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Disabled Women Are The Sexual Assault Epidemic No One Talks About

TW: Murder of Sarah Everard, sexual assault/harassment concerns, victim blaming. There are links to places to find support at the bottom of this article.

We are told that “statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.” Hearing about mass suffering can generate surprise and concern. But it can also desensitise. When the problem seems too big to contemplate, it can make the most personal crises feel impersonal.

In the three years ending March 2018, disabled women were almost twice as likely to have experienced any form of sexual assault in the last year (5.7%) than non-disabled women (3.0%). There is a degree of apathy that comes with numbers; they feel so far removed; we don’t see the families consumed by grief; men in the last year murdered 118 women.  

We do not think of them as mothers, as partners, as independent people. People with their own lives who had fears, expectations, hopes, and yes, dreams. It is as though they are a face in a crowd, a momentary glance, a fleeting consideration. The statistics are superficial; they tell us little about the true loss.

Sarah Everard feels more tangible than a statistic, more vibrant. We cannot dry off the tears. She has become the face of a movement, a name where others have remained nameless, a life of photographs that we could have taken of ourselves, snapshots that humanise.

Each woman has her story, tears that have dried, which have still left an indelible mark on how we navigate the world. We have all felt a paralysing fear as a stranger came too close. We know what it is to face a personal crisis, to have that personal crisis made impersonal.  

Disabled women face an additional barrier as we are left vulnerable by society’s reluctance to believe that disabled women face the threat of violence. Indeed, the statistics demonstrate that we are at a higher risk of harm.

As Dr Amy Kavanagh, a visually impaired activist and campaigner, states, “the shock and disbelief I experience when I share my story demonstrates that we live in a society that can’t imagine disabled women face sexual violence.”

Disabled women have not had a #MeToo moment. The outpouring of raw emotion, of grief, which has erupted on Twitter, demonstrates that all women are exhausted, the subset of women with disabilities amongst them. Our voice has been muted. We must inhabit some form of limbo wherein we are infantilised, sexualised and victimised.  

I have experienced sexual assault. Consequently, I immediately question any touch from a stranger; I question their motivations and their agenda, I flinch. We have been conditioned to act as though the experience of sexual violence has not fundamentally changed us. The reality is, of course, that women feel the effects of their experience.

As Dr Kavanagh continues, “I’m always waiting for the next unwanted touch or harassment episode.” As she further notes, “being blind means I often rely on touch, but my trust has been taken away by those who have abused me.”    

This distrust is further kindled by the fact that disabled women are taught not to discuss such issues, “we are still facing a society that assumes disabled people don’t have sex. So, we don’t need educating or supporting to understand our bodies and consent.”

It has been my experience that disabled women are advised that we are not quite women, not quite feminists. We’re not meant to own our sexuality. We are moulded by other people’s expectations, little more than empty vessels. We do not discuss sex; we have all the sexual experience and repression of a Jane Austen heroine. This vision of us is not accurate.

However, it leaves us vulnerable. When I was sexually assaulted, others told me that I was paranoid; I was not. The man very deliberately touched my bra and squeezed my bra strap as he “helped” me.  I cannot be blamed for this “paranoia,” as a woman, it is a survival mechanism.

Disabled women are told that they are not sexual beings, that they are weak and need assistance, and therefore, we should be grateful when we receive it. During my time at university, men in bars and on the street would push my wheelchair without my consent. I was told to offer no resistance because this was viewed as harmless, as though I were a ragdoll, devoid of thoughts and feelings and designed to be pliable to others’ wants and desires.

My trust has been eroded, too, by a society that dehumanises us and disempowers us. The evidence of our trauma is the statistics. Those statistics are burned onto our skin as women. Still, as disabled women, we are equally etched with the cultural baggage of the expectation that we are submissive and weak, undeserving of bodily autonomy.  

Each of the women who make up the 5.7% and 3.0% has a story, a life impacted by violence, and its enduring effect; an expectation that another stranger will hurt them or an instinctive flinch. Not all men, but enough women with a collective, hidden experience that wearies us. 

If you have information which could support the police in their enquiries in the investigation of the murder of Sarah Everard, for which Metropolitan Police Officer Wayne Couzens has been arrested and charged, please contract the Metropolitan Police.

You can also call Crimestoppers anonymously and for free on 0800 555 111, or submit on their website.

You can access Victim Support information for Sexual Assault and Rape here, NHS advice for help after Sexual Assault and Rape here, and find information from the Metropolitan Police on Sexual Assault and Rape here.

You can also visit Rape Crisis England and Wales, or find links to various help internationally by clicking here. These final two links have buttons for quickly leaving the site where it may be necessary to do so for your own safety.

If you want to report a crime, you should do so in accordance with procedure in the country you live in. In an emergency, you can call 999 in the UK, or the emergency services number in your country.

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