Disability, Sexual Oppression, and What Sex Can Be

The following is going to be largely exploratory, as I work these ideas out on this online forum. Much of the content of this blog entry (or series of entries) is based on a talk I gave on sexual oppression and disability at a conference. I have decided to post it on my blog. I hope my readers will find it both interesting and informative. Perhaps it may lead to a fruitful discussion on this interesting topic.

Some Preliminary Remarks on The Sexual Oppression of Persons with Disabilities

A common experience amongst disabled persons is exclusion from social participation, sexual exclusion in particular. Not only are disabled persons kept from work and benefiting from the economic opportunities that are afforded to others, but they are also barred from having a “sexual life.” A useful and influential framework for understanding the exclusion of disabled persons is the so called “social model of disability.” The social model of disability is presented and defended by disability rights activist and popularized by early theorists of disability such as Vic Finkelstein, Michael Oliver, and Paul Hunt. These activists presented the social model to express their concern to include persons with disabilities in public life (Finkelstein 1996, 2001; Hunt 1966; Oliver 1996)⁠. While medical models reduce disability to a physical or mental biological disorder located in particular bodies, social models sought to include persons with disabilities by construing disability as a relation between individuals and exclusionary social environments. In other words, social models shifted the focus of disability from perceived biological tragedies to social environments, attitudes, and practices that reflect ableist attitudes or assumptions.

For the purposes of this discussion, it will be useful to present a working definition of ableism, sexual ableism in particular. Historically the phrase “ableism” refers to environments, attitudes, assumptions or practices that reflect a preference towards some abilities or modes of performance over others, often at the expense of unjustly marginalizing persons with the other abilities or modes of performance. As with other “isms” ableism is comparable to other forms of discrimination like racism, sexism, and homophobia. Similarly, sexual ableism is when environments, attitudes, assumptions or practices related to sexuality reflect a preference towards some abilities or modes of performance over others, at the expense of unjustly marginalizing the persons with other abilities or modes of performance. This article explores how ableism and sexual ableism often goes unchecked, unacknowledged, or reinforced in the current cultural climate.

The social model can be credited for shifting the discourse of disability to exclusionary social environments and attitudes, and this shift was integral for advocating for disabled persons’ involvement in education, employment, and transportation. However, disability feminists argue that it downplays crucial experiences that can accompany disability and impairment. Disability feminists critique the social model because it fails to adequately account for how the body and impairment contributes to experiences of disability. With this point in mind, it is difficult to imagine how a social model theorist can begin to explore issues related to sexuality and disability, if the body is left out of the discussion. After all, sex inherently involves the body, and decisions made about the body. Moreover, much of the sexual exclusion visited on disabled persons frequently involves some sort of socially structured rejection of their atypical bodies and behaviour. Both Finkelstein and Oliver -two prominent social model theorists- present arguments for why the body should not be a political foci for disability, and Finkelstein is notably cautious about including “private” matters of the body and experiences associated with the body as a public concern, because, according to him, it risks diverting attention away from changing society (Finkelstein 1996; Oliver 1996)⁠. Contrary to Finkelstein and Oliver, disability feminists, like Jenny Morris, Jackie Scully, Susan Wendell and Carol Thomas argue that inclusion of “impairment experiences” in disability theory is useful on political grounds, because ableism cannot be challenged without acknowledging the experience of living with impairment (Morris 1992, 1993, 1996; Scully 2008; Thomas 1999; Wendell 1996)⁠. I would add that sexual ableism cannot be challenged without acknowledging the sexual and bodily experiences of disabled persons. Along these lines, and drawing inspiration from the feminist mantra “the personal is political”, Susan Wendell writes the following:

much of the experience of disability and illness goes underground, because there is no socially acceptable way of expressing it and having the physical and psychological experience acknowledged. Yet acknowledgement of this experience is exactly what is required for creating accessibility in the public world. The more a society regards disability as a private matter, and people with disabilities as belonging in the private sphere, the more disability it creates by failing to make the public sphere accessible to a wide range of people. (Wendell 1996, 40)⁠

Disability feminists can be credited for broadening our understanding disability to include the body and impairment experiences. Their critique can also be useful to broaden the public understanding of what sort of discourses are allowed to be heard or discussed to garner political support for persons with disabilities, including sexuality. With it’s inclusion of impairment, the body and sexuality, the feminist refinement of the social model allows for a deeper exploration of the sexual oppression of disabled persons, which includes personal narratives, impairment experiences, and their relation to sexuality. All of these factors are important, if one is to understand the sexual oppression of disabled persons.

