Married, mother of two – a daughter and a son. A writer and an artist, a linguistic editor and translator. Gives lectures on topics related to disabilities, practices and teaches energetic-holistic healing and channeling. Holds a BA degree in Sociology and Education from Bar-Ilan University. An active member in the feminist organization "Isha Leisha" (Woman to Woman). Orna's writing in hebrew - here
Some time ago I was invited by Dr. Nessia Lang Franco to "TENE" center in Poriya Hospital to give a lecture on women with disabilities and sexual violence.
A few words about the center and the sacred work which is done there.
The center provides multidisciplinary care for victims of sexual assault and in cases where there is suspicion of sexual assault. It was established in 2001 and operates under the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, headed by Prof. Moshe Ben Ami. It is managed and operated by volunteers, led by Dr. Lang Franco.
The center is adapted to the specific needs of the people who apply for its services, which are provided in a professional and discreet manner and in a supportive and safe ambience.
It serves the population of the North area of Israel and treats people of all ages, from all sectors of the population, including people with special needs.
The team is professional and multi-skilled, and includes a gynecologist (a woman), a surgeon, a proctologist, a gastroenterologist and a pediatrician, who provide comprehensive medical and medicinal treatment. A nurse and a social worker coordinate the treatments, evaluate the needs of the patients and their families, provide short-term psycho-social care and support and referral for further treatment and rehabilitation. The team also includes a secretary, a research coordinator and medical clowns.
The staff documents the findings for legal proceedings and provides evidence and medical opinion in court.
This is not an easy topic to write and speak about, to read and comprehend. And yet – you need to know.
The association of breast cancer patients is called "One of Nine". When it comes to sexual abuse, it is "one of one". Many may not talk about it, or would not admit it occurs; However, there is almost no woman who hasn't experienced sexual abuse of some sort – from offensive verbal comments, inappropriate touching, to an assault and actual rape.
While preparing the lecture, I also began to think about all those times that I faced these situations. I used to think that I wasn't harassed a lot, because I wasn't perceived as feminine, but that's not true. I remembered some incidents, and then others… About three of them, I can say with certainty that it was because of my disability. Luckily – by sheer luck – I got out of those situations unharmed.
The first time was when a volunteer asked me for a dance in the disco and then offered to walk me home. When he wanted to come in, I told him I was afraid my parents would wake up. I was very naïve then, just after he left I understood what he wanted. I didn't think about such things (and not all the volunteers were nice people…).
Later, there were a few times that happened when I was in the army. Every morning I would go to the camp that was located less than ten minutes away from the kibbutz, a period of time that usually was enough only for a few words. In those years, awareness of the danger of hitchhiking was nearly zero.
It is not that the phenomenon did not exist, it just wasn't talked about.
Then there was that guy who tried to convince me to go with him for a drive up the Golan Heights – and I said I couldn't go AWOL.
And there was the one who attempted to put his hand on my thigh, and what saved me was that I had brought a bag of grapefruit for my friends that totally covered my lap.
There was also the shoe shop owner in Tiberias, who "helped" me get up from tying the shoes by putting his hands on my breasts. I knew what it was, I just was so embarrassed, speechless. I got up and left and didn't go into that shop again.
Then there was the man in the street in Tel Aviv, who offered me a candy, and I just laughed and kept walking.
And a few years ago, there was that man was on a side street in Tiberias, who asked me if I wanted to "come and have fun." I raised my hand with my wedding ring in front of his eyes and kept walking.
There were more, but how many can you write about ...
Writing this part was the hardest. I left it to the end.
I had the combination of a given particular physical an d mental being and a good family that gave me the support and guidance, due to which I am who I am. Thanks to these I could develop a healthy personality, and a firm and formed feminine being.
Owing to this I can write about it and speak out also for others, those whose voices are not heard.
Sexual assault is any behavior, talking or action which has a sexual connotation and is enforced on a woman, a man, a girl or a boy, without their free consent. That perpetrator may be a man, a woman or a child. This violence is manifested in a sexual act, taken by an attacker against any person who is perceived as weaker, a crime that aims to humiliate and control.
Sexual violence is a social phenomenon that exists in any human society which lacks equality between the sexes and where aggressive behavior prevails.
Oppression of women through rape, sexual violence and violence in general is one of the manifestations of oppression in patriarchal and class society, which is based on power relations and violence .
