[cw: rape apologia. This will probably make more sense if you read this first.]
I don’t have any particular opinion on Shia LaBeouf. I don’t particularly like him or dislike him. I really haven’t given him much thought. Based on a quick internet search, he seems, like many actor-types, to be overly self-involved and, like many other abled people, to maybe have issues with substance abuse and aggression/dickbaggery. But that impression has nothing to do with whether or not we should or should not believe he was raped.
After the actor claimed, in an interview, that he was raped by a woman during his February performance art piece #IAMSORRY, Lindy West wrote, for the Guardian, about her disappointment at “expressions of doubt, scorn and outright rage from people across the ideological spectrum – some fellow disability rights advocates included.” She seems to believe that many of these reactions were due to his unlikeability and his history of strange behaviour. West goes on to say:
A victim doesn’t have to be relatable or reliable or likable or ‘normal’ – or even a good person – for you to believe them. You can be utterly baffled by someone’s every move and still take their victimization seriously. LaBeouf’s bizarre behaviour and his sexual violation are in no way mutually exclusive, nor are the latter and his ability. ‘He was asking for it.’ ‘Why didn’t he fight back?’ ‘Why didn’t he say ‘no’?’ ‘He must have wanted it.’ ‘He seems crazy.’ These are flat-out unacceptable things to say to a person of any ability status. In a culture where abled victimhood is stigmatized as weak and overemotional (toxic ability is, above all, an extension of disableism), believing abled victims isn’t oppositional to disability rights, it is a disability rights imperative.
But to say that “believing abled victims” is a “disability rights imperative” isn’t actually true. As some disability rights writers have pointed out, this kind of analysis fails to understand or acknowledge what disability rights actually does. Disability rights explicitly and necessarily is about understanding the fact that, and the way in which, abled people, as a class, oppress disabled people, as a class. There is no equivalency in rape because abled and disabled people do not share similar experiences of ableist oppression… because abled people do not, in fact, experience oppression because of their ability status — disabled people do.
West argues that LaBeouf’s ability status is irrelevant to his victimization and the narrative surrounding victimization which is also decidedly false. Of course the way we perceive and discuss victimization and sexual assault is related to disability— victimization and sexual assault are related to disability.
This is not to say that abled people cannot be raped — certainly they can and do experience sexual assault (generally at the hands of other abled people). At the same time, it isn’t clear what exactly happened to LaBeouf and whether or not it constitutes “rape.” As Sarah Ditum wrote, for New Statesman, “Rape is generally understood as sex that the victim resists (not least under English law). Disability rights advocates have labored for decades to point out that disabled people can’t be held to the same standards of resistance that abled people are. But LaBeouf could have resisted. Why didn’t he?”
LaBeouf doesn’t say he was restrained, threatened or otherwise placed in a disabled position by this woman. He says, “One woman who came with her boyfriend, who was outside the door when this happened, whipped my legs for ten minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me…” For all we know, he just sat still because he didn’t want to ruin his performance art project.
What does that mean? What happened? We don’t really know… Why are we obligated — specifically as disability rights advocates — to believe him point-blank? As Ditum notes, the point of believing disabled victims is to right a long history of wrongs — because disabled people have long been ignored or blamed or painted as crazy when they speak out about their experiences of abuse and assault.
…there is no extended cultural history of disbelieving abled people in any case: ‘believing them’ simply means granting the default authority to abled words, in a situation where it is impossible to know what they signify. If ‘I believe them’ has become totally detached from the analysis of abled violence and disabled oppression, then it has also become meaningless.
A blogger at Root Veg writes:
This difference underpins a disability analysis of rape. It is how rape – aka penetration the victim resists – is used by abled people to control the free movement and behavior of disabled people in every single society on earth. The converse scenario where disabled people oppress abled people as a group via rape has literally never happened, and it never could. Can we envisage a world where abled people are given drugs that make them quiet so they can’t report their abuse? Do we think a society has ever existed where abled people have to choose between staying with their caregiver-abuser and losing the ability to leave the house, eat a meal, take a piss? If not, why not? Do we think a disabled person who is raped during a meltdown and was unable to communicate their lack of consent technically ‘raped their partner too?’ If not, why not? We lack explanatory answers to any of these questions if we genuinely entertain the position that the power of an abled person and the vulnerability of a disabled person are equivalent. This ability-based power differential bleeds into all relations between abled and disabled people, and it is the very foundation of disabled people’s oppression. This is why, when the article asks ‘would we ask the same questions of a disabled person?’ the answer is a very obvious ‘no.’ Because disabled people are not, in fact, the same as abled people. To pretend otherwise elides reality and functions to the detriment of disabled people.
