Sexual Ableism

By David M. PerryFebruary 25, 2016

Sexual Ableism
ON JANUARY 15, former philosophy professor Anna Stubblefield, 46, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the crime of sexually assaulting a man known as D.J., a 34-year-old disabled African-American. Stubblefield had claimed that D.J., who has cerebral palsy and cannot communicate verbally, had consented to sex. Indeed, her claim was that they mutually expressed their love for each other, she through her voice, and he through communication software using a technique called “facilitated communication” (FC). The court refused to consider the validity of FC, and Stubblefield’s fate was sealed.

Though the judge has ruled, many of the details of the case remain contested within academic and activist communities. The story was covered in a high-profile New York Times Magazine article and sparked a new round of debates about disability, sex, and communication. While the trial did little to reveal any definite facts about D.J. and Stubblefield, it did expose this truth: the United States remains deeply confused about how to deal with disability.

Many nonverbal disabled individuals, including my son, communicate by selecting ideograms or letters on a keyboard which then are displayed or spoken aloud by a communication device. While some disabled people can operate such devices independently, facilitated communication involves some degree of physical contact from a trained facilitator, ranging from a light touch on a shoulder to help steady an arm to intensive hand-over-hand manipulation. In the latter case, the trained facilitator is supposed to sense small motor movements in the subject and help a client find the letters or symbols that reflect their desires.

FC has been controversial since its inception in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was hailed at first as a miracle, as the “silent” disabled suddenly could “speak,” but its reputation was quickly tarnished when a number of individuals seemed to use FC to make accusations of sexual abuse against their parents, accusations all later proven false. These accusations say at least as much about the era of broader hysteria over repressed memories of sexual abuse than the specific technique used to unearth such alleged repressed memories. In other, comparable cases of “false memories” elicited through talk therapy, the false accusations have failed to discredit the techniques by which they are elicited. FC, alas, pushes back against ableist norms that presume incompetence in the disabled, absent absolute evidence to the contrary. Its role in eliciting false accusations, therefore, permanently tarred it, for many, as a pseudoscience.

When it comes to FC, simple answers must be avoided. There’s ample evidence of individuals who have moved through FC to independent typing. They describe having been aware and attempting to communicate throughout their lives, including while using FC; therefore, there must be some people who can only communicate through FC, attesting to its validity. At the same time, it’s clearly possible for facilitators to fall prey to what has been called the “ideomotor effect,” unconsciously turning random movements of their clients into speech. Too many people, looking for a perfectly neurotypical mind inside a neurodiverse one, have fooled themselves into finding what they think must be there. Those people who passed through FC to independent communication stand as testimony to the technique’s possibilities, and to the intense and exhausting work required to make progress.

What really happened between Stubblefield and D.J. is impossible to know. In the trial, D.J. was paraded into court by his family and his prosecutor, but the judge decided that the jury would not be allowed to see or hear him use FC to testify on his own behalf, accepting the opinion of psychologists that D.J. was mentally incompetent and therefore incapable of consent. The whole question of what is competence, intelligence, and communication lay at the heart of the case, but the judge refused to allow such questions in his courtroom. Instead, he declared D.J. “mentally defective,” based on New Jersey Title 2C:14-2 Sexual Assault. He rendered D.J. merely an object to consider, rather than a person who had something to say. At that point, the verdict was more or less assured.

In one of the best pieces of writing about the case, Ralph Savarese notes the basic importance of facilitated communication and critiques Stubblefield (no facilitator should sleep with their subject, even consensually), while arguing that we should be loath to draw conclusions from the Stubblefield case. He writes,

I have held off commenting on the Stubblefield case because I continue to believe that it is a very poor vehicle for talking about a range of important issues: from the efficacy of certain forms of augmentative communication, to the sexual rights of disabled people, to the role of race in the study of cognitive disability, to so-called “standards” of academic publication.

