Between Vulnerability and Sexual Agency by Dr Stephanie Wright
This article was originally published on History Workshop Online.
This is a contribution for the (Un)Silenced: Institutional Sexual Violence feature, which explores how sexual violence relates to various societal institutions. The series provides a historical understanding of the ways in which sexual violence is produced through different institutional cultures of harm.
Around 20 minutes into the pioneering 2020 documentary film Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, Neil Jacobson, a man with cerebral palsy who attended Camp Jened as a teenager in the 1970s remembers his first sexual experience. With a knowing grin, he recalls how: ‘The first year I was at camp, one of the women counsellors gave me a whole lesson on how to kiss. That was one of the best physical therapies I ever had. A couple days after that, I had my first date with a girl camper. And I felt her hand on my cock. That was heaven.’ At a time when institutions oriented towards young disabled people tended to foster cultures of terrible abuse, the Camp Jened summer camp in New York was a radical space where campers could support each other, and—as might be expected for a group of teenagers spending the summer far from prying parental eyes—explore their budding sexualities.
One of the (many) reasons why Crip Camp is such a powerful film, and why it has been received with such acclaim by disabled and non-disabled critics alike, is its refreshing treatment of disability and sexuality. By acknowledging the sexuality of young people with a whole range of disabilities, the film stands in contrast to a more generalised tendency to infantilise and deny the sexual identities of disabled people. Society’s inability to acknowledge and provide space for disabled people’s sexual autonomy has a long history, and has often contributed to exacerbating their vulnerability to abuse. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), children and young people with disabilities are three times more likely to be the victim of sexual violence than their non-disabled peers. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse recently reported that young people with disabilities were particularly vulnerable to children sexual exploitation by organised networks.
Organisations such as Respond, a London-based charity which supports learning disabled victims of sexual violence, note how intellectually disabled people in particular are left out of formal and informal conversations about healthy sexual relations, which can make it harder for them to identify when they might be falling victim to abusive behaviour. At the same time, failing to provide sex education to young people with learning disabilities around issues of consent can also exacerbate the root causes of abuse, as some are unable to perceive situations where a person is refusing sexual contact. As many as 38 per cent of young people displaying sexually harmful behaviours have some kind of intellectual disability. Many of these have themselves been victims of sexual violence, and end up reproducing harmful patterns of behaviour to which they were exposed in childhood. Despite these worrying statistics, disabled sexualities remain taboo, and people with learning disabilities are simultaneously infantilised and considered sexually ‘dangerous’ in popular, legal, and medical discourse. Historically, perceptions of the sexual danger and criminality of people with intellectual disabilities have, at best, led to the intense scrutiny of their intimate lives, or at worst, ensured their institutionalisation over extended periods of time.
In his work on the notorious Willowbrook State School in Staten Island (New York)—a long-term care facility for children and adults with cognitive and physical disabilities—Darryl B. Hill identified sexuality as a significant motivating factor for the institutionalisation of learning-disabled girls, in particular between 1950 and 1985. This reflected long-established anxieties around the sexual desire of young women with learning disabilities. As historian Joanna Bourke and others have shown, over the course of the nineteenth century, young female ‘idiots’—to use the now highly offensive historical term—were increasingly viewed as having ‘animal instincts’, which meant they were deemed sexually precocious and in need of strict control, often within an institution. Such conceptualisations of disabled people’s sexuality as somehow bestial were in part the culmination of the nineteenth-century medico-legal and psychiatric theories, which distinguished between different types of ‘idiots’, some of whom were ‘innocent’ while others were ‘dangerous’ and capable of luring men into ‘immorality’. Combined with eugenicist concerns over the likelihood of disabled parents producing ‘defective’ children, such understandings contributed to the curtailment of the rights of disabled people to sexual agency and, ultimately, freedom from sexual abuse.
Such notions of disabled people’s sexuality lay at the root of many girls’ internment within the Willowbrook institution throughout the twentieth century. Many were referred to Willowbrook due to ‘sexual promiscuity’ or ‘sexual perversion’. Notions of ‘promiscuity’ were highly gendered: for boys, this usually meant concerns that they might become sexual predators, while for girls merely socialising with males outside of the home, especially late at night, could be enough to warrant this label and thus institutionalisation. Internment severely infringed on the sexual agency of these young people and prevented them from engaging in consensual sexual relations, though many did manage to subvert the institution’s attempts at control. One girl managed to escape as far as Coney Island to meet boys, while others were caught meeting members of the opposite sex in the unsupervised spaces between buildings.
Given prevailing societal attitudes which often blamed women for unwanted male attention, some of those interned at Willowbrook were in fact victims of sexual violence. In one case from 1956, a 14-year-old Hispanic girl was brought to the institution following the rape she suffered at the hands of two men in their 20s. Though she maintained that the attack was non-consensual, psychologists understood the assault in terms of the girl’s ‘sexual delinquency’ and need to satisfy ‘her desire for attention’. The fact that rape victims could end up incarcerated in supposed care facilities is particularly chilling given that such institutions are now widely known to have themselves fostered cultures of terrible abuse, including of a sexual nature. Indeed, this girl’s case reflects some of the ways in which institutions have been used to police disabled sexualities in the past while placing disabled individuals at the very heart of cultures of harm.
The uneven relationships of power between patients and staff which facilitate abuse in a wide range of institutions are heightened within contexts where the voices of disabled and/or mentally ill people are often discredited. In the UK, the shift towards mixed sex psychiatric wards from the 1950s—often motivated by the well-meaning desire to improve conditions within psychiatric institutions—placed female patients at great risk of sexual violence from male patients and even members of staff. Historian Louise Hide argues that such abuse often took place ‘in plain sight’, as staff praised the calming effect the presence of women had on male patients, while holding women responsible for any abuse suffered. These attitudes reflected broader rape myths, where it was believed, for example, that women often lied about abuse, or that it was impossible to rape a resisting woman. However, the invisibility of abuse in psychiatric wards was further exacerbated by the dehumanising impact of long-term institutionalisation, whereby, as Hide suggests, patients were not seen as fully ‘human’, ‘sensible’ or ‘sexual’.
The failure to acknowledge and accommodate the sexuality of disabled people in the past has thus exacerbated their vulnerability to sexual harm. Parallel to this, a tendency to ignore the sexual development of those with learning disabilities makes it more likely that they go on to behave in ways which are sexually harmful to others. While we are currently experiencing a generalised move away from the long-term institutionalisation of disabled people on account of their disability, a concerning number of people in some form of custody have intellectual disabilities. An important part of reducing sexual harm within our society must therefore be to recognise the sexual desires and agency of disabled people, involving them in conversations about sex, including difficult discussions around sexual consent, and thereby supporting them in leading gratifying and harm-free sexual lives.