For some people, Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate the one you love. For others, the day is a commercial holiday that either causes financial pressure or feelings of loneliness. For me, it’s the anniversary of my first sexual assault.
Since the #MeToo movement came to light in 2017, the world has learned how dangerous it is to be a woman. We heard countless and horrific stories of sexual assault and harassment that occurred anywhere from the workplace to dark and isolated alleys. Powerful and iconic men were revealed to be serial sex offenders. And women from all walks of life joined together to say, “enough is enough.”
The Vast Majority of Women with Disabilities Are Sexually Assaulted
An alarming 27 percent of women report being sexually assaulted at least once in their lifetime. But a shocking 83 percent of women with disabilities report the same. And they often are victimized more than once, particularly if they have an intellectual disability. People with disabilities can be extremely vulnerable, sometimes helpless to defend themselves. And those with intellectual disabilities are easier to manipulate and considered less trustworthy to police.
It should naturally follow, therefore, that the media would report many more #MeToo stories about women with disabilities than without. However, it has been the exact opposite. Women with disabilities rarely are discussed in terms of sexual assault. When I learned these statistics in 2016, I was desperate to go back in time and tell my younger self that neither of my assaults were my fault. I realized how much of my life I wasted trying to self-correct everything from how I dressed to the friendships I made in attempts to avoid another assault.
The freedom that comes with knowing you aren’t alone in being a sexual assault survivor or to blame is why the #MeToo movement was and is so powerful. When we keep the secret, we are left to battle the shame, guilt and fear alone. But when we disclose, that burden is lifted, and we empower ourselves and other survivors to shift those feelings onto the perpetrators. They are the ones who should feel shame, guilt and fear – not us.
For this reason, I openly share my experiences of sexual assault. Survivors with disabilities need to know that they are not alone. They should not have to suffer with that secret in silence, much less blame themselves and modify their lives out of fear as I did. They should also be able to share in the freedom and power of the #MeToo movement.
My First Sexual Assault Was by a Friend
Valentine’s Day 2004. I was a law student and spent the entire day studying from home in my sweats. My best friend and I were both single. So, we decided to protest the holiday by hanging out at my place and complaining about our exes. I didn’t bother to dress in nicer clothes, put on makeup, or even clean the dirty dishes in my sink. The only preparation I made was to open a bottle of wine, from which to sip and lament about the pains of love.
He arrived with wine of his own. And while we both drank too much, he drank so much that he was unable to drive home. So, I invited him to spend the night until he sobered up. I crawled into bed and fell asleep, only to be awakened to him sexually assaulting me.
Nothing about recovering from that night was quick or easy. My bed was stained with blood, which I couldn’t even change or wash myself. I had to disclose to a friend immediately just to get my bedding changed. Even then, some of the blood stains never lifted. I had anxiety attacks for weeks, which interfered with my schoolwork. Pap smears became a trigger to re-experiencing the trauma. I lost my best friend and the entire network of friends that included him. But the most difficult part was the self-blame.
Feelings of Self-Blame Led to Years of Self-Imposed Rules to Prevent Another Attack
I blamed myself for drinking too much – for letting him drink too much – for drinking at all with a man. I blamed myself for being alone with a man in my apartment. I blamed myself for inviting him to spend the night and maybe giving him the wrong impression. I blamed myself for disassociating after he refused to stop instead of screaming, scratching, biting – all responses I never thought of in the moment. I blamed myself for having a male best friend. And so, the list continued.
These feelings of blame led me to alter the course of my life for years thereafter. I set personal rules and guidelines to follow as preventative measures from another sexual assault. I would only dress super modestly. I would not have male best friends, and if I did, they would not be as close as a best girl friendship would be. I would not drink alone with a man. I would not go alone with a man anywhere or have a man come to my apartment alone. And even if a man slept over in my apartment with other people present, my bedroom door would be deadbolted. The only exception I made was if I was dating a man, because the risk was outweighed by the potential for love.
My Rules Failed to Prevent the Sexual Assault by a Stranger
Five years later, all those methods failed me on a late night walk home. The last bus home was inaccessible, and I was forced to roll the long trip home in my wheelchair. A seemingly Good Samaritan offered to take me home. After stopping and exiting his truck, he assaulted me in a dark alleyway in a deserted area of the city at that hour. I was able to escape kidnap or worse only by manipulating him to believe that an approaching vehicle belonged to my friends who were on their way to take me home. But I had extreme post-traumatic stress after that incident for weeks and continued feelings of self-blame.
I couldn’t leave my apartment for days after that assault. When I finally was able to leave, I saw him everywhere. I was paralyzed with fear of another attack. And I was then convinced that it had to be my fault. Why else had I been assaulted by two different men and harassed and stalked by numerous others? Clearly, I was doing something wrong.
I decided to stop wearing skirts because skirts dangerously provided easy access to assault. I decided to never go anywhere alone at night, especially in isolated areas. And I learned ways to recognize predatory behavior, to always be alert and to never trust anyone.
Learning I Was Not Alone Meant Realizing It Wasn’t My Fault
While I still live by many of these vital skills, I wish I had known in 2004 and again in 2009 what I learned in 2016. It was my vulnerability as a woman with a disability that allowed predators to target and attack me. It was never about my appearance, friendships, alcohol or anything else. And it was never my fault. Nothing I could’ve done would’ve absolutely prevented me from another assault. Had I known this, I could’ve saved so many years of my life from over-correcting, unnecessary restrictions and self-blame.
This Women’s History Month, I’m Recognizing Survivors with Disabilities
As I celebrate Women’s History Month this month, I remember that women’s entire history has been submersed in a culture that accepted and normalized our sexual abuse, assault and harassment. I honor all those survivors who came forward and made history by saying #MeToo and demanding an end to this culture. But as a woman with a disability, I most want to recognize the vast majority of women with disabilities who have experienced sexual assault and still feel alone or to blame. Our attackers used our weakness against us. But there’s great power and strength in saying #MeToo. With two words, our history can change from one of mass victimization to one of empowered survivors fighting for justice.