Sep 302014
 

I just can’t wrap my brain around rape jokes being funny or appropriate.

This came across my virtual desk yesterday, and I am—I guess baffled is the best word for it. Quick version, there was a joke in the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover episode, which aired on Sunday, that poked fun at the idea of someone being raped. I’m baffled by how “Your sister’s being raped.” Is supposed to be the punchline of a joke. (I’m presuming this joke aired as planned, but I don’t know.) No matter how many times I read through the sequence, I still don’t get it, and I don’t think that’s just because I don’t particularly want to get it. I’m baffled by how an anti-sexual assault organization would see this “joke” as a tteachable moment.

I’m just plain confused.

How could an organization devoted to educating about and preventing sexual assault think this joke has educational potential? It just doesn’t. It’s nonsensical. Plus, in a comedy context it’s likely to go over people’s heads. Hell, I read it out of that context—you kno, the context where you laugh at everything and punch your buddy in the shoulder when it’s especially funny—and it went over my head. So yes, people might laugh at it, because they’re already laughing at everything else. They’re certainly not going to think about what their take-away from this scene should be. Most people don’t analyze their cartoons as they watch them.

One thing I’m wondering is if the idea that the “positioning” of the punchline being a pointer to why rape just isn’t funny is based on the idea that asking for lee Keybum (leaky Bum) isn’t all that funny. Thing is: Bart Simpson calling the bar and asking for nonsense names has been a gag on The Simmpsons since its early days. I personally find it amusing—not rip-roaring funny as I’m sure I did when I was a child—but certainly amusing. Maybe if someone doesn’t find that amusing, they might think that ending the scene with a rape comment makes it clear how ridiculous the hole sequence is. If indeed that was anyone’s logic, I’m not buying it!

Whether rape belongs in comedy is hardly a new debate. I knew I’d seen a particular feminist response the last time this issue came to my attention, and raced across the Internet (all the while feeling guilty for using the term “funny rape jokes” in a search engine) to find

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Sep 252014
 

Dear Ken,

So, on Monday you tweeted:

Nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair.

What’s most sad about this is that Twitter tells me (as of the last time I looked) it was “favorited” three-hundred eighty-seven times.

What I really want to know is: Why? Why would you write such a thing.

Are you feeling sexually insecure?

Did you think you were being clever? (Hint: You weren’t. If you need supporting research to back that up, here you go.

Are you skittish around wheelchairs? Sometimes people lash out when they’re feeling insecure. Many people in our culture have almost a “primal fear of becoming disabled”, so, don’t be ashamed if you’re afraid; lots of people are.

Yes, what you did was lashing out. No, you didn’t target anyone specifically. You didn’t physically attack anyone, or call them names, or undertake persistent verbal harassment.

What you did was much more on the level of a microaggression. Only, it’s on the Internet. The Internet has this habit of making things grow, taking away the micro and increasing the aggression. Plus, when you’re on a popular TV show for six months, have written lots of books, and are generally being a public figure, people kind of tend to believe the things you say. You wouldn’t want to steer them wrong, would you? (Yes, I might just be wagging my finger at you.)

People with disabilities–these are real people you’re talking about. I know: I am one of them. I’m visibly disabled, though not a wheelchair user. People with disabilities are frequently seen as childlike, incapable, often even subhuman. Denying our sexuality is just one more way to deny our humanity, and that’s exactly what you’ve done. You’re talking about people in wheelchairs, but I’m left wondering: Where does it stop? Do hot blind people make you sad? How about hot people using crutches or a walker? What about hot people who have more than one disability? How does it work if a person’s disability is invisible? If they’re hot, and you only find out about the disability later, is that sad too?

I spend a lot of time talking and educating about people with disabilities and our sexualities.

So, I’m here to tell you: Your statement about people in wheelchairs is just factually incorrect. So yes, you, the fact-maven, are steering people wrong.

Business Insider called your tweet insensitive. I think it goes way beyond that. When talking about negative comments about disability and disabled people, words like sensitivity, compassion, and caring get thrown around a lot. I’d like to see more people talking about respect and knowledge.

It’s not primarily sensitivity you lack here—frankly, I don’t care all that much about your moral compass–(though your decency does leave something to be desired) but plain old-fashioned know-how. Sorry if that’s painful to read, but that’s just how it is. Okay, I’ll stop telling you you’re wrong—at least for a few paragraphs.

Or, maybe the problem here is that you can’t imagine how someone who uses a wheelchair could possibly have sex? So little imagination, Ken!

There’s really not a limit on what sex is, or how to do sex, for anyone
And, there’s no limit on what sex and sexuality can be for people with disabilities. Please pay particular attention to the first three myths, and the facts that go along with them.

Also, a person’s being in a wheelchair actually doesn’t tell you much about their physical abilities. It doesn’t tell you how they can move their bodies, which parts of their bodies they can feel, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what they like to do in bed. Some people who use wheelchairs are able to walk short distances, or are able to use their legs if they’re not standing up. It’s not always the case that people either walk or not-walk. And seriously, is being able to walk necessary for sex?

I’m not sure if you knew this, Ken, but people with a whole range of disabilities date and some choose to get married.

And know, these generally are not sexless relationships, as people often assume they must be. At least, couples in which one or both partners are disabled are no more or less likely to have sex, or have sexual issues, than couples in which both partners are nondisabled.

Just because you find wheelchairs to be impairments to people’s sexiness, doesn’t mean that other people do. I’ve heard that this sexy calendar of people with disabilities is “hot as hell.”(I’m blind, so can’t confirm that personally.

Plus, some people find other people’s wheels hot!

Sex with someone who has a disability can even be the best sex you could be having.

Or, maybe you’d like to try something a little more daring? Leroy Moore has reclaimed drooling, something seen as infantile and gross, something Leroy personally was encouraged to hide and feel ashamed about, as something sexy and intimate.

The simple fact is: People with disabilities are sexy, with and without their mobility or other assistive devices. Okay, I’m being a little hyperbolic; after all, not everyone is sexy in the same way, and we’re not all going to find the same things sexy. So, let’s just say it this way: A wheelchair (or cane, or crutches, or oxygen mask) doesn’t take away anyone’s hotness.

Perhaps it would help you to watch some people with disabilities talk about their sexualities Or maybe you’d like to see some positive and sexy images of people with disabilities.

You know, Ken, there’s a funny irony here. Ending up in a wheelchair, of any of the experiences that makes someone a minority in our society, is the experience most likely to happen to you. No, that’s not a threat. It’s reality. And, if it’s not something that lands you in a wheelchair, it could be any number of physical, psychological, or mental impairments.

Your skin colour, ethnicity, or country-of-origin aren’t going to change. You’re unlikely to have to live below the poverty-line (unless you make some incredibly bad investments), but you could well develop a mental, psychological or physical impairment, either temporarily or permanently. Most people consider able-bodiedness to be temporary, anyway. Research the abbreviation TAB if you want to know more.

You’re well-known for your smarts, but that wouldn’t much help you if you did become visibly disabled. I promise you people would treat you a lot differently. “Isn’t it sad what happened to Ken? He used to be so smart/capable/accomplished/successful/other positive attribute.” People who didn’t know you from Adam, who saw you on the street would be admiring, condescending, overly helpful or actively not helpful enough…

Does this sound bleak? I don’t mean it to. There are lots of awesome people who don’t see disability as such a big deal, who see the whole person, not just the disability.

Sadly, you’re not one of them.

