Disability and Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Blue hand holding a blue microphone in bottom left corner. Text says: "If you are a survivor of sexual violence, let it be known that I believe you. I believe that you are a survivor and I believe that you are a strong, beautiful disabled woman. And one is not the cause of the other." - Leah Smith

Given that our society normalizes rape culture and male dominance and power, April has been designated as Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in an effort to address this problem. While LETA Solutions disagrees that we need only a month to even attempt to address this long-standing pandemic, I will take this opportunity to raise my fist in solidarity with women* across the globe.

While all survivors give first-hand accounts of not being believed, we know that women with disabilities, in particular, receive strong messages of skepticism and doubt when coming out as a survivor of sexual violence. Overall these messages are rooted in a male-dominated society that has no desire to address this problem, but drinks through a straw of ableism that says disabled bodies are not sexually desirable. However, please hold my coffee while I debunk the idea that sexual violence of any kind is about anything other than dominance and power.

First and foremost, sexual violence has nothing to do with attraction. Sexual violence has everything to do with power and control. People that commit these acts of violence are not just overwhelmed with attraction. They are seeking power over another human and do so with violence. These acts are forced in an effort to prove dominance, not overt sexual attraction.

With that said, in looking at the history of disability, people with disabilities have, for the most part, been de-sexualized for centuries. As a society, we don’t know how to hold space for a disabled person, with a body or mind that we do not understand, to have sexual desires or to be considered sexually attractive by someone. Our culture overemphasizes that one should be attracted to a 6-foot-tall body of the opposite sex with white skin and total neuro-typicality. From interracial couples to the LGBTQ movement, we can easily see that anything outside of these norms is uncomfortable to us. We know that one of the first things people with spinal cord injuries are told is that they ‘may never have sex again.’ And, by “the first thing,” I mean that they are often barely out of the effects of anesthesia before this information is given to them. We also know, from personal testimony, that they are still very much having or interested in having sex post-injury.

With this as history, we also know that 83% of women with disabilities experience sexual violence in their lifetime. In case that did not sink in, disabled women are twice as likely to be a victim of sexual violence compared to their non-disabled peers. This number is devastating and the reason these women are victims of sexual violence has nothing to do with how attractive they are or are not. It has everything to do with how toxic masculinity socializes people to have an overt need for power. And it has everything to do with how women, and especially women with disabilities, are not believed when they report acts of sexual violence or even told that they are simply not ‘attractive enough’ to have been assaulted.

As we wrap up April, it is imperative that we not only move to end all violence against women, but that we make sure we’re addressing our own implicit bias regarding who is allowed to have a voice at this table. If you are a survivor of sexual violence, let it be known, that I believe you. I believe that you are a survivor and I believe that you are a strong, beautiful disabled woman. And one is not the cause of the other.

*LETA’s definition of women and girls includes cis-women, trans-women, femme/feminine-identifying genderqueer, and non-binary folks. Our definition is meant to be inclusive. If you feel this does not include you, please reach out to us.

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