Transcription with description follows.
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. 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.]
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.
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: A sign that reads “Wheelchairs and Strollers Please Detour Through Bears”
Here’s the jump!
Continue reading My Experiences with Disability & The Kink Community
WARNING: This post is likely NSFW, and talks about sex.
If you do not want to know anything about my sex life, you don’t want to read it.
I was recently interviewed for an article about sex & disability.
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. Stein, Rob. (2010, 26 January) “Rise in teenage pregnancy rate spurs new debate on arresting it.” The Washington Post, A04.]
…yeah. Thanks for that.[1. Insert meloukhia-rant which would otherwise eat up this entire post here.]
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.[1. Myers, Leslie. (1999) “People With Disabilities and Abuse.” Readings in Independent Living.] Young people with disabilities are especially vulnerable.[1. 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.] 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:
- Some people with disabilities like to have sex.
- 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.[1. 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.]
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?
For the purposes of this post, I would like to remind everyone that the range of disability includes people who are mentally ill, paralyzed, Blind, Deaf, permanently injured, autistic, physically disfigured, with compromised immune systems or disordered speech or chronic pain or cognitive impairments, and many, many others. Disabilities may be fatal or not, may be degenerative or not, may be apparent or not. Being painful, fatal, stigmatized, or poorly understood does not mean that life is not worth living, and I will not tolerate any attempts to enforce a hierarchy of disability; there is no category of Especially Bad Disability that destroys any chance of worthy life.
Have you ever participated in the stigmatizing of pregnncy, childbirth and childrearing when the parent, child, or both have, or could have or obtain, disabilities?
Have you ever participated in the cultural narratives that say:
- Older women should not have children because their children are more likely to have a disability
- Women with disabilities should avoid having children because their children might also have a disability, and it would be wrong, unjust and cruel to give birth to a child that is not in perfect health
- Women with disabilities should avoid having children because only temporarily-abled women can properly parent a child, or being a mother with a disability would somehow deprive the child of necessary experiences or put a burden on the child
- Women with disabilities should avoid having children because they are more likely to be poor and need public assistance, and their children would also be more likely to use public assistance in the future, resulting in a drain on temporarily-abled taxpayers
- Women with disabilities would be selfish to have children, and to do so would contribute to environmental destruction, economic decline, and even degradation of the human species, and they and their children would be less valuable members of society because of their lack of perfect health
- It would be a tragedy to have a disabled child, disabled children are less desirable than temporarily-abled children
- Life with a disability is inherently worse than life without one; life without a disability is the baseline by which all life should be measured, so of course to have a disability would be a negative and would make a person’s life worse
- Disabled children are a burden on their temporarily abled parents, more so than any other child would be, and this is because of the child’s disability rather than because of the lack of support and affirmation throughout all levels of society for PWD and their loved ones
- Of course it is more desirable for a child to be perfectly healthy than to have some sort of medical imperfection, and those medical imperfections are a big stress and hassle on the temporarily abled people around the child, and there is something wrong with the child for failing to meet an impossible standard of perfection
- Health and ability are objective concepts and our current cultural wisdom on them are completely right and the medical industry that puts them forth is infallible; our ideas about health and ability are the only right way to look at things and can be universally applied
- To violate those cultural ideas means that you are inherently flawed
- The answer to all of this is to go to excessive lengths to avoid ever having, or being around someone who has, health problems, up to and including letting the least healthy die off or be terminated before they can live at all
You know what? I’ll bet you’ve all done it. Even the most radical disability activist has participated in some of these cultural tropes at some point in their lives.
But I’ll bet the vast majority of people “blogging for choice” would never think of disability as related to “choice” issues, and if they did, it would be for the right of temporarily-abled higher-class white Western women to terminate a pregnancy that has a more-than-minute chance of resulting in a less-than-perfectly-healthy child.
This is why the “choice” framework fails. It fails all of us, but it particularly fails those of us who fail to meet society’s idea of the optimal person: the pale, thin, beautiful, and financially comfortable picture of perfect health. The person who never relies on others (no!), is “self-sufficient,” and isn’t likely to end up a burden on the important people.
The rest of us can “choose” to stop existing.
Do you really trust women? Or are you perfectly willing to override their choices if you feel they threaten your comfortable position in society?
And you expect me to think you’re any better for my rights and needs than pro-lifers, why?
Edit, Saturday 1/23: I am being very strict in moderating this thread. The primary response from people who do not identify as disabled seems to be “Well, I respect your choice, even though it is clearly cruel and bad/makes me ‘uncomfortable’/is the ‘wrong’ choice.” That is exactly the opposite of what this post is saying. If that is what you got out of this post, you have a LOT of stepping back, listening, and learning left to do.
