[Content Note: Description of Rape, Rape Culture, Disability Invisibling]
An opinion piece by a disabled person.
One of the favorite arguments of rape apologists is that there really isn't that much rape in our culture.
They justify this statement by pointing at studies that show that some women who have experienced rape will describe the experience without using the word "rape" (in much the same way that some men who have committed rape will describe the experience without using the word "rape"). The rape apologist therefore argues that if women don't call their experiences "rape", then it can't have been rape, and therefore the real problem is with iffy categorization by the powers that be, like when the CDC redefined obesity so that they could say that 35.4 million Americans were suddenly heavier than they'd been the day before.
The flaw in this argument should be obvious to anyone reading along, but I'll go ahead and spell it out. Certain behaviors are rape, but not everyone is socialized to call those behaviors "rape". And I know this not just from logic and reasoning, but also from experience: I was one of those women who needed time, distance, and education before I could call a rape that occurred to me "rape".
I was raised with an incomplete understanding of what rape is. Rape was something that happened between strangers, when a man leaped out of the bushes at night and assaulted a random woman. Or rape was something that serial killers did -- the ones who appeared in legal dramas and thriller movies, and who were obviously and irredeemably evil. Or rape was something that happened between adult men and small children, and was the "bad touch" that the adults at school and church sometimes warned us about, usually via the use of hand-puppets.
So when I was raped by a man who was the same age as me, who was not a stranger, and who was not obviously evil, I didn't really understand that what had happened to me was rape. I knew that he had held me down and I had said no and he had ignored me and done what he did, but I didn't know that the word "rape" applied to that scenario. I wasn't stupid or uneducated or incurious, nor was I incapable of looking up the word in the dictionary. My hurdle in calling what was rape "rape" stemmed from the fact that I had years of social conditioning that told me rape was something completely different from what I'd experienced.
Part of rape culture -- I would argue a big part -- is invisibling rape. Rape culture relies on pretending that rape is a rare and special kind of evil. Rape culture depends on obscuring the fact that something like 1 in 4 women are victims of rape or attempted rape, and that something like 1 in 20 men are rapists or attempted rapists. Rape culture requires the pretense that rape doesn't happen, that it doesn't result in pregnancies, that women who are rape victims are lying about their experiences.
And rape culture demands that its supporters constantly police rape victims and insist that they not use that term because they weren't "raped enough", that what happened to them wasn't actually rape. And, indeed, I have known many rape victims -- myself included -- who have struggled with that concept along the way, the concern that by vocally saying "I am a rape victim", we might be taking on a mantle that we haven't somehow "earned", because doesn't someone else out there have it worse?
That is bullshit, but it is a very common kind of bullshit that our culture pushes onto us. And it is a bullshit that our culture pushes for more topics than rape. And that is what I want to talk about today.
It took me two years to call my rape a "rape", even though that is what it was. This despite the fact that I knew I'd said no, I knew I'd struggled to get away, and I knew that I'd cried through the whole thing. I knew these things, but still I'd internalized that rape was something that happened to other people, and something much worse than what had happened to me.
But it took me the better part of twenty years to call my disability a "disability", even though that is what it is. This despite the fact that I'd had major surgery, handicap parking, and hundreds of designed-for-disability tools and devices just in order to live my daily life. I spent fifteen-plus years in constant day-to-day pain without realizing that the word "disability" applied to my condition, not because I was stupid or uneducated or incurious but because I'd internalized that disabilities were things that other people had, and were much worse than what I had to deal with. As long as I wasn't in a wheelchair, I couldn't call myself disabled... right?
I don't think I've heard the term "able culture", but I do think there needs to be a word for the way able-bodied is normalized so heavily in our society. I can't remember the last time I saw a movie with a disabled character -- maybe Avatar, where the plot is resolved by the protagonist leaving his disabled body and climbing permanently into a new able one. Nor can I remember the last time I read a book with a disabled character whose disability is handled with respect and awareness, rather than just a cutesy character quirk dialed up to eleven.
