Gender-based violence (GBV) and its relationship to disability is not often talked about in GBV prevention efforts. Though there has been a turn towards incorporating Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality into anti-GBV organizing, even within conversations about how people can be multiply oppressed based on various aspects of their identity (e.g. race, gender), disability is often marginalized. This looks like, for example, not having accessible shelters and emergency services; or campus sex education/GBV prevention education that ignores neurodiverse youths’ experiences around sex and harm. Further marginalized in conversations about disability and sexual violence is the fact that having PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or being traumatized can in itself be a disability. In my research at the University of Toronto, I’ve explored how youth trauma survivors struggle with what can be thought of as sexual access. The psychosocial impacts of trauma, such as dissociation, challenges with assertiveness, hypersexuality, and substance use, can complicate survivors’ ability to access sex that feels safe, mutual, and pleasurable in the aftermath of trauma. In other words, trauma can impair survivors’ abilities to fully participate in sex. ‘Disability justice’ is a framework that can help us understand survivors’ sexual access needs, or their need for accommodations by sexual partners in order to overcome barriers to mutual, non-harmful sex.
What is Disability Justice?
Disability justice was developed in the mid-2000s by the Disability Justice Collective, a group of racialized and queer and trans people. Disability justice is a framework for building a more just world that examines disability and ableism and the ways that this oppression intersects with other forms of oppression (e.g. colonialism, incarceration). It’s a framework that explicitly recognizes that movements for a more just world require building solidarity across different movements for social change. Disability justice is not a simple solution, and it’s complex, ongoing, and hard work (Mingus 2010; Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha 2018).
Sins Invalid, a North American disability collective led by disabled, queer and trans people of colour, articulate 10 principles of disability justice: intersectionality; leadership of those most impacted; anti-capitalist politic; cross-movement solidarity; sustainability; commitment to cross-disability solidarity; interdependence; collective access; and collective liberation (for descriptions see Berne et al. 2018 here). I don’t have space to discuss all of the principles in relation to campus GBV prevention, but I’ll use the example of consent education and show how two principles, interdependence and collective access, can be used in programming to help address survivors’ sexual access needs.
First, it’s important to note that disabled people are often positioned as ‘problems’ in society (i.e. they are a burden to the state because of the resources they need to survive, such as assisted technology or therapeutic services). A disability justice approach begins from the understanding that disability is not a problem: our society’s inability to accommodate and celebrate different abilities is oppressive. Needing a ramp to access a building is not a problem. Rather, the problem is that our society is designed around the ableist assumption that everyone can walk up stairs.
Consent education makes assumptions about people’s capacities that position survivors’ struggles with consent as a ‘problem.’ For example, it’s assumed in consent education that saying “yes” can or always will be enthusiastic, which may guilt survivors who, understandably, may have a hard time enjoying sex after sexual assault. Further, for survivors, sometimes consent isn’t as simple as “Yes” or “No” and they can find themselves in a grey area. Survivors aren’t the problem, they just require more care than is currently imaginable in much consent education and society more broadly.
Using ‘Interdependence’ and ‘Collective Access’ for Better Consent Education
Western colonialism perpetuates the idea that we’re all in competition and have to protect ourselves from others’ self-interest. This is reflected in the way consent is taught as a transaction meant to protect someone from someone else. Instead of subscribing to this approach, we can honour our interdependence on one another, or the idea that being cared for and caring for others is essential to our wellbeing and survival. What shape might consent education take if it began from the understanding that we need a more tender, connected, and caring society to dismantle GBV? It may look like including discussion of how trauma survivors who grew up being abused by parental figures may really struggle to understand and express their needs. It might include acknowledgment that the survivors’ partner needs to check in with them frequently and allow them time to reflect on how they’re feeling.
Trauma is often seen as a wound, as a deficit, and as a problem to be cured. I see trauma as possibility, as the relational possibility of operating from a place of knowing we need each other and acting like we need one another (also see Rakes 2019).
Collective access is the idea that, even though the state may not recognize or respect the needs of disabled people, these needs are valid and are not beyond being met through community care. Berne et al. (2018) define collective access as a space where: “We can share responsibility for our access needs, we can ask that our needs be met without compromising our integrity, we can balance autonomy while being in community, we can be unafraid of our vulnerabilities knowing our strengths are respected” (229). For the survivor who can’t determine their sexual needs because they’re dissociated, for instance, ‘collective access’ reminds us that it’s not just an individual’s burden but rather a community responsibility to ensure safety and non-harm in sexual scenarios. Consent education might (carefully) teach people to recognize signs of dissociation in others or skills to reduce the severity of dissociation to promote collective care and support survivors in accessing sex that feels mutual and non-harmful.
Disability justice is about dreaming of liberatory futures: how else can we mobilize consent education to build deeply caring, connected communities so that we can create more collective access to mutual, non-harmful, pleasurable sex?
Berne, P., Levins Morales, A., Langstaff, D., and Sins Invalid. “Ten Principles of Disability Justice.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 46.1-2 (2018): 227-230.
Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, L. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.
Mingus, M. “Reflections on an Opening: Disability Justice and Creating Collective Access in Detroit.” Leaving Evidence. August 23, 2010. Web.
Rakes, H. “Crip Feminist Trauma Studies in Jessica Jones and Beyond.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 13.1 (2019): 75-91.
Suggested Citation: Wright, Jessica. (2021, November). Building Consent Culture and Collective Care Through the Principles of Disability Justice. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/building-consent-culture.