I’ll finish simply:

Don’t do that again.

Take the tweet down.

Apologize. (Can you do so as elegantly as George Takei?)

And, if you’d like to know more, you’re certainly welcome to browse this resource list, and get in touch if you’d like to learn more.

Yours in knowledge,

Robin

Sep 072014
 

I promised in this post to give you a rite-up of Mara Levy’s workshop at Catalyst Con and I never did. I’m excited by the variety of new voices talking about sexuality and disability, and the unique perspectives and experiences they’re all bringing to the table, so want to share those with you whenever I can.

Mara is an Occupational Therapist (OT) in Washington DC. Occupational therapists help people who’ve experienced injury or illness to return to activities that are meaningful to them—activities like walking, driving, working, crafting, and the like. Mara includes sexual expression and sex in her definition of meaningful activities. This may be a “well duh!” idea to many readers here, but for people who are disabled, sex is generally considered unimportant, or even irrelevant. Add to that that many medical and rehabilitation providers don’t address sexual issues, concerns, or changes with their clients, and you can have people really not sure where to go with meeting the sex and sexuality needs that don’t go away with physical or cognitive limitations.

There are a lot of negative, or just plain silly, responses to disabled people and sexuality.

Here’s what Mara says nondisabled people need to do about that: They need to listen, rid themselves of paternalistic attitudes, avoid jumping in to help or change something unless they are asked to, remember what is and isn’t their business (hint from me: If you wouldn’t ask an apparently nondisabled person on the street about their sex life, don’t ask a disabled person), respect boundaries—all on their own time. A disabled person’s sexuality is no one’s business unless they ask you for help working on sexual issues, or unless they want to have sex with you (and you want to have sex with them).

People also need to question the all-too-common assumption that a visibly nondisabled person seen with a visibly disabled person must be the caregiver or helper. This gets old—really fast—especially if the people in question are actually lovers.

Speaking of partners, Mara made what I thought was a really important point about consent. It’s not just the person with disability who needs to consent, but their partner. For some disabled folks, most physical activities have some level of pain or discomfort attached to them. A partner may not be able to consent to something they know hurts their partner, no matter how much they’re told that it’s okay, and that this sexual activity is wanted. For people with chronic or episodic (occasional, brought on by specific factors like weather, certain activities, etc) pain, this may well be part of the sexual negotiation.

Because people are often sent the message that talking about sex and sexuality isn’t okay—and this is doubly true for people with disabilities—Mara emphasizes that it’s important for medical and rehabilitation providers to give their clients or patients explicit permission to talk about sex and sexuality. Even if that’s not their area of interest or specialty, even if they don’t have all the answers (people who do specialize in sex and sexuality rarely have all the answers), just listening can be powerful, and starting the problem-solving process can lead to patients and clients getting what they need and want from their sexual lives.

There are a lot of barriers to people with disabilities experiencing their sexualities, such as:

  • Physical and psychological pain or discomfort.
  • Societal attitudes about what “real” sex is, about who is sexy and attractive, even about who is allowed to live. (Hint from me: Disabled people are often told, by strangers and friends alike, that a nondisabled person would “just die” if they had such-and-such a disability.)
  • Paternalistic or inspirational attitudes. It’s a strange either-or in which people with disabilities are either seen as childlike—in need of help or guidance—or are seen as amazing, imbued with super powers. Sometimes, disabled people are subjects of inspiration porn, which isn’t at all sexy!

Mara proposes using the same model she uses to work with clients around their activities of daily living—I just had to throw some rehab speak in there—to helping people solve sexual problems or simply to reach their sexual goals.

This model has us looking at the person, at the environment, and at the situation. For each one, we figure out what needs to and can be fixed, what can be compensated for, and even what may traditionally be seen as a problem but which can actually be an asset.

What does the person bring? Not just their disability, but their hopes, their desires, their beliefs about sex (and what they know about sex). The environment may or may not be accessible to this particular person. What’s the situation? What’s the person trying to do? Does the available environment make the situation possible? (If the person wants to have intercourse with someone, but needs (maybe for pain or mobility reasons) to be able to lie down on a firm surface, and the only room that’s available has a fluffy feather bed, the needs of the person, the requirements of the situation, and the reality of the environment, aren’t going to go together.

That’s just a simple example of course. The kinds of questions that will be asked, and the kinds of fixing, compensating, or adapting that will be done will depend on the activity—and when it comes to sex and sexual expression, the activity list is endless. So here’s just a sampling of the kinds of questions one might ask:

Person

  • What are the physical issues (E.G. pain, reduced sensation, mobility impairment)?
  • What are the psychological issues (E.G. anxiety, stress, grief around acquired disability)
  • What values and knowledge does the person have around sex?
  • Does the person have a solid understanding of their medical condition? Is the prognosis and treatment known? Are there limitations on sex recommended by healthcare providers? If medication interferes with sexual functioning in a way that doesn’t work for the person, can that be changed?

Environment

  • Is the place where the person wants to express their sexuality accessible (E.G. dance club, bedroom)?
  • If the person needs a caregiver to help with some tasks before, during, or after the time of sexual expression, is there someone close by who can give nonjudgmental assistance?
  • Cultural environment: What attitudes are held about sex and disability, both separately and together? Are they negative or limiting? Has the person internalized them? Are they having to spend time and energy resisting spoken and unspoken messages they’re getting about their disability, their sexuality, or both?

Activity

  • What’s the activity in question? What movement or amount of physical and emotional energy is required? What props are required?
  • Are there things that would help, such as pillows to support the body or grab bars to help with movement?
  • What are the goals the person has for the activity—orgasm, connecting with their own body, laughing and sharing playful, intimate touch with someone else?

The questions you’ll ask will be very different if you want to go dancing and flirting at a local bar or if you want to find a romantic partner.

It occurs to me that this kind of problem-solving process can be applied to anyone’s life, whether you have a disability or not.

It seems to me particularly useful though in breaking down barriers that say that sexual expression for someone who has disabilities is just too complicated to warrant attention.

Aug 232014
 

There are, for me, anyway, few good reasons to get up early and leave the house on a Saturday morning, but Jessica Naslund’s workshop, Healthy Relationships and Sexuality: A Systemic Approach to Supporting People with Cognitive Disabilities, at The Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit was definitely one of them. I learned so much in this workshop. Even now, a week later, reviewing my notes and preparing this post, I’m bubbling over with enthusiasm. I’ll share some of what I learned, and thoughts that came up around it.

Here’s the workshop description:

As practitioners and educators we are guiding individuals through their unique sexual journeys. People with cognitive disabilities have a challenging journey ahead of them because of barriers to education that are perpetuated by myths about how these individuals relate in society. It is our job as advocates to understand the barriers and work to push through them so that everyone has access to the same pertinent information and resources. People with cognitive disabilities require more multi-dimensional approaches to capture and retain comprehensive sexuality education material. These approaches may include visual or auditory media, hands on activities, developing a support system for the individual, and a more team approach to teaching with caregivers and support providers.

Words can’t quite describe how awesome this workshop was.

Jessica is brilliant—enthusiastic, passionate, and best of all she doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk every single day of her working life. As she puts it, Jessica works with a population no one wants to talk about—intellectually and developmentally disabled people—around an issue no one wants to talk about—sexuality.

This isn’t a population we can afford to ignore, or an issue we can afford to sweep under the rug. First of all, people with developmental or intellectual disabilities do have sexualities; everyone does. Secondly, people with developmental or intellectual disabilities are at alarmingly increased risk (relative to the general population) of experiencing many kinds of abuse, including sexual abuse. This is, to put it mildly, not okay.

