My LGBT organization that I work for is going to be the one of the beneficiaries of an event put on by the local fetish community. Now, we’re a sex-positive organization, and I’m a sex-positive person, so on the surface, I think it’s a great idea. My org will be there doing HIV testing, and my understanding is that the event brings down $15-20k every year for its beneficiaries. Right now, we’re in a funding bind because our state is cutting our funding, so every penny coming in counts.
My first thought was that it sounded like a cool event. Then I saw the postcards advertising the event. The entertainment for the night is ‘Medical Mayhem’ and will include a “fetish Asylum”. The only person pictured on the card is a young woman wearing what appears to be a straight jacket.
Oh. My. God.
As a member of the disability community and as a person of Jewish descent from Lithuania and Ukraine*, I can’t help but compare this to fetishizing the Holocaust. Asylums were places where my people were abused horrifically. If you don’t believe me, look up the Rivera report on Willowbrook or the documentary filmed at Pennhurst. You will see children tied down to beds, trapped in cages, in their own filth – people who have had their motion severely restricted for so long that they look like Holocaust survivors with their lack of flesh, but pasty from being indoors all the time.
Even today, we have trouble with institutions for mental illness. Recently, there have been pushes to make co-ed floors, because men do better in co-ed floors. What they are finding is that women are victimized in these co-ed floors, sometimes by the men, sometimes by their carers.
We know that people in institutions are often physically, mentally, and sexually abused. It’s a systemic problem, when you put people in charge of those who are trapped and de-valued by society. That’s not to say that all people who work in institutions are monsters – there are people there who care deeply about their charges and do their jobs to the best of their ability. But there are also women like the one in my grandmother’s care home – she would pretend, with these elderly people with dementia and other mental problems, that she was going to hit them in the face, and stop an inch or two from actually making contact. We reported her several times, and yet she was still there, still acting that way.
We know that women who are severely incapacitated are abused sexually in their placements. A 1994 article noted that some 40% of developmentally disabled women referred to a particular medical clinic showed signs of sexual assault/sexual abuse.**
That’s not to say that institutions don’t help people. On the whole, the nursing home my grandmother was in was a good place. I know people who’ve chosen to go inpatient for mental health reasons and have probably had their lives saved by institutions.
But fetishizing places that for decades were the warehouses to hide people with disabilities, where terrible abuses happened, where we left people to rot, where we paid less to take care of human beings than we gave the local zoo to take care of animals?*** Hell, even if you were just fetishizing modern institutions, you’re talking about places we KNOW women are victimized at higher rates than ‘outside’.
I’m pretty completely disgusted.
I spoke to our head of fundraising, and after a long talk, he finally got why it was offensive. I’ll admit, the holocaust comparison didn’t come to my head immediately, so I compared it to fetishizing slavery, which was a faux pas. But damn it, he didn’t get why this was so offensive and thought that it was that I was hurt – no, no, it’s that they are making light of something that has hurt my people. Not just me, but decades worth of people like me – people with disabilities, people with mental illness. Any time you fetishize medical scenarios it’s a bit problematic because of how people with disabilities are treated by the medical world, but when you start dealing with institutions…well, that’s when things get really ugly, really offensive, really horrific.
I’m mad that this showed up in my inbox. I’m mad that an organization I believe in and work for is promoting this event and benefiting from it. I’m mad that this event is happening at all.
But most of all, I’m mad that someone is making light of a place where people were and continue to be abused.
* As I understand it, we personally lost family. I do not know what happened to our family in the Ukraine, but in Lithuania, family stories have it that everyone who did not immigrate to the US before the start of WWII was killed. That is to say, of my particular branch of the family whose name I bear, only the descendants of my great-great-grandparents survived.
** Keels et all, Family views on sterilization for their mentally retarded children, Journal of Reproductive Medicine, 1994.
***From the 1968 report by Baldini about Pennhurst entitled ‘Suffer the little children’