Disability and sexuality: reclaiming the disabled body

“Disability represents a significant pivot point where the difference between sex and gender becomes problematic. Gender in the presence of the disabled body does not overlay sex in the typical way because the difference between ability and disability trumps the difference between Ladies and Gentlemen, suppresses the assignment of gender, and denies the presence of sexuality.” (Siebers 2008, p 174)

Although as Galvin revealed, sexuality is not the prime source of oppression for disabled people, and some impairments have even released many from their inhibitions to explore new possibilities of attaining physical enjoyment, it is still seen by many as a site of oppression. As Ann Finger wrote:

“Sexuality is often the source of our deepest oppression; it is also often the source of our deepest pain. It’s easier for us to talk about -and formulate strategies for changing – discrimination in employment, education, and housing than to talk about our exclusion from sexuality and reproduction” (Finger, 1992).

Lack of access to sexual education resources is a huge factor, and Finger points out that disabled people are denied the usual channels of understanding sexuality, very often becoming victims of abuse at the hands of family members or carers. Thus they are denied the possibility to experience the pleasures and intimacies that physical sex can bring, as well as a deeper understanding of their own bodies. Additionally, for children and adolescents “there are few, if any, positive models of sexuality, and virtually no social expectation that they will become sexual beings.” A further issue is that heterosexuality is assumed and condoned, while other gender identities are not:

“Institutions – whether traditional hospitals or euphemistically named ‘homes’, ‘schools’, or newer community-care facilities – often out-and-out forbid sexual contact for their residents. Or they may outlaw gay and lesbian relationships, while allowing heterosexual ones. Disabled lesbians and gays may also find that their sexual orientation is presumed to occur by default.” (Finger, 1992)

As such, disabled people who are also gender queer or belong to ethnic minority groups may experience discrimination on multiple levels, as Barnes (1992) observed “if a disabled person is also a member of one or more marginalised groups their experience of discrimination will be more complex and its consequences further disempowering.” This is also a problem of dealing with disability from the perspective of identity politics – which is the identity that is being projected or identified with at any particular time, and does that change with geographic location or community context (see Clare 1999, p 11).

I don’t want to complicate my research any more than necessary, so I am not really looking at gender issues among disabled people (my subjects are heterosexual). What is of more immediate concern to me is the idea of reclaiming the body as a site for sexual activity and parenthood; as Halberstam and Livingston point out, “Sex only has currency when it becomes a channel for something besides its own drive for pleasure,” (1995, p 8).

In modern Western societies’ sexual agency (that is, potential or actual independent sexual activity) is considered the essential element of full adult personhood, replacing the role formerly taken by paid work; because disabled people are infantilized, and denied the status of active subjects, so consequently their sexuality is undermined.” (Shakespeare et al 1996, p 10)

Although issues relating to sexuality are regarded as some of the most significant that disabled people face, Shakespeare et al (1996) note that it is not broached in an adequate or meaningful way, neither in disability discourse (apart from feminist contexts), nor by disabled people themselves. Prevailing stereotypes depict disabled people as asexual and lacking potency, or as malignantly libidinous, indulging in indecent sexual behaviours. Disabled people are infantilised, regarded as ‘innocent’ and over-protected, and the consequent lack of exposure to information (both formal and informal, through peer discussions) about sexual matters exposes them to risk of abuse, pregnancy and HIV. Those ‘sheltered’ in institutions or within families appear to be at higher risk of abuse, and also denied the freedom to express themselves sexually. Adolescents are not expected to have sexual feelings, to form relationships or become parents when they grow up, and these negative attitudes are internalised and may explain the reluctance among disabled people to speak about their sexuality. These misplaced notions also mean that disabled children are denied adequate sex education and access to information in formats appropriate to their impairments (adapted texts, Braille or audio recordings), and has resulted in a disproportionately high rate of HIV incidence among deaf people, for example (p 29). The barriers to disabled people leading fully active sexual and emotional lives come about because of social limitations as opposed to bodily impairments, and there is a need for society “to acknowledge that disabled people are fully sexual human beings, with hopes and desires and the right to fulfil them” (1996, p 45). Marsha Saxton reports that prevailing culture invalidates disabled people’s bodies, “denying our sexuality and our potential as parents” (1998, p 108).

