I have been a wheelchair user for a number of years, due to a progressive condition. I have been a rape survivor for four. These things are more connected than you might think.
I first met Alex (not his real name) four years ago. We were at a house party. He was drunk and I was sober; this would become a running theme.
I remember thinking how gorgeous he was. Months passed and we fell out of touch, apart from the odd message, until one night, quite unexpectedly, he came to my apartment. I had messaged him earlier in the day, hoping to catch up in the coming weeks over a coffee. Hours later, he messaged me saying he was out and wanted to talk. I had already taken my makeup off and was in my pyjamas, so I said he could come over for a bit instead. He was very drunk; I was sober. Even so, I was in my own home, in my pyjamas; I don’t remember feeling unsafe. We were friends.
Alex was intriguing and intelligent, but I can honestly say that I wanted and expected no more than a chat that night. He had other things on his mind. After we had chatted for a while, he picked me up from my wheelchair, carried me to my room and put me on my bed. I joked about getting an early night. He took his clothes off and straddled me, his arms either side of me. I froze. “Come on, it’s just a bit of fun,” he said, adding: “We’re both adults; it doesn’t have to mean anything,” as he urged me to let him go down on me. I can’t remember how many objections I put up, but when they didn’t work, I gave up, fearing violence if I persisted, and resigned myself to what was to happen: my “friend” was going to have sex with me without my consent – to rape me.
Afterwards he had me weighed down under an arm and a leg, so when he passed out, I couldn’t move. I lay there until he rolled over and fell back asleep. I wriggled to the side of the bed, slid to the floor and crawled to the kitchen to get my wheelchair. I didn’t sleep, instead focusing on how dry and chapped my lips were. Since then, I haven’t been able to sleep without applying lip balm.
The next day, I was confused. I texted my friends. Half of them encouraged me to be happy; I used to have a crush on him, after all. The other half pointed out the red flags I had been so willing to ignore when he showed up to my apartment stinking of wine.
I messaged him and we met to talk about it in person a few days later. He cried, worried about how this was going to affect his career prospects. I felt bad for him, so I decided to protect him by not reporting it. I thought that, if I tried to forget about it, in a week or so it would be over. I tried to find a way to soothe the feelings I had that somehow I was guilty for what had happened. In my mind, sexual assaults were things that happened between strangers in dark alleyways, not between two friends at home. I didn’t fit the black-and-white image of a sexual assault survivor – I use a wheelchair, after all – and this only added to my confusion.
A week later, I was still sad and confused and experiencing pain and tenderness between my legs, so I went to the emergency room. There, the nurse referred me to the sexual assault treatment unit, where I finally realised that I had been sexually assaulted. The doctors used a mirror to show me what I couldn’t see. My vulva and my inner thighs were bruised black and blue. I wince just thinking about it now. It finally dawned on me that he had always meant to force himself on me.
Outside of this small, white hospital room, the whole world was talking about sexual assault. The #MeToo movement was at its peak. Women were being praised and encouraged to come forward with their stories. But those who did were Hollywood actors who had suffered assault at the hands of their directors or co-stars, or employees who had endured countless advances by their bosses. There was never any mention of people with disabilities.
Yet disabled women are almost twice as likely to have experienced sexual assault as non-disabled women. They are also more than five times as likely to have experienced sexual assault as disabled men. I know that my story is not the only one of its kind out there, even if it feels as if it is.
But I didn’t think my ego could stand another blow by admitting I was more of a victim than I wanted to be. My disability automatically made me a victim; how could I be a sexual assault victim, too?
The fear of not being believed deters reporting in many cases of sexual assault. But I was preoccupied with the idea that my case would be questioned because of my disability. More than one person I considered to be a friend asked about my sexual ability when I confided in them about the assault, as though this was the most important question. If my friends reacted this way, how could I expect others to be compassionate?
Some days I feel determined to share my story, and report it, for all the disabled women who can’t. Some days I just want to forget the whole thing and continue with my life. But forgetting seems impossible. I wonder if he is as haunted by it as I am.