Most victims of sexual violence are women – a fact that reflects the accepted social perceptions about their status, their place and roles in society. These concepts are expressed in the allocation of social resources, in the ways in which women are presented in the media and in the sex industry
.Despite the growing exposure of the phenomenon in recent years, as public figures are caught committing acts of sexual violence – government, military and police officials, celebrities and clergymen, all over the world (in Israel a president was deposed from office, convicted and imprisoned) – its dimensions are not yet fully known. Many cases go unreported, reported complaints are being dropped and those that get to trial do not get convicted.
The denial, concealment and silence are still roaring.
People with disabilities in general are exposed to violence and exploitation four times more than people without disabilities. In crimes of sexual assault victims the rates are even higher. They are seen as easy victims to attack – an easy prey, as probability for the crime to be discovered is low and the chances of filing complaints and punishment are even lower. The likelihood that women with disabilities would experience sexual assault is twice as high as that of women without disabilities.
Before discussing violence against women with disabilities, and in order to understand why they are such an easy target for violence and sexual assault, one must consider society's attitude towards people with disabilities and women in general, who are excluded from the public sphere.
This introduction is essential for understanding the reasons that this subject is suppressed by human consciousness and social awareness, worldwide.
I write about women with disabilities, but these things relate to men and boys as well.
Men and Women With Disabilities Within Society
Awareness of the necessity of inclusion of people with disabilities in society has increased in the western world in the last century and it continues to grow. Their status is perpetuated in history as not valid (the word "invalid" was used in many languages in the past). They are considered abnormal and unfit – socially, materially and humanly*. They are facing stereotypes and prejudices and are perceived as offensive to the images that are accepted and defined as norms in society. As such they are tagged as stigmatized, not worthy of acceptance by society as equals, they are discriminated and pushed to the margins of society. Their discrimination rises out of inequity standpoints which place barriers in various areas, such as social and physical space, institutional conduct and the unequal distribution of resources and access to them. Although in recent decades there is increasing legislation for equal rights, in practice, the implementation is partial and discrimination and exclusion still prevail. Their representation as people of less value, as a narrative, is still given into the hands of people without disabilities, who have an almost absolute power in all aspects of life.
This group includes women, who face a chain of discrimination – due to their disability and to their personal background. They are placed at the bottom of that chain, just as in the food chain, which puts them in a situation of greater vulnerability. I coined the term "chain of discrimination" in one of the group's meetings, on which the report "The Transparent Voice: Women Talk About Disability And Feminism" was based.
One of the mistaken assumptions about women with disabilities is that they are not sexual and lack interest in sex.
Women With Disabilities
femininity and sexuality
The very essential femininity of a woman with disabilities is doubtful, she's considered less valuable, "not a real woman", a damaged woman. People with disabilities in general, and women in particular, are tagged by stigma as a-sexual creatures, portrayed as lacking of sexual needs and having no need for relationships.
In western society, having an attractive appearance also means being sexually attractive. People with disabilities, being disabled, are denied the possibility of being identified as having the capability of being sexually attractive. They are considered to be inadequate and their opportunities to love and be loved are very limited.
Stereotypes about the sexuality of women with disabilities have far-reaching implications. They affect the people around them. Parents tend to believe that their impaired daughters, as children and as adults, still depend on them and they lack social skills. These stereotypes sometimes become embedded even into the minds of women themselves, so that they themselves believe they can't be attractive. They might develop a low self-esteem and a sense of inferiority and worthlessness. Common social myths push women with disabilities out of everything which is defined as normal. They are portrayed as non-healthy and as ones who cannot support themselves. Such a woman is perceived as someone who no man could possibly want to take care of and provide for, physically and emotionally. Often, the people within their social circles would not encourage developing healthy and normal sexual relationships.
A woman with disabilities is not a desired partner. Women are much less likely to find partners or get married and create a normal relationship, because society perceives them as improper wives, as they do not meet the standards of what women are destined for – taking care of the family and looking after it.
Boys and girls with disabilities are often denied participation in sexual education classes, partially out of the basic assumption that they do not need it since it is irrelevant to them. As a result, adolescents with disabilities – at the age when needs, desires, passions and hopes of relationships, love and sex emerge – do not get adequate guidance and often have no basic knowledge and information about anything related to sex, sexuality and sexual contact. Girls with disabilities have twice to a third less information and knowledge than their peers who are not disabled.