I’m not asking you to be nice enough not to forcibly prevent us from ever having children, or anyone from ever having disabled children, even as you eagerly stigmatized disabled motherhood/childhood; I am asking you to genuinely examine the deep-rooted prejudices you have been taught and challenge your thinking on childbearing/rearing and disability. I am asking you to question why you have these ideas about disability, and whether they are appropriate to hold as a person committed to social justice. Including for women.
Because, here’s a hint: a lot of us women have disabilities, and all of us were children once, and some of us will have children of our own. And we are still women. Are you really protecting women’s freedom? Or are you merely preserving the temporarily-abled supremacist structure of society, with temporarily abled women as a convenient proxy?
I ask you to consider these prompts, to attempt to truly challenge your assumptions about disability and parenthood. If you aren’t willing to do that, please don’t drop in to explain why disabled women are “Doin It Rong.” Check your privilege. Thanks.
Everything healed up
but in a very strange way
when it was very obvious
that something was very wrong with my face
said one or more of the following:
It’s the Lord’s will.
Just learn to live with it.
It’s all in your imagination.
Don’t be so self-centered.
Shut up and do your homework.
Other people are worse off than you.
[Full text available in the 2004 anthology Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories, edited by Bob Guter and John R. Kilacky.]
This is a complicated post on a complicated issue. That’s one of the reasons it’s not marked 101. I’m trying to write this without being judgmental of the fetish community (after all, I belong to the fetish community), but I am addressing devotee culture here, and I do have some pretty harsh things to say about it, because it makes me uncomfortable. And it makes other women with disabilities uncomfortable as well, because it plays into a lot of complex social issues; from bodily autonomy for people with disabilities to inherently unequal power dynamics. You may well disagree with the content in this post, and I invite your discussion in the comments, but I would like to draw your attention to this line in our comments policy: “This is not a space for chasers and devotees to hook up. We discuss sexuality plenty, but we discuss the authentic desires and needs and pleasure of people with disabilities as full humans and from our point of view; not as sex objects for others based only on the specifics of our particular impairments.” I also want to stress that it is not about the judgment of individual lives and sexual practices; it is not my place to tell people what is and is not ok, sexuality wise (or asexuality wise), this is just an attempt at articulation of my feelings, as a disabled individual, about devotee culture. In other words, comments on this post are going to be heavily moderated.
I’d like to start by telling you a story. This happened a few years ago, when I was living in San Francisco. I was attending a play party with a frequent play partner, and we were sitting together while we waited for some space to free up, talking out the specifics of our scene and catching up since we hadn’t seen each other in a while, when someone approached us.
“I really love your body,” he said, staring at me. Considering that I was not wearing fetishwear or really anything which would invite commentary on my body, I was a little surprised. I thought that he was possibly going to ask me to play with him, and I was getting ready to launch into me “I don’t play with people I don’t know and also you are creeping me out” spiel when he added “I would really like to feed you.”
Believe it or not, despite the fact that I’m fat, I hadn’t heard of feeder culture at this point. So I just sort of looked at him blankly, thinking is he asking me out on a date? This is weird.
“I’d like to feed you, and take care of you,” he said. Ok, I was definitely getting creeped out here. “It would be an honor,” he said, “if you would let me take you into immobility.”
At this point, my play partner thankfully intervened and managed to chivvy him off without too much of a fuss. When she came back to me, I looked at her and said “what was that guy talking about?” And she said “you haven’t heard of feeder/feedee fetishes?” And I said “no,” and she explained, and I realized that there were people out there who actually fetishized me for my body type. Not only that, but who fetishized the idea of creating a permanently unequal power dynamic by fattening me to the point where I could not move.
I felt ill.
And this is how I feel when I am confronted by devotee culture. For those of you not familiar, devotees are people who experience sexual attraction to disability. Not to people. To disability. Attractions to specific impairments, even; some people like redheads while others prefer blondes, and evidently some people prefer above the knee amputees while others go for wheelchairs.
As a member of BDSM, kinky, and alternative culture, I don’t really have a problem with fetish culture. I used to have a dear play partner who was a foot fetishist and he liked nothing more than to play with my feet and/or shoes for hours. I was cool with that. Yes, it was objectification of a body part, but it didn’t arouse these feelings of deep emotional distress in me like devotees do. We were fully consenting adults and there was no problematic power dynamic going on there. And devotees are often about a strange form of power play; to some extent, the fetishization of visible disability is about fetishizing power over marginalized bodies. There’s a difference, for me, between, say, a leather fetish or a bathtub duck fetish or a high heel fetish and a fetish for a particular type of body. There are also degrees of power play, and devotee culture, to me, feels like a very unsettling form of power play.