Jessica emphasized that people with developmental or intellectual disabilities need to be taught the positive as well as risky parts of sexuality. For example, a person can and should be taught about dating and sexual harassment, or happy feelings and bad feelings when someone touches them and they don’t want that touch. It’s really hard, if not impossible, for someone to know something is bad, if they don’t also learn about the good things, and that it’s okay to have those feel-good feelings in their bodies when they touch themselves or when they think about someone they have a crush on.

Dave Hingsberger’s Ring of Safety takes this sexuality-affirming and humanity-affirming approach to preventing abuse. I had a momentary “squee!” moment when Jessica mentioned Dave’s work, as reading his article A Witness to Courage was pivotal in catalyzing my commitment to giving a voice to disabled people and our sexualities.

The Ring of Safety incorporates several components, including individualized sex and relationship education, awareness of privacy, and the ability to non-comply—to say no. People often don’t know how to teach people with intellectual or developmental disabilities about sex and relationships, or don’t think it’s important to do so. But, if someone doesn’t know what their body parts are called, how can they convey whether those parts are feeling good or bad. If someone doesn’t know what privacy is, or what it feels like, they can’t tell if someone is invading that privacy. Things many of us take for granted, such as getting to spend time alone, or being able to use the toilet and shower by ourselves, are luxuries virtually unknown to many.

People with developmental or intellectual disabilities are often in very regimented treatment and care systems where they aren’t given privacy, even to just be alone in a roomlistening to music or watching TV for a while, and aren’t allowed to say “no!” even to simple things. Too often staff in these environments are rushed or overworked, and don’t feel like they have the time for the negotiation process of someone saying “no” to something.

Jessica quoted Hingsberger as saying: “If you can’t say no to peas, you can’t say no to penis.” When someone indicates they don’t want to eat peas, no matter what their disabilities are, that needs to be respected. We can’t expect someone to be able to protect themselves from being hurt, or tell a trusted person that they were hurt, if their preferences around what they do, and what happens to their bodies, have never been respected before.

It’s so important that intellectually disabled people be given the opportunity to make choices. Even when things have to be done, or they’re not able to indicate what their choice is, talking to them, asking permission before something is done (for example: “Can I dress you now? Instead of “Okay, time to dress you.”) goes a long way towards restoring someone’s humanity, and, ultimately, helping to keep them safe.

If someone doesn’t know what healthy is, they won’t know what unhealthy is. This includes both speaking up if they’re being abused, and learning how to not be abusive. The incidence of abuse among developmentally and intellectually disabled people isn’t just from caregivers, but from intellectually and developmentally disabled people themselves. Very often, this is rooted in people not understanding boundaries. Educators can teach not only “don’t hit” but “this is what someone looks like when they’re uncomfortable.”

Many people with intellectual or developmental disabilities need things spelled out really concretely.
This is why it’s important to teach about body parts, about feelings, and about relationships. Many people with developmental disabilities have trouble reading social cues, so talk very specifically about what people are feeling when they look or act a certain way. They don’t know they’re making people uncomfortable, or that they’re about to get in trouble for assault or harassment, or how to convey amorous feelings without overwhelming the person they have those feelings for. But, using the right learning tools for each individual, they can learn.

The reality that’s shown itself over and over again is that when people know what their body parts are, and understand privacy, they start to disclose abuse. Residential and day programs where this kind of education is done have a higher reporting rate, but that doesn’t mean they have a higher incidence rate. It means people have been given some of their power back, and the tools to communicate what’s happening to them or what’s happened to them in the past.

There are a lot of issues here, and I haven’t even touched on the full range of what Jessica discussed. Systems approaches—more than one—are what will help us tackle these issues—help us reduce abuse and restore humanity to many people.

The systems approach isn’t just one system. It includes, among other things, recognizing that there are multiple ways people learn, and hence multiple ways people teach, and also that teaching and supporting people means working with everyone, from healthcare providers, to group home staff, to educators, to families.

For example, people who are not verbal, or who have a limited vocabulary, often express their feelings through their body language and behavior. How frequently or intensely someone stims can indicate how that person is feeling. People who see them every day, support staff and family, are the best people to ask about which behaviours or expressions mean excitement, nervousness, happiness, stress, etc. I particularly like this approach because it validates family members, not the professionals who come in to work with them, as experts. Family members often end up doing the majority of caregiving, and the work of this caregiving, plus the constant interaction with professionals who are often telling them what to do or not do after spending relatively little time with them, can take their power away.

Another part of the systems approach is finding a teaching method that works for each individual. Including using pictures to tell a story or diagram the steps for something, like a visit to the doctor or what it takes to ask someone out and go on a date.

Jessica gave this example. People with Down’s Syndrome aren’t any more affectionate than the general population—which is to say that some might be very affectionate, based on their personality, but it’s not a feature of Down’s. They’re encouraged—taught—to express affection to everyone, probably because people are drawn to their open manner and frequently happy disposition. Hugging everyone isn’t culturally appropriate behaviour, though, and not teaching people boundaries deprives them of knowing when their boundaries have been violated or when they’re crossing someone else’s boundaries. There’s a need to teach all people which forms of interaction are okay In which situations. Jessica says she will often use pictures to diagram different interaction circles—e.g. the mail carrier is in the wave circle (we just wave if we see her), doctor is in the handshake circle, aunt is in the hug circle, etc.

As I write this, I think about how important it is to maintain consistency. A doctor who has known a developmentally disabled patient for a long time, may feel very fond of this patient, and may interact with them in ways they don’t interact with other patients. I think it’s important for them, in this case, to express fondness in other ways, such as through voice, body language, level of interest in their lives, and so on, to reinforce the message that while it’s a friendly relationship, it’s still a doctor-patient relationship.

Relatedly, we need to remember to treat people according to their chronological age, not their presumed mental age. If someone is thirty-three, they should not be treated as if they’re ten. This includes how we talk to them, what activities they’re encouraged to get involved in, and what information (about anything, but especially about sex and relationships) we think they’re supposed to have. I’ve often thought that judging what someone understands, or even how they perceive the world, on their verbal skills is misguided. Jessica agrees, saying that we really can never know exactly how people perceive or understand things because we’re not in their heads.

This presentation taught me a lot of useful facts—as well as gave me new language for things I already knew—but it also made me reevaluate the way I understand people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Jessica presented several scenarios for us to talk through, both to puzzle out what might be happening and to brainstorm solutions. In working through the following scenario, I discovered a flaw in my thinking: A young woman attending a day program spends a lot of time in the bathroom, to the point where she’d rather be in the bathroom than participating in the activities. People have also noticed redness around her vulva, and that she’s been rubbing her vulva a lot.

We might presume that the redness, and the self-isolating behavior, indicates that she’s being sexually abused. Or, she could be masturbating. Redness could mean that she needs lube, or that she’s not reaching orgasm and is rubbing herself more vigorously to try to get to the ultimate feel-good part—which could be why she’s wanting to hide away in the bathroom. Or, redness could mean an infection, yeast or bacterial, and she’s staying in the bathroom because she doesn’t feel good. Or…I think you get the picture.
So, I thought that the first step should be a visit to the doctor. But no, there should be a step before that, one that will help us figure out whether there is abuse, whether there is an infection, or whether there is something else—and one that will center the young woman, not our beliefs about her. As with any situation, the young woman is the expert on what is going on with her own body; the only thing that differs is the way we access her own expertise. That was the flaw in my thinking, not thinking about whether and how we could get information from the young woman herself.

