16 December, 2011

I am working on a post about how much I hate this (not this particular post, but the whole discussion), but I got sidetracked by thinking about a particular intersection of sexism and ableism.

I don't think I'm the only person to have witnessed this series of events:

A young woman in a staff role encounters a developmentally disabled guy who "accidentally" touches her breasts, jokes about her being a stripper, jerks off in front of her, etc.

The woman is upset. She talks to a more experienced staff person, or to her supervisor, and is politely told to get over it.

Don't be upset, it's funny. He can't hurt you.

Don't be mad at him, feel sorry for him because he doesn't know any better.

When I talk about this I don't mean to imply that men with developmental disabilities sexually harass women more than other men. I'm also not sure that people's reactions are that different when it comes down to it. The staff/disabled power dynamic is just stacked on top of the idea that men should probably get to do whatever they want, so that both people are getting a shitty consolation prize for not having power.

I mean, what you tell a woman in this situation basically boils down to, "Why not be a good sport and let him have this one thing? At least you're not disabled."


  1. "I am working on a post about how much I hate this "

    It's kind of amazing to me that people can be that sympathetic towards someone like that, but they can't handle someone stimming or taking a few seconds longer to do something.

    I know that wasn't really the focus of this post but I don't have anything to add to the other stuff.

  2. So much botheration. We have to teach good consent to everyone, including those with ID/DD! The fact that people think this isn't important is just a reflection of their idea that ID/DD folks can/should never give consent, so they don't need to know about it (one of the reasons that comments like that one in NYT are a big problem).

    Like, do you remember that TPGA article about the guy who wanted to have sex with this woman, but he had never been taught about consent, and she had never even been taught what sex was, and then in the end this doctor convinced him to never try to have sex so it was all ok?

    It's all connected and it's all bad. Thanks for writing this.

  3. I think a lot of people are really uncomfortable with the idea of disabled people having sexuality. So I wonder if in cases like this if a lot of people who listen to complaints of bad touches and so forth are minimizing in their heads the idea that it could have anything to do with the disabled person doing bad touching because they have sexuality, and instead are convincing themselves that it was just an accident and that they didn't really know what they were doing. Because they're that grossed out by the idea of a disabled person getting grabby because they were horny.

  4. I've definitely been that woman, and I wasn't even a professional. Apparently it's fine for guys with DD to "not know better" but it's NOT okay for me to not just know how to handle the situation when someone starts skeezing on them (which apparently includes things like staying calm, talking in a "polite yet firm" tone of voice with absolutely no nervous laughter, doing something with body language that I haven't figured out even now, and all sorts of other things that are not particularly easy for all of us).


  5. fitz's comment that wouldn't post:

    One time (I was eleven or twelve) this boy (around the same age, maybe a year or two older) in a special ed program tried to grab and forcibly kiss me, several times, saying he loved me. I yelled and acted like I was going to hit him, and shouted repeatedly to the nearby staff to get him away from me. They literally laughed at that, and made no move to help; they even egged the guy on. These were people who I had always thought of as pretty nice and friendly, too, these staff. I just don't think they understood that I was *really distressed* because I was *really being violated*. I'm still angry at them, and not at the other kid, because I think it was their responsibility to intervene, and to explain to him that/why his behavior wasn't appropriate. If someone is harassing another person in all innocence, I don't think that means the harassment behavior should be ignored or treated as totally harmless.

    < / cool story, bro >

    Teal deer, I AGREE WITH THIS POST. Also, I guess, disabled women (and not only women in staff positions) might be harassed by disabled men in some institutional settings, and...um, that complicates things? And is probably beyond the scope of what you want to write about, here, so perhaps I shouldn't be bringing it up.

  6. I'm so sorry if I implied that only (presumed non-disabled) staff women are likely to be harassed by disabled men--in fact given the statistics I wouldn't be surprised if disabled women are more likely than staff to experience harassment when in programs/school/etc. with disabled men, because disabled women are more likely to experience abuse everywhere.

    But I was specifically thinking about situations where a (presumed) non-disabled woman is basically told that being harassed by a disabled guy doesn't matter because he is disabled or he is not responsible because he is disabled. This seems like a really complicated and weird dynamic.

    Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if disabled women are told the same thing by staff--that they're "higher-functioning" than the man/boy who is harassing them so they should be compassionate and understand his behavior.

    (I think disabled women are pretty much always more "hf" than disabled men, which is to say we're forced to rein ourselves in more so we'll come off more "hf" by a standard that is about what people look like and how "disruptive" they are. Then despite the learned helplessness and difficulty with saying no and yes that our "self-control" creates in us, the fact that we seem so "hf" is used against us. Pretty sweet!)

  7. "Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if disabled women are told the same thing by staff--that they're "higher-functioning" than the man/boy who is harassing them so they should be compassionate and understand his behavior."

    Isn't this pretty much what people already say about men in general? A while back a woman was telling me that men genetically could not help cat calling women and it's like... how do I even respond to that? Other than no they aren't.

