In March, 2013 – I wrote about a rape case involving a woman with Down syndrome. Her rapist was convicted, but the judge threw out the case because “she didn’t act enough like a victim.” The Down syndrome community reacted as if this was an attack on disability rights, which it was, but it’s also a standard manifestation of rape culture in our society.
Her rapist was re-convicted yesterday. This time the conviction was upheld.
Here’s my piece. I’m going to quote it at length. But you can just click over.
The Georgia appeals court judge, Christopher McFadden, argued that the verdict went “strongly against the weight of the evidence” because, in his judgment, the woman in question — I’ll join other writers in calling her Jane — didn’t act like a victim and the man didn’t act like a rapist.
Jane has Down syndrome and the growing national outrage to this case has focused, with reason, on her disability. But Down syndrome is only part of the story.
The outrage is not only because this judge didn’t understand Down syndrome, but that judges frequently impose their perceptions on cases of sexual assault, reducing sentences even for convicted rapists on the grounds that the victim didn’t act “correctly.” Jane’s troubling case reveals the intersections between rape culture and the way we strip agency from people with disabilities.
So in the first place the judge didn’t think Jane acted correctly. He doesn’t know anything about Down syndrome. But the problem is so much bigger.
Down syndrome may be a reason this judge decided that Jane’s words carried less weight when measured against his perception, but many nondisabled women, women of all social classes, races, sexual orientations, and levels of ability, have experienced precisely the same kind of dismissal.
Here are a few examples that do not involve disability.
Last year in Montana, a judge reduced a former teacher’s rape conviction to 31 days because the victim, a 14-year-old girl, was “as much in control of the situation” as her rapist and, in his opinion, “older than her chronological age.”
In California, a judge reduced a sentence of a convicted rapist because the woman didn’t fight hard enough. The judge said, “If someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage is inflicted, and we heard nothing about that in this case. That tells me that the victim in this case, although she wasn’t necessarily willing, she didn’t put up a fight.”
In Arizona, a judge reduced a sentence of a police officer convicted of sexual abuse to community service and probation, instead blaming the victim for being in a bar. The judge said, “If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you. … When you blame others, you give up your power to change.”
In Alabama, a judge structured a 40-year sentence for rape so the rapist would serve two years in a community program for nonviolent criminals and three years of probation at home. The judge, much like McFadden, argued that the victim just didn’t behave correctly. He said, “You didn’t hear the evidence. The original allegation was that both of these crimes were forcible. But then you have to believe that although she was forcibly raped twice, she continued to come back and have a social relationship (with the rapist).”
Other women have been prosecuted for false reporting of rape because they didn’t “act traumatized.” Rape convictions have been vacated entirely because the victim didn’t fight back, such as in Connecticut, when the state supreme court freed a rapist because his victim, a woman with cerebral palsy and a mental age of 3, with no ability to speak, didn’t bite, kick, or scratch her attacker.
As disability blogger Sarah Levis has commented, all of these stories should push our attention to this aspect of rape culture in the courtroom. Rape culture creates the myth that victims of rape must react within a predictable set of norms or raise doubts about the legitimacy of the rape. All of these women, including Jane, behaved in a way that judges didn’t understand, so they overturned convictions or reduced sentences.
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…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.
Finally, I said:
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.
There is no one correct way to respond to being violated, but there are so many ways that our justice system can make it worse.
I’m glad Dumas is convicted. But there’s so much more work to do on our justice system and to fight rape culture.