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Sexual Abuse and Disability

The erasure of victims with disabilities.

By David Perry


(Photo: Jobs For Felons/Flickr)

Last December, Nicholas Fifield, then 17, reportedly made a date to take an 18-year-old woman to the movies. Instead, he drove her to his house and allegedly assaulted her. She reported the details, he was arrested, and, in mid-August of this year, entered an “Alford plea,” in which he doesn’t admit guilt, but agrees the prosecutor has enough evidence to convict. He’s not expected to serve any jail time.

So far, this is a sadly normal case for sexual assault in America, at least for the tiny sliver of such cases that result in any kind of criminal action. Most American sexual abuse goes unreported, and most of those abusers who get reported go unpunished. Those that are punished tend to receive light or limited sentences.

The details, though, reveal a number ways in which this assault embodies some of the most dangerous aspects of American abuse culture: the lack of consequences for sexual predators and the repeated victimization and dehumanization of victims. First, Fifield turns out to be a high school tennis star in the Des Moines, Iowa, area. His dad is the team’s coach, and media coverage of the case has highlighted Fifield’s athletic prowess and shared glamour shots of him on a tennis court. He was suspended for just one game at the start of the season and seems poised to continue his sports career without further consequences. Second, the victim — whom I’ll refer to as Jane Doe — is disabled. So, even as the reporting humanizes Fifield by presenting a nuanced (sometimes generous) picture of the star athlete gone wrong, Doe has been dehumanized, reduced to a collection of diagnoses, and cast into a system primed to remove sexual autonomy from people with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD). Instead of teaching people with IDD about consent and working to create a safe community where they can live an integrated life, too many guardians and group homes instead seek to closet disabled victims or potential victims away from the rest of society, particularly when it comes to romance and a healthy sex life.

Sports and Sexual Abuse

Abusers who happen to be involved in athletics have made news recently for being treated leniently by the courts. David Becker attacked two unconscious classmates at a party, but was given probation. His lawyer stressed Becker’s athletic prowess as evidence of a bright future that jail-time might derail. More famously, last week, Brock Turner, the Stanford abuser, got out of jail, after serving only three months. One of the many issues his case raised was the reluctance of the Santa Clara sheriff’s department to release Turner’s mugshot, and the media’s persistent use of Turner’s wholesome-looking swimming photographs (either in a swim-suit or a coat and tie) in coverage of his crime.

As many observers have noted in the wake of Brock Turner’s release, mandatory minimum prison sentences are not the solution.

Nearly everystorythat I can find on Fifield uses a tennis photo, the one exception being a Mic piece critical of the overuse of these kinds of shots (the Mic article merely shows a tennis ball on the line). The Daily Mail, which likes to write up lurid cases of American violence, printed a close-up of Fifield’s smiling face at the top, then a full body shot of him crouching by a tennis net in his warm-up jacket, looking poised and comfortable. In many cases, the papers are operating under extenuating circumstances, as the Des Moines Register explains in a caption to their sports action-shot: “West Des Moines Valley senior Nicholas Fifield lifts the ball over the net during the Class 2A Iowa high school state tennis tournament on Friday, May 28, 2016, at Veteran’s Memorial Tennis Center in Cedar Rapids. Authorities have refused to provide The Des Moines Register with a booking photo from Fifield’s arrest on a felony sex abuse charge, saying the public release of such photos of juveniles is forbidden by Iowa law.”

But why print the pictures at all, then? Why not just use a tennis ball — or perhaps just focus on the crime, rather than the accused’s irrelevant athletic prowess?

I asked Jessica Luther, author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct, about the case and the tenor of the reporting. Luther describes the imagery from the Daily Mail as “a picture that looks like something from the 1970s. It’s weird and nostalgic.” Spending time reading about this guy’s sports abilities with an action shot “just roils me,” Luther says. “[Journalists] are supposed to just report everything, but it’s very hard for me to look at that and not see that leading toward judgment later. We’re being led somewhere with that set-up. That’s something that mugshots do do; place [alleged criminals] in the context of the violence, versus whatever else we have.” If a newspaper is going to print a picture of an alleged abuser at all, it needs to be a mugshot — especially, as Luther points out, given the contrast between the reporting we get on the victim versus the perpetrator. Luther says that, when we get a “nuanced, layered, picture of the possible perpetrator of this violence,” set against an anonymous woman who reported the attack, that can have a direct impact on the result of the ensuing criminal proceedings.