Disability fetishism is not the only form of fetishism which focuses on fetishizing marginalized bodies. For example, racial fetishes are quite widespread. As are fetishes of children and teens. These bodies are already dehumanized in our society and culture; fetishizing them is extremely problematic because it adds to their dehumanization. People in marginalized and oppressed bodies have been on the powerless end of the power dynamic for a very long time. To engage in a fetish which is structured around the dehumanization of disempowered bodies is a problem.
It’s not about the attraction to the disability: It’s about the attraction to perceived helplessness, it’s about the discomfiting power play, it’s about viewing an entire class of people as sex objects. An entire class of people whom, I would note, have historically been abused because people view them as objects. The same problem occurs with things like racial fetishes and the fetishization of children; the fetish is an echoing of a historical problem. Our social power structures already objectify marginalized classes of bodies, so why would people who live in those bodies want to sexually gratify someone by being the object of a fetish?
The problem is not disabled sexuality: It is the sexualization of disability. Which means that if you’re an amputee and you’re running in shorts and you pass a devotee, you are suddenly viewed as a sexual object, instead of a person running. That’s forced sexualization, taking sexuality outside the bedroom and other sanctioned sexual spaces and thrusting it into daily life. And maybe that’s what troubles me. Just as it troubles me that women can’t go out in public without being perceived as sex objects by society at large.
A body is not something you can take on and off. When someone is done with a foot fetish scene, the heels can be put away. When someone is done with the bathtub ducks, they can be put in the closet. When someone is finished with leather play, a pair of jeans can be slipped on. When you are done exploring power play, you emerge from the scene and return to a more equal state. You can’t do that with a marginalized body. When your body is someone’s fetish, you are an object. You are disempowered. All the time. You can’t escape.
I don’t see anything wrong with able bodied and disabled people engaging in sexual activity. I don’t think that’s necessarily inherently inequal or any of my business, really; if sexuality is egalitarian and based in attraction to the whole person, and for people who are interested in it, if power play is carefully negotiated and happens in controlled environments, I think that’s dandy and great for everyone. And perhaps that’s what troubles me so much about devotee culture. I dislike the fact that there are websites with “stimulating images” which are clearly taken from people’s personal lives. Post a casual photo of yourself on Facebook with friends, get ready for a devotee to lift it to wank off to. When I engage in power play, it’s with full awareness, knowledge, consent, and, yes, control, regardless as to which side of the dynamic I’m on. When I engage in fetish play, it is with things which I can put away when I am done. When someone steals something, a part of me, without consent and sexualizes it, that’s not consensual. When someone’s body is the fetish, there is no putting the fetish away. The scene never ends.
I think it’s great to see disability-positive porn, erotica, and other materials celebrating disabled sexuality. But I am not ok with devotee fetish materials, because they strip bodies of agency. They reduce people to their component parts and disabilities instead of viewing them holistically. I am not ok with the idea that sexuality can be forced on people in their daily lives and routine activities, whether those people are sexual or asexual, partnered or not, etc, because people fetishize their bodies. Just as I think that a woman should be able to jog in lightweight, sensible exercise clothing without being hooted at, I think that someone with a disability should be able to go to the bank without wondering if ou is going to be fetishized by someone in line. I think that a Black woman should be able to walk into an office without being viewed as a sex object. I think that a child should be able to play on a playground without being objectified.
I think it’s interesting that devotees tend to focus specifically on disabled women, who are often disempowered by intersecting systems of oppression. Just as other fetishes of types of bodies focus primarily on people who are disempowered. Indeed, disabled women are at higher risk for sexual assault than able-bodied women, which turns this into a particularly thorny issue. For sexual women with disabilities, sexuality can be very empowering, can be a way of taking back power, in fact. To be reduced to a fetish object is to have that all taken away. I’m not asexual, so I can’t speak to that experience, but I imagine it would be extremely upsetting to be the object of a sexual fetish when you are not sexual. And also immensely disempowering, since this is a society in which sexuality is assumed and almost expected, making it hard enough to navigate without thinking about whether or not someone is getting turned on by your leg braces. Whether you are sexual or not, your body is not a sex object, and should not be viewed as one. No matter who you are.
The problem with devotees isn’t that people with disabilities are gross and cannot engage in sexuality. The problem is that people with disabilities are not objects which should be used for sexual arousal. You get off polishing my shoes? Terrific (and please, come over, because I’ve got a serious backlog over here). You get off thinking about disability? No, thank you. I am not my disabilities.
The problem with objectification of marginalized bodies is that it reinforces social and cultural norms. It echoes the idea that people who live in marginalized bodies are public property, and that it is acceptable to treat them as such. It forces people who are living in ordinary bodies into the position of being sexualized against their will.