Sexual Oppression

What exactly is sexual oppression? Briefly put, sexual oppression consists of two interrelated claims: descriptive claims and a normative claims. Descriptive claims are basic descriptions related to radical power imbalances, social disparities, and lack of respect afforded to a group. In feminist thought, the descriptive claim is often related to patriarchy: that patriarchy exists, what patriarchy is like, how patriarchy is maintained, and how patriarchy remains unchecked. Related to the descriptive claims are moral and ethical claims about the descriptive claims. In other words, that the current social structure is unjust, or that it ought to be changed. Feminists, for example, might claim that women are treated differently in comparison to men in terms of rights and respect, and that they ought not be treated differently with respect to these. While I will largely focus on descriptive claims about radical disparities, power imbalances, and respect afforded persons with disabilities, the normative claims can be easily derived from this description.

It is astonishing that in the current “sexually obsessed” cultural climate, disabled persons often lack pragmatic sexual experience with other persons. Disabled persons lack pragmatic sexual experiences, in part, because they are so systematically devalued. This devaluation can be observed in the representation of persons with disabilities within the media, literature, and sexual culture that privileges “normal” and “natural” bodies and sexualities above those who might deviate from them. In “Love, Sex, and Disability”, Sarah Rainey describes an image used of a disabled person used in a recent Mothers Against Drunk Driving commercial in the following:

a young man is reading on a park bench and the screen reads “your best friend.” An attractive woman walks up and kisses him as the screen reads “your girlfriend.” The camera moves to the inside of an institutional-looking room with a man in a wheelchair gazing upon the pair and the screen reads “you.” The screen fades to black and reads, “You have a lot to lose.” (Rainey 2011, 27)

The explicit message in this commercial is that drunk driving is dangerous and should be avoided, but, as Rainey points out, the images utilized by the message hinges on a social understanding that disabled people are too sick for sex and isolated. As Rainey states, “Within this discourse, disabled people are not adequate friends or lovers because they need constant care to maintain their disabled bodies. They are burdens, not active participants in relationships, particularly in a sexual sense.” (Rainey 2011, 27)⁠

Other media messages can also reflect ableist attitudes. In many movies where romance is a major feature in the plot, physical sameness is emphasized and physical otherness is overcome. In “Beauty and the Beast”, Belle falls in love with the Beast; however, they cannot truly live happily ever after until Beast is restored to “human” form. Similar ideas about physical sameness are found in “The Little Mermaid” and “Shrek”. In “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, on the other hand, Quasimodo is not transformed, and his love for Esmeralda is never reciprocated, nor is it presented as a narrative possibility. In “Avatar”, a paraplegic man, Jake Scully, falls in love with a Na’vi woman, Neytiri, while he is in a Na’vi avatar form. However, their love and sexualities cannot be permanent and compatible until Jake’s consciousness is put into an able bodied, Na’vi form. In the movie “The Green Lantern”, one of the featured villains actually becomes physically disabled and socially isolated, and while he appears to have romantic desires, these desires are never actualized. He is too different, and too terrifying. In fact, the desires that are actualized are saved for the physically enhanced hero who has managed to retain some integral part of his “humanity.”

This preference for “sameness” of ability can also be reflected in attitudes in others when they are confronted with the reality of a partnership that features a disabled and able-bodied person. John Hockenberry, a disabled paraplegic, writes about how stunned responses and questions can reflect an attitude that there is something wrong with a non-disabled partner for choosing a disabled partner, and describes the emotional toll it took on his first wife. He writes:

Our worst moments were out among people. The assumptions people appeared to make about me spilled over onto her. Like on “Oprah,” She felt people cast her as the nurse, or as the martyr, or as the person who needed to take care of someone else. Upon meeting us, people would ask her how many years we had been married before my accident. This was something I would never get asked she always did. No one ever assumed that she might have chosen to be with me regardless of the wheelchair. No one considered the possibility that she did not think my accident was a tragedy. The decision I made to “persevere” and not commit suicide was infinitely more comprehensible to those around us than her decision to choose me as a husband. The question stung her. Each answer, that we had met and gotten married well after my accident, was greeted with surprise and hurt even more. (Hockenberry 1996, 131)⁠