In the first chapter of Pride Against Prejudice, Jenny Morris enumerated the various assumptions non-disabled people have about disabled people, and they included the following:

That we are asexual or at best sexually inadequate.

That we cannot ovulate, menstruate, conceive or give birth, have orgasms, erections, ejaculations or impregnate.

That if we are not married or in a long-term relationship it is because no one wants us and not through our personal choice to remain single or live alone.

That if we do not have a child it must be the cause of abject sorrow to us and likewise never through choice.

That any able-bodied person who marries us must have done so for one of the following suspicious motives and never through love: desire to hide his/her own inadequacies in the disabled partner’s obvious ones; an altruistic and saintly desire to sacrifice their lives to our care; neurosis of some sort, or plain old fashioned fortune-hunting.

That if we have a partner who is also disabled, we chose each other for no other reason, and not for any other qualities we might possess. When we choose ‘our own kind’ in this way the able-bodied world feels relieved, until of course we wish to have children; then we’re seen as irresponsible.

That if our marriage or relationship fails, it is entirely due to our disability and the difficult person this inevitably makes us, and never from the usual things that make any relationship fail.

That we haven’t got a right to an able-bodied partner, and that if they happen to be very obviously attractive, it’s even more of a ‘waste’.

That any able-bodied partner we have is doing us a favour and that we bring nothing to the relationship. (Morris 1991, pp 18-19)

According to Finger (1992), in the US prejudices against disabled people having relationships is “enshrined in law“, since welfare benefits, including medical support, can be reduced or even removed completely when a disabled person gets married.

Harlan Hahn (1988) wrote of the “asexual objectification” of disabled people, where visible signs of impairment render an individual unattractive, undesirable or even sexless, while the prevailing notion is that disabled persons make inappropriate sexual partners. In a society that places high value on physical appearance and attractiveness, conspicuous disabilities are deemed unattractive, and thus the competitive search for a conjugal partner is rendered extremely difficult for disabled persons and rejection is a common issue among individuals with impairments. He also notes a tendency among disabled men to identify with their gender rather than trying to develop a new notion of masculinity that includes their disability experience, while disabled women are ‘doubly marginalised’ because of their disability as well as their gender. Disability was intertwined symbolically with sexuality and sin as far back as the Renaissance, with the birth of disabled children being attributed to ‘intercourse during menstruation’ or ‘improper thoughts during conception.’

Ynestra King (1993) writes that meeting people when she is sitting down is a vastly different experience from meeting them standing up (when her impairment is visible) and that she often walks around in front of someone before a date to save face for both her and her suitor, noticing in the process that “the switch on the sexual circuit breaker often pops off – the connection is broken” (p 72). She also relates an incident of a woman in a wheelchair wearing deliberately provocative clothing who she encountered on the bus to work:

She can barely move. She has a pretty face, and tiny legs she could not possibly walk on. Yet she wears black lace stockings and spike high heels. The other bus occupants smile condescendingly, or pretend not to notice, or whisper in appalled disbelief that this woman could represent herself as having a sexual self. That she could “flaunt” her sexual being violates the code of acceptable appearance for a disabled woman. This woman’s apparel is no more far out than that of many other women on our bus-but she refuses to fold up and be a good little asexual handicapped person.” (ibid, p 74)

That the woman is pretty signifies that without the wheelchair she’d probably pass as a desirable woman, but the general public view disabled people as non-sexual beings and so her behaviour makes them feel uncomfortable.

Susan Wendell claims that society has a lot to learn from disabled people about possibilities of sexual pleasures that are not genitally centred: “Some people can have orgasms in any part of their bodies where they feel touch. One man said he never knew how good sex could be until he lost the feeling in his genitals” (1989, 253).