We live in a society where we generally don't talk about disabilities, and where people with disabilities are frequently discouraged from talking about their experiences in public. We also live in a society that conflates "disability" with "obvious physical disability", and tends to shove over mental disabilities and invisible disabilities into a bucket of Does Not Exist. (And this doesn't even get into the slippery issue of how precisely a "mental" disability isn't also "physical" for at least some definition of that term.)
Depression is rarely taken seriously as a disability, and disabilities like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are still adamantly denied by some members of the medical community. Things that have their own names -- like "infertility" and "food intolerances" -- are just as likely to be shoved into the "not-a-disability" category, as well, because after all, it's not a disability to struggle to find food you can safely digest, or if you have a condition preventing pregnancy, right? You can still walk, right? So stop belly-aching.
Feminism has made great strides in helping people to understand what rape culture is, how to identify rape, and how absolutely damaging it is to police the language of rape victims. The average safe-space on the internet understands that if someone stands up and says they are a rape victim, it is not an appropriate response for the other commenters to immediately demand details and proof to "make sure" that the rape victim really is a legitimate rape victim and isn't someone appropriating the language of rape culture.
But we've not yet reached that place with disability acceptance. I can't count how many times this year I've seen someone self-identify as a person with a disability either explicitly or implicitly by using disability language, only to have someone immediately pop up and demand that the disability in question be revealed and justified to everyone's satisfaction before the commenter be allowed to continue because otherwise they will be assumed to be an able-bodied appropriative dissembler.
I cannot -- I really genuinely cannot -- express how deeply saddened I am whenever this happens. Because, yes, appropriation does happen online. (I'm Captain Obvious, I know.) But you know what is way-way-way worse than the occasional appropriation that is going to happen anyway? I will tell you: it is worse to actively contribute to a culture that says it is Good and Honorable and Appropriate to constantly police disabled people in order to make sure that they are disabled "enough" to use a term that they've already been culturally conditioned to not apply to themselves.
Because that is what people are doing, every time they post yet another comment about how I Do Not Recall You Mentioning That You Have A Disability That Allows You To Use The Word 'Spoon': they are creating and reinforcing a culture where disabled people can't just exist as people who also have a disability. Instead, we have to wear our disabilities on our sleeves, constantly trotting them out for examination. Infertility and food intolerance? Hmm, well, I'm not sure those are really disabilities. Depression? That one only comes and goes on occasion, right? Scoliosis? That depends: did you get the surgery or not? Daily pain? Well, I guess that's alright. OK, welcome to the club; here's your Disability Card that gets you a 20% discount at the store downstairs.
We don't do that to people who claim different marginalizations, and rightfully so. When someone politely contributes to a discussion about rape or gender or race, we don't demand that they haul out pictures and genealogies and court transcripts to prove that their contributions are valid. We don't do that partly because it's ultimately self-defeating (no one can ever really verify that online people are telling the truth about themselves), but we also don't do that because it's wrong. Forcing marginalized people to continually justify and re-justify their marginalization to the satisfaction of the community does not make it a safe-space for them. It doesn't make it a safe-space for anyone.
Appropriation and thoughtlessness and unchecked privilege will always be with us. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't talk about them. By all means, people should absolutely write blog posts about what it means to be disabled, and about what it means to feel marginalized when known able-bodied people in their life-space conflate actual disability with non-disability. (Here are some example topics: the mother who conflates infertility with childless-by-choice. The co-worker who compares depression with "being a little sad". The husband who thinks that staying home from work because of a disability is just like a vacation day. Sharpen your pencils; you have one hour. Go!)
But what we should not be doing is contributing to a toxic culture that invisibles people with actual disabilities because they don't meet a social standard of disabled "enough" just because they retain some measure of mobility. That's an unreasonable and unfair standard, and it comes from the same place as the insistence that anything that isn't stranger-leaping-from-the-bushes is therefore not a legitimate rape. It comes from a place that thrives on, and indeed requires, the suppression of the actually marginalized in order to support a culture that disproportionately favors the privileged.
And we can start dismantling that toxic culture by accepting online community members at their word when they say they are disabled. And we can also remember that disabled means so much more than the narrow meanings that society has encouraged us to internalize.
Speaking as a disabled person, I'd appreciate it. Because I am seriously running out of spoons.