Assumptions about the “dangers of sex” for disabled persons can prevent disabled persons from fully participating in sexual life. As a person with muscular dystrophy, my condition gradually weakens my neuromuscular system. As such, my limbs appear remarkably skinnier than most people. While I am not in any immediate danger of being broken, people’s hesitancy to touch me reflects how people often assume my bodily constitution is more fragile; so, I feel touch in limited contexts. Rarely is someone like myself touched in contexts that accompany sensuality, acceptance, or friendship. In most cases, I experience touch with aversion, in a neutral medical context, or outright ridicule.1 In the first context, people accidentally graze against me, recoil, and then apologize, perhaps thinking that they might have caused me harm. Do these same people also think me too fragile for other forms of touch? I suspect that they do, and moreover, this suspicion is representative of a general attitude towards disabled persons’ sexuality. Sadly, this general attitude of the dangers of sex for persons with disabilities contributes to their sexual exclusion. After all, how can you experience the joys of sex and sexually engage with someone, if you assume upon first impression that you are going to break someone? How can you imagine someone as a sexual possibility, if the discourses about disability and sexuality promote that disabled persons are in danger of being broken by sex?

Similar claims about the dangers associated with sex and disabled people can be observed during the rise of the global sterilization movements of the so called “feeble-minded”: the movement specifically designed to prevent the propagation of disabled people and other social deviants (including escorts and their clientele). According to Michel Desjardins’ analysis of the sterilization movement, writers during that time classified feeble-minded sexualities as taking two forms. Desjardins writes, “Some of the ‘feebleminded’ were were held to be too vulnerable to resist the advances of the unruly; by contrast, others were held to be insatiable predators.” (Desjardins 2012)⁠ According to Pamela Block’s analysis of the 1994 sterilization of Cindy Wasiek, a similar fear about the dangers of sex for disabled persons is recorded, she writes, “Cindy Wasiek was described..as having a mental age of 5, and being ‘severely retarded’…The central theme in this story was not Cindy Wasiek’s safety, but rather how to allay her mother’s fears. Cindy Wasiek’s entire life was structured on her mother’s fear of her being raped and becoming pregnant.” (Block 2000)⁠ Comparable assumptions about the dangers of sex for women are noted by the feminist philosopher, Ann Garry about pornography. Garry suggests that the reason pornography succeeds in harming women is, in part, because viewers assume that sex is generally harmful to women. I suspect that these assumptions about sex being generally harmful to women can also be made about sex work in the form of prostitution. That being said, there are analogous assumptions made about the dangers of sex for disabled persons, and the dangers of sex for sex workers. The parallels in sexual discourses between disability and sex work are notable.

Historically, disabled men and women’s sexualities have been, to some degree, medicalized. Many persons with disabilities receive help and care from the medical communities in various forms. Within this environment, persons with disabilities are rarely in positions of power. In institutions, for example, persons with disabilities can live extremely structured and controlled lives. Visitors often need to “sign-in”, and privacy is limited. Moreover, sexual spaces, where sex is permitted and encouraged, either do not exist or are extremely regimented. The persons in the position of power are usually caregivers or medical professionals, and they are often the ones to control the sexualities of the impaired. Moreover, since the opinion of “experts” is lionized, disabled persons’ sexualities are often described largely in functional terms, which negates disabled men and women’s sexualities by describing them as “lacking” or “dysfunctional”, rather than promoting a discourse that highlights the multiple ways that persons with disabilities can be sexual, receive pleasure, or give pleasure.

Bodily rejection is a significant factor to disabled persons sexual oppression. As I previously noted, in my own life, my body has been the object of ridicule. As a child my classmates and I would regularly take field trips to a public swimming pool. Upon removing my shirt, children would often remark how skinny my arms and limbs were, or were visibly agitated by my bodily form. Sometimes they would wrap their fingers around my bicep and remark in amazement that they could fit their fingers around them, like a bracelet. Other times they would call me a human skeleton. These experiences all contribute to an overarching message that bodies like mine, when their flesh is vulnerably exposed to the world, are different and shameful.