One controversial use of disability in mainstream media that I came across was the story of Ellen Stohl who posed nude for Playboy in 1987:

Stohl was paralysed in a car accident in 1983, and was included in the magazine after she wrote a letter to the editor Hugh Hefner which said that “sexuality is the hardest thing for a disabled person to hold on to,” and that she wanted to send the message, “Look at me! I am a woman more than I am a wheelchair and you need to see that about me.” Although the magazine is clearly accused of exploiting women, Stohl’s right to be included in the magazine is also a pertinent argument. In an interview, Stohl makes the following observation: “…I didn’t pose for Playboy to please men. I posed for Playboy to discover my own sexuality, to celebrate that part of me that was stripped away by a disability because our society doesn’t put sexuality and disability together. They’re completely non-existent. Playboy was my forum to explore that.” Since Hefner’s credo is to expand people’s ideas about sex, he was naturally convinced that to run a feature on Stohl would do exactly that: challenge people’s accepted ideas about sex and force them to reconsider the limitations of what is and is not sexual or desirable. In a later interview, Stohl said she had no regrets and would do the whole thing again: “Disability is not going away, and if we can’t deal with the changes in our bodies and the changes in our physique, whether it’s from aging or catastrophic injury, we limit what we can do.”

People become limited by their stereotypes, and tend to adopt certain modes of behaviour and attitude without really questioning where they originally came from. In this sense, Playboy could be seen as performing a similar role to Postmodernist art. Stohl is quite vocal about attitudes to disability by society as a whole: “People with disabilities are not subhuman, they are not less than, they are not less able. They are different, they come in different packages, but they are people. Basically, whether you’re Russian, you’re fat, you’re black, you’re tall, you’re short, I believe that people are more alike on the inside than different. They need to interact, they want to have an impact on the environment around them. They want to connect, they want to create a symbiosis with somebody.” These are some of the ideas that I want to get across in my project; the best way to challenge stereotypes is to force people to think, to challenge their own preconceptions. Simply pointing out facts and statistics and repeating truisms does not work.

In the same interview, Hefner is quoted as saying: “…what this is all about is her disability and the chair began to define who she was, and that she was not perceived as a human sexual being. Therefore, if the pictures connected the two, we would fall into the same trap. It is perfectly clear, there are many darker sexual connections to be found in things related to people with disabilities. The whole bondage and S&M thing has that kind of kinky side.” I have also noticed this kind of fetishism around the use of wheelchairs and straps and braces, as well as ‘wheelchair-bound women’ being portrayed as sadistic dominatrices. How much of this is to do with disabled people reclaiming their bodies as sites of desire and sexuality and how much to do with the erotic fantasies of the photographer?

In another interview on the subject, the Associate editor Kate Nolan admitted, “On the surface, it’s a noble statement: People with disabilities still have their sexuality. But do you think we’d run pictures of someone who was really, seriously deformed? Of course we wouldn’t. This is a safe kind of exploitation. We’re saying, ‘We’ve got pictures of someone who is disabled. Buy our magazine and look at the pictures.’ But the woman looks ‘normal.’ So we’re protected, in a way.”

And editorial director Arthur Kretchmer agreed: “I agree with Kate Nolan that this would all be different if Ellen Stohl was terribly disfigured. In that case, we would be putting on what would be called a freak show. We’re not doing that.” So the idea that Stohl was not physically disfigured and her body still fit in with the norms of attractive feminine beauty meant that her nudity did not offend.

The following images were created by Aaron Paul Rogers, a studio-based photographer in LA who focuses on models who don’t fit the concept of ‘traditional beauty’. A lot of his more overtly erotic images deal with fetishism and bondage, using the visual tropes of leather and whips alongside the restrictive paraphernalia of disability (wheelchair, crutches). Is the idea of wheelchair dominatrix an empowering device for these subjects, or is it simply the photographer acting out his fantasies?

Ashley Savage is a photographer whose interests include gender, sexuality, disability and body modification. His project Bodies of Difference was exhibited at the Royal Society of Medicine. I think it is important to note that he does not look for conventionally ‘beautiful’ models. The other work shown here is part of a series that documents the life of a woman diagnosed with breast cancer through lumpectomy, mastectomy and chemotherapy to her eventual death. This image is one of the more positive ones in the series, and the one Savage has reproduced on T-shirts with the slogan Cancer Sucks. He is still seeking funding to promote this awareness-raising project. I wish him the best of luck.

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