Protecting women with disabilities shouldn’t mean taking away their sexual autonomy

OPINION: Lauren McKeon asks why it’s so hard for us to believe that women with disabilities want to have safe and fulfilling sexual lives like everybody else
By Lauren McKeon - Published on July 26, 2017
two people holding hands
Canadian society has long had a flawed perception of women with disabilities, their sexual rights and their sexual lives. (ljubaphoto/iStock)

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The other day, my 25-year-old sister left two messages on my voicemail, hours apart. “Lauren,” she said, in the first one, “What does it mean if a guy asks for permission to kiss you?” And in the second: “What if you want to kiss him, but that’s it — just kissing?” We talk about this kind of stuff a lot: not sex, exactly, but rather our sexual lives. Because we both have them, and rich ones too, despite long-held stereotypes that neither of us really should: she has an intellectual disability, and I’m a rape survivor.

Each label tends to precede our real identities, conjuring words that limit: vulnerable, incapable, broken. When my little sister asks these What does it mean? questions, I often respond with questions of my own. I ask about her wants, her desires, her needs. These questions don’t have easy answers. Desire, in general, is somehow still a novel concept for women, whether we live with a disability or not.

In these conversations, I emphasize consent — what it means and why it’s important. I want her to know that she doesn’t have to go along silently with anything she’s not into, that she deserves to feel an enthusiastic Yes every step of the way. I want her to have a healthy and fulfilling sexual life.

As a rape survivor, I want this for myself too. I want this for all women, and for everyone along the gender spectrum. But I realize the odds are against those who fall outside what’s considered typical: women with physical or intellectual disabilities, women of colour, Indigenous women, impoverished women, LGBTQ women, sex workers, women with mental health issues, and so many more. We talk a lot (though still not enough) about violence against women, but we don’t often talk about how women may experience violence differently.

Women with disabilities, for instance, are four times more likely to experience sexual assault, according to the DisAbled Women’s Network of Canada (DAWN-RAFH), whether it’s unwanted touching from caregivers, strip searches, forced abortion, sterilization — the list goes on. An older study found that almost half of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities will experience 10 or more sexually abusive incidents in their lives.

Canada has a troubling history when it comes to disability and sex — one that illustrates society’s perception of women with disabilities, their sexual rights and their sexual lives. The first iteration of the Criminal Code, enacted in 1892, made it illegal to have “carnal knowledge” of a “female idiot or imbecile, insane or deaf and dumb woman or girl.” If the act didn’t “amount to rape,” but the offender was aware the woman had a disability, that was also punishable — as if there were no situations in which women with disabilities could consent to, or want, sex. Later on, “feeble-minded” was added to the list, but “deaf and dumb” wasn’t removed until 1954. (It’s worth noting that until sexual offence laws were overhauled and redrafted in 1982, the maximum punishment for such criminal offences was drastically less severe than those for rape.)

When such cases made it to court, juries were often advised not to convict based on the woman’s testimony alone (no surprise there). Yet, as a 2007 study out of UBC’s law school notes, courts were sometimes influenced by “common law cases that held that the accused should be acquitted if the woman had submitted out of ‘an animal instinct’ caused by her ‘idiotic state.’” And while modern terminology may be gentler, the idea persists that women with intellectual disabilities are somehow, all at once, sexless and infantile but also wanton and animalistic.

To see how this idea plays out these days, witness the furor over Madeline Stuart, an Australian model with Down syndrome who’s walked the runway at New York Fashion Week twice. When modelling shots of her in a bikini appeared online two years ago, columnists and social-media commenters clutched their pearls and spoke of sexualization, exploitation, and tastelessness — as if Stuart couldn’t possibly have chosen happily to pose in a bikini, like so many other women (not to mention models) on social media.


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In today’s Criminal Code, there’s another, less offensive — though still not really effective — provision addressing rape as it pertains to women with disabilities. It states, in part, that when it comes to people with disabilities, “every person who is in a position of trust or authority” or who “is in a relationship of dependency” cannot “without that person’s consent” incite any kind of sexual touching. There are several huge problems with this, most obvious that “consent” is never defined. “It is not uncommon in these cases to see acquiescence or compliance in sexual activity coupled with no real evidence of affirmative consent,” write UBC researchers Janine Benedet and Isabel Grant in their 2007 study. Even more chilling, they add: “In some situations, she may not even have realized that what she wanted matters.”

The constant tension between the desire to protect women with disabilities from exploitation and the simple fact that women with disabilities deserve sexual autonomy ignores a key point: that one does not preclude the other. The two are inextricably linked. Freedom from sexual violence is an intrinsic part of a healthy, independent sexual life. This is true for every woman, and also not yet something many of us can count on as a guaranteed right.

The difficulty is in getting people to understand this idea. There has been some progress: There’s the work of DAWN-RAFH, of course. Andrew Gurza’s “Disability After Dark” podcast is indispensable. Feminist sex shops are starting to offer disability-focused classes and workshops. And women like Madeline Stuart have exceeded limitations and opened up a new world of opportunity for those with disabilities.

Even so, stories are rife in the special-needs community of high-school students with disabilities being excused from sex-ed classes — presumably because the lessons aren’t applicable to them. The new Ontario sex-ed curriculum takes steps to address disability, but it focuses more on risk assessment than pleasure. And its one-size-fits-all approach ignores the fact that not all disabilities are the same.

What we need is to create strategies that recognize this diversity-within-sexual diversity. We need to have more conversations like the ones my sister and I have. We need more education, more understanding. We need more.

Lauren McKeon is online editor at The Walrus.

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