A useful concept for understanding how this might affect one’s sexuality is a notion that the sociologist Carol Thomas refers to as “psycho-emotional disableism.” (Thomas 1999, 46–48)⁠ This form of disableism shifts the focus from outer lives and architectural environments, to the inner lives of disabled men and women. Psycho-emotional disableism refers to the intended and unintended hurtful words and social actions of the non-disabled in inter-personal engagements. These engagements are understood as a factor in creating and influencing the inner subjective lives of disabled persons, which informs their own subjectivity, perceptions, and agency. For example, the interpersonal engagements that I experienced as a child manifest themselves today as a hesitancy to allow my body to be seen by others, unless I am in contexts where I am assured that my body will be seen without derision or ridicule. The bodily rejection persons with disabilities might experience in their interpersonal engagements have psychological and emotional consequences, and also have consequences to their own mental well-being.

Part of the sexual oppression of disabled people can be observed in the disparities related to abuse in comparison to a non-disabled population. Disabled persons are at a high risk of being abused, disabled women in particular. Studies on the abuse of women with physical disabilities indicate that 40-72% have been abused by an intimate partner, family member, caregiver, health care provider or other service provider (Hassouneh-Phillips and McNeff 2005)⁠. Men with disabilities report lifetime incidences of abuse similar to that of women without disabilities, and dramatically higher than men without disabilities (Powers et al. 2008)⁠. Moreover, the social context in which disabled persons are located has implications for how they receive and experience the abuse. Factors such as poverty, social isolation, invalidation of the victim with disability, environmental inaccessibility and reliance on support all contribute to the experience of violence amongst disabled persons.

While bodily violations are noted within these abusive relationships, bodily rejection can also occur. In a study examining the effects abuse has on the sexual self-esteem of disabled women, it is suggested that disabled women with high degrees of impairment interpreted their partners’ lack of sexual interest as a way of neglecting their needs and as a disconfirmation of their womanhood (Hassouneh-Phillips and McNeff 2005, 234)⁠. This implies that within an abusive relationship, lack of sexual interest and refraining from sex can actually be interpreted by disabled women as a form of abuse. This gesture, I believe, reinforces the victim’s anxieties and negative social messages about the desirability of people with disabilities (i.e. that they cannot sexually satisfy their partner, and that nobody else will intimately value them). In addition, because this gesture reinforces the victims anxieties and social messages about disabilities, women with disabilities can stay in abusive relationships longer, which puts them at a higher risk for harm.

Gender norms interact with other norms about disability to contribute another element that constitutes disabled men and women’s sexual oppression. Disabled men, for example, are said to have a “dilemma of masculinity”, wherein disabled men are faced with two competing mores (Shuttleworth, Wedgwood, and Wilson 2012)⁠. Firstly, masculinity is tied to particular modes of performance about being a valuable man. It is tied to being assertive, sexually virile, have sporting prowess, physical strength and so on. But disability is often tied to weakness, passivity or sexual otherness. Disabled men, therefore, have to negotiate particular norms that they don’t comfortably fit in. As such, many disabled men either try to egregiously fit into these norms, abandon the gender norms entirely, or seek to cognitively broaden them so that they can fit. That being said, many disabled men, for the sake of their own psychological well-being, choose to abandon the norms associated with what it is to be a “good and valuable man”. Disabled women face a similar dilemma because they don’t comfortably fit into ideas about how so called “good women” ought to be. In other words, they don’t fit comfortably into visual norms, behavioural norms, and they are often not seen as “carers”, because they are perceived as needing some sort of care. As such, disabled oppression interacts with gender in interesting and dynamic ways. Moreover, because they struggle to fit particular gender norms, there is a real chance that they may never be seen as valuable romantic or sexual partners, because these gender norms -and how well we fit them- often influence the choices we make about sexual partners.

