Disability and …not getting wolf-whistled.

This piece is related to the article http://feministing.com/2015/08/25/on-street-harassment-asking-for-it/

I wonder how often and for how many women the fatigue of maintaining an endless imaginary boyfriend or the oppression of being doubly insulted as you are dismissed when reporting an assault or the threat of rape compels them into marriage or any relationship except remaining single even today? Or especially, today? And yet we continue to dismiss the steady attrition of ‘minor’ incidents as ‘nothing much’. As a disabled woman and as a queer writer my academic logic has always been the branch off into obscure byways, of ‘if this is covered and valid then what else has gone unsaid?’ After the obligatory skirmish of the decent man which I explained to my husband that #notallmen is true but diverts from the main issue, of a sense of a right to a woman’s body embedded in our culture, I quickly found that I had little personal experience to draw on from the last decade that wasn’t about the experiences or discussions of women with non-white or non-able bodies and all too soon we moved on to which kinds of bodies are invisible or subject to a very different form of aggression that is rarely masked by false friendliness. Asa disabled woman I have not experienced this kind of approach ever and the absence of the same reaction is not a compliment but a marker of difference and the objectifying of disability. It does however have much to tell us about societal standards of beauty, attractiveness and what makes for mate material.

Since this topic began to pick up pace on social media it has become a source of discussion in our household because neither of us can get away from the fact that it never happens to us in quite this way. Either of us. As a man who would never have dreamed of approaching a woman in this way, my husband is disgusted by and has little understanding of the cultural mindset that compels such behaviour and while I experience hooting, derision and aggression very differently since beginning to use a combination of wheelchair and walking sticks in my mid twenties. I am quite used to disablism, even hate crime but I am very aware that aside from local teenagers issuing rape threats (a sequence of behaviour that began in fact as derogatory disability harassment and progressed to the most intimidating thing they could think of) my experiences of sexual antagonism and ‘street harassment’ are very different to that experienced by most women.

My husband, a quiet and academic man had to be pushed into interactions in pubs and bars and social events with the kind of male encouragement which, looking back makes us both wince with shame that his friends were so chauvinistic and so dismissive of his reticent and less aggressive quality, that they often urged him to approach women whilst proffering as advice the sort of corny and more-or-less inappropriate approaches we deplore as women and rarely find flattering. My husband is quietly disgusted by the chauvinism of men in general though as a man born in 1963 sometimes distressed by being read as holding oppressive privilege he does not exercise and quick to call out a chauvinistic table companion. But he also knows of the many times he does not see interactions that he would be aware of were he female , just as I fail to see those I’d be aware of were I Black. And as a woman and a feminist I’m aware of the theory and the practice of feminism, why we do it, why we need it, why people push against it and deny the need for it and especially I can see the day to day indignities described in this article as if all of an average woman’s life and body were performed for men to comment upon and critique and own.

Of course I’ve encountered similar patterns in public spaces and been the recipient of unwanted advances in social contexts. I’ve had to trot out the ‘fake boyfriend’ or hope like hell that my potential date showed up before I had to openly squash some importunate hopeful with terrible conversation and worse radar for ‘not interested’ signals. However, it has always been an alien experience to be followed, approached hooted at or commented on in the street as a sexual object. I think I’ve finally figured out why. Express sexual interest men may, but they do it where people in general will not hear and in a slightly different way. Assault or verbal abuse may happen yards from my door or yards from my partner but calling out and emphasising sexual interest would be as foolish as if a 1930s white man were to call out after a Black woman: interest must be furtive, covert and disguised because it would be the focus of derision from other able-bodied spectators in its turn were it noticed. Whether the attacker is a teenager or an older male only extreme antagonism, (something akin to the mocking behaviour of heterosexual males around gay men) keeps the necessary distance between the self and the other, the normal and the abnormal. This aggression is separate from sexualised interest in that it serves to reinforce the sexualised interest in other females, to stress his interest in bodily norms (or extremes of fashion) and the male sense of himself as able to capture a desirable female.

The landscape has changed. As I have grown older, as beauty standards have become higher in our culture as a whole, as our antagonism towards disabled people and those on benefits grows and is visible in the media has perhaps made approaches more uncommon. I have friends who relate being followed in the sort of manner other women often are but that this is often in a parody, with greater aggression or with the assumption that the disabled woman does not get regular sex or relationships and will be the willing recipient of a desperate man’s need camouflaged as a favour to a undersexed being. I do not think that the absence of street harassment is because I am not 21 any more (and dare I say it because I do not look under-age any more?) The absence of the seemingly innocuous approach is not about gender but physical desirability. However plain the able bodied woman, the young or middle-aged woman vanishes if she is in a wheelchair. However much we are told or try to teach children about the ability and capability of disabled people, society does not, deep down, see sexuality in disabled people. Simply the gulf is too great between the ‘normal’ and abnormal and the approaches one gets are of kindly female neighbours, elderly gentlemanly neighbours enquiring after my health with a sense that they have been ‘lucky’.

I’m well-aware, even if if they are not that the risk of rape is still there, that sexual assault is still possible but society will read it slightly differently (though even in my youth it would have been seen as something that happened because I was ‘vulnerable’ not because a perpetrator was criminal. The degendered, desexualised nature of the objectification of elderly or disabled women is a separate topic. Or is it? Because the net effect of having a partner/carer always with you (if we lay aside the assumptions that discussion of disability carries as best we can) is to create the very situation implied in the assumption that to have a partner is to be protected, the situation that makes men ask; “Have you got a boyfriend?” a reality. I have become what was once referred to as ‘femme couvert” or she who is protected as property and who has no property except her husband’s and who has husband or father or legal guardian as one in need of protection. I don’t go out alone. Mostly I can’t, often I don’t need to and the abuse I would get would be from both sexes and for very different reasons; most of the time. But I was hardly into my teens before that sense of inviolability, that Utopia of equal safety with men was broken. I wasn’t yet 21 before I realised that rape was a very _real_ possibility and that even other women would stand by and deny it or say things like, “At least it showed he liked you”.

With such a mindset focussing on ‘difference’ rather than femininity these approaches can only occur if a woman is ‘read’ as being outside that group, if an older woman looks ‘young for her age’ ‘too pretty for a wheelchair” is perceived as particularly attractive for her ethnic group. The gap between what the able-bodied middle aged woman is assumed ‘for’ and what the elderly or disabled or Black body is ‘for’ means that we may share a basic experience of being male property with other women but within a narrow and ‘other’ category.

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