The operative question here, and one that only she can answer, is “how does your vagina feel? Happy, sad, itchy, mad, etc.” depending on her cognitive needs, the discussion might involve looking at or drawing pictures, or speaking words, or pointing at words, or illustrating with dolls, or any other communication system that works for that individual. Sure, a doctor’s visit is probably in order too, but how much better it would be if that appointment was arranged with the input of the woman herself.

Sometimes, the hardest part to reinforce is that people with developmental disabilities do have sexualities, and those sexualities should be respected.

Even when everything else is in place, the sex ed, the education about privacy, the understanding of a person’s communication style, the permission to non-comply with things– people still don’t have the opportunity to express healthy sexuality. Many group homes still frown on, and even forbid, their residents dating, pursuing relationships, and engaging in sexual activity with others. Sometimes, the response when a resident is found masturbating is anger, rather than withdrawing and giving privacy, or politely and firmly explaining that you need to do that in your room, not in the TV room.”

If we want to recognize people with developmental and intellectual disabilities as human beings, we need to recognize all the things that make them human.

Aug 112014
 

Update: George Takei has issued this classy, down-to-earth, articulate apology. I’m impressed by how he explains his actions without making excuses for himself (a delicate balancing act when you’re under word-fire from critics and fans), and by how responsive he is to learning and growing as a human being.

My favourite part:

The fact that I was surprised by the response the wheelchair meme received indicates that I do indeed lack knowledge, and some sensitivity, over what is clearly a hot button issue, and that I and others can take this as an opportunity not to dig in, but rather to open up to the stories and experiences of those in the disabled community.his “funny” play miracle, reimagining of Hellen Keller and Anne Sullivan’s story. As I said then, I’ve never seen this play, so can’t comment on its humour or lack thereof, but I maintain it’s not Savage’s place to use the history of a minority group he doesn’t belong to as a springboard for his dramatic efforts. Even if the presentation is funny (it’s theatre after all, and some might argue that the rules are different) the written injunction to the audience not to tell deafblind people about the play, because it’s offensive, really can’t count as a joke. That’s like hurting someone then saying “I was just joking!” in response to their pain. Oh, and if you actually say something will be offensive to this, that, or the other group, isn’t that a blatant admission of wrong-doing?

Elsa at Feminist Sonar sheds some more light on the “humour” in this play, which apparently includes a “hilarious” torture scene. Read down through Elsa’s post to see where she talks about Miracle; first she explains how torture of disabled people isn’t just a figment of Dan Savage’s (or anyone else’s) imagination. If you want to learn more about that, this article” has more detail.

So, now that we’ve recapped a little history…

Last weekend, George Takei joined the ranks of disability ignorance smoothed over with so-called humour. Granted, he didn’t invent this humour himself, but the fact that he shared the meme, and particularly the way he responded to people’s concerns about it, shows how little he knows about disability, disabled people, disability rights, and how little he appears willing to learn.

Michelle at Mommy Misadventures explains what happened, and why it was so troubling, in this open letter.

To be clear, I’m not furious with Takei. (I was seeing stars about Miracle for a long time, and that truly is a miracle as I can see nothing, not even light.) I’m more frustrated by his carelessness here (and, admittedly, unimpressed by his blase attitude), and by a still prevailing attitude that equality and decency around disability is something separate from equality and decency around anything else. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that someone who advocates for fair treatment of other minorities will at least be responsive when people point out stupidity, cruelty, or inaccuracy of a joke about a minority, even if he personally finds the joke funny? Perhaps it’s too much to expect that he’d understand the danger of perpetuating stereotypes?

Maybe it’s because I don’t drink much alcohol, but I don’t actually find this meme particularly funny. Or, maybe I don’t find it funny because, to me, a disabled person shopping—for anything–is just a normal part of life. Not only does this meme make the assumption that anyone who stands up from a wheelchair really can’t be as disabled as all that, but it also, I think, makes it a big deal that a person in a wheelchair would be shopping for alcohol at all.

As others have pointed out, by itself, a person standing up from their wheelchair could mean all sorts of things. Maybe standing up was painful or fatiguing for the person in the picture, but worth it to her. Maybe she stood to reach her beverage of choice because she could, easily and without pain or discomfort, but walking is painful, or even dangerous, for her. Maybe she did so because she didn’t need help, or maybe she did it because she didn’t want to ask for help and invite people’s attention towards her. Maybe she thought about asking someone to get her chosen drink for her, but then worried that someone might decide to judge her choices or lecture her about drinking alcohol or about the way she spends her money.

Disabled people, we worry about things like that because they happen to us on a regular basis. All you need to do is read the #AbledPrivilegeIs hashtag on Twitter to see the small and big invasions that can happen, sometimes multiple times a day—invasions that are frequently invisible to people who don’t experience them or don’t know to look for them.

Disability is hardly serious all the time. Sometimes it’s downright silly—to those of us who live it. We who are hard of hearing mishear things, sometimes with embarrassing and humiliating results, but sometimes in hilarious ways that turn into ongoing inside jokes between the hard-of-hearing person and their loved ones. People who can’t see (particularly before the advent of talking bar code scanners) sometimes open the wrong can or package of food with amusing results—sweetened condensed milk instead of chicken noodle soup, anyone?*
There are even disabled comedians, being funny, and talking about disability as only disabled people really can.

So, yes, disability is silly, but someone in a wheelchair who is able to stand to select the drink she wants to enjoy later isn’t silly; that’s just her normal. Shopping is normal for everyone.

Now, picture of a child who crawled into a fruit bin? That could be funny.

I think people don’t want us to ruin their jokes by explaining why they’re not actually jokes at all,

Jokes in real life are about things that are real and that are so ridiculous we couldn’t make them up if we tried. This joke instead makes something ridiculous out of a real event that really doesn’t mean anything at all except maybe (and maybe not) for the person in the picture.

When people tell you there’s a problem, I think it’s smart to listen.

A little bit of acknowledgement would have been nice.
Discrimination gets perpetuated by people continuing to say that something isn’t a big deal, or, even worse, that whatever’s happening is the right way.

This isn’t about fans not liking the joke. It’s about people saying: “There’s something wrong here.

Sure, no one likes having their activities and choices scrutinized, but that’s nothing new for celebrities, particularly those, like takei, who cultivate their public presence. Part of cultivating a public presence is being able to acknowledge when you were wrong, or when you made a mistake. “I didn’t know” is the oldest excuse in the book, but if it’s then followed by “…but I will learn,” there may be hope for humanity yet.

What I’m finding really frustrating about this trend, first with savage, now with Takei, is that we have two public figures, who’ve both been vocal about nondiscrimination and anti-bullying, who seem to not be getting that their public behaviors around disability are reflecting ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn. People look to these folks to find out what’s okay or not, both because people look up to celebrities (and, to be real, expect more of them than of the average person) and because these particular celebrities have, in diferent ways, made themselves authorities in advocacy and equality.

As far as I’m concerned, Takei and Savage can do anything they like in their personal lives (though I’d prefer that they not hurt people or animals, or pollute waterways) but people look to them as models for how to treat people, how to treat minority people, like people. This life, both that of the public celebrity, and that of the vocal anti-discrimination advocate, is one that both men have chosen and that comes with a social responsibility.

