Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Down syndrome, sexuality, and agency

I have a lot to say about the Georgia rape case. I've read trial documents, some of which I intend to post this week, and can answer some questions that people have had. I'll do that in another post, because here I want to focus on the least clear part of my essay.

I wrote:
And here is where disability comes back into play. Because of her Down syndrome, Jane is relatively immune to the kinds of victim-blaming endured by other women who are assaulted or abused. 
We know she wasn't asking for it. We can't blame her for staying in the house while Dumas got drunk. We know she didn't encourage him, then change her mind the next day. All of the myths about false reporting of rape don't apply to Jane because of her disability, and for that at least we can be thankful. Jane's experience points to the offensive way women's behaviors are interrogated when they seek justice.
Some people in the disability community have queried this paragraph. They've pointed out, correctly, that adults with Down syndrome should have fully developed sex drives and should be expected to act on those sex drives - hence the vital importance of sexual education for people with developmental disabilities.

Let's see if I can get this right.

I agree with and do a lot of thinking and writing about agency and disability. But here I was talking about perceptions of our broader culture. When a typical woman accuses someone of rape, there will ALWAYS be a segment of society that wonders if she was asking for it, that asks what she was wearing, that queries her decision-making involving alcohol and company, and so forth. Victim-blaming is ground into our culture - and my essay shows some of the ways in which it emerges in our justice system.

With Down syndrome, though, Jane is relatively  immune from those kinds of victim-blaming perceptions. This says a lot about the way we, in fact, deny agency to people with disability, to make them passive objects. But just for today, just for this case, I want to use those perceptions to highlight the broader injustice. Our society is programmed to see women like Jane as victims, and yet she too received the "didn't act right" treatment from the judge.

Thinking about disability and agency brings my response to this case to a level of complexity I decided to leave out of my CNN essay. A short op-ed (at 1200 words this is actually a little long) allows you to do few things: Describe a situation, make one argument, support the argument with a few additional data points. This perception protects Jane in the public eye (hence the outrage) and so serves to start us (or at least some readers) thinking about rape culture and its consequences. But I think I could have intensified the point that the response to Jane is the response that other women get, we're just outraged in the case of Jane ... AND ... the related point that Jane is, first and foremost, a woman, not a "down syndrome woman" or a "woman who suffers from Down syndrome" (both of which I have seen).

And from what I can tell of Jane, she has seized the agency in this case, telling what happened to her, testifying in court, answering all the hard questions, and is ready to do it again. She knows what happened is wrong. She convinced a jury. And if the motion to overrule the Judge's motion to overrule the jury is successful (i.e. the original verdict reinstated), then that will be the end. But if not, Jane is ready to retake the stand.

So. What do you think?