Consequently, they are not exposed to programs aimed at preventing sexual assault and would not know how to protect themselves. They become women with no social skills to establish relationships of any kind. This can lead them to get into relationships based on sex, as a substitute for a healthy relationship. Often, men would take advantage of such relationships to "gain" easy sex and be free of obligations.
Most women with disabilities – physical, mental and intellectual – do not seek gynecological treatment, more than half of the non-disabled ones. Medical care is less accessible to them. In addition, most gynecologists are still men. Some lack the sensitivity required to treat women with special needs and they may be a threat and cause discomfort for women who have never sought treatment.
There are several reasons for why they do not get gynecological treatments; First, there is the basic assumption that they are not engaged in sexual activity, and therefore doctors and caregivers do not consider the necessity of examinations. Another reason is that most hospitals and clinics are not accessible. The gynecological examination chair is not always accessible for women in wheelchairs and little women. The common examination position is not suitable to their needs, and so is the equipment used by obstetricians. Childbirth classes are not adapted to disabled pregnant women. The positions in which women are laid during birth are not convenient, often not possible, for women with disabilities.
There is a lack of awareness among medical staff – doctors and nurses do not have sufficient experience and knowledge of the implications of disability and gynecological problems.
Lack of basic knowledge about sex leaves women and girls with disabilities more exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and undiagnosed cancers – and to violence as well.
Exposure To Violence
People with disabilities in general are exposed to violence and exploitation of different types, four times more than people without disabilities. When it comes to sexual assault, the victims’ numbers are even higher. The probability of a repetition of the crime is higher, since they are perceived as easy to attack – the risk of the crime being revealed is low and the prospect of punishment is even lower.
Women with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual assault than women without disabilities. The rate of violence of any kind – physical and sexual violence, rape and repeated sexual abuse, is almost twice as high. The difference is in the level of physical violence, not in sexual violence, rape, age, education level, language or marital status.
Professionals who take care of women who have experienced sexual assault often do not recognize that they treat a woman with disabilities. Sexual assault hotline phone services can not always identify a caller with disabilities. Caregivers who work with the disabled population often do not know or are not able to recognize the signs of sexual abuse, nor do they have appropriate training for handling such a situation and reporting the incident.
Harassment, sexual abuse and rape are typical manifestations of discrimination and alienation against women that lead to violence, but usually they are discussed in the context of sexuality rather than in terms of violence. Because of it – in a sharp contrast to what was said in the introduction about sexuality in the context of women with disabilities – the common perception is that if a woman is not sexual, she would not be exposed to harassment, sexual violence and rape, although in reality they are sexually abused even more. In these cases, confusion, silence and their being silenced grow stronger. The assumption that women with disabilities are less sexually harmed is embedded in social circles and because of it sexual abuse of these women does not get the proper reference in aid centers.
Physical, sensory, intellectual and psychological disabilities, or a combination of deficiencies, increase vulnerability to violence and abuse of all types. Physical impairments, chronic diseases, congenital conditions, sensory impairments, mental disorders which include developmental conditions, cognitive impairment and mental illnesses.
Expressions of violence
Apart from sexual assault and rape, abuse and exploitation include threats, rejection, isolation, ignoring and verbal abuse. Physical abuse is any form of violence against the woman's body – beating, kicking, restraint, denial of food, water and aids. Sexual abuse is imposing sexual activity, sometimes under threat, bribery or deception, from disturbing stares and unwanted touching to forced sexual intercourse.
Among the factors that contribute to violence against women with disabilities – young age, less mobility and higher levels of depression, are the characteristics of more than eighty percent of women who have experienced interpersonal violence.
-Women with severe disabilities are dependent on long-term treatment, therefore they are afraid to refuse their attacker’s demands and to report acts of violence. That puts them under a greater danger.
-Sexual offenders focus on women with disabilities, believing that there is less chance to be discovered – they would not call for help and would not identify them.
-The women themselves often do not believe they are able to resist the perpetrator, because of negative social perceptions they embed. They find it hard to convince people to believe them. Women with intellectual disabilities are told repeatedly that they are stupid, so they do not say anything, fearing to be laughed at.
-Because they do not get sexual education, women with intellectual disabilities are unable to identify situations in which they are abused, are unable to resist and do not recognize the act as a crime.
-Girls and women in day care centers, or who work in sheltered workshops, are exposed to harassment and assault by employers, foremen and transport services drivers.
