Rape Culture and Disability – New Jersey Edition

According to a report from NBC New York (also covered in Jezebel, and thanks to my friend K. for the story tip), a woman with Multiple Sclerosis was gang raped in a warehouse in New Jersey. 

She fell asleep on the bus (she is on a narcotic for pain), woke up in Trenton, left the bus, got disoriented, and was gang raped. The details of the assault are upsetting. Her medical care was allegedly sub-standard. And as happens far too often, things got worse when she went to the police.

She told [the police] that she was a multiple sclerosis patient on a medical pain patch prescribed by her doctor in part for a spine injury she suffered from an MS-related seizure. Her longtime doctor confirmed to NBC 4 New York he’d prescribed a narcotics patch, Fentanyl, due to the injury.

Kris says she gave a detailed account of what she remembered about the rape, but says the detectives began a hostile form of questioning and that they treated it like “it was a big joke and a waste of time.”

“When he asked his partner if there was one question they would like to ask, the one and only question he could come up with, out of everything in the book, was: ‘Did you voluntarily pull down the man’s pants before he raped you?’” said Kris.

“They tag-teamed,” said Kris. “‘Was I out there soliciting? Was I out there buying drugs? Why did I get off the bus at that spot?'”

Kris’s mom said the detectives kept pressing her about her daughter’s illness.

“’You sure about her MS?’ That’s all they kept asking me,” said Kris’ mother. “‘Are you sure she didn’t fall and this isn’t MS?’ They wanted to turn everything around, make her the victim all over again, and it was crap. Plain and simple crap. They didn’t want to do their job.”
Records show Kris has no criminal history for drugs or prostitution. She had one past shoplifting case where charges were later dismissed.

Let’s parse this. First, of course this is only the victim’s side of the story. I find it credible because it falls into the same patterns of experience as so many other women. The police feel that they have to work hard to make sure that the victim isn’t to blame for her assault, and then they are reasonably likely to eventually process the evidence and try and find the rapists, although rape kits often sit in evidence lockers, ignored, as serial rapists continue their crimes.

Rape culture is, among other things, police who start with the assumption of doubt in rape cases, despite at least 50% of all rapes going unreported, and false rape claims falling between 1%-6% of all reported cases.

But here’s my real point – this case is only news because of the victim’s disability. Because she has MS, the media has a neatly packaged explanation for why her story is credible and why she’s likely to be sympathetic to their readers. It’s the same kind of story as my piece for CNN on Jane, a woman with Down syndrome who was raped. I wrote (and commented on this quote here, pointing out people with disabilities DO have sexual agency):

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.

But as the next trial unfolds, do not focus on Jane because she is a woman with Down syndrome. Focus on Jane because she is a woman who says that she was raped. Focus on Jane because she’s joined the ranks of other women, women of all races, classes, sexual orientations, and levels of ability who have said that they were raped and then had their testimony disregarded by a judge on the basis of not acting enough like a victim.

The same goes for Kris. She needs justice. The forensic evidence needs to be processed and the rapists arrested. But deserves justice because she was raped, not because she was a woman with a disability who was raped.

The story here is about rape culture. Disability intensifies the story and provides a tool with which to cut aside the usual excuses, defenses, and denials that rape culture generates, because Kris’ experience with the police gets played again and again in police stations across the country.

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