Category Archives: sexuality

Book Review: Lasting Treasures by Julie Ellis

This piece contains lots of spoilers.

I wanted to love this book, I really did. I have enjoyed the couple of Julie Ellis novels I’ve read, but this one just tipped the charming/not happening scale a bit far. It has a really strong heroine in Vicky, who escapes the Russian pogroms to build a new life in America, trying to negotiate a difficult family situation and life as a prominent businesswoman. But there are lots of issues in this book that really grated, for example, every time a black servant is given an order, Ellis always points out how they were delighted to do it.

I’d just like to focus on the disability issues for now, though. There are many, not least with the disability-as-punishment trope cropping up at the end when the antagonist of the piece, Vicky’s son, has a stroke and is paralysed. He’s then housed in the cottage in which his mentally ill father shot himself. The very same cottage in which he kept Vicky while pretending she had a mental illness because he didn’t like the direction in which his mother was taking the company. Yep, it’s a bit of an intense novel.

But what I really want to talk about is the characterisation of Anita Roberts. Anita is married to Mark, a man Vicky falls in love with. So, naturally, she has to be a deceptive, evil shrew because that is the way “the other woman” gets sympathy in romance fiction. Except, she’s a wheelchair user, so it gets a lot more… interesting.

At first, Anita is set up as a martyr, the victim of a tragic accident who is doted on by her charming husband. They are a ‘special couple,’ Vicky is given to understand, and Anita is the darling of their social circle. As it turns out, she’s shrewd and conniving. She uses the excuse of the accident to deny her husband sex, even though the doctors said that they could have an ‘almost normal sex life’! It turns out that Anita never really wanted sex before the accident either, and now her horrible cruelty of not wanting sex has been unleashed! How terrible! It couldn’t possibly be the case that Anita doesn’t owe Marc sex, and she has become confident enough in herself to not engage with a sexual life she doesn’t really want. No, indeed. It is all about Marc’s pain and setting up his affair with Vicky. Anita’s not wanting sex gets to be the strange part, gets to be part of her evil scheme against poor Marc.

So, we’ve got the good crip who turns out to be hiding a deeply bitter and nasty nature. That’s old hat. But it was quite something to see that set up with a gendered aspect, too. Anita’s out to disparage Marc’s achievements and interests constantly, and she forces him to do ‘whatever she asks’ because otherwise he’s a terrible husband to his tragically beautiful and “damaged” wife. I suggest we identify a new trope, the Bad Shrewish Crip. The perfect mix of misogyny and ableism, out now at a bookstore near you.

But I really start to grit my teeth when we bring Anita’s Jewishness into it, because she perfectly fits the JAP stereotype. The Jewish American Princess is held to be a nagging, high maintenance woman with expensive taste and no sense of how irritating she is. And Anita is a JAP all over: she pokes fun at Vicky for having been a maid, loves designer clothing, and ends up forcing her husband to move to London as it is the only ‘civilised’ city on Earth. She’s simply set up as the most horrible conglomeration of disability, gender and racial/ethnic/cultural/religion stereotyping I have encountered in quite some time. The Bad Shrewish Jewish Crip, maybe?

So, in short: wanted to like it, feel kind of bad saying this because I like the author, but for goodness’ sake, this was one of the more frustrating reads of my year, and that is really saying something.

How Do You Fight A Suicide Epidemic?

Content note: This post contains discussions of bullying, abuse, and suicide.

An alarming number of gay youth have committed suicide in the United States in recent weeks. There were probably more than I listed here; there tend to be disparities in what the media does and doesn’t report. Rates of suicide and suicide attempts among queer/questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans, bi, asexual, and gay (QUILTBAG) youth are estimated at approximately one and a half to three times that of the general youth population and possibly even higher; there aren’t nearly enough studies and there’s a particular dearth of studies when it comes to trans youth and youth of colour (.pdf, sorry). My friend Kirya Traber refers to this as an ‘epidemic’ and I think that’s an appropriate word to use; if you have a population dying at a rate that stark, it’s an epidemic.