-Many women are socially isolated, they suffer social and emotional deprivation and those needs may lead them to satisfy the sexual demands of the attackers. They may also agree to sexual intercourse out of the desire to gain some attention, where sexual contact is a substitute for love. In the play "Children of a Lesser God", Sarah, a deaf girl, says: "Sex was always something I could do as well as hearing girls. Better!" (Medoff, 1980).
The Consequences of Sexual Assault
Women with disabilities who experience sexual assault are more vulnerable to trauma and lasting damage than women without disabilities. Their responses would be extreme, as trauma often leads to a worsening of communication abilities.
Another typical natural reaction is shock. Women suffering from nerve damages affecting speech and motoric function may be incomprehensible or be thought to be drunk, and therefore as non-credible. They would find it difficult to understand what happened to them.
Rape and sexual assault are considered any sexual activity that the victim does not consent to. When it comes to women with disabilities, and those with intellectual disabilities in particular, the issue is complex, because the concept of "consent" refers to Informed Consent. The consent of a person who is defined by law as "helpless" is not considered Informed Consent. Because the emotional development of these women is similar to that of children, they are easy to be seduced, forced and give their consent to take part in sexual acts, under bribery and temptation, or threat.
Some attackers use physical force, and some would give attention, affection, prizes and bribes, in order to overcome physical, verbal or emotional resistance and to engage in intercourse. They would use threats of physical or emotional harm such as humiliation, disruption of family life, or loss of residential confidence, as in hostels or institutions .
Disability is permanently accompanied by a sense of helplessness, up to frustration, despair and inability to act. These feelings are intensified even more for victims of sexual assault. They feel helpless up to the fear of death. They're unable to move – whether due to limitations of the body, or panic, or because the attacker would not allow them. For women with disabilities, helplessness is a state of being and fright is even greater. They confront the same reactions as all victims experience, but these are much more severe. Confusion and agitation activate defense mechanisms such as dissociation and emotional states like anxiety and depression.
Girls and women who live in institutions and hostels might be in situations in which there would be no awareness on the part of caregivers to trauma reactions that are typical to sexual assault. So, they would not be protected against it and get support and treatment.
Exploitation and sexual abuse of familiar people, relatives and spouses
Gender power relations are embodied, among other things, in the subjugation of women and children by the men in the family – fathers, spouses, brothers or uncles, their dependency on them, as well as that of boys and girls, and referring to them as objects to fulfill their needs. Most attackers do not need to use physical force, because their senior status ensures their control, power and trust. The options of women to escape are very little to non possible at all, and men would use their confidence to threaten their livelihood, security and being physically intact.
In most cases of sexual assault – over eighty percent, the attacker is known to the victim. People with disabilities in general, and women with disabilities even more, are at greater risk of experiencing abuse from close people whom they trust; The vast majority of perpetrators are male caregivers, relatives – fathers, brothers and other family members, spouses and intimate partners, friends, formal and non-formal professionals assistants and health care providers. These are forty four percent of the attackers, as opposed to perpetrators who are strangers – about ten percent.
Women with disabilities are twice as likely as those without disabilities to experience physical assault by a spouse or an intimate partner. About half of them, compared to other women, reported that they were forced to have unwanted sex. These women are also at risk of experiencing abuse for longer periods of time.
Women with disabilities are exposed to violence by their spouses because their disabilities might slow them and even prevent their escape. Disability may affect the ability of communication and reporting the offense; The attacker controls their ability to ward off the offense; Women who want to leave home often would not find where to go to – many shelters for battered women are not accessible.
Law and judgement relate to affairs of women with disabilities from the perspective of the criminal proceedings while making it suitable to their special needs, and encourage them to file complaints and testify in court, despite their difficulties. However, this is an inherently complex practice which poses special obstacles. The procedures and rules of these criminal proceedings are strict and complicated to understand and put a heavy psychological burden on them.
The criminal procedure purports to treat everyone equally, but the rules governing the domain, the conduct of the investigation authorities, the prosecution, the defense and the courts, are not flexible about the special needs of people with disabilities. As a result, their rights – including the right to a fair trial, might be harmed during the procedure. In addition, due to the presumption of investigators and prosecutors that the testimony of people with disabilities would be incomprehensible, incomplete or inconsistent and contain gaps, many times their investigation files get closed without charges, even where it is clear to the authorities that the offense did occur.
