Sexuality and disability

People with disabilities often struggle with being seen as ‘ordinarily sexual’, that is spanning the range of human desires and behaviours. They might be seen as vulnerable, and therefore potential sexual victims, or as having ‘perverse’ sexualities. These images are not uncommon in media representations of people with disabilities, and are consistent with polarized portrayals of people with disabilities as either ‘angels’, rising above adversity, or as ‘villains’, embittered by their disabilities. Most often, in mainstream culture, people with disabilities are seen as simply asexual[38]. This is further reinforced by the fact that often disability is collapsed with the phenomenon of aging. Older people and people with disabilities are often seen as somewhat akin, and both categories are seen as incongruent with sexuality, given that is the dominion of younger adults, and ‘able’ bodies. Medical and academic understandings also contribute to the idea that people with disabilities are asexual. There is little research on the sexuality of people with disabilities, and health practitioners rarely talk about sexuality with patients with disabilities, given that generally they are not educated on this issue during their training[39]. The sexuality of people with disabilities is then invisible, unspoken, and unspeakable.

Even when mainstream cinema turns its attention to this issue, as it has recently done in a movie tackling the issue of using sexual surrogates, it does so by mostly representing people with disabilities as needing to pay to have access to sex[40]. The assumption seems to be that for many people with disabilities this might be the only gateway into a sexual encounter,given that their bodies are not seen as congruous with mainstream understandings of desirability, and as having no erotic capital.

In this context people with disabilities, whose gender or sexuality might not fall within the boundaries of what is considered good, normal, or acceptable, that is those who are trans*, non-heterosexual, or into kink, are often seen as deviating from normative sexuality because of their disabilities[41]. This not only invalidates those people who have disabilities and identify as gender and sexual minorities, but also reinforces narrow ideas of what constitutes good and legitimate sexual expressions. If people with disabilities are seen as taking refuge in identities and practices that are viewed as ‘other’ because mainstream identities and behaviours are precluded to them, then those identities and practices are also implicitly being defined as not only ‘other’ but also ‘lesser than’ mainstream identities and behaviours. This creates a cycle of continually placing outside the boundaries of ‘normality’ identities and behaviours that are seen as ‘deviant’. Basically, only people who are seen as being somewhat lesser in mainstream society would identify with and engage in behaviours that are also seen as lesser.

People with disabilities continue to challenge such normative discourses by creating alternative representations of more authentic and inclusive sexualities through writing[42], art and, of course, living their ordinary lives. ‘Sins invalid’[43] is one of those representations, bringing together not only people with disabilities but also people of colour, trans* and queer people, claiming and challenging the status of ‘other’, through an intersectional lens that highlights the systemic nature of marginalization and oppression. Social media has been used to raise awareness through visual campaigns such as ‘American Able’, which used mainstream representations of sexuality in advertising to highlight, and challenge, what we implicitly define as beautiful, acceptable, good and therefore ‘worthy’ of being deemed sexy[44]. People with disabilities are increasingly, and globally, talking about sexuality in ways that broaden mainstream discourses of sex and sexuality, inviting us to make room for all bodies.

Healthy sex

38. Tepper, M. S. (2000). Sexuality and Disability: the Missing Discourse of Pleasure. Sexuality and Disability, 18(4), 283-290; Shakespeare, T., Gillespie-Sells, K. & Davies, D. (1996). Untold Desires: The Sexual Politics of Disability. New York; Cassell; Esmail, S., Darry, K., Walter, A. & Knupp, H. (2010). Attitudes and Perceptions towards Disability and Sexuality. Disability Rehabilitation, 32(14), 1148-1155.
39. Haboubi, N. H. J. & Lincoln, N. (2003). Views of Health Professionals on Discussing Sexual Issues with Patients. Disability Rehabilitation, 25(6), 291-296; Coleman, E., Elders, J., Satcher, D., Shindel, A., Parish, S., Kenagy, G. & Light, A. (2013). Summit on Medical School Education in Sexual Health: Report of an Expert Consultation. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10(4), 924-938.
40. Samuels, E. (2013) ‘Sexy crips, or, achieving full penetration’. Disability Studies Quarterly, 33(3),
41. Iantaffi, A. (2009). Disability and Polyamory: Exploring the Edges of Interdependence, Gender and Queer Issues in Non-monogamous Relationships in Barker, M. & Langdridge, D. (Eds.) Understanding Non-Monogamies. New York: Routledge, 160-165
42. McRuer, R. & Mollow, A. (Eds.) (2012). Sex and Disability. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
43. Berne, P. (2008). Disability, Dancing, and Claiming Beauty in Solinger, R., Fox, M. & Irani, K. (Eds.) Telling Stories to Change the World: Global Voices on the Power of Narrative to Build Community and Make Social Justice Claims. New York: Routledge, 201-212.
44. Olsson, M. (2012). The Digital Revolution: Disability and Social Media. The McNair Scholars Journal, 11, 179-202.

Healthy sex