Disability and rape on the hospital ward

Content note: This piece discusses rape and sexual assault in medical contexts, though not in graphic detail. 

Reading statistics on rape and disability is sometimes akin to being plunged into a pit of fire for me. The statistics are so grim, even in their poorly collected and maintained state, as to boggle the mind. Broadly speaking, disabled women are roughly twice as likely to experience sexual assault as their nondisabled counterparts. That risk increases even more for women with certain disabilities, including mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities, and developmental disabilities—notably, the less able women are to communicate conventionally or to be heard, the more likely they are to experience rape, illustrating the strong correlation between perceived helplessness and rape.

Rapists target victims who are unlikely to be able to seek justice. The oft-repeated adage that rape is not about sex, but about power, is absolutely true: This is a stark illustration of the exercise of tremendous power and control over people in an extremely disadvantaged position, serving to marginalise them even further. Disabled rape victims may be unable to communicate because they lack the tools to explain and define what happened to them, because people take their voices away, because they are mentally ill and no one believes them. They may never report, or it may never occur to them to report; in some cases, their rapes don’t come to light because they’re sexually abused while under anesthesia, while in comas, and in other situations where an altered level of consciousness makes it difficult for them to be aware that a rape even happened.

People who don’t understand the distinction between social and medical models of disability might want to consider the interaction between institutionalised disablism and rape culture. The medical model suggests that disabled individuals are targeted because of the personal challenges presented by disability, while the social model illustrates that this is a systemic social problem tied closely to rape culture at large. Protecting one person is an important service and step, but it doesn’t resolve the larger problem: This isn’t about one rapist, one person, but about a culture where rape of disabled people isn’t treated seriously and isn’t addressed as a separate facet of rape culture. This isn’t about rape as a broad category, but a very specific form of rape.

This is about a return to arguing that rape is about sexuality when people talk about how disabled people aren’t sexually desirable so they don’t make credible rape victims. Disturbingly, some people like to argue that disabled people certainly won’t get sex any other way. These are the kinds of attitudes that prevail about disability and sexuality, and these are attitudes that are unique to the disability community, illustrating why categorising their rapes as a simple product of rape culture is too simplistic.

And that becomes very apparent in medical settings. For nondisabled people, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and the like may be viewed as places of healing. Patients arrive there to be treated, they’re handled with respect and kindness by caregivers, and once better, they’re discharged. The experience of the medical system is very different for many disabled people, who spend much more time within it, and are much more likely to spend time being hospitalised, often in vulnerable situations.

Endless cases of rape in long-term care highlight the risks for disabled people living under the ostensible ‘care’ of service providers in institutions, but the same holds true in hospitals as well, where medical rape doesn’t just happen on the obstetrics ward. It also occurs in the context of rape of patients who don’t consent to pelvic exams, in the context of disabled patients treated as easy victims on hospital wards simply by virtue of their disability, and, chillingly, in the context of people raped or subjected to nonconsensual pelvic exams while anesthetised. While this is a risk that applies to all women, because we live in a terrible world, disabled women are more likely to have trouble identifying what happened, articulating it, and reporting it—and when they do, they’re not taken seriously.

Rape culture in all its forms is pernicious and evil and it should be fought, but it’s important to acknowledge that it does in fact have forms, and it manifests in many different ways. There is no one broad blanket ‘rape culture,’ but rather a series of interconnected violences against human beings—particularly women—that play upon many social attitudes and tropes. Black women are Jezebels. Disabled people couldn’t possibly be raped. Trans women are deceivers. Latinas are spicy so they like it when you make them fight. That girl was mature for her age, so she wanted it. These things are not the same, even if they’re tied together, and pushing back against them isn’t as simple as identifying misogyny and fighting it. The intersectionality of these things needs to be identified—and it needs to be identified as a structural institutional problem.

The rape of disabled people is a looming, everpresent social problem that gets almost no air time in conversations about rape culture—perhaps because disability in general is frequently left out of social justice conversations. The disability community, though, needs everyone’s help in fighting its rape crisis, because we cannot do this alone; we need people working in solidarity with us to identify this as what it is and to help us when we cry out.

Image: Hospital days…, Emily Orpin, Flickr