Written by Melissa Parker
TW: This article discusses sexual harassment.
In the months since I wrote about my own experiences of sexual harassment, I have spoken to strangers, we do not know each other beyond the realm of social media, yet we do. We recognise each other in our shared experiences. We have experienced the same pain; we have cried the same tears. We have been consumed by the same thoughts, those moments of self-doubt and self-recrimination. We have experienced the same stigma. We have been touched by the same process of victimisation, sexualisation and fetishism. I have also spoken to disabled women I know well, who have told me about their experiences. Our experiences happened simultaneously, and yet nothing was shared. We have lived lives moulded by our perceived vulnerability; we are that unique subset of women who have experienced domestic and sexual violence at a higher rate, as society fails – willfully – to acknowledge it. A shared, hidden experience connects us, an unbreakable thread.
In the year ending March 2020, disabled women were more than twice as likely to experience domestic abuse than non-disabled women, a significant difference. While disabled men were significantly less likely to experience domestic abuse than disabled women, they were more than twice as likely to have experienced domestic abuse than non-disabled men. Further, in the three years ending March 2018, disabled women were almost twice as likely to have experienced any sexual assault in the last year than non-disabled women.
It can be challenging to share such personal stories, and it is a personal choice, but this conversation needs to occur. Our collective experience needs to be heard, and others need to listen. Disabled women should be taught from a young age that the acts committed against them, an unwanted “helping hand”, and a push when there is no consent are unacceptable. I wish someone had told me about these boundaries, and we each have our own, which are specific to the disabled experience.
We are in a perpetual cycle of waiting for the next incidental knock or forceful blow. We are akin to porcelain dolls perceived by wider society as fragile and weak; there is a backbone of steel in actuality. There is also a learned survival mechanism; we have to wear an armour of distrust because we are the silent, unheard victims.
We are in equal measure infantilised and fetishised. We, of course, have the same experiences as other women. We are taught not to speak about such issues. The porcelain doll’s painted face must not disintegrate; it must be held in place even as we are abused, torn and exhausted even as the smile becomes increasingly frozen, even as the porcelain starts to fracture and weather.
Our lives are meant to be lived in an emotionless state of sainthood, unsullied by the existence of abusers. This façade will crack when we acknowledge the private despair of those who have experienced domestic and sexual abuse. I have heard stories of disabled women suffering the effects of PTSD, increased anxiety and decreased self-confidence. Why is this not discussed?
Disabled women have not had a #MeToo moment because we exist in a culture that invalidates our existences, experiences, and bodies. Our lives are perceived to be one-dimensional, of less worth. Women are taught that they have less value than men. Our society and culture are built upon this notion. The media perpetuates it. Women occupy a lesser position, and disabled women are in an even more secondary and precarious position, perceived as broken, purposeless women.
Until recently, I had not considered sharing my story; it is not inspirational or palatable, ideals that women, particularly disabled women, are told they ought to uphold; even as it cracks their backs. I did not think others had the same experiences. There have been countless occasions when I presumed that the inappropriate touches or the movement of my wheelchair without my consent were something to be accepted, to be endured, not questioned. I believe this is because we live in a non-disabled world, and feminism, although important, has not included us; we are on the periphery, learning lessons relevant to us but do not attempt to encompass our whole experience. It should be a feminist issue that disabled women are more likely to experience domestic abuse. It should be a feminist issue that disabled women are accosted on the street or touched without their consent.
A disability should not negate your entitlement to bodily autonomy or choice, nor should it negate your voice on issues that affect women. Indeed, your voice should be raised higher for the generations of women who have been stripped of their innate power and the ones who will come after who will retain it.
We need to have conversations so that future generations of disabled women do not understand what it is to be perceived as the afterthought of a movement. The answer is to acknowledge the hierarchy within our society. We are not fragile, insubstantial porcelain dolls designed to be pleasingly, harmlessly, attractive. We do, however, have the fractures and wear and tear of a shared experience.