Friday, October 16, 2015

Disability, Sexuality, and Defect in New Jersey

Disability, Sexuality and Defect in New Jersey
By Pamela Block

Almost 20 years ago, I was writing about the Glen Ridge, New Jersey sexual assault case, where a young woman was assaulted in 1989 by a group of young men from her high school (Block 1996, Block 2000,, Lefkowitz 1997). Unusual for such a case, the police got involved, some of the young men were actually charged with a crime and even, at least initially, convicted and sentenced. This is very unusual. Usually such cases either never make it to the police or never make it to trial, or never lead to conviction. However, the eugenics era language of the NJ law, which forbids sexual congress between those who are considered “mentally defective” and those who aren’t made it possible for the conviction to happen.

When I learned the Anna Stubblefield case was based in New Jersey, I pretty much understood what the outcome would be. And indeed the conviction happened, and according to the accounts of at least one juror, the decision was based on their perceptions of the improbability of someone who was not considered “defective” finding attraction and love with someone who was. Before even considering and the merits of the two cases, let’s pause to ask why in 1989 a law was still on the books with such eugenics era language as “mental defect” and the fact that this law has not been changed and is still on the books in 2015.

Where the earlier Glen Ridge case seems in retrospect pretty clear cut – a group of young men lured an eager to please disabled woman into one of their basements. However, much of the media coverage was actually along the lines of hyper-sexualizing the girl and the boys’ lawyers criticizing the girl’s parents for not protecting the boys from this sexually out of control girl. The Stubblefield coverage is quite different, and, to me anyway, quite murky. I share many of the concerns expressed by Kerima Cevik.

But I approach it with a great deal of ambivalence because Anna and her mother are long time colleagues who became family friends. I like Anna very much and I would describe her as a sweet, naïve and idealistic person. I wish she hadn’t made some of the choices she made, but I believe that she would never intentionally hurt anyone, especially a loved one. Anna and her mom were especially close with my sister Hope Block and my mother Barbara Kilcup, served on boards, attended conferences, and socialized. D.J. and his family were also present at some of these occasions.

My one interaction with D.J. was just in passing when serving as a discussant on a panel that Anna organized at SDS in 2010. Hope and her then fiancé were also presenting (Kasnitz and Block 2012). I was president of The Society for Disability Studies (SDS) that year, and also attending to a nursing infant, and very focused (as were many of our relatives in attendance) of meeting Hope’s new fiancé (Block et al. 2012).  So I was pretty distracted and aside from the time of the panel, was busy with the baby and SDS business, and did not spend time with any of them. I wish I had. I believe they all went to a pool party, and mom invited me, but I laughed at the idea of having time for such a thing. Mom died in early 2013, sorely missed, and taking whatever knowledge and perspectives she had on the events surrounding the case with her.

Hope has expressed very strong views about this case. Some people would disallow Hope’s perspective, because she expressed it using facilitated communication. Communication through FC, for my sister Hope anyway, is struggle. Especially at the beginning, as she started the technique over 20 years ago, and before iPads, typing was very difficult. When she was typing on a computer I could see her shake, and sweat, and the tears running down her face with the effort of it. I witnessed her fall apart alongside a failed super-expensive portable device that she was counting on for a public presentation during the Society for Disability Studies session in 2010, and many people tried to help us. It is easier now with iPads, but still not easy. It is hard-earned and precious.

Knowing of this struggle, so important to Hope's own way of being and interacting in the world, it is very hard to see FC go on trial again and again and again. It is like Hope goes on trial too, each time. And to see the whole thing bracketed by such sordid imaginings, well that is also nothing new. Once someone wrote an editorial asserting that, by facilitating not just communication but a way for Hope and her then-fiancé to be together in intimacy, that we, her family and staff, were facilitating rape. I am disgusted by such two-dimensional understandings of how consent works and how communication works.

What is this fetishism of the spoken and written word? You will learn in any Anthro 101 class that words are only a small part of how we get our information and communicate with each other. Admittedly though, I do it too. I keep pushing Hope for more words when she makes it very clear that using words to get her needs across is just one way, and usually not her preferred way. She starts typing sessions, at least when I ask her to type, by complaining, shaking her head, vocalizing in pissed off tones, before finally typing about what a bitch I am for insisting she type. But then she gets into a groove and she is off and typing, and those precious words help me understand how best I can help her. For example, not so long ago, she told me to butt out and remember that I'm not her guardian.

Hope, when interviewed about the court case, expressed anger and disappointment at both Anna and D.J. In a way that disturbingly mirrored the New Jersey law rationale, she asserted it was wrong for disabled and nondisabled people to get involved. And in another inversion of the usual accounts of the case, she also felt that D.J. was taking advantage of Anna, seeing his opportunity for sexual experience and pressuring Anna to move forward with it. I don’t agree with Hope’s views on intimacy between disabled and nondisabled people and I am not sure what to think of her interpretation of Anna and D.J.’s relationship. But she shared it with a New York Times magazine reporter and I think it is important to share here too, because it is as valid as any other interpretation of the events that took place, and it shows just how many ways those events can be interpreted.

I don’t think there is a good outcome to be had from this recent court case, but maybe we could work to get that awful eugenics era “mental defect” language taken out of New Jersey law? Is the best way to protect vulnerable people to take away their humanity and citizenship? In 2015, I would hope not.

Note: Some sections of this blog post were posted previously on the Society for Disability Studies listserv and my facebook page.

For more information on this court case: See the blog posts by Emily Brooks, Cara Leibowitz, Julie Maurie, and others.

Block, P.L. (1996) Frankenstein moves to Glen Ridge: Sexual violence and 'mental defect.'  Infanto - Revista de Neuropsiquiatria da Infância e Adolescência 4(2):21-5.

Block, P. (2000). Sexuality, Fertility and Danger: Twentieth Century Images of Women with Cognitive Disabilities. Sexuality and Disability 18(4): 239-54.

Block, P., Shuttleworth, R. Pratt, J., Block, H., Rammler, L. (2012) Disability, Sexuality and Intimacy. IN Politics of Occupation-Centered Practice: Reflections on Occupational Engagement Across Cultures. (Eds. Pollard, N., Sakellariou, D.). Oxford, England: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone. 

Cevick, Kerima (2015) “No New Jersey vs. Stubblefield is not Just a Case of Consent.”

Kasnitz, D. & Block P. (2012) Participation, Time, Effort, and Speech Disability Justice. IN Politics of Occupation-Centered Practice: Reflections on Occupational Engagement Across Cultures. (Eds. Pollard, N., Sakellariou, D.). Oxford, England: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone.

Lefkowitz, Bernard (1997). Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wichart, Bill “Juror explains why professor was convicted of sexually assaulting disabled man”


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Yes! Thanks for commenting. Devva.

    2. Here is Devva's comment reposted, with privacy concerns addressed:

      Thanks for Hope's perspective, and yours. You bring up new points. Hope's criticism comes from knowing them. She ascribes agency to D.J. and sees him as an actor who used his agency when he could.

      All along I've said that we need not as individuals condone Anna and D.J.'s affair, but they, plural, had an affair.

      I think we also need to interrogate guardianship and contest the scientific validity of the "mental age" hypothesis.

      Devva Kasnitz

  2. This blog has been updated with more citations added, some typos fixed, and links to other blogs that discuss the court case.

  3. In Alabama (the longest and most convoluted constitution of any state or gov't entity in the world, the relatively new Indian nation—Gandhi—a distant second for sheer length) we stripped out all the offensive and racist language from constitution/state law, "moron," "idiots," "mental defective," and worse.

    The tiny, rickety disability community we have saw this as a victory but I was silently furious. There was no examination of the worst eugenicist laws, no exploration of the bulk of the 19th century constitution that is illegal now, just word replacement...

  4. All along I've said that we need not as individuals condone Anna and DJ's affair, but they, plural, had an affair.

    I think we also need to interrogate guardianship and contest the scientific validity of the "mental age" hypothesis.

    Devva Kasnitz

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