Some devotees even go as far as to say that they are empowering for people with disabilities because they are attracted to people because of disability, rather than magnanimously overlooking disability. But, actually, that’s not empowering at all. Just like it’s not empowering to be fetishized if you are Asian, or Black, or Latin@. Just like it’s not empowering to be fetishized when you are 12 years old, doing your 12 year old thing.
I dislike the claim that I will “change my mind” once I explore it. My mind is pretty made up here, honestly, and the tone in which this is said carries a degree of force which I am deeply uncomfortable with. Just as I don’t tell straight people that they will love gay sex once they try it, I ask that people not force their sexuality on me. I’m already being used as a sex object against my will every time a devotee gets excited when I use my inhaler in public (and yes, it has happened). Somehow, I don’t think that’s the start of a wonderful relationship.
You can’t “change your mind” when you are living in a marginalized body which is being sexualized, because there is no escaping your body. You can be open minded, experiment in bathtub duck play, decide it’s not your thing, and not do it again. You can’t do that when your body is the object.
Kaz is a German woman in her twenties, currently doing a maths PhD in the UK. She is on the autistic spectrum, stutters, and has been dealing with clinical depression on and off since her teens; she considers all of these disabilities. She is also aromantic-tending-towards-homoromantic asexual and identifies as queer. She blogged as Zailyn at WP for a while, but can now be found at either Dreamwidth or Livejournal, where she writes about fandom, disability, feminism, asexuality, and sometimes even maths.
Kaz’s note: First of all, this is not a 101-level post on either the asexuality or the disability side of things. However, I’m aware that asexuality isn’t really an issue that is on most people’s radars, so to anyone who doesn’t know much about it I suggest you check out AVEN in general and the Wiki in particular before reading or whenever you run into something that doesn’t seem clear.
Mod Note: Kaz & I talked and I’ve put in some links to terms as they come up.
Talking about the intersection of asexuality and disability is pretty difficult, because “asexuality” gets another meaning in disability rights discourse: it’s used to refer to the various stereotypes about disabled people’s sexualities. People do often seem to realise that this is problematic when it’s pointed out to them. However, what not so many people realise off the bat is that it goes beyond just “problematic”.
The stereotypes in question actually consist of a wide variety of things tossed together, some of which are in line with asexuality but many of which seem to have little to do with asexuality or in fact to be entirely opposed to it (I am interested to see how the stereotype of the disabled woman not saying no because she feels lucky anyone wants her is supposed to relate to asexuality, for instance). What they have in common, however, seems to be: denying disabled people their sexual agency and the right to make decisions or have knowledge about their own bodies and sexualities. The stereotypes about disabled people’s sexualities seem quite in line with the common tendency to consider us childlike, helpless and needing to be protected for our own good.
Asexual adults? Are not children. Nor do we (or, at least, should we) lack agency. In fact, the very existence of the asexual movement shows that we are in opposition to a lot of these ideas! We’re organising, we’re campaigning, we’re demanding that our sexual identity should be recognised and considered valid; disabled people are stereotyped to not have a sexual identity at all. (There is a distinction between the lack of a sexual orientation and a sexual orientation incorporating lack of sexual attraction that most people miss, but that is crucially important in this context.) Taking all the stereotypes disabled people get hit with regarding sex and sexuality and claiming that they all boil down to making them like asexual people? Like me? Is something I actually find really offensive.
An example: the desexualisation of disabled people often gets used to justify giving them less extensive sex ed or no sex ed at all compared to abled people. However, saying this is because they’re stereotyped as asexual entirely misses the fact that – asexual people need sex ed too! At the moment, it’s true that a lot of us will probably need it less than most sexual people, but it is still necessary as a large portion of asexuals do end up having sex at some point in their lives. Also, if mainstream comprehensive sex ed ever gets away from the “put the condom on the banana” “tab A slot B” style of sex education and starts talking about things like sexual orientation, explicit consent, how to figure out whether sex is the right decision for you at a certain time, etc. – I’d argue that we need this kind of sex ed more than many sexual people, as being a sexual minority tends to lead to more confusion and needing to figure things out. (There’s a traumatic experience I could have happily avoided if sex ed ran more in this direction.)
Also, using the name of my sexuality for these stereotypes obscures the fact that actually, they have negative effects for me, too. For instance, there is an astounding amount of ableism in the arguments people use to try and invalidate asexuality, ranging from “you should get your hormones checked!” over “that’s a disability, not a sexual orientation” to “you’re just all autistic!” You can imagine how the last one feels to me as an asexual autistic person! Worse, parts of the asexual movement buy into this and will talk about how they’re not autistic, their sexuality is valid – unlike mine, apparently?
…hey, I recognise this argument! But wait a minute, we can’t very well call it stereotyping disabled people as asexual if it’s being used to invalidate the sexualities of asexual people.
Continue reading Guest Post: Disability and Asexuality