West and others who say that we must believe LaBeouf, because “disability rights,” are pretending as though abled and disabled people are equal in this world — that we can simply reverse things like abuse, rape, institutionalization, and lack of accommodation. But we can’t. Abuse, rape, institutionalization, and lack of accommodation are not ability-neutral. Abled people simply can’t be institutionalized in the same way disabled people are because abled people are in a position of power in our society. Abled people experience a three-day stay at the hospital with no complaints worse than bad food; disabled people experience months or years of powerlessness, lack of autonomy, other people making decisions for them ‘for their own good’, and impoverished care. This is also why there is no such thing as reverse ableism. It is simply not possible to be ableist “against an abled person” because there is no history of or context for such a thing. Ableism doesn’t just happen on an individual basis — it is systemic, as is abled violence against disabled people.
We believe disabled people because, well, sadly most disabled people do experience abuse, rape, and harassment. Their abusers are, for the most part, abled people. This is because we live in an ableist society. Not because of some fluke. Not because people, in general, are awful and violent and because disabled people just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, over and over again. We also believe disabled people because there is nothing to be gained from lying about such things. A disabled person who talks about their abuse is met with disbelief that someone who is so kind and self-sacrificial as to interact with a disabled person could possibly have committed abuse. Doctors who see disabled people get abused don’t bother to report the acts of abuse and neglect. Throughout history, abled voices have been represented and viewed as voices of authority — we call abled people “dumb”, “stupid”, or “crazy” when we disagree, as if being disabled is proof that your viewpoint is incorrect.
So my arguments here have nothing to do with liking or not liking, trusting, or not trusting LaBeouf. They have to do with my understanding of ability-based violence and oppression, which I have developed through my understanding of disability rights. Which means that, as disability rights advocates, we are not obligated to believe abled people, point-blank — we are obligated to understand the context and dynamics of abuse and sexual assault as attached to ability-based power imbalances and to understand that, in an ableist society, abled people have, in fact, typically been the ones who are believed — not disabled people.
Maybe LaBeouf was actually raped, I don’t know. What I do know is that he wasn’t socialized his whole life that his pain and his needs were an unreasonable burden on those around him; that if he was in the company of people who make him uncomfortable, he could not easily choose to move elsewhere; to believe that abled people always have his best interests at heart, even if they want to cause him pain or kill him; that someone choosing to share their life with him is a disadvantage to them; and that he must fear institutionalization, bullying, and violence from abled people at all times. He didn’t learn that his life doesn’t matter, nor was he insulted, dehumanized and assaulted as a child, while adults stood by and told him it was his fault for not being normal enough. Certainly he hasn’t watched communities and families and friends and employers turn on abled people who talk about being abused by their disabled spouses. He hasn’t watched abled people be humiliated, harassed, verbally abused, or threatened because they came out publicly against a powerful disabled person who sexually abused them.
Because this doesn’t happen.
There is no global epidemic of disabled children killing their parents or disabled people raping their caregivers. Abled people don’t rely on their abusers for toileting or food. Abled people don’t have painkillers to be hidden, TTY phones to be sabotaged, or life-threatening conditions that can be exacerbated by yelling. Abled people’s victimhood isn’t handled through social service agencies, as if violence is a crime except when a disabled person is the victim. Disabled people don’t bathe abled people and use this as a plausibly deniable setup for sexual assault. Abled people aren’t hit or raped by their partners and then told that it’s their own fault, because caring for a disabled person is very stressful. There is no industry wherein disabled people are coercing abled people into institutions where adults can’t microwave a burrito at 3 AM without being punished.
These are the facts. I know these things to be true because this reality is impossible to ignore if you pay any attention to media at all, because I am a disabled person and this is my life, and because I am a disability rights advocate and I understand the devastating impact ableism has on disabled people everywhere. And that is why, as a disability rights advocate, I believe disabled people.