On the basis of experience gained in aid organizations that help victims, suspects and accused persons with disabilities, the law of "Investigation and Testimony Procedures (Adaptation to Persons with Mental or Psychological Disability) Law, 5765-2005. was legislated. This is a precedental law in the world, which regulates methods that are adjusted to investigate people with mental or intellectual disabilities and adjusted methods for their testimonies as well. It includes special adaptations to help people with a disability to provide their version and testimony coherently, although it does not provide simplifications for people with disabilities and does not change the rules. However, often victims of sexual crimes that apply to the legal system meet a system which is not prepared to deal with their unique experiences and needs.
Criminal law stipulates that sex with a person with an emotional disability, being a helpless victim, is not consensual and is considered a criminal offense that carries a greater responsibility.
The need of safety is determined second in Maslow's pyramid of needs. Sexual assault violates the most fundamental sense of safety. Those who are supposed to protect the victims, making them feel that they are not in danger and their world is safe – fail to do their duty, whether they are the offenders, or others who are unable to see the harm done and prevent it. The world of the victims get confused: the known world and the unfamiliar one – become potentially harmful. Those who want good – may wish bad. Good turns evil. This is an essential and crucial conception: the victims do not trust the world anymore and their sense of belonging and control of the body is undermined.
Dealing with the shattering of the worldview and the environment, society and parents, as those who should protect them, is almost impossible. Victims may feel that the world is bad and illogical. This thought is too frightening, it means living in a world that is cruel and non consistent. The only way to continue to exist is to turn the evil and guilt inward: the world is not evil – I am. The world is not unreasonable – I am, it is not unreasonable and distorted – it is me. Victims perceive themselves as bad and not normal and so the blame is theirs, because "they are those who brought harm on themselves."
Guilt and shame are, in fact, a mirror of the outside world. Accusation, contempt, degradation and doubting cause shame. Social criticism is both covert and overt and attributes their being harmed to their behavior, their dress, their sexual history, seductiveness, carelessness and stupidity. Another perception is that there is a "benefit" that they "gain" by being hurt. In fact, degradation is rather external and public, it is perceived as normative, and thus becomes part of the interior discourse of the victims themselves, as society blames and judges them. They remain feeling guilty, not belonging to society and not worthy of being defended.
Breaking The Wall Of Silence
Beyond the traumatic physical and mental experiences, and the feelings of pain, fear, shame and helplessness, there are taboos and prohibitions against public exposure and discussion when it comes to sex.
There is that tremendous wall of denial, hushing up and social silencing.
Silencing the subject of sexual abuse have historocal roots. The Jewish narrative refers to the "stolen body" of the victim. Another place where this taboo appears is in Greek mythology, in the story of Oedipus.
Although today things are changing, the public still prefers to ignore this group of victims. It is easy for society to turn its back, close its eyes and block its ears. It is convenient not to want to know. Knowledge requires confrontation with the issue of sexual violence, as with many other issues that are buried deep within the human experience, which are not pleasant to handle with. Knowledge itself obliges one to take moral action.
Testimonies of victims show the great difficulty to complain and fight, which means to be exposed and relive the paralyzing fear, to gather forces to break the solitude and quietness. Rape victims are still those who are presumed guilty. Again, this is all about consciousness, referring to society's attitudes toward women with disabilities.
Taking the side of the perpetrator is tempting, seeing but doing nothing. It appeals to the universal desire not to see evil, not hear it nor talk about it. On the other hand, there is the victim, who demands the viewer to share the pain, to remember and to be aware, to be involved and take action.
Almost every man has erotic dreams in which there are subjugation and use of force – they are a part of human urges. These dreams are unconscious, but putting them into action is limited by social imperatives, whose purpose is to protect society from itself. Keeping the secret, silencing, defaming and blaming the victim allow denial and turning a blind eye. The victims do not speak as humans who have faces; Society chooses not to see the suffering they experience; abuse occurs in other places, not among us. The matter of sexual assault is described as "hysterical" and fighting it is laid on radical feminists.
Silencing and secrecy are kept as "if we do not talk about it – it does not exist."
But silence and secrecy are the biggest enemies of the phenomenon; In order to reduce it as far as possible, it must be discussed, to be brought to consciousness and awareness.
Harilyn Rousso, an artist and writer psychoanalyst with cerebral palsy, writes: "Silence will not protect me… We do not speak for fear of security, stigma, or suffering… We honor fear more than our own voices. When the words of women are waiting, wanting to be heard, we must do all we can to find them, free them." (Rousso, 2013; p. 205).
*The numbers refer to the bibliography, in th Hebrew version.