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Sex, Consent And Disability

Those who have disabilities are among the most discriminated against when it comes to sex. Why is that?

Anne Sexton, 21 Mar 2012

Of course if you become physically disabled, your sexual expression is potentially compromised, but that doesn’t mean that sex is no longer an option. Paraplegics, for example, may not be able to feel sensation below the waist but report being able to experience orgasm in other parts of the body. It might be a different kind of sex to the one you had previously enjoyed, but that doesn’t mean it would be less valuable or important to you.

Abby Wilkerson, an academic with interests in disability and sex radicalism posits the idea that any group’s sexual status reflects and reinforces its political and social status and that sexual oppression is part and parcel of broader political oppression. In a nutshell, any group that is denied the freedom to express sexual agency tends to be disenfranchised in other ways too. We only have to think about countries like Iran, where gay men can be executed, or Afghanistan, where honour killings of women for perceived breaches of sexual morality are common, to see that she has a point.

Wilkerson suggests that by denying people with disabilities free expression of their sexuality we are denying them the right to be full citizens. Instead we are desexualising and infantalising them.

Now I don’t pretend to have any answers here. I don’t know exactly what challenges the disabled may face when it comes to sexual expression, but surely that’s a conversation our social services should be having with those affected?

Why do we prefer to ignore the sexual needs of the disabled? Cultural theorists have argued that this is because we in the West suffer from erotophobia – a fear of sex.

Given that we live in a society where sex is used to sell just about everything from crisps to cars this seems ridiculous, but according to Michael Warner, a social theorist at Yale, it is perfectly possible for erotophobia to co-exist with sexualised environments, such as in the United States or our own. This is because a narrow understanding of sexuality is reinforced through advertising and entertainment while taboos against other consensual sexual practices, desires and identities are in operation. Our society says its fine to be sexual if you are young, slim, attractive, straight and able-bodied, but that it is a bit yeuchy, perverted or deviant if you are not.

Not only is that unfair, it’s damn shortsighted. After all, most of us will get old and any one of us could suffer a life-changing injury. To be denied sexual expression, not because you are disabled, but because you are denied privacy, freedom, opportunity or information seems like a gross violation of human rights to me.

Sexuality is a means of pleasure and interpersonal connection, it can give you a feeling of personal efficacy and help you to accept your body and yourself more generally – all good things no matter who you are, and perhaps even more important if you are disabled.

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