    It's seems to me that the only thing that's complicated is that people have another excuse for telling you to just put up with things. I'm sure men in general society would do these things more often if they could get away with it.

    Re how to respond in an institutional setting if both people are disabled, again I don't see it as that complicated. The only thing that is complicated is that the way you normally respond to someone in an institutional setting who is "bad" is to isolate them, sometimes completely, paired with varying measures of violence. This does not become an acceptable response to harassment in my mind just because someone is in an institution, whereas men in wider society are not just totally running rampant and doing whatever they want just because they aren't being strapped down or put in solitary confinement. Inside institutions, people should just use those ways. (and if those ways are faulted, the inside of an institution is not the place to come up with a new breakthrough method) The same goes if the person being harassed is "staff," too.

    I think this is kind of related to the idea that disabled people should generally be held to be responsible for their actions to the same extent as other people, so you don't need "special" methods for dealing with them, although sometimes practically a different response is called for because the disabled person is coming from a different place.

    There's some awful stuff you all have had to go through, anyway.

    "I think disabled women are pretty much always more 'hf' than disabled men"

    I'm not sure about that, although if you want to say it's a more common problem for women I won't argue with you.

    I think a disabled man who has had to deal with more violence, confinement, etc will usually be more passive than a disabled woman who hasn't had to deal with those things to the same extent. Whereas I think there's a point where your background doesn't matter too much because it's the bottom of what you can deal with and pretty much everyone will be impacted the same.

    This is not to take away from things women have to deal with, I am just not too sure about the "pretty much always" part.

  8. That's true. I guess I mean, with "raw material" (i.e. specifics of what their disability is like) + the kind of staff/family/schoolmates/etc. they had to deal with being equal, I think a cis woman will be more meaninglessly "hf" than a cis man.

    Like two people with identical disabilities who grow up in the same family and live together all their childhoods--that's where I'd expect to see the difference.

    It's just a guess though. I remember asking one of my first Autistic friends, who is a dude, how he felt about the way he walked. He gave the impression he'd never really thought about it. I couldn't believe it.

  9. I'm just going to be honest and say I have no idea what you're talking about now. Which is different than disagreeing with you. Do you think people's thoughts or actions are determined by their "raw materials"?

    I've definitely had people say a lot of things about the way I walk though? And I don't think that has anything to do with being male or my family or anything like that. If no one had said anything I wouldn't have thought about it though because it would have just been how I walk.

    Since I've seen women talk about how they're not supposed to be assertive or do things for themselves I have noticed stuff though, even from women who seem to have a lot of social clout, so I believe that and don't think that it stops being true for disabled women.

  10. haha

    I don't think people's thoughts and actions are determined by their raw material. I also don't know if raw material is very measurable.

    I think what I mean is just that being "hf" is an interaction between raw material and pressure. Someone who can't talk probably isn't going to be able to just start talking because they're under more pressure to talk than someone else, so this is a case where I wouldn't expect there to be a big gender difference. In other situations pressure could greatly affect how obvious someone's disability is.

    And I guess the reason this is important to me is because, even though raw material isn't something you can identify or prove, I think it has to be believed in. Otherwise how someone looks is treated as their whole disability. This sucks because just having been really intimidated out of expressing ANYTHING or initiating many actions can be used to indicate that you're not disabled, when you are really the same as someone who that hasn't happened to. I don't know if this makes any more sense though, it's kind of a weird topic.

    (Also I'm not trying to make a blanket statement about all guys and how they feel about how they walk--I'm guessing I've probably heard less than you about how I walk. I'd probably say something more like, if you were a woman you'd probably hear more about how you walk than you do now.)

  11. Supposedly I walk like a woman so if I were a woman then I'd be good.

    (that's not my real response, I am just going to think about this more.)

  12. wow do people actually say that? what does that mean?

  13. When I was younger a few people did say that to me, after I asked for clarification when what they said made even less sense to me. Of course people said other things too. Nobody has said anything to me about how I walk for a while beyond "Are you okay" if I'm walking into doors or something, which I think is because musicians care less.

    I think I do walk more like most women than I do like most men, but I don't actually walk like most women either. I can't really do those big lumbery steps that men do, so the one I thing I know I do like women is take smaller more frequent steps. I remember one time I was walking alongside this really tall guy and I pointed out that I was taking four steps for every one step he took. I doubt people were thinking about it this much when I was younger though, so I don't know what they were talking about. I mostly didn't know what people thought was strange about it, just that they did.

    Anyway, I think what I'm objecting more to taking general statements and talking about people like they apply to individuals, even a hypothetical individual. Saying that something tends to happen to people in that group is different than saying it will happen to any individual person. (hence "disabled women pretty much always…" and some other stuff, when you just mean it's added weight onto people) But this means we probably agree with each almost entirely and the disagreement is more superficial, so it's not something we need to spend a lot of time talking about.

    I however don't see the connection between "raw materials" and "how someone looks is treated as their whole disability." I don't see why how someone "looks" or "seems" has to ever be seen as a complete source of information.