I’m not sure he’s right that the case is such a poor exemplar for these important issues. As he undoubtedly knows, his colleague Michael Gill has just published Already Doing It: Intellectual Disability and Sexual Agency (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Gill’s book emphasizes the prevalence of sexual ableism, a “denial of ability to be sexual (or desexualization) for individuals with intellectual disabilities.” While much of the book focuses on sexual education, media representation, and other issues that may not be directly relevant to the Stubblefield trial, Gill’s overall framing of the project matters. In the opening of Already Doing It, Gill draws on Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s aphorism, as recorded in this TED talk, about “the danger of a single story.” Adichie, focusing on race and perceptions of Africa, argued that reducing people to one aspect “makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.” When it comes to sex and intellectual disability, Gill suggests, we pursue a single story of victimhood, unaware of the multiplicity of possible narratives. We bring our own idea of what that story must be to the facts, warping them to fit our preconceived biases. Gill writes,

When discussing this project, I often encounter a response that imagines the most “severe” case. These responses, a type of single story, seek to discredit any effort to advocate for the sexual and reproductive rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities […].

It was, of course, the prosecutor’s job to present a single story of the worst-case scenario. That’s how trials work. In fact, understanding the Stubblefield case requires simultaneously holding two possible mutually exclusive stories in our minds: both terrible. In the first, Stubblefield used FC to help D.J. communicate with the world for the first time in his life. He and she became close. She helped him enter school and collaborated on an academic publication. Then they became lovers. When they told his family, though, they accused her of sexual assault and took away D.J.’s communication device. In the second, D.J. was never able to communicate, and Stubblefield unknowingly manipulated his communications, deluded herself into believing they were in love, and raped him. In the first, she is going to jail and he is trapped without the power to communicate. In the second, she abused a defenseless individual.

For the judge, only the second story was possible. His rulings on D.J.’s testimony, and the decision of the family in how they presented their son, shaped how the jury might be able to perceive D.J. From the beginning, he was an object, rather than a person. Disability advocate Julie Equality, who attended the trial, described how D.J., instead of using “a wheelchair, walker, or crutches,”

was physically supported by his mother. He looked like a baby being guided to take his first steps. […] D.J. was not seated in the courtroom for the trial because he was not considered a conscious person. He was presented only as an exhibit, and I mean that literally, not metaphorically.

The refusal to consider even the possibility that D.J. might be a person, able to move, to communicate, to desire, to consent, solidified the single story of the worst-case scenario. The jury accepted this narrative, grafting their own ideas about the undesirability of disability onto D.J.’s body. Reporter Bill Wichert interviewed a juror who “couldn't understand” the relationship between Stubblefield and D.J. once she saw D.J. in court. “I was like … ‘You're going to leave your husband and your kids for someone like this?’”

This unnamed citizen of New Jersey believed that D.J. was unable to consent and so in need of protection. He’s a victim, but not an appealing one, and she puzzled over the reasons that Stubblefield might jeopardize her career, family, and freedom for this unappealing object. To the juror, sexual desire for a disabled body, clad in a diaper (lack of feces control often emerges in narratives intended to minimize agency for disabled adults), is a mark of deviance. So although the purpose of the trial, ostensibly, was to determine whether D.J. required protection and to avenge wrongs done to him, the juror’s determination of guilt depended on disgust. She could not imagine genuine attraction; therefore, the sex acts must have been criminal. The worst-case story won.

Despite the guilty verdict, we still have no idea which one of the stories — both tragic, but only one criminal — is true. As an advocate, caught between the presumption of competence and the desire to protect the vulnerable, I would have made every effort to grant D.J. the agency to testify, trying all possible techniques. That didn’t happen.

When it comes to intellectual disability and sex, both generally, as a society, and even within advocacy movements, we lean toward what Michael Gill calls “protectionism.” We perceive the disabled person as being at risk from external forces — whether predation or unintentional discrimination — and thus structure our activism around keeping disabled people safe. When it comes to sex, in particular, this makes sense. The sexual abuse rates for the developmentally disabled are staggering. When we match our desire to protect with the nameless juror’s perceptions of deviancy, though, it’s easy to strip both agency and sexuality from the disabled.

Fighting sexual ableism doesn’t mean ignoring abuse or exonerating Anna Stubblefield. Instead, the fight requires being open to the possibility that D.J. is a man, that a woman could want him and he could reciprocate, and that the communication of sexual desire might not operate in neurotypical forms. As Gill’s title implies, people with intellectual disability are “already doing it.” Both society at large and disability studies as a field need to catch up.


David M. Perry is a disability rights journalist and associate professor of history at Dominican University.

LARB Contributor

David M. Perry is a disability rights journalist and associate professor of history at Dominican University. Find his work at How Did We Get Into This Mess? and follow him on Twitter.


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