OUCH! Body Narratives: Gender, Disability, and Harassment

An ally in New Zealand recently pointed us towards a like-minded website that documents disability parking space offenders: CaughtYa.org.
I have a "hidden" chronic illness disability (although now, not so hidden...). Links to such websites can be useful in beginning to trace certain intersecting narratives about gender, disability, and harassment. Here is another resource that is absolutely Hot And Safe: ChronicBabe.com. I was hardly surprised upon perusing through this site to discover a richly insightful post:

The Question of the Day: May I Touch You?
November 23, 2005, by Jenni Prokopy, the Editrix.

In Jenni's words, "The answer today is: no, you may not. But unfortunately, you probably won't bother asking anyway. Sounds like a bad date, right? Wrong." Jenni has chronic physical pain due to fibromyalgia. She describes an incident of Bad Touch that occurred during a bodywork session, when the practitioner refused to listen to her admonitions "Oh, no, stop that," and then defensively argued that Jenni was the one who wasn't pliant enough. Jenni concludes that if the practitioner had just asked the simple question:May I Touch You? - and set up ground rules for consent - the negative experience of completely disrespecting her body and space could have been avoided.

Thank you, Editrix of ChronicBabe.com!

HollaBackBoston is committed to reclaiming public safety and respect for ALL women. And when we hear suggestions like - "JUST ASK" - it resonates loud and clear with our mission.

To think further:

Street harassment, a form of gender discrimination, may stand in stark contrast to disability discrimination for any myriad of reasons, since both terms, "gendered" and "disabled" are laden with historical, social, and ideological contingencies. For some, to be gendered a woman does not mean the same, monolithic experience as to be designated disabled. In the first-world, Euro-centric tradition (codename: "West"), however, equating gender to disability has purportedly been common.

Aristotle defined women as “mutilated males,” and described them in much the same way the disabled are described now, as a “departure from type,” who have “improper form” (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Re-Shaping, Re-Thinking, Re-Defining: Feminist Disability Studies, 2001, p. 7). It is hard to forget Freud's pronouncement of women's castration and our subsequent need to fill such feminine lack with his rendition of the “penis-baby” (See Freud’s Three Essays on Femininity). Then there's menstruation taboos and sickness, and women considered to be overtly and obsessively emotional; due to our wandering uteruses inducing hysteria (according to Garland-Thomson, we are accused of suffering from "either excess or lack," both making us freaks), and we must surely be burned at the stake or hanged for having birth “marks of Satan” or being accused of any abnormal behaviors indicating Witchcraft.

More recently, feminists have controversially claimed we've been literally disfigured and distorted by sexist practices and thinking (i.e. anything from corsets to foot-binding to female genital mutilation to Gender Identity Disorder in the DSM IV), and theoretically crippled by our predilections towards feminine materiality, embodiment, and prosthetic and plastic surgery.

Finally, as Garland-Thomson pinpoints: “Beauty contests, girlie shows, freak shows, telethons, and medical theatre all testify to an appropriating to-be-looked-at-ness that supposedly inheres in the female and/or disabled body. Leering at women and gawking at disabled people are historical practices that constitute the female and disabled personhood throughout the social world” (For full discussion, See Barbara Waxman Fiduccia Papers on Women and Girls With Disabilities, Center for Women Policy Studies, 2001, p. 9).

I don't think we need any more grandiose analogies that further conflate these identities. But, I also refuse to presume that one is first a "woman," and second, "disabled," or vice versa; two neatly separate identity categories, one inevitably less informative, informed by, or subordinated to another.

I will toast the day when gender theory and disability theory become rampantly accessible as intersecting scholarship camps, and one can in fact major in “Feminist Disability Studies” and still feasibly get a job upon graduating. Both the gendering process (never fixed, always in process) and disability, it seems, are still acting as constructivist artists, hard at work on and within the ever-troublesome clay of the body – and yes, we are still dealing with The Body (it’s just disguised in lower case, now, because in spite of the essentialist police, the performative show must go on...yes?). Instead of conceiving of disability as some inherent condition of cursed, marked, abnormal, unpredictable or outcast bodies that are thus deemed inadequate and wrong, what if we inquired: who makes and enforces the rules of what a normative body is supposed to look like and how it is supposed to properly move and behave in the world? If we are to take responsibility for this task - in other words, represent our own bodies as disabled women - how about we conceive of disability and gender as similarly forged by critical discourse out of their tense case-by-case interactions with harassment?