Seth Walsh was a 13 year old middle school student in California. Walsh was experiencing bullying in school, the school knew about it and did nothing, and his parents withdrew him from school, putting him on independent study. Despite not being in school, he was still bullied. He attempted to hang himself and hovered on life support for nine days before dying.

Asher Brown was 13 too, a middle school student in Texas. His parents couldn’t afford designer shoes and he was mocked for his sexuality and his clothing. On the day before his death, he was pushed down a flight of stairs at the school. His parents filed multiple claims with the school requesting action on bullying. Nothing was done. The night before he died, he seemed sad, but when his parents asked him what was wrong, he said nothing. He shot himself in the head.

Caleb Nolt was 14, a high school student in Indiana. He was a twin, and enjoyed working on building projects and baking cookies.

Billy Lucas was 15, a freshman at a high school in Indiana. Again, school officials were notified about bullying. He endured years of teasing because he was gay. On the day of his death, he started fighting back against the bullies when they harassed him in class and he was suspended for it. He hung himself in the family barn.

Harrison Chase Brown was a 15 year old Colorado high school student. He was interested in history, volunteering with local historical organisations, and he loved music and art. An organ donor, he gave his heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, and a lung after his death.

Cody J. Barker was 17, a high school student in Wisconsin. He was an activist who wanted to start a gay-straight alliance at his school despite the fact that he experienced bullying for his sexual orientation. Like me, he enjoyed watching James Bond and listening to Lady Gaga.

Felix Sacco was a 17 year old high school senior in Massachusetts. A guitar player, he was described as ‘quiet’ by many people who knew him. He threw himself from an overpass.

Tyler Clementi was an 18 year old college student at Rutgers. Classmates filmed him without consent during a sexual encounter and posted the film online. He asked for help and didn’t get it; in fact, some helpful Internet commenters even suggested that his roommate was unsafe around him because he was gay. He jumped off a bridge.

Raymond Chase, 19, was a college student in Rhode Island. He was out, proud, and enjoyed Harry Potter and dancing. Despite appearing happy on the surface to many of his friends, he hung himself in his dorm room.

One school district in Minnesota has experienced seven suicides in the last year, four of which involved gay students and bullying. One of them was Justin Aaberg, 13, who hung himself in July.

These young people were all failed by the people with a responsibility to protect them. Anti-bullying campaigns repeatedly tell young people to report bullying to teachers, and tell young people who witness bullying to report it, and to speak up about it if they feel comfortable and safe doing so. In all of these cases, there were documented patterns of bullying going on, including physical assaults in some cases. Classroom disruptions. School officials were clearly aware that something was going on, and they did nothing to support the endangered students in their midst. When the core of an anti-bullying campaign is ‘report it’ and reporting it does nothing, that sends a pretty clear message to people who are experiencing bullying in schools.

Knowing that students are being abused and threatened, knowing that suicide rates are especially high among QUILTBAG youth, school districts should not be standing by. Dealing with bullying is complicated, I’m not going to deny that, but it’s clear that many of these districts provided no support for endangered youth and those youth paid a high price for it. The solution to bullying often seems to be to allow (or force) the bullied student to withdraw from school, or isolating the bullied student in other ways, rather than confronting and addressing the abusive behaviour. Or the recommendation is to suspend the bullies, which is not the right solution either.

In 1986, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said:

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

He was talking about the willful ignorance cultivated about concentration camps in the 1940s, pointing out that the same could be said about many ongoing human rights violations. The skyrocketing death rates among QUILTBAG youth in the United States are an epidemic. They are a human rights violation. They are an atrocity. They are a smear upon the already tattered reputation of the United States. For all the talk of freedom and equal protection under the law, youth cannot even be safe in schools.

We especially need to talk about violence against transgender youth and skyrocketing rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. The recent suicides have gotten a great deal of press coverage, which gives me hope for having a national conversation about this issue, but it’s important to avoid leaving trans folks in the cold; like many transgender people, this is a personal issue for me. While seeking out stories for this piece, I couldn’t find any news stories specifically focused on suicide among transgender youth and it’s important to be aware that our suicides are often not reported or are reported confusingly, making it hard to raise awareness and keep accurate statistics.

