Tensions are running high around the case of Anna Stubblefield, the Rutgers-Newark philosophy professor convicted of sexually assaulting a disabled man. This post is a – no doubt inadequate – attempt to explain some of the complexities involved, and also an attempt to explain why those of us (like me) who think there’s very damning evidence that Stubblefield committed sexual assault and should absolutely go to jail nevertheless find so many of the issues here tricky and complicated, and find the whole thing almost unbearably sad.
- ‘Mental age’ – The subject of assigning ‘mental age’ to cognitively disabled adults is deeply controversial within the disability rights community. This blog post gives a good outline of the main points of contention. This post gives a first-person narrative of why the idea of ‘mental age’ can be so offensive, and links the writings of various non-verbal autistic persons who, prior to having access to the technology which has allowed them to express themselves, were thought to have the ‘mental age’ of children. ‘Mental age’ is simply meant to assess specific aspects of cognitive function, but too often when we say that someone, e.g., ‘has a mental age of 13’ we assume that they are basically a permanent 13-year-old. This kind of slide has shown up over and over again in the reporting on the Stubblefield case.
- Communication and cognitive disability – There are many very sad cases of cognitively disabled people being denied access to the communication methods and communicative technology they need. And this lack of access has contributed to incorrect assumptions of incompetence and lack of awareness, especially for autistic people (see above). So in the disability community there’s both skepticism about mental age assessment and a deep desire for better communicative technologies.
- Facilitated communication – Enter facilitated communication, which is purported to be a method of communication for cognitively disabled persons whereby they can communicate with others via the help of a ‘facilitator’ who helps them to point to letters or symbols on a keyboard or other communication device. And it would be wonderful if this method of communication works. But the overwhelming scientific consensus is that it doesn’t (at all). And there’s also substantial evidence that the facilitator influences the result, sometimes to terrible consequences.
- Sexual abuse and cognitive disability – Disabled people are, in general, very vulnerable to sexual abuse, and evidence suggests that cognitively disabled people are especially vulnerable. Abuse often comes from caregivers or those with assistive roles in the person’s life.
- Sexual desire and cognitive disability – On the flip side, we tend to forget that adults with cognitive disability very often have sexual needs and urges. The language of ‘mental age’ no doubt contributes to this. A 10-year-old doesn’t have sexual needs. An adult with a so-called ‘mental age of 10’ certainly can.
- Consent and cognitive disability – Meaningful consent is a necessary condition of non-abusive sex. But how on earth do we determine meaningful consent in the case of cognitive disability? This is an incredibly difficult issue, with the twin specters of sexual abuse and infantilization looming on either side. And it’s an issue that, personally, I have no idea how to think about.
I don’t believe Anna Stubblefield had meaningful consent – I don’t think there’s any way facilitated communication could have provided her with meaningful consent. And Anna Stubblefield worked with DJ in a professional capacity, as his communicator. That’s enough for me to think that what she did was horrifically abusive, whatever her intentions or beliefs may have been. And I also think that her gender, her victim’s gender, and her self-identification as a feminist are coloring many people’s reaction to the case. (If she was a man and DJ was a woman, I think the reaction would be very different.) But such an ugly coalescence of all these incredibly fraught, painful issues is also just incredibly sad.