Whether we’re talking about It gets better or It’s okay to say Takei!, both Savage and Takei have been vocal about anti-discrimination and the harmful effects of discrimination. Do disabled people just not count? Judging from what I’ve read, perhaps not.

Andrew Morrison Gurza has made it clear that there’s an absence of disability-awareness in the gay community. Come on, dudes! Backing away from a guy in a wheelchair? If there’s that much fear and distaste, it’s hardly surprising that the advocates among you are ignoring and belittling disability.

Discrimination doesn’t exist in a vacuum, yet that’s how anti-discrimination efforts seem to be working. Disabled people, and some able-bodied folks who work with or love us, advocate for disability rights. Gay people, and some straight allies, advocate for gay rights… Substitute your minority group of choice.

Why can’t we move to a philosophical space where we all want to learn about each other’s struggles, and where they intersect with our own and where they differ?

I maintain that we will never truly meet any equality goals until we do this.

* Most blind people have a system for organizing food that we can’t readily identify by touch or smell, but like any system, there is a failure rate.

Aug 072014
 

In the past couple of weeks, two different people have asked me about the words cisgender, cisman, ciswoman, or just cis for short. These are new words for a lot of people, and I think those of us who use them have skipped a step in helping folks understand why we use them, and why they’re important parts of our ever-changing vocabulary. (For curmudgeons who say that we’ve got all kinds of new words coming out, and they can’t keep track, may I remind you that languages evolve over time, and even different groups of people who speak the same language use diferent words, or the same words that mean radically diferent things depending on the context or where the person saying them is from.) Regarding cisgender, there are, in general, the people who use the term on a regular basis, and people who have no idea what the hell it means.

Cis is a Latin prefix, meaning “of the same side.” It’s been brought into everyday language to expand the way we talk about gender.

A cisgender person, or a cisman or ciswoman, is someone who feels themselves to be, and lives as, the same gender they were identified as having at birth. So, a ciswoman would have been identified as a girl at birth, raised as a girl, thought of herself as a girl, and thinks of herself as a woman, or lady, or whatever is her preference, in adulthood.

We’ve been using the Latin prefix trans, meaning through, across, other, and so on, for a while, to talk about people who are transgender, or a person who is a transman, or a transwoman, et cetera, et cetera.

A transgender person is someone whose experience of their own gender, their gender identity, doesn’t line up with the gender they were assigned when they were born.

Complex? In many ways, yes, in many ways no. . This business of there being two clearly defined genders, and that whichever gender you are, that gender remains static your whole life, feels more unnatural to me the more I learn.

Kate Bornstein In her pivotal book Gender
Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us
points out that babies are given a gender identity via a quick glance at their genitals to determine their sex. I don’t know about you, but that seems awfully simple for an identity that’s with us our whole lives. Other identities we’re given come and go as we grow, change, and establish (then sometimes reinvent) our place in the world. People don’t insist that our occupation remain the same, that our fashion sense never change, that our bodies and how we deal with them remain static our whole lives. There’s even—most of the time—minimal resistance to people changing their names (the most common examples of this are people ditching a diminutive like Sammy or Becky, or taking their partner’s name after marriage). Why shouldn’t gender identity be more flexible.

I’m getting ahead of myself though.

Having the words cisgender, cisman, ciswoman, in our collective vocabulary is important, even if we don’t always use those terms. Folks who are cisgender aren’t any more normal or regular (and really not that much more common) than people who are transgender. (Yes, the stats might tell us that there are many more cispeople than trans folks, but consider that people aren’t generally asked what their gender identity is; the numbers of people who don’t conform to the gender binary, who aren’t cis (on the same side of are likely much higher than any of us would expect.)

So, the cispeople (I belong to this group) aren’t the norm, and they need a name—hence, cis.

It was once explained to me that there’s no such thing as something being cold—bear with me, please–there are just things that have heat and things that don’t. I have no idea whether this is a common way of understanding temperature, but what I do know is that, at least in English, we have words for hot, cold, and everything in between. We don’t simply say hot, and not-hot. Or, we don’t simply say cold when we mean something not hot, and nothing when we mean something hot.

I was asked if it was offensive to not call oneself a ciswoman, and simply refer to oneself as a girl or woman. Not at all! Cis (and trans for that matter) is a category that helps make things clearer in many contexts, though for some, certainly, it can be an identity. When talking about gender, it can be useful for people to know what your personal experience with gender has been, but none of us should ever have to share things we’re not comfortable sharing, or use words to describe ourselves we’re not comfortable using. That goes for transpeople (though too often their autonomy is not respected) so it needs to go for cispeople too. There is no obligation to identify one’s gender identity to anyone unless they need to know things about your body, or you want to be sure they address you by the pronouns you’re most likely to respond to.

I was also asked if cis is an insult. Cisgender is not an insult. Certainly, some people use it that way. Some people will always use any identity—any word, really–as an insult. Quite often when people talk about cisgender though, they’re talking about a specific group of people, and the biases or beliefs members of that group hold, or the experiences they have or haven’t had. When someone says “ciswomen do…” or “ a lot of cismen say…” they’re generally not insulting, but reporting.

What we want to do our best to avoid, no matter what our gender identity, is doing things like talking about “men, women, and trans” (transmen and transwomen are just as much men and women as those of us who are cisgender) or “transpeople and the rest of us.” It may not be intentional, but having a special word for one group, and not one for another, is belittling and makes an assumption about normalcy that just isn’t accurate. I think it’s automatic for many of us to slot other people into categories, but neglect to categorize ourselves. Talking with a couple of friends about this, I used the example of blindness, a characteristic those friends and I share. I pointed out that we don’t talk about “people” and “blind people,” but rather “sighted people” and “blind people.” One friend correctly pointed out that it’s likely that many people who can see, who are part of the “regular” group, would indeed be likely to just refer to themselves as “people.”

Many people would use the word labels here, but I think there’s too much baggage around that term, too many assumptions that the labels are just words that don’t mean much.

Naming something, giving words to it, describes that thing, it tells you where that thing (person, object, place, etc) exists in space, time, culture, and in relation to other things.

We also don’t generally just grab words out of the ether for no good reason. Cis and trans, as I said, come from Latin, as much of the English language does. They’ve also been in common usage among scientists, not even brought back to life from some dusty thesaurus; they’ve been here all along.

I could say a lot more about language, and about gender, but as someone who hasn’t done much contemplation of her own gender until lately, and hasn’t been put in a position where her gender has been called into question, I’m not actually the most qualified to talk about this. I turn you over to several writers who explain cisgender much better than I can.

One thing before I do that: For any of you using a screen reader, cis is pronounced sis, as in the first syllable of sister. Sometimes I catch myself starting to talk about c.i.s. (saying each letter) women. Occupational hazard!

Jul 122014
 

This week, The Atlantic published Should We “Fix” Intersex Children?

When I hear stories like the ones told here, I want to find those children and cuddle them; then I remember that I’m so heartbroken because their bodies were invaded and hurt without their say-so,, so it’s better not to want to cuddle, but to tell them I’m so sorry that happened.

Actually, I want to offer comfort to any child who’s had medically unnecessary surgery. I’m not a medical practitioner, and most definitions of medical necessity out there revolve around what insurance will and won’t cover, so I’m defining medically necessary for my purposes, as any procedure needed to save a person’s life or significantly improve their functioning. So, as in the case of Aliya’s son, the urethra not being in the usual place isn’t a reason for surgical intervention, unless the urethra doesn’t function in a way that’ll carry urine out of the body. And no, not being able to pee standing up, in the “manly” way, doesn’t count as reduced function.