Youth advocates all over the United States are working with QUILTBAG youth, and many are working directly in schools. I think we need more of them, more people creating safe spaces for endangered youth, more people calling school administrations up on the carpet for their inaction, more people creating a framework for resistance to bullying in schools. It’s clear that school districts will not change from within, and that those that do want to change have no idea about how to do it; getting more advocates into schools feels like the only concrete thing I can suggest in the face of this epidemic taking my QUILTBAG siblings.

If you’re a QUILTBAG youth in need of suicide counseling, please call the Trevor Hotline: 1-866-4-U-TREVOR

The We Got Your Back Project is a new project to reach out to QUILTBAG youth that could use some support!

Body Image & Disability: An Entry Into The Conversation

A long time ago, I said this:

People with disabilities, especially women, have all the same pressures currently non-disabled people do to look “good enough”, with added bonus of being either non-sexualised or hyper-sexualised, as well as having people infantize them to an incredible degree.

Talking about disability and self-esteem and body image is very difficult for me. People look at me and see a woman without a disability (or a woman with a non-evident one), and I pass. I don’t get the odd looks that a woman of my age (or younger, or older) using a cane or crutches would. I don’t get the pats on the head that women who use wheelchairs report, and I don’t have people leaping out of the way when I’m using a motorized scooter.

But at the same time, women like me are often used as stand-ins for “horrible”. Whether that’s the simple of “she took off her glasses and suddenly she was beautiful!”, or the more complicated of “oh my gosh! the woman I had sex with is actually a crazy person! Quick, let us make many movies about crazy = bunny-boiler = grotesque!”, I’m well aware that women like me are bad, ugly inside, and unacceptable.

These things add a whole other layer to the conversations that many women, feminist and non, have about self esteem and body image. We are all inundated with the constant barrage of White, Long-Haired, Slender (But Not Too Slender), Tall (But Not Too Tall), Unblemished, Healthy-looking, Young women in most advertising and fashion spreads, television shows, movies, and even on our book covers.1

At the same time, though, poster children and the pity parade are a fairly common image of disabled children – whether with visible or non-evident disabilities – that present people with disabilities as weak, as undesirable, as needing of pity – and always, always, always, as children. Very rarely are images of self-possessed, happy, disabled adults shown, unless they are in one of the “he’s so brave” “look at what she’s overcome” news stories.

I don’t know how this affects other people, or how they deal with it. I know that when Don first got his cane, and then his wheelchair, his self-esteem and image of himself took a hit, and it took a while for me to convince him that yes, I still found him attractive (and I can’t tell you how much I love that wheelchair, since my sexy sexy husband now has energy!). I know for me it would be nice to see images of Actual Crazy Women who aren’t mockeries of women like me, but treated like actual people. It would be nice to see casual fashion spreads with people with evident disabilities in them, rather than only seeing “diversity matters!” posters that include maybe one (male) wheelchair user, usually white.

As I said, I find these things very hard to talk about, because in many ways I don’t even know where to start. While to some extent discussing pop culture and representations there is important, how do we, as individuals, deal with our own self-esteem issues? How do we, as a group, tackle the constant attacks on people with visible disabilities to hide parts of themselves? Make yourself more approachable by putting sparkles on your cane! Soup up your wheelchair and maybe someone will ask you a question! Hide your obvious aid-devices so that they don’t offend people! Cake on make-up so no one can see your scars!

I think there’s so much here to talk about. Please, tell me your thoughts.

  1. The last one is so ubiquitous that until just now I didn’t realise that of all the non-fiction books on my desk about disability, only one has an actual image of visibly disabled people on it. Most of them have very plain covers, or abstract-type art on them.

Human Rights Watch Reports Atrocities Against Disabled Women and Children in Uganda

Content note: This post includes discussions of sexual and physical violence committed against women and children with disabilities.

Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a report, ‘As if We Weren’t Human,’ on the violence, isolation, and discrimination experienced by women and children with disabilities in Uganda. Northern Uganda is emerging from decades of conflict, and as the country works on rebuilding itself, disability rights advocates are very concerned about the role of people with disabilities in Ugandan society. The report documents the conditions for many people with disabilities living in Uganda, and challenges the government to take a more active role in protecting its disabled citizens.

It’s worth noting that several other African nations are in positions similar to Uganda’s, and the findings of the report may be more widely applicable. The report highlights the consequences of leaving the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves.

It is estimated that around 20% of the population in Uganda is disabled. Many of those disabilities are acquired as a direct result of the nation’s conflict; women have lost limbs to landmines, been paralysed by bullets, and have developed disabilities in the wake of things like polio infections caused by a complete breakdown in vaccination programmes. Some women have injuries inflicted during the conflict as punishment, such as having their noses and ears cut off for ‘collusion.’ War tends to be brutal, and it tends to  leave distinctive disabilities behind, both increasing the number of people with disabilities in society and making it easy for people to identify people who have lived through the war, an issue that can come with its own set of problems.

Women with disabilities trying to integrate into society are facing an uphill battle as they attempt to leave refugee camps and return to their communities, find ways to support themselves, and struggle with the fact that many communities have been shattered and the extensive social support networks that once existed are gone now. Poverty is a chronic problem for many disabled women that makes it even harder for them to access services they need. Disconnection and fragmentation of society has very serious consequences for people who need networks of people to survive, including both people who are attempting to establish full autonomy for themselves, and people who need full time care and assistance.

The report also documents that women and girls with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual violence, sometimes repeatedly, and that they lack access to reproductive health services. People with disabilities cannot even get HIV testing to determine if they’ve been infected after being raped. Other gender-based violence and abuse has also been widely documented; as in the rest of the world, people with disabilities are more at risk of experiencing physical violence as well as emotional abuse. Psychological issues often nip at the heels of people subjected repeatedly to sexual and physical violence, creating the risk of a mental health crisis in Uganda.

Discrimination against people with disabilities is also widespread; for example, a woman with HIV named Candace says “I cannot bathe near others. My neighbors think that the water that comes off me has HIV in it. They say I will get the community sick if they touch the water.” Some of the discrimination stems from ignorance, the result of inadequate education and outreach, two common problems in communities torn by war that don’t have the time or personnel to be providing these kinds of services. Other discrimination is the result of unchallenged social attitudes, made harder to challenge by the isolation of people with disabilities. When people aren’t interacting with the subjects of their discrimination on a daily basis, it’s much harder to break down the beliefs and attitudes that contribute to the perpetuation of that discrimination.

The report concludes that the government and NGOs working in Uganda need to take a more active role in ensuring that people with disabilities are not left behind during recovery efforts. This includes actively working on accessibility issues in Uganda, educating government representatives and health care providers about disability issues, and fighting discriminatory attitudes with education and outreach. As it is, people with disabilities are already being left out, and there’s a lot of catching up to do to address the situation before it gets even worse.

Social attitudes like those highlighted in the Human Rights Watch report are not unique to Uganda, nor are they unique to war-torn nations or nations in the developing world. Some of the same problems seen in Uganda can be seen in the United States, for example, where people with disabilities are more at risk of sexual and physical violence than nondisabled people, and where we lack access to reproductive health services and sexual education because of social attitudes about our sexuality. These are global issues, and the globe as a whole needs to fight them. Personally, I would love to see Human Rights Watch generate similar reports for every nation on Earth.

My Experiences with Disability & The Kink Community

Content Note: While this post isn’t going to talk about sex at all, and it’s only going to briefly touch on some things that get grouped under “kinky” sexuality, I would recommend against it being read at work.

Here is an image to give you a chance to back out! (Image is totally safe for work.)

Image description below

Image Description: A sign that reads “Wheelchairs and Strollers Please Detour Through Bears”

Via Accessibility Fail, who got it from Oddly Specific.

Here’s the jump!
Continue reading My Experiences with Disability & The Kink Community

Dear Imprudence: Have You Considered Violating Your Son’s Bodily Autonomy Today?