So what can sex be for disabled persons? The sexual oppression of disabled persons dynamically interacts in complicated way with what having sex with others can imply for them. Sex, for disabled persons, can vacillate up and down a continuum or spectrum of empowerment, depending on the social context and environment that they are in. On the one hand, people’s misinformed perceptions about disability can have implications for how disabled persons are seen as sexual, and responded to as sexual beings. Since they can be objects of ridicule or disdain and they can occupy lower positions of power, in some environments and contexts, persons with disabilities can be disempowered by sex, abused, negatively objectified, and their stigma can be augmented. On the other hand, since disabled persons are undervalued, sexually excluded, marginalized, desexualized and generally not perceived as viable sexual options, having sex or being seen as sexual can be empowering for disabled individuals. Rather than understanding sex as wholly de-humanizing to marginalized groups without reflection, when we acknowledge how persons with disabilities are sexually oppressed, sex can be understood as one of the most intimate confirmations of another persons’ humanity. Sex can express a subversive acceptance of another body. It can integrate other persons into social participation in one of the most profound and intimate ways imaginable. Having sex can be political, humane, empowering, and it can validate a segment of one’s life that has previously been systematically rejected. In a safe and consensual environment, sex can not only authenticate one’s identity, but it can also ratify a sexuality that is structurally perceived as asexual. Indeed, for persons with disabilities, sex is a powerful thing, ripe with complex meanings and implications.

Works Cited

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

Desjardins, Michel. 2012. “The Sexualized Body of the Child: Parents and the Politics of ‘Voluntary’ Sterilization of People Labeled Intellectually Disabled.” In Sex and Disability, eds. Robert McRuer and Anna Mallow. Durham and London.

Finkelstein, V. 1996. “Outside, ‘Inside Out’.” http://www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/archiveuk/finkelstein/Inside Out.pdf.

———. 2001. “The Social Model Reposessed.” http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/finkelstein-soc-mod-repossessed.pdf.

Hassouneh-Phillips, Dena, and Elizabeth McNeff. 2005. “‘I Thought I Was Less Worthy’: Low Sexual and Body Esteem and Increased Vulnerability to Intimate Partner Abuse in Women with Physical Disabilities.” Sexuality and Disability 23(4): 227–40. http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s11195-005-8930-3 (July 13, 2013).

Hockenberry, J. 1996. Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence. New York: Hyperion.

Hunt, Paul. 1966. Stigma: The Experience of Disability. ed. Paul Hunt. London: Geoffry Chapman.

Morris, J. 1992. “Personal and Political: a Feminist Perspective on Researching Physical Disability.” Disability, Handicap & Society 7(2): 157–66.

———. 1993. “Feminism and Disability.” Feminist Review 43: 57–70.

———. 1996. Encounters With Strangers: Feminism and Disability. London: The Women’s Press.

Oliver, M. 1996. “Defining Impairment and Disability:Issues at Stakes.” In Exploring the Diide: Illness and Disability, eds. C. Barnes and G. Mercer. Leeds: Disability Press.

Powers, Laurie, Mary-Ann Curry, Elizabeth McNeff, Marsha Saxton, Jennifer Powers, and Mary Oschwald. 2008. “End the Silence: A Survey of Abuse Against Men with Disabilities.” Journal of Rehabilitation 74(4): 41–53.

Rainey, S. 2011. Love, Sex, and Disability: The Pleasures of Care. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.

Scully, J. 2008. Disability Bioethics: Moral Bodies, Moral Difference. Plymouth: Rowan & Littlefield Publishing Inc.

Shuttleworth, R., N. Wedgwood, and N. J. Wilson. 2012. “The Dilemma of Disabled Masculinity.” Men and Masculinities 15(2): 174–94. http://jmm.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/1097184X12439879 (June 30, 2013).

Thomas, Carol. 1999. Female Forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Wendell, S. 1996. The Rejected Body. New York: Routledge.

1Although when I share this, more people seem to be willing to touch me. This suggests that simply being aware of this tendency can cause one to respond differently. It also suggests that this reaction to me is extremely contingent, and can change.

4 responses to “Disability, Sexual Oppression, and What Sex Can Be

  1. Pingback: “It’s not me, it really is you.” | Midlife And Treachery·

  2. Pingback: #SolidarityIsForTheAbleBodied, and Feminism's Ableism Problem·

  3. Pingback: Motion en faveur du droit au sexe | SexAccessible·

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