Disability is just beginning to be recognized as a civil rights issue. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 dictates that the public respectfully accommodate the corporeal differences in disabled bodies. These laws indicate that there still seems to be an overarching, threatening, power-hungry, social monster that is persistently at odds with bodies that don't quite seem to fit, relegating them as expendable, abject outcasts in their own neat little social camps, keeping them at arm's length (from each other even) under watchful eye and governance by a pedantic and condescending state.

When we hear "gender" AND "disability", the AND immediately conjures the harrowed list of their oft-discriminated-against corporeal cousins: identity markers indicating age, race, religion, sexual orientation, national status, AND ethnicity. This list is often repeated ad nauseum in activist and academic circles, resulting in all sorts of creatively deviant bodies getting too quickly subsumed and forgotten under the blanket title, "The Oppressed." Consequently, the invisible, imaginary Center is shored up and maintained, the Oppressed huddle in their dark corners, flipping off the majority. The unfortunate anti-climax is that the entire point of being a woman, who happens to have a pluralistic identity that doesn't fit, gets diluted, erased, and subsequently rendered politically ineffective.

I motion that this altogether sucks, because up until a couple months ago, I had no clue that I could even aspire to be such a thing as a Chronic Babe. I am by no means discrediting the exceptional folks who ARE out there, doing feminist disability work. But, disability theory still seems to exist in a nameless void in feminist politics, not to mention pop-culture, and so perhaps we should risk asking tricky questions to continue to “respectfully accommodate” tricky bodies.

Jenni's story opens up imaginings for convergence of gender, disability, and harassment queries, because she illustrates her own unique resistance to the process of being treated according to the restrictive terms of a physically stable, fixed, and homogeneous state of being. Surely, the normative definitions of a massage do not have to include psychological and physical abuse, nor the further stigmatization of those who are not "pliable enough." Her experience testifies to what Garland-Thomson characterizes as the “narrative of overcoming” about disability. This frustrating narrative perpetuates an ironic fabrication that bodies must rigidly fit into overly simplistic, modernist definitions of independence, individuality, and flexibility IN ORDER to conform and be normal.

Garland-Thomson writes, “the fantasy of the malleable body conforms to modernity’s notion that the body is a neutral instrument of the omnipotent individual will, an instrument of agency that is both pliable and invulnerable, that we can control and alter” (pp. 13, 14). Anyone else find the terms “instrument of agency” to be a little suspicious?? Do instruments ever have their own agency? I wager that the problem that needs to be "overcome" is not within Jenni's body, but within the power dynamic governing agency, within the representational system limited to "your body should be this way.”

For, fleshing out the examples of social dilemmas that Jenni may encounter on a daily basis - the dilemmas that attempt to rigidly dictate the mores of disability identity – reveals how she (and other women) can possibly transgress across borders of such representational limitations, in order to negotiate consent and respect on her own terms, for her specific body-in-process.

Although Jenni was not sexually harassed, sexual harassment and violation definitely occurs and can be compounded within disability-related contexts. For example, in the recent award-winning film, Talk To Her, a woman in a coma is raped by her attending male nurse. From another angle, sexual harassment can be conceived as the direct cause of disability, such as significant and long-term forms of mental illness that fall within the federal category of disability, i.e. depression. There are also disturbing cases of those who interpret disability as a legitimizing excuse for sexual assault, such as this one reported in the ABC News: Expert Claims Sex Attack Was Pleasurable For Disabled Daughter.

On the home front, I will continue to intercept verbal missives such as "fragile," "vulnerable," "it's all in your head", "it's not that serious", and "you're oversensitive" -- because these words lace a double edged sword that serves only to invalidate my creatively deviant body.

Still wondering....

How and why have women with disabilities been so harshly ridiculed, intimidated, and abused by circulating stereotypes about fragility and sex?

In the struggle to reconcile gender and disability identifications, what are the terms of consent in your creatively deviant body narrative?

And finally, how have disabled women of all stripes experienced street harassment in Boston?

Written by: Michelle Riblett. Protected by Creative Commons License 2.5. Any copying, redistribution, or replication in any form of this work is prohibited unless permission is obtained from the author.

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