Content warning: This post discusses involuntary sterilisation of people with disabilities.

Reader bzzzzgrrrl drew my attention to a recent Dear Abby column that featured this:

Dear Abby: My husband and I have a 24-year-old developmentally disabled son who lives with us. Three months ago, he met a nice girl at the mental health program he attends. They hold hands, go to the movies and occasionally smooch.

Recently, “Jasper” had a mark on his neck. We were over at a friend’s house for dinner when my best friend noticed the mark. She then proceeded to tell me I should consider getting Jasper “fixed.” At first, I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly, so I asked her to repeat it. I am shocked that she thinks I should have my son sterilized.

Jasper is diagnosed with ADD and Asperger’s syndrome. According to his mental health counselor, he could someday be married, have children and lead a productive, independent life. It just may take him longer to get to that point in comparison with his peers.

How should I respond to my friend about her suggestion? When she made it, I didn’t know what to say. — Speechless in New Hampshire

I’m going to give you a moment to take that in. When I first encountered it, I was so stunned that I actually blinked and sat in uneasy silence for a minute thinking ‘I did not just read that.’ And then I thought ‘this woman’s ‘friend’ did not just compare a person to a dog, right?’ And then I re-read and realised that yes, I did in fact just read that and yes, the ‘friend’ really did say that.

Because this is how people think. In 2007, the United States objected to wording in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities that said that we have a right to sexual and reproductive health services. In 2009, there was a controversy in Indiana over a bill attempting to bar involuntary sterilisation of people with disabilities. Sterilisation is presented as ‘in the patient’s best interest.’ People discuss involuntary sterilisation as a topic of debate, as though there is a question about whether or not it should be performed.

I’m sure Speechless’ friend thought there was nothing amiss about her comment. She’s just exercising some friendly concern! And talking about Jasper like he wasn’t even there, evidently. I’ve been Jasper, sitting in the chair at the dinner table while someone is telling my father how to control my body, and it is not a pleasant experience, to be reminded that the entire world considers you public property. Thinks that it is perfectly acceptable to discuss you like an animal or a piece of furniture in your presence. It’s not much of an extension from people thinking it’s ok to say whatever they want about you to people thinking it’s ok to do whatever they want to you.

Abby responded:

Dear Speechless: If you still want to maintain the friendship with the woman, tell her what your son’s mental health counselor said about his prospects for the future. But first, if you haven’t already, make sure Jasper clearly understands everything he needs to know to protect himself and his nice girlfriend from premature parenthood.

I cannot say that I am wholly impressed with this response. Mainly because Abby is acting like the friend is someone Speechless would ‘want to maintain a friendship with.’ Someone who suggests than a human being should be ‘fixed’ like a household pet is someone I would be tearing out of my address book, I tell you what. Miss Manners is never afraid to tell readers when their ‘friends’ deserve nothing more than the boot and I think that more advice columnists should follow suit, personally.

Whatever the son’s mental health counselor may or may not have said is not anyone else’s business. And whether or not Jasper can achieve the holy trinity of marriage, children, and a job, he is not required to justify his relationship, nor is his mother required to speak for him to justify his relationship. Jasper and his girlfriend are evidently happy. They are entitled to bodily autonomy. They are entitled to their own sexuality, and to not be scrutinized and monitored. Jasper is entitled to his fertility.

I’ve discussed the lack of access to sexual education here before, so I’m glad to see that Abby briefly touched upon that issue. And, you know, props for subverting the usual family planning narrative that puts the responsibility on the woman, but Abby’s comment reads as a tad patronising to me. It might be because I’m still reeling from the letter itself, of course.

Personally, what I think Speechless should do is cut her ‘friend’ dead, socially speaking. And if the ‘friend’ asks why, Speechless should tell her. And if other people ask why, Speechless should tell them too. One reason that these attitudes are so pervasive and persistent is that they are rarely challenged and discussed by people who are not disability rights activists. If members of the nondisabled community started actively pushing back on things like this, started really thinking about what this line of thinking represents, perhaps we could start to dismantle it.