Surgery is stressful. Surgery is traumatic.

Not understanding what’s happening to your body is terrifying, and that fear doesn’t leave once the bad time is over.

It doesn’t matter whether a child can consciously remember the surgery. It, like abuse, leaves its imprint on the body and psyche.

This isn’t just rhetoric here; I know what I’m talking about.

Between my birth and shortly after my fifteenth birthday, I went through over 20 surgeries. Most of them were on my head and face. None of them were genitally related. I remember few of them. All of those surgeries were necessary to my survival and my functioning, but I also know the toll they’ve left on my mind and body. There are only so many times you can take a body apart and put it back together again before it just doesn’t feel right or function cohesively.

To leave that toll just because a child’s body doesn’t conform to arbitrary gender or attractiveness standards is violence.

Adults are free to get whatever cosmetic or medical surgeries that aren’t strictly necessary they want. Yes, we could fault beauty norms for pushing some adults into thinking that they have to have surgery to improve themselves, but ultimately they have choices, and are free to exercise those choices.

Children aren’t given those choices. Babies and very little children aren’t able to make such choices. Children’s bodies are growing and changing—should not be interfered with unless interference is needed for survival and healthy growth. If it’s possible to facilitate a child being able to breathe, talk, walk, and otherwise move their body without inflicting lasting harm, then certainly that can and should be done. That’s what I mean by healthy growth.

”The journalistic integrity in this article, presenting as many views and realities as possible, is wonderful, but I am not swayed.

We must not take the bodies of little children apart just to put them back together the way we think they should go.

The validation for surgery on intersex babies came from a psychologist named John Money.
This was the result of his experiment with which doctors have justified operating on intersex children.

One of the medical establishment’s goals is to prevent disability and illness. The Hippocratic Oath commits healthcare providers to never do harm.* How then can medicine, as a whole, ethically justify procedures that can cause physical or psychological disability.

Medically unnecessary surgery disables children. It can lead to chronic pain, nerve damage, and injury as a child’s body grows out of the procedure–physical disabilities that wouldn’t have been there had the surgery not happened. Gender dysphoria, and the sense of bodily violation, can lead to mental health difficulties like anxiety, depression, and thoughts of self-harm. Yes, medical treatments can be experienced as violations. That’s why I call it medical violence.

We should not be disabling children. The fact that the justification for disabling children in this way came from an experiment that harmed a child–a human being–so greatly is horrifying.

As to whether children should have genital-normalizing surgeries to protect them from bullying: People—children and adults–will always, always find something to bully about. That’s not going to change. Submitting a child to surgery with unknowable results isn’t going to change social structures or the bullying problem. (I was going to say that surgery wouldn’t change human nature—which is also true—but I believe that the pervasiveness and escalation of bullying have much more to do with social structures than human nature.

I’d argue too that every child deserves privacy, including privacy from other children, so that if they don’t want to, or don’t feel safe with, showing their bodies to their peers, they don’t have to. It’s ridiculous, actually, that on one hand adults preach to children about modesty while on the other hand children are not given the chance to practice any form of modesty if they wish too.

I should clarify here that I don’t think there’s anything bad or immodest about bodies, or about being unclothed around other people in contexts where that makes sense—like locker rooms. What I take issue with is the contradictory messaging children are given around privacy, and the lack of options for children to make decisions around their own bodies. It’s shameful how little bodily autonomy children are allowed.

The tendency to bully around difference is a massive topic requiring another post, but again, people will always find difference, even if it’s not staring them in the face.

So, if we don’t do genital surgery on intersex children, what do we do about assigning gender? I don’t know. I’d like to think that we could just raise children in a non-gendered, or maybe a multi-gendered, way until, or if, they choose a gender for themselves. Most Western and westernized cultures are so dependent on the gender binary, for everything from naming children to assigning them to sports teams and other recreational activities, that my wee brain just can’t quite envision how these cultures could move past this tendency to raise children without actions that lock their existence into a gender binary. I wish I had that kind of expansive imagination, and even more that if I had that imagination it could make real cultural change.**

The only thing I know for certain is that hurting children is bad, and that having a medical degree and seeing genitals that don’t fit what your textbooks tell you is normal is not a free pass for causing hurt.

*For a modern version of the Hippocratic Oath, take a look here.

** Someone did have that kind of expansive imagination.

Jun 052014
 

What do touting the immensity of the clitoris and making recommendations on physical accessibility considerations for event organizers have in common?

At first glance—nothing.

I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but as someone who talks about both sexuality and disability (separately and together) I sometimes, (okay, I won’t lie, frequently) feel like I’m having a professional identity crisis that’s never going to end. Grow up and devote yourself to disability and accessibility, I tell myself, or enjoy talking about sexuality and sexual pleasure. I don’t care which, but you have to pick one.

Disability is tangible; we can look around us and see the work that needs to be done—the policies that need to be changed and the barriers, any of them physical that need to be broken down. Sexuality—just is—except that it’s not. Sexuality is an individual concern—except that it’s not. Sexuality is filled with pain, confusion, lack of access and education, and endless potential just as surely as disability is filled with struggle, misunderstanding, lack of access, and sheer humanity.

So, you see, I can’t separate the two. I can’t because sexual pleasure isn’t just about individual bodies’ enjoyment, and disability rights isn’t just about breaking down institutional barriers.

As a visibly disabled woman, am I not breaking down basic barriers of what is expected from disabled people, and what is deemed “appropriate” conversation, every time I publicly mention bodily autonomy or the nearly limitless potential we all have for experiencing pleasure?

In talking about sexual pleasure, we (or at least I) make a pretty natural leap to questions of sexual health, relationships, intimacy, safety and recovery from sexualized violence, and access to help with all of these. In talking about disability and access we need to include access and inclusion in recreation, leadership and social opportunities, as well as employment, education, and living conditions. To break that down, we who are disabled need to be able to access fun things—including fun sexy things.

Continuing down this road of thought, I begin to realize how similar sexualities and disabilities, as topics of conversation, are to one another.

Consider how mention of both sex, and disability, in casual conversation generally make people feel—scared, nervous, eager to escape the conversation, full of questions they don’t feel like they’re supposed to ask or don’t know who to ask.

Consider the struggle people talking about sex or disability often have with language. Which terms do we use? Will we offend someone if we use this term over that one? What do all those terms mean anyway?

Consider the way we talk about both sex and disability– in hushed voices, in euphemisms, in quick side conversations. As for talking about people with disabilities who have sex, or how sex is affected by disability? —Well, we really just don’t talk about that.

When we do talk about it, we (at least according to mainstream media) frame an intimate relationship involving a disabled person as miraculous or inspirational, or we expect the lives of disabled people to be devoid of sexual experience or desire. Come to think of it: Isn’t this how we represent sex in our culture too—as something out-there and in our faces, or something we need to repress or hide at all costs, with no happy medium?

Whenever we do acknowledge sexualities, whether the actors or objects of those sexualities are visibly disabled or not, the representations rarely convey pleasure. Sexual pleasure is something we, as a culture, haven’t paid attention to, and in that silence is the assumption that pleasure will just “happen.” The reality is that it often doesn’t happen because of, among other things, lack of education and fear many have around their own bodies.

