TW: This article discusses sexual violence, domestic abuse and abuse towards women and femmes, in particular disabled women and femmes. It also mentions police misconduct as well as the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. Please practice self-care.
Disabled and Sexual is a monthly(-ish) column by Hannah Shewan Stevens which will explore all the challenges, comedy, and fun that disabled people experience as sexual beings, even while we are desexualised by a predominantly non-disabled society.
This month, the Metropolitan police’s misguided advice on women’s safety, reminded every woman and femme of the inescapable knowledge we live with daily: none of us are safe.
The Met advised anyone concerned about being approached by a lone male police officer to ring 999, “shout out to a passerby, run into a house or wave a bus down” for help. It also suggested quizzing the officer on their reasons for the stop.
In the wake of the trial of Sarah Everard’s killer and the murder of Sabina Nessa, the police’s PR face has been an undeniable mess but for disabled folks, the latest advice felt particularly ignorant and exclusionary.
A blind person cannot easily flag down a bus for help, a wheelchair user may not be able to run for their life and a non-verbal person is incapable of quizzing a police officer.
All women and femmes live in fear of gender-based violence. Whether it’s bubbling in our subconscious or trawling for triggers on the surface, it is – and always has been – an everyday reality we cannot escape.
It seeps into every moment, blasted from devices 24/7 and hammered home during each precarious solo walk. Violence peeks around street corners and breeds in toxic work environments, taints exciting dates with endless precautions, and creeps into our homes in the hands of apparently loving partners.
Gender-based violence is an inescapable fact that hangs over our heads like a man-shaped guillotine. Until the root causes of male violence are addressed and society faces up to the rampant problem, nothing will change. The police’s ill-thought-out advice proves just how far away we are from fixing the problem.
For the disabled community, however, the terror of male violence looms darker.
Disabled women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than nondisabled women. Disabled and chronically ill women were almost three times as likely (17.3%) to experience some form of domestic abuse than nondisabled or chronically ill women (7%) (source).
Data from domestic violence charity SafeLives reveals that disabled people typically experience abuse for an average of 3.3 years before accessing support, compared to 2.3 years for non-disabled people. Even after receiving support, disabled victims were 8% more likely than non-disabled victims to continue to experience abuse.
Despite this, disabled folks are regularly omitted from conversations about gender-based and sexual violence. Disabled people are consistently desexualised, infantilised and patronised, so violence enacted against us is frequently ignored, dismissed and discredited.
I wish disabled women and femmes were somehow immune to the plague of male violence – I long for all of us to be free from it – but none of us are. The unique fear of being a victim of male violence in a disabled body might be beyond my powers of explanation.
I think a recurring nightmare of mine explains it best: I am in flaring agony, suffocated and immobilised by locking joints, nerve pain and bone-crushing fatigue. A figure appears groping and grasping at my body. I am trapped beneath their touch because my disability prevents escape.
The Met’s latest advice has only driven this nightmare deeper into my psyche. Clearly, we are failing to highlight disabled peoples’ experiences of male violence and we are not providing specific care and prevention programs for the disabled community.
Like countless other disabled people, my disabilities have made it harder to escape sexually violent situations.
I have been unable to run away when a man groped me; felt too scared to fight back when verbally harassed; stayed in relationships far beyond their expiration due to fears of being unable to survive alone; endured unwanted sexual encounters because I feared my body would be incapable of saving me from violence.
I am not alone in these experiences, yet treatment programs, prevention campaigns and even police advice neglect the disabled community.
This feels particularly devastating because I believe disabled people are more prone to the “fawn” trauma response. The response occurs when the brain decides that the safest course of action in a dangerous situation is to “fawn” and submit to the attack to prevent further harm.
Disabled bodies are often a battleground of internalized medical trauma – an environment that often encourages “good” patients to submit to what medical professionals believe is best. As a result, the “fawn” trauma response can be particularly sensitive for disabled people.
Too many people from my community have experienced male violence. And now, in a time where we are desperate for change, the advice tells us to run, flag buses down and rely on the kindness of strangers to shield against violence enacted by a government-funded force.
As we all get to grips with quelling deep-rooted fears of the police, every single one of us has a responsibility to acknowledge the additional burden placed on marginalised communities. Those who face disproportionate levels of violence need to be at the centre of the discussion.
We need to recognise the vast differences in people’s needs. Programs that keep cisgendered women and girls safe are not going to be as effective for transgender and nonbinary folks.
Ideas that address gender-based violence in predominantly white and disabled communities are unlikely to tackle the misogynoir that affects how women and femmes from ethnic minority groups.
Our diverse communities are society’s biggest strengths but public services are ill-equipped to deal with our nuanced needs.
Politics and social management has long focused on what’s best for the majority – typically, white, male, cis-gendered, non-disabled people – with dashes of guidance and charity policies for marginalised communities.
Now it’s time to figure out how to build a society that works for everyone. One that protects each of us, one that doesn’t rely on a corrupt police force and one that feels safe for everyone.
I am exhausted. Usually, I am loudly vocal during these times, but now I am struggling to utter a whisper. But here we are: I’m raising my voice and I hope you do too.
These conversations have to breach our echo chambers. Women, girls and femmes have been having these discussions for centuries and help is still ignoring countless communities. Disabled women and femmes have bodies, so we are also victims of sexual violence. Do not forget us, please.
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.
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