Trigger warning for discussions of rape, sexual assault, and abuse
The issue of sexual abuse and consent for the disabled has been on the back of my mind lately. I’m organizing a film festival about disability and sexuality right now, which is going to be screening Scarlet Road, a documentary about an Australian sex worker who specifically caters to a disabled clientèle, and I recently read a story about an autistic woman in the UK being banned from having sex “for her own protection” by a judge, which led me to dig up a similar story involving a man with a low IQ who was banned from having sex by a judge, even though he was in a committed relationship with another man and said he was happy with the relationship.
Today, the issue came up in the comments of a post on Clarissa’s Blog, and I decided to address it in a post. The original debate centred on the definition of “rape” and whether non-penetrative sex acts lacking the consent of one of the partners counted as rape.
The answer is, of course non-penetrative sex without consent is still rape; the important ingredient in rape isn’t the “penetration” part, it’s the “non-consensual” part. A penis is not necessary to rape, we already know that rape can be committed with other body parts like mouths and fingers, or with objects. For some reason though, envelopment* is still not seen as a form of “legitimate” rape, or “rape-rape” by some.
There seems to be this weird idea that if a victim** is enveloped while their penis is erect, they’re giving consent to any and all sex acts by being aroused. I know that somewhere out there are studies about some (female) rape victims feeling some form of arousal during rape which disproves this awful line of thought, but I don’t have the spoons to dig through the massive amounts of shit that searching for it would require.
Therefore, I will rely on my readers being civilized and compassionate enough to understand that arousal, which is a physiological response which is not 100% controllable or voluntary, does not equal consent, which is an active state which can be revoked at any point during or before any sex act.
With that aside, let’s get to the main point: Clarissa said, not to me, but in general: “Do you consider non-penetrative sexual acts with mentally or physically disabled men to be rape? I keep asking this question and nobody answers. I keep asking this question and nobody answers.”
My answer: Non-penetrative sexual acts with disabled people are, indeed, a form of rape, if there isn’t any consent given. Disabled people can be raped, by caretakers, by family members, by anyone who violates their boundaries and exploits them sexually. But in order to comprehend the full horror of sexual abuse and rape of disabled people, there needs to be a realization that disabled people are just as capable as nondisabled people of having consensual sex and having a positive, healthy, satisfying sex life. In other words, in order to understand their “No”, we have to realize they can also give a “Yes”.
In the articles above, the judges in both cases (Was it the same one?) took away the person’s right to say “yes” to any sex act, claiming that they couldn’t understand what it meant to say “no”. There are a heap of problems with this line of thinking: In the case of the man who was in a relationship and voiced no unhappiness or discomfort with the idea of having sex with his partner, the judge basically assumed that the fact that the man had a low IQ overrode him giving consent to his partner, and that sex education would just “confuse” him, so it was better to have him constantly policed, lest he have sex.
I can already hear people counter-arguing my assertion that this is wrong by bringing up statutory rape and age of consent laws in comparison: The law says that children can’t consent to sex acts because they can’t comprehend it and there’s an unequal power dynamic and chances for exploitation in a sexual relationship between a minor and an adult. This is all correct, and I don’t intend to challenge it, being a survivor of child grooming and molestation myself.
But the situations are incomparable, because disabled adults are not the social or intellectual equivalent of children. It’s pretty easy to conflate the two, since reports on intellectually disabled people often use the term “mental age” to describe someone’s intellectual capacities, and the disabled are often portrayed in mainstream media as being permanently child-like, innocent types who delight in childish pleasures and lack an adult understanding of the world.
Contrary to this depiction, intellectually/cognitively disabled people often grow up faster than most people could ever give them credit for. They’re more aware of how people treat them and think of them than nondisabled people give them credit for, and, with sex education appropriate to their intellectual abilities, can have safe, consensual sexual relationships, with other disabled people or with neurotypicals.
Consent is powerful, but accessible to everyone. Even someone who is nonverbal or has limited mobility can express consent, if people are willing to learn how to listen. Just because someone can’t speak doesn’t mean they don’t have the ability to say “yes” or “no”.
* If you’re unfamiliar with this term in this context, envelopment refers to a person closing someone’s penis around an orifice like a mouth, vagina, or anus. When it’s used in this case, it’s almost always referring to a non-consensual act, a form of rape committed without penetration, and there have been cases of cis women raping cis men in this fashion.
** In recognition of the fact that not all people with penises are men and not all vagina owners are women, I am going to try to keep this conversation as gender-neutral as possible. I hope it’s clear that this is not meant to disrespect men who are victims of rape by women, or deny their existence, but a measure to help us realize that your gender and sex don’t matter in rape, and that all victims deserve to be treated with respect, compassion, and justice.