I go from things like this to people telling me that involuntary sterilisation doesn’t happen any more, that eugenics is over and done with, because things like this are never discussed. People appear surprised to learn that not only does involuntary sterilisation still happen, but a lot of people are all for it.

Give Teens With Disabilities Access to Sexual Education

Yesterday, the Guttmacher Institute issued a press release with some study results which attracted a great deal of attention. “Following Decade-Long Decline, U.S. Teen Pregnancy Rate Increases as Both Births and Abortions Rise” hit the wires and the speculation started almost immediately. Many members of the feminist community argued that it was the result of the total failure of abstinence-only education, a form of sexual education I’ve long railed against, and advocates for abstinence-only argued…well:

Others said the reversal could be due to a variety of factors, including an increase in poverty, an influx of Hispanics and complacency about AIDS, prompting lax use of birth control such as condoms.1

…yeah. Thanks for that.2

Teen pregnancy in the 1990s dropped radically. Now, it’s on the rise again, very much in line with predictions made by researchers. And there is a pretty demonstrable link here between the rise of abstinence-only and the rise in the teen pregnancy rate. This much is clear, and it’s a link which should be discussed.

But there’s another issue which I haven’t seen getting very much coverage: The denial of sexual education to teens with disabilities, even in areas where sexual education of some form beyond “keep your legs closed until marriage” is offered. This is not fair to disabled teens, and to people with disabilities in general, and it’s something which needs to be addressed, pronto, because we should be at the point in society where we recognize that all teens including disabled teens need access to balanced information about sexual health, contraception options, and recognizing abusive relationships.

People with disabilities are at increased risk of being sexually abused.3 Young people with disabilities are especially vulnerable.4 You know what happens to people who are vulnerable to sexual abuse who do not receive sexual education? It makes them more vulnerable.

It’s time to recognize, as a society, two important things:

  1. Some people with disabilities like to have sex.
  2. People with disabilities in general are at increased risk of sexual abuse and assault, whether or not they are sexual.

These must be acknowledged so that we can start focusing on making sexual education fully accessible. Because this is a critical step in breaking down a vicious cycle which perpetuates not only widely believed stereotypes about people with disabilities, but abuse of people with disabilities, including justification of that abuse.

We need to be providing disabled teens with tools which they can use to make choices about their sexuality, like if they want to have sex, with whom, where, when, and how. And, given that able people sometimes have disabled partners, providing people with non-judgmental information about sex and disability is pretty important. Plus, admitting that some disabled folks enjoy sex too can break down a lot of social stigma, including the attitude that people with disabilities can’t have sex or don’t like to have sex. When even supposed professionals ask questions like “is your partner capable of having sex,” it illustrates a profound lack of awareness.

And we need to make sure that information about recognizing and addressing abuse is provided in sexual education, with a special focus on recognizing, preventing, and handling abuse of disabled persons. We also must ensure that people have the ability to report abuse, because almost every study I see about abuse and people with disabilities includes some variation of the line “unfortunately, reporting of abuse is limited, which makes it difficult to arrive at accurate estimates…”

Not including terms to describe sexual abuse in a communication book, for example, is a pretty effective way to prevent someone from reporting sexual abuse. Sterilizing institutionalized women so that they can’t get pregnant when they’re being sexually abused by caregivers is another very effective way to make it hard to get accurate statistics on abuse. Not giving people with disabilities the language they need to describe abuse perpetuates abuse. So does ignoring reports of abuse from people with disabilities.

Disabled teens need sex ed. It’s time to give it to them.5

  1. Stein, Rob. (2010, 26 January) “Rise in teenage pregnancy rate spurs new debate on arresting it.” The Washington Post, A04.
  2. Insert meloukhia-rant which would otherwise eat up this entire post here.
  3. Myers, Leslie. (1999) “People With Disabilities and Abuse.” Readings in Independent Living.
  4. Mansell, Sheila, Sobsey, Dick, Wilgosh, Lorraine, and Zawallich, Andre. (1996) “The sexual abuse of young people with disabilities: Treatment Considerations.” International Journal For the Advancement of Counseling, Volume 19, Number 3. Pp. 293-302.
  5. And it’s time to make some pretty major changes in the sex ed system in general. Abstinence-only aside, a lot of sexual education is highly heteronormative and binarist. Sexual education needs to be much more inclusive of a lot of things.