  14. I definitely think that girls are perceived as more "high-functioning" because of how we're socialized.

    For example, when I was socially confused, I tended to get withdrawn and passive, but when the guys who harassed me didn't know what to do socially, they tended to just keep doing whatever they were doing and wait until someone corrected them or told them to stop (and even then they'd often just decide to dismiss the other person's opinion and not stop). Although there are exceptions, these are pretty gendered approaches.

    So when outsiders saw what was happening between me and the guys who were harassing me, they could tell that my harassers had social problems because they were constantly acting inappropriately. But they couldn't tell that I had social problems; they interpreted my passivity and nervous laughter as meaning that I didn't mind, often even thought that I was purposefully encouraging them. So I was blamed, and the guys weren't.

  15. Also, because I'm actually really confident and loud when I *do* know what's going on, people had me pegged as "confident and assertive" so they were even less likely to understand that the reason I wasn't "taking control of the situation" or whatever was because I didn't quite know how.

  16. I don't know. I definitely have been in that exact same situation. If men who have that problem are just super rare exceptions than why have I known multiple men for whom that kind of thing (passivity etc) has been a problem? I can immediately think of three offhand if I'm allowed to count myself, including one guy who was more like this almost anyone I've ever met (the number one spot goes to someone who was a woman, she would start apologizing if you looked at her the wrong way).

    I feel like for men there is also an added thing where you are supposed to "man up," so it's your fault if you don't anyway and you deserve whatever happens. I'm certainly not saying it's worse for men but I kind of feel like this is an extention of that idea. Men don't get to have those problems except to an extent that's not statistically significant. Whereas women are at least allowed to have that problem and there will be some people are sympathetic instead of trying to take advantage of it. (maybe I'm contradicting myself, I was just telling Amanda Forest Vivian about how people I don't know very well have historically been protective of me at least some of the time)

    It's true that I've never been physically harassed by women and they just did mocking/shunning things but I think it's more complicated than "this happens to women, women are socialized this way and men aren't."

    I am not going to keep talking about this though because I will feel like I'm being an asshole. Sorry to everyone for going on like this.

  17. I don't want to imply that it's so strongly gendered that you don't see guys being passive - I also know quite a few guys who do that, including my two closest friends - but at the very least I know a lot of guys who will just sort of keep doing something until you yell at them to stop, and I know zero women who consistently do that (I will sometimes do this in academic situations because that's where I feel most confident).

    Also, I think that almost everyone who has passivity issues is passive in some situations but not others. Some of the same guys who harassed me were very quiet and went along with the flow in other situations. But they'd been taught that if they were passive in flirting/dating situations, they'd never get anywhere because they were guys and guys were supposed to initiate. And were never taught the "clear yes" standard of when to continue, or the concept of there being situations in which open flirting is never welcome and you shouldn't even try.

    Women, on the other hand, are socialized to not initiate flirting behavior and are often shamed for doing so even if the flirting was welcome. So you don't as often see women making persistent and unwelcome sexual overtures to people (except when they're clearly actually joking and just trying to push the other person's buttons).

    Now, a lot of other Autistic guys I know took the opposite approach and assumed that pretty much all flirting was unwelcome unless they had clear and convincing evidence otherwise. In my opinion, this is what EVERYONE should do, but unfortunately it's not. The "woman-as-gatekeeper" role is still pretty alive and well in our society, and it guides people's behavior a lot.

  18. I have to admit that I'm not very aware of how people act in "flirting/dating situations." Since I never do this kind of thing, even when I do know it would be welcome. I will also admit that whenever a woman has seemed interested in me that way she was really tentative and if I said no or just didn't encourage her then she she left me alone.

    So I have in mind situations were people are hurting me, getting me to let them use my things, making me afraid to talk to someone or go into a certain area, etc. But I know women can't just opt out of the dating stuff because the "assertive" men will still be there, whereas I can just forget it's even relevant to people's day to day's lives.

    I guess I will kind of tentatively admit that there has been at least one situation where a man has done sexual related things that I didn't want. It was really hard for me but it ultimately wasn't something I specifically worried about on a day to day basis, so I do see the difference. (the first time I tried to talk to someone- years afterwards- I was told that it was just normal behavior) ((((I don't want to seem like I'm misrepresenting myself but I don't want to go into detail either))))

    I think overall the culture doesn't specifically target men this way like it does towards women, but if that is presented as acceptable treatment for anyone then no one is really safe.

  19. I think that's true: there are definitely situations where either men will act toward other men in the same really unwelcome way, or women will act toward men in unwelcome ways because they figure that that makes them "even."

    And in those situations there's also a weird privilege issue playing out: for example, a man who's complaining that a woman is stalking him will often be told that it's not a big deal because she's a woman and he's a man, so she can't really be threatening and he can't really be threatened.

  20. I was also saying to Amanda Forest Vivian that it seemed a lot of insults towards men, even from women, involve compare men to women in various ways (or to female reproductive organs), so it's almost like they're saying if you can't be manly then you get to be treated like a woman.