Desexualising Disability

A nude photograph, splintered as though we're looking into a mirror.

Two of my most favourite disability-related public awareness projects in recent years have been the American Able project and Undressing Disability. Both of them feature stellar images by great photographers, with brilliant disabled models, but more than that, they’re extremely confrontational, because they bring up an issue that many nondisabled people would rather not engage with: disabled people being sexual. Disability being sexy. Sexual attraction, sexual relationships, and sexual behaviours among disabled people. It’s a bit of a pushback against the barrier no one dares to name.

There’s a common social attitude that disabled people are not sexual — that something about disability strips people of their sex drive, and that, moreover, disability makes people inherently sexually unappealing, so it’s not like they could find partners even if they wanted them. This is accepted as common knowledge, despite the fact that it creates some extremely harmful social attitudes and social structures.

The insistence that disabled people are not sexual, for example, plays directly into the denial of sexual abuse and violence committed against disabled people. After all, people claim, these behaviours are rooted in sexuality (why this belief persists despite all evidence to the contrary is beyond me), and since disabled people have no sexuality, this means they can’t be assaulted or abused — it’s almost as though people genuinely believe that disabled people are like children’s dolls, with a great big void where their genitals would be. (One wonders what they think happens to people who acquire disabilities later in life.)

It also directly feeds the idea that disabled people can’t and don’t form close relationships with other people; that two disabled people in a romantic relationship in an institutional setting can be separated, for example, because clearly they’re not sexual and they don’t experience sex, romance, and love in the same way nondisabled people do. Likewise, disabled people may be discouