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Whispers on Social Media: Online Sexual Harassment in Spaces for People with Dwarfism

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Lockdown, as a result of the global pandemic, has not changed much for me, except to make me reflect on my own behaviours. Non-disabled people protesting about lockdown restrictions, do not know how privileged they are. After lockdown they can go back to normal, but this is my normal. For a long time I have restricted when and where I go in order to reduce the amount of unwanted attention I receive. As a person with dwarfism, every outing will include the risk of being stared at, pointed at, laughed at, called names, or even photographed. The one place people with dwarfism can supposedly feel safe in is at associations for them. However, during lockdown, more are relying on social media groups as a space to interact with other people with dwarfism.

Groups on social media for people with dwarfism are meant to provide a safe space for all topics related to dwarfism to be discussed. However, they make you known to others, especially men who will send you unwanted messages and numerous friend requests. Just because I am a woman with dwarfism does not automatically mean I want to date someone with dwarfism. It is this myth that associations need to resolve. At one point I received several friend requests from a man with dwarfism, even a message from his friend asking me why I had not added him as a friend. In the end I told him that if he sent me another friend request I would message his wife. They stopped. But these interactions can be triggering.

I was sexually assaulted at one association for people with dwarfism. It had been playing on my mind for a long time. But after receiving ‘friend’ requests and messages from men with dwarfism, I wanted to speak out in the hope that they would finally get the message. Whilst at first I received a lot of support, including from some men with dwarfism, I was soon turned into the perpetrator. Of course victim blaming is not unusual for victims of sexual assault. Social media can be a platform to speak out, but also to be silenced.

Other women have since come forward on various groups for people with dwarfism, but without action these posts are useless triggers, which add to the pain and frustrating injustices that women have to deal with. The experiences are all there for associations to see, but they do not act upon them. With the popularity of #MeToo, which you think would provide enough of a bandwagon for a response, it seems that sexual assault concerning women with dwarfism is too close to home.

Associations for people with dwarfism need to start listening. Whilst it may be difficult for men with dwarfism to find a partner, that does not mean that they get to sexually assault female members. It is well known that associations are key places for people with dwarfism to date. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, it cannot be ignored that places for dating can also be places where women encounter unwanted sexual behaviour. When I reported my experience to the association, I was trying to raise awareness. Instead of support, I got threatened with legal action. They did not like the fact that I had stated that I was sexually assaulted at one of their events.

This is the response I had from one member of the association, via a private message:

You are a very attractive, eloquent and intelligent woman and yes you stand out from the crowd but in a positive way BUT the way you are going on and on then you will scare all men with RG [Restricted Growth] from talking to you! Yes there would have been a time that I would have loved to have had dinner with you over several glasses of wine and felt very comfortable being in your company talking about your research, life and the universe..... But that will unlikely occur now sadly as I'd be scared of putting a foot wrong or saying the wrong thing. I would have always been the perfect gentleman and also would have waited for you to of made the first amorous move / suggestion!

...I think if you had carried on with your post you would have alienated a lot more harmless men with RG who would have quite happily spoken to you with respect and courtesy and yes deep down they may well of 'fancied you' ....

The association banned me and several other women from their Facebook page, but he remained. I have never returned to the space where all people with dwarfism are meant to feel safe, for feeling unsafe. Apparently I should not have posted about my experience in fear of alienating ‘harmless’ men with dwarfism. Thus, instead of tackling the issue of sexual assault at the association, men were constructed as victims, and I was the perpetrator. This is typical victim blaming. I have to think about their emotions instead of my own. Emotions that led to me to have several counselling sessions and never wanting to return to a space I was meant to feel safe within.

But he just seems to be using these men as scapegoats for his own beliefs. He positions me as a woman with dwarfism who must take into account that if I speak out about sexual assault, I may scare any possible suitors away, including him. All I can say is, GOOD. He insists that the only reason dating me is unlikely now is because he is too afraid to ask me out, as opposed to the fact that I would have flat out refused to have ever gone on a date with him. Here is a power imbalance, where he assumes that as the man he would have automatically taken me out, but the only reason that seems unlikely to occur now is because he is ‘scared of putting a foot wrong or saying the wrong thing.’ This again is victim blaming, as he assumes that I am probably unable to differentiate between what counts as sexual assault. Let’s make it clear: I told the man who sexually assaulted me that I did not want to date him and thus being touched, grabbed, and kissed were all off limits. This is the man that he openly tells me he knows misbehaves when drunk:

 ...if I recall he is a real handful when pissed.

It is usually the case that the victim is blamed for the incident if she was drunk, but it is excused if the perpetrator is. The perpetrator’s inability to control himself when drunk does not seem the problem, but rather my lack of silence is. It was a triggering experience which made me feel frustrated. Luckily on social media you can block harassers. However, his attempt to silence me made me feel trapped. I am trapped in the house because of COVID-19, but I am also trapped as I cannot speak out about the problem of sexual assault. For people with dwarfism to feel safe in supposedly safe spaces, associations must recognise that other identities can make them vulnerable. Like everywhere else, they must acknowledge the #MeToo movement.

Dr. Erin Pritchard is a lecturer in Disability Studies at Liverpool Hope University and core member of the Centre for Cultural Disability Studies. Her research focuses on the social and spatial experiences of people with dwarfism. Her monograph, ‘Dwarfism, Spatialities and Disabling Experiences’ was published by Routledge in 2021. She has also written about the importance of female researcher safety, drawing on her own experiences of being sexually assaulted during the recruitment phase of her PhD. 

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