Sexual Autonomy and Disability

Luther’s concerns about erasure of victims is doubly true in this case, thanks to Doe’s disabilities. We have received almost no information about her, other than that she lived in a group home and that her parents and the home’s staff had given Fifield permission to take her out to a movie, along with a long list of diagnoses from the criminal complaint. In the complaint, before briefly describing the assault, the victim is described as having “a clinical diagnosis of mildly mentally defectiveness [sic], Autism, Alcohol/Drug related Birth Defect Syndrome, post-traumatic stress, dissociative identity disorder, major depressive disorder with brief reactive psychotic episodes, and a receptive-expressive language disorder.” The newspapers all quote that description, but without reflecting on the way it reduces Doe to a collection of medical terms, rather than fleshing her out as a person. This kind of reporting embodies the “medical model” of disability, in which medical conditions define the limits of disabled identity, rather than looking at the whole people and how to improve their possibilities for integrated life in diverse communities. These shield laws, in which all identifying details are kept out of the paper, are intended to protect victims, but Luther notes that this, too, is a function of our culture, in which victims have to be concealed to protect them from stigma and discrimination.

When it comes to disabled victims, discrimination may happen regardless of whether their identities are kept hidden. Fifield was charged with “Sexual Assault in the Third Degree” under a clause in which “The other person is suffering from a mental defect or incapacity which precludes giving consent.” These laws are important. Not only are people with IDD at vastly higher risk of sexual abuse than others, but they are often at risk of repeated victimization owing to their vulnerability. As a result of these terrible numbers, though, it’s become far too easy to restrict the sexual autonomy of people with disabilities.

According to police reports and the complaint, Jane Doe met Fifield on a dating site. When he assaulted her, she repeatedly said no. Those are our only two details, but voluntarily going on a dating site plus refusing to engage in sexual activity sounds to me like a woman fully capable of consent, but who did not consent on this occasion. Perhaps Polk County Attorney John Sarcone invoked Iowa criminal statute 709.4.2.a (the incapable of consent code) in order to heighten the odds of conviction or a plea. But Sarcone responded to the Alford plea by approving of probation only, saying: “We are trying to resolve it in a way that’s good for all. Prison would not do this kid any good.” That’s not the quote of a prosecutor pursuing maximum criminal penalties. Instead, it’s mostly likely he just felt it was the correct charge. Sarcone did not respond to requests for comment.

I spoke to Natalie Chin, director of the Disability and Civil Rights Clinic at Brooklyn Law School. Chin couldn’t comment on the specifics of the Fifield case, but she expressed concern about the widespread pattern of denying sexual agency to people with intellectual disabilities in a misguided attempt to stop sexual abuse. Abuse, she told me, is a real issue, but insists: “There is no correlation between limiting the sexual rights of persons with intellectual disabilities and a decrease in sexual exploitation and abuse. In fact, the opposite has proven true.”

Chin has worked on cases where group homes have forced any residents who express interest in sex, marriage, or families into “sexual consent assessments.” Psychologists can then use assessments administered by the group home (rather than an independent agency) to simply declare individuals incapable of consent, and forbid them from being alone with any actual or potential sexual partner of the relevant gender.

This case is just one of many in which group homes attempt to “shield themselves from any liability by deeming a person non-consenting” — as Chin described it — rather than providing comprehensive sexual education to their residents, and training to their staff. Given the details of the Iowa case, I worry about Jane Doe’s continued rights to go on dating sites, to pursue healthy sexual relationships, and to live an independent and full life.

As many observers have noted in the wake of Turner’s release, mandatory minimum prison sentences are not the solution. Mandatory minimums are always bad policy if only because they fall most heavily on the marginalized, rather than establishing a baseline of equal justice for all. Instead, what we need now are protections for victims and consequences for abusers. The Fifield case reveals both the complexity and necessity of achieving both those ends. Jane Doe, whoever she is, did not deserve to be assaulted. Now she deserves more than to be reduced to a bundle of diagnoses, to have her personhood erased, and likely to suffer threats to her future autonomy. Whether Fifield is in jail or not, justice for Jane Doe requires more.

*Update — September 29, 2016: This article has been updated throughout to better reflect the language and intentions of Iowa Code Section 709.1.