NewYorkUniversity
LawReview
Current Issue

Volume 93, Number 3

June 2018

Sexual Consent and Disability

Jasmine E. Harris

Our nation is engaged in deep debate over sexual consent. But to date the discussion has overlooked sexual consent’s implications for a key demographic: people with mental disabilities, for whom the reported incidence of sexual violence is three times that of the nondisabled population. Even as popular debate overlooks the question of sexual consent for those with disabilities, contemporary legal scholars critique governmental overregulation of this area, arguing that it diminishes the agency and dignity of people with disabilities. Yet in defending their position, these scholars rely on empirical data from over twenty years ago, when disability and sexual assault laws and social norms looked quite different than those of today.

Current scholarly discussions about sexual consent and mental disability suffer from an outdated empirical baseline that masks critical information about the profile and experience of sexual violence. This Article creates a new empirical baseline for modern scholarship on sexual assault and disability. Based on an original survey of all fifty states and jurisprudence from the past twenty years of state sexual assault and rape appeals where the victim has a mental disability, this Article updates and critiques four major claims about sexual consent and disability in the current literature. First, through a review of statutes across the country, it complicates the traditional notion that statutes are unduly vague in their definition of disability, and as a result, either over- or under-emphasize disability. The author advances a new organizing taxonomy for sexual assault statutes addressing consent for people with mental disabilities. Second, this dataset upends the prevailing claim by legal scholars that courts overemphasize standardized evidence such as intelligence quotient (IQ) or mental age when judging a person’s functional capacity to consent to sex. Instead, this Article shows that courts frequently look at adaptive abilities to augment standardized evidence but, in doing so, overvalue certain kinds of adaptive evidence that have low probative value, to the detriment of persons with mental disabilities. Third, legislators and legal scholars focus on people in large institutional settings in their critiques of overregulation, but this new data shows that people in community-based settings are more often the complainants in rape and sexual assault cases. This raises important questions about the types of relationships the state regulates (formal versus informal care relationships), the location of these relationships (community versus institutional settings), and issues of class that intersect with disability and sexual regulation. By not addressing the right issues and contexts, current law leaves people with mental disabilities simultaneously more susceptible to sexual violence and less empowered to exercise sexual agency. Finally, the Article more deeply examines the traditional assumption that people with disabilities rarely have access to testify by considering a rarely-mentioned risk: whether testimony by people with disabilities skews capacity determinations because factfinders cannot see beyond the existence of the disability—a phenomenon which the author terms “the aesthetics of disability.” This Article calls upon scholars, courts, and policymakers to consider difficult questions of regulating sexual consent in ways that are consistent with the current profile and experience of sexual violence for people with mental disabilities reflected in this study.