to be in part due to lacking senses or abilities that could protect against these assaults. Increased rates of sexual assault against women may also be based on the view that women with disabilities are weak and incapable of protest. It’s assumed that we won’t speak out against the injustice, and if we do, no one will listen anyway.

The risk of sexual assault makes me vulnerable. I am afraid when I travel alone. I’m afraid when unfamiliar people stop me on the street. I am afraid I will be taken advantage of because my disability makes me seem like an easy target. I am afraid I will be violently or sexually assaulted and won’t be believed. I am afraid even if I am believed, I will not be able to hold a perpetrator accountable because I won’t have detailed visual descriptions.

This fear is absolutely justified; being a woman with a disability objectively makes me more vulnerable. To quote Molly Burke’s Vice piece about dating while blind, “I have to be careful.” I am at greater risk of sexual assault and harassment and need to take additional precautions to protect myself as best I can. Despite my vigilance, I like all too many of my friends with disabilities, have had multiple encounters with sexual assault. Within the past year alone I’ve had at least three public encounters, including inappropriate physical contact and verbal harassment, including being grabbed, screamed at and followed. I don’t know whether these incidents would have occurred if I did not have low vision. Could I have noticed subtle signs of danger earlier? Would I have been able to escape sooner? Or would they have felt entitled to treat me this way if I weren’t disabled?

No woman with or without sight deserves unwanted sexual attention. It is never the victim’s fault for being the target of sexual assault. Nonetheless, we live in a society that makes victims question and blame ourselves. Systemic and structural inequalities silence women from reporting sexual assault, and all too often this silencing is amplified for women with marginalized identities such as disability. I am so grateful for the momentum behind #MeToo, and I commend the bravery of the women who have shared their stories to expose the scope of this issue.

There is so much nuance and complexity to the power structures that enable and dismiss sexual assault. Let’s keep telling our stories and voicing our vulnerabilities.

Getty image by stevanovicigor.

Originally published: February 7, 2019
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