Those who have disabilities are among the most discriminated against when it comes to sex. Why is that?
A few weeks back I took part in an event called ‘Celebrating Sexuality’ at the Mansion House in Dublin. Celebrating Sexuality, which was organised by Choice Ireland, was a chance to discuss various aspects of sexuality in a public forum and five different people were asked to give talks.
The speeches covered a number of topics from orgasmic childbirth – yes, really – to whether or not homosexuality could be a choice instead of an innate disposition. One talk in particular got my attention – the issue of sexuality and the disabled.
A week later I watched a short film called Want by Loree Erickson, who styles herself as a porn star academic. Want graphically shows Erickson, who is a disabled lesbian, engaged in sex play with her partner. The film, which may or may not be porn – although it did win a CineKink Award – forces the viewer to consider the fact that people with physical impairments are sexual people, just like anybody else.
As a general rule we tend to overlook sexuality when we think about disability. If we do think about it at all, it is to consider it only from the point of view as a social issue.
People with intellectual disabilities are seen as particularly troubling. Either they are potential victims for sexual abuse – which unfortunately is common – or they do not understand restraint and are seen as potential predators. Either way, their sexuality needs to be monitored. Rarely are their sexual needs discussed, although that may be changing.
Last October, the Law Reform Commission suggested that the law on sexual offences relating to people with developmental disabilities should be changed. As the law currently stands it is illegal to have sex with someone with an intellectual disability. While this law has the worthy aim of protecting the intellectually disabled from unwanted sexual contact or exploitation, it doesn’t allow for consensual sex and overlooks the fact that depending on the individual, consent or some form of it, may be possible. Legislation is planned to enable people to make decisions regarding their sex lives in line with their capacity.
For people with intellectual disabilities the issue of consent and the capacity to consent is a thorny one but surely it is better to proceed on a case-by-case basis instead of lumping people of varying impairments all under one law and denying them any form of intimate sexual contact at all? Of course it is.
Issues of consent are of course not compromised by physical impairment. What is often missing here is the privacy and agency to have a sex life. For example, those who live in nursing homes – whether they are old or disabled – have their freedom and privacy severely curtailed making sex almost impossible.
Living at home may not be much better, particularly if you live with parents who are often uncomfortable with the idea of their children being sexual, even if they are able-bodied. If you are physically impaired, finding a partner may present extra challenges to begin with and a carer who is prepared to assist can be a great help.
To make matters worse, there appears to be a whole lot of silence around sexuality and disability in the medical profession. People who have suffered accidents complain that many doctors are unwilling to discuss how to continue being sexual after a life-changing injury.
Whether or not this is distaste or ignorance on the part of these doctors is hard to say. A conservative view of sex as one man, one woman, a penis and a vagina seems to be part of the problem and may make it impossible for some doctors to conceive of sexual expression outside this model if you have lost the ability to feel sensation in your genitals.
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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