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?

3 Replies to “Down syndrome, sexuality, and agency”

  1. S Calcano says:

    I understood your point in your original essay. This case, although close to my heart because the young lady has Ds, is more about rape culture in my mind. Women are always taken to task about what they were wearing, where they were walking, drinking, talking, how they acted before and after a rape occurs. This happens over and over again to women of all ages, races, socio economic position and now, intellectual ability. As a survivor of rape myself, I can tell you, there is no 'right' way to behave before, during or after a rape and NOTHING that a woman can do to provoke this type of attack. End of story.

  2. Robert Harvey-Kinsey says:

    Thank you David for clarifying Jane's intellectual capacity. The fact that she was able to provide testimony during the trial, her strong in her portrayal of the events that happened that night, and that she clearly believed what happened to her was wrong, was very important to learn. While it makes it harder for a prosecutor to win a cases like this, it is important that society not automatically assume a person with a highly variable condition like Downs Syndrome is automatically incompetent and unable to consent. While very uncommon some persons with DS have IQ above average and are highly functional.

    I often find that when the situation is reversed and the perpetrator of the crime has a condition that impacts their mental capacity the state will go to extraordinary measures to prove the defendant competent. Yet, when the victim is the one with such a condition they would be perfectly happy treating him or her as a babbling idiot. I find it very offensive. Going after a rapist by labeling the victim as incompetent is very much robbing Peter to pay Paul. You punish one person for denigrating a person's basic human rights by doing the exact same thing.

    As an adoptive parent that has two boys who came to me with all kinds of labels, I have had to fight against this. Had I not my two sons would still be in foster care, going to special needs schools, and in one case not able to walk or talk. Today, I have two sons in grade 4 who are both doing fairly well. One of which performs in Drama club and the other who just graduated from his last special class to full classroom inclusion. While I always keep myself aware of the limits and vulnerabilities their conditions bring, I do my best to have no bias as to how far they can go and act accordingly.

    Let me thank you David for taking the time to respond to my CNN comment and creating this blog post.

    1. David Perry says:

      You're welcome. I am always glad when good dialogue emerges from the troll-infested CNN comment threads. You are why I read them, looking for interesting people.

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