Interestingly, meeting the access and inclusion needs of disabled people is also something that’s just thought to “happen.” Someone else will take care of it. Surely, one step into a building isn’t a big deal? It’s okay if that Web site isn’t accessible; someone can help you access it, right?

These kinds of assumptions limit people—real live people, not theories.

Sex and disability both get talked about as if they’re medical issues, only to be addressed by highly educated experts. There’s this strange thing many of us who talk about sex professionally encounter, which is the question of what medical or therapeutic credentials we have. Most medical professionals receive little to no training in the areas of sexuality and relationships; seventy-five percent of American medical students surveyed reported receiving less than 5 hours of formal training in sex and sexuality. Most medical and therapeutic professionals, including psychotherapists, only get anything greater than basic training (which I’d still argue is what is needed to cover all of the basics) if they actively seek it out. People with disabilities often find that medical and therapeutic folks are assumed to be the ones who have the most knowledge about our bodies and minds; they’re the ones who tell us what we are and aren’t able to do (though I’ve just recently learned that more than half of American medical school Deans report that their students aren’t adequately trained in disability or in working with disabled people Whether it’s through unsolicited assistance from a stranger on the street, or an officious pronouncement from a medical professional, disabled people are often not seen as being in charge of our own lives, and as the best experts on those lives.

Many people don’t get the education they need to make sound choices about negotiating sexual relationships and taking care of their sexual selves. Many disabled people don’t get the tools (often practical tools like technology, mobility aids, and accessible housing or workplaces) to live life fully and safely.

What I think we end up with, with both sexuality and disability, are realities that affect both individuals and communities. Not talking about these realities turn everyday experiences of sexuality, disability, or both, into the problems they’re already assumed to be.

What do we do? We talk, and talk, and talk some more.

We treat everyone like human beings. We avoid running in fear from mention of sexuality and from disabled people. We avoid shame around sexualities and belittling (which often looks like shaming) of disabled people

We look at the cool things talking about sexuality and disability do for our understanding of both.

Disability impacts sex, sex impacts disability, and the reality that people with disabilities can and do have a sexuality and have sex (and enjoy it) tends to get snuffed out.

How’s disability good you ask? At the risk of sounding like I’m putting people on a pedestal, many people with disabilities have a self-awareness born of necessity that other folks just don’t have, or, and please forgive me for circular logic, self-awareness other folks just aren’t aware they have. Apply that to sex, and to life in general, and some pretty amazing things can happen. Having a disability can also result in people needing to do sex differently, hence breaking the mold of the popular idea of how sex “should” be done—something that can only make life freer, and more fun, for everyone.

May 022014
 

Looky–if you must, though I’d rather you didn’t–but please, no touchy!

If I made T-shirts printed with the above sentence, they’d sell like hot-cakes among visibly disabled people.

We’re frequently objects of curiosity in public spaces. If it stopped at curiosity, we’d be doing fine, but that curiosity often translates into intrusiveness.

Every time I leave my house I may experience being seen as less-than, or incapable, because I am visibly disabled. I may be touched, poked or prodded, physically directed, spoken down to, stared at, pursued by people, all in the name of helpfulness and kindness.

Every time I leave my house, I may be touched without my permission, not a handshake of greeting or a tap on the shoulder, but an arm-grab, an arm around the shoulders, hands against my torso propelling me towards where it is thought I need to go, an uninvited hug. My body is used instead of words. I’m touched in these ways in the name of helping me.

Every time I leave my house, I may have people get into my personal space when I want to be left alone—in places and at times when one would expect that I could be left alone—and yes, people do follow me.

Perhaps all this sounds like hyperbole, but I assure you it’s all true, and that when two or more visibly disabled people discuss the experiences they have in public spaces, there are frequent nods of recognition and rueful, sometimes amused, sometimes mirthless, laughter.

Recently, a friend blogged about walking down a street, training her service dog, while a woman—a stranger to my friend–tracked their progress, following them in her car. One imagines that this woman must not have had anything important to do right then; one also knows how incredibly rude and creepy it is to stare at someone, and that it’s considered predatory to follow anyone without their expressed consent.

Another friend adjusts his work schedule (when he can) so as to not ride the bus at peak times, when there are likely to be more people engaging in what he calls “the grabby”–physically grabbing and directing him to an empty seat, or on or off the bus. Sometimes this grabby is accompanied by queries as to whether he needs help, but seldom is his “no acknowledged.

What never seems to arise in these commiseration sessions about our experiences as disabled people in public spaces is exactly what to call this collection of experiences. For lack of a better term, I call it street harassment.

Unlike many forms of street harassment, what people with disabilities experience in public spaces is all but invisible, not because onlookers are accustomed to it, not because they want to pretend it’s not happening, but because most of the actions comprising this harassment are chalked up to kindness, ignorance, concern, helpfulness, good intentions.

How do I know it’s perceived this way? Because people make these excuses for their own and others’ behavior. Frankly, it’s tiring after a while to hear that someone getting into my personal space, or making assumptions about me, or handling my body or my mobility aid without asking is just trying to be kind, or doesn’t know any better, or thought they were being helpful.

As a human being living in North American culture, I have certain expectations of privacy and personal space. Most of us who grew up in this culture grow up expecting that we won’t be touched by random strangers, that there is a hierarchy of touching (where your new acquaintance on the bus doesn’t stroke your arm or put their hand on your back).

As a woman, I have an expectation that people will be conscious of gender in their interactions with me. I’m often startled by the way men touch me, many of whom, I would like to think, would think twice about touching women they don’t know in the ways they touch me. The touching is obvious, out there; there’d be no way to deny it if someone was trying to be sneaky and manipulative with their intrusions.

Perhaps part of the problem here, part of the disconnect, is that I am genderless in these people’s eyes. I’m disabled first, woman second. Indeed, for some, I’m disabled first, negating my womanhood and putting me somewhere in a nebulous space of being childlike but having a woman’s body and doing adult things (like going out and buying my own groceries).

it’s also tiring not having words to describe this experience, this sensation of always being on guard, for there’s no place, time, or way this might or might not happen. it just does…single women, married men, concerned citizens of all genders may think they know exactly where I want to go (without asking me, or if they ask, not waiting for an answer) or draw attention to me I don’t want or need, or blow a need or want I do have into far greater proportion than it needs to be blown into.

Most of what I’m describing here isn’t explicitly violent, though physical and sexualized violence against people with disabilities does happen, in both private and public spaces, at alarming rates.

No, it’s not explicitly violent, but not being aware of it also paves the way, I think, for more violence.

Plus, it truly does unsettle me that disabled people’s space is invaded every day.; that this invasion leads to people feeling worn out, so demeaned, so reduced—and yes, so threatened by actions which onlookers see as considerate. It’s alarming that a disabled woman was surprised when her friend apologized for having to physically hustle her through an airport security line in response to TSA agents’ curtly given directions to hurry up (after all, that physical manipulation to follow the rules is seen as something that just has to be done, and we aren’t supposed to have feelings about it).

I’m sometimes alarmed by the strength of relief expressed by disabled people (including me) when a trip out in public is positive, with people talking to us like adults, respectfully assisting us only when asked and giving us loads of personal space.

Apr 222014
 

Okay, confession time:

A year ago I would have told you that I hated watching Law and Order: Special Victims’ Unit but that I couldn’t help myself. I would have told you that SVU WAS my drug, my guilty pleasure. The more I watched it, the more I saw to find fault with, yet the adrenaline-rushing, nonstop drama kept me hooked. I’d sit, watching episode after episode on Netflix, eating organic string cheese and getting high on having my emotions tweaked every 30 seconds or so.