Sex Workshops Can Be For Everyone

When I was living in San Francisco a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a workshop at Good Vibrations (link not safe for work) taught by Madame Cleo Dubois. Good Vibrations, incidentally, is a business I really like. They’ve got multiple locations in the Bay Area and they are all pleasant, fun, and safe to be in for me. The staff are very knowledgeable and very inclusive, and they’ve got supplies and references for all sorts of people. They are maybe not quite as thorough on disability as some other establishments, but they are at least aware of accommodation needs, and of the fact that, you know, some disabled folks like to have sex. Yes, there’s some room for improvement, but I’ve generally had very positive interactions with their staff.

Especially in the case of this workshop, “Radical Touch,” which focused on consensual sensory play. Madame Cleo Dubois is a dominatrix, and she’s got rather a lot of experience with sensory play of all sorts. The class started with a brief talk, and then interaction (at personal comfort levels) with the things Madame Cleo brought and with other class attendees. She had a table at the front of the room with a number of different things laid out on it, and one of the things that she stressed is that human skin and the human body are very sensitive, and that there are a lot of ways to explore that sensation; just lightly brushing someone’s arm with a hand can be a form of sensory play, for example, and lots of textures (sandpaper, velvet, feathers, etc) can be utilized to stimulate the sense of touch, in addition to things which people might more traditionally think of in the context of sensory play (such as BDSM activities). Sensory play is also not just about touch, but about all the senses, and that was discussed as well.

What I loved about this class, beyond the content, which was delightful, was the inclusive nature. There was a very mixed crowd in attendance, and Madame Cleo made sure that everyone was included at their own personal comfort level. She stressed the fact that sensory play can come in a lot of forms, and that everyone’s sensitivity is different, that there’s no “good” and “bad” involved in different sensitivities and comfort levels. She also stressed the importance of bodily autonomy in sensory play, that in any context, you always have the right to decide what happens, and when, and how, and took the time to discuss negotiation of any sensual interaction in any context. She made opportunities to talk and work with everyone in the room, and there were several people with disabilities in attendance whom she made sure were included. Not in a showy “ah yes, the wheelchair user!” sort of way, but in a quiet way; she didn’t make assumptions about what they were/were not interested in, what they were/were not capable of, what sort of people they were. In part, I’m sure this comes from her professional experience, because she works with a really broad spectrum of humanity.

I could tell that some of the able folk were a little bit uncomfortable at first, especially with the wheelchair user, and Madame Cleo would have none of that. By the end of the class, everyone was connecting and interacting and having fun, regardless of gender, disability status, or any other factor. It was deeply enjoyable for me to attend a sexuality workshop in which everyone was respected and included, in which assumptions were not made about people, in which it was assumed that everyone was unique and had something different to bring to the room. I think that some of the people in that room learned something about assumptions, and took that message away with them, even though the class wasn’t about a Very Special Diversity Hour in the slightest.

I haven’t attended sexuality workshops at other establishments, so I don’t know if inclusivity is the norm or the deviation. I’d be curious to know. I feel like the inclusive environment was an excellent experience for all the attendees, from the people who are often excluded to the people who often do the excluding. An accessible space is useless without inclusion, and offering sexuality workshops which only cater to one experience is pretty useless too, in my opinion. It heartened me to see inclusion normalized and expected at Good Vibrations workshops I attended, although I do wish that they also specifically offered workshops on sexuality and disability.

Anna mentioned Venus Envy in Halifax as a disability-friendly establishment, and Toys in Babeland (which has a sex toy guide specifically for people with disabilities) is another excellent resource. For those who attend/have attended them, what kind of experiences have you had in sex shops and sexuality workshops? Do you have any establishments you’d recommend (or advise against)? What kinds of topics would you like to see covered?