An episode in which Detective Benson goes racing after an assault survivor, urging her to stay at the ER, get examined, and report her assault because “what if he does it to other women” was what finally broke this compulsive watching cycle. That particular episode morphed into a quite fascinating mystery that had nothing to do with sexual assault, yet that scene stayed with me. I felt the horrifying, traumatic unfairness of it.

Theoretically, I understand the concept of gathering evidence from survivors that may lead to getting a predator off the streets (or out of the boardroom, or away from schools), but… We all should always get to decide what happens to our bodies, including being able to decide how we talk about what has happened, what is happening now, or what we think, fear, or hope will happen in future. Our bodies are ours,and at no time is this more important than after a violation.

There was a time when I thought SVU was revolutionary, enlightening people on various gender, sexual, and social issues. It couldn’t be a bad thing, I thought, that the realities of sexual assault, domestic violence, and trauma were being emphasized.

Another but…

Forty-four minutes (that’s without commercials, some episodes are as short as 40 minutes) is not enough time to deal with any complex issue adequately, especially when such dealings are interrupted by the necessary plot twists, emotional outbursts, inter-character conflicts, and the like that make up popular nighttime drama. So ideas become skewed, fact becomes conflated with fiction (E.G. DNA results are rarely available as quickly as the show implies), and people wind up knowing little more about the social issue being tackled than they knew before they started. Sometimes, they know even less, or gain an unhealthy perspective.

In my life as a crisis hotline volunteer, and in my personal life, I’ve spent hours just doing the emotional support part of sexual assault response for one person at a time. It’s not easy; it’s not quick; it rarely involves sudden revelations which make everything clear and help details fall into place.

Having someone disclose also doesn’t mean that you can then, as a support person, prevent any further assault from happening. I couldn’t, and it took a lot of healing before that stopped haunting me every day. Even as I write this, the heaviness of that burden returns for a brief visit. I couldn’t stop assault, and neither can the police always do, as assault often happens within complex family or social systems which victims are afraid to break. Many victims are reliant on those who abuse them for financial or other resources, and social services are almost never as quickly mobilized as SVU IMPLIES.

The dramatization of pain, of violence, of terror numbs people to the reality of victimization, the gut-level, tear-wrenching, fist-clenching, body-cringing reality. I feel a little nauseated when I think about the emotional titillation, the morbid fascination, people have with violent dramatic portrayals on TV or in movies.

The portrayal of the investigative process is not only misleading, but is set up, I think, in such a way as to minimize the toll of that investigative process on the person who has experienced the assault. Have you ever seen, up close and personal, the evidence discovery kit they use after someone has been sexually assaulted? I have. During my training as a sexual assault hotline volunteer, I got to see a bag full of collection items—and that’s what they are. Syringes of various sizes with various tips, tweezers, swabs and little baggies. I don’t mind telling you I’ve never been assaulted, but I can tell you with almost complete certainty that I wouldn’t want to experience the invasion of a rape kit afterwards. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t do so, only that I wouldn’t want to.

So, to see detectives on SVU calmly asking questions while the survivor is being examined messes with my head. I don’t know whether this is common practice in real-life, but I just feel, on that gut-level, like it’s more violation. That examination needs to be a time when a survivor is supported by a trusted friend or family member, or a sexual assault advocate, or to be alone with the medical personnel if they choose.

It’s not just SVU’s treatment of sexual assault that bothers me.

I’ve never seen an episode in which alternative sexualities weren’t attached to criminal or disturbed activity in some way. Oh yes, they’ve got the gay and lesbian thing down just fine (for the most part), but anyone who enjoys kinky sex, or swinging, or group sex is fair game.

There was the episode in which a murder victim was found to have frequented a sex club. This “promiscuity” was explained by the way her abusive father had oversexualized her as a child. This wasn’t an isolated incident either. Whenever someone is found to have an association with alt sexualities, including in private spaces such as home or club, the detectives’ suspicion levels elevate.

In reality, many people who enjoy group sex, or swinging, or any other sexual practice outside of the rather limiting norm set by our society are doing so in healthy ways. They’re not working out childhood traumas. This isn’t to say that some haven’t experienced those traumas, only that they’ve worked them out in other ways, are aware of possible triggers, and are playing sexually for healthy reasons (like wanting to have fun). People with sexualities seen as alternative run the same gamut of personalities, professions, quirks, and personal life histories as anyone else. Many people assumed to be following sexual norms—aren’t, and are none the worse for not doing so.

Another episode I recall took this even further. A suspect or a witness (I don’t remember which) was goaded into telling the truth by detective Benson, who, after learning that he enjoyed submission and humiliation inn his sexual play, and had payed for these services, gave him orders and called him names during the interrogation. (And, of course, he fell for it hook, line and sinker. That’s TV drama for you!) It’s almost (but not quite) laughable that this man’s fetish was assumed to be his overall trigger; in other words, most people who enjoy submission, humiliation, or both in sexual contexts won’t just automatically respond to those triggers in everyday situations (if interrogation by the police can be considered an everyday situation). Again, too, a person’s sexual needs or preferences don’t automatically indicate criminality unless they’re acting them out on children or on anyone who hasn’t consented.

Over the years, many people have talked about the good SVU has done. I think that, at the beginning, there was more attention paid to gentleness and respect for the painful complexities of sexualized violence. As more characters were added, and the drama quotient was elevated (c’mon! Did we really have to have the Olivia-Eliot attraction subtext thing?) that attention to detail faded, or morphed into focus on the salacious parts. A good story has taken the place of attention to realism and humanity.

I don’t doubt that mariska harjitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation, and the other work she has done, has done some good. There’s very little in life that is truly good or truly bad. I don’t doubt that many women have written to harjitay to share their own experiences of assault. Any representation that isn’t wholly victim-blaming (in early episodes Harjitay’s character calls out victim-blaming quite frequently) is going to help someone feel safe enough to reach out. The injunctions from attackers, and often from society, to keep silent about assault, to keep secret, eat away at victims and survivors, and anything that helps at least one person isn’t all bad.

Much of harjitay’s work has been to clear the backlog of rape kits that has built up in state laboratories, so that more evidence can be processed and more people, theoretically, can be brought to justice. Again, theoretically, (since I don’t know of any recent case in which this has happened) processing all this evidence could also identify serial attackers, which would lead not only to mdealing out justice (whatever justice really is) but to crime prevention.

For justice to really be served, though, the criminal justice system needs a major overhaul. We need to see more work done on prevention, less vilifying of the victims, more vilifying of the crimes. We’ve not yet moved past the time and space in which people who’ve been assaulted aren’t blamed or bullied, in which their sexual histories, or choice of clothing, isn’t used as evidence in a courtroom, in which prison sentences for sex crimes are longer than those for burglary, and aren’t suspended based on time served before trial. (Yes, usually I’d find you references to cases where any of these things have happened, but it’s honestly just too depressing so I’m going to ask you to do your own research this time.)

There’s likely more I could write, but since I haven’t been watching SVU lately, except for the occasional viewing when visiting family, I don’t have any more episodes to deconstruct.

Ultimately, I just want to leave you with this thought (which could be applied to many other forms of entertainment besides SVU): We cannot trivialize strong emotions in TV drama. WE can never forget that sex crimes (or other violent crimes) can happen to all of us, at any time—that most of us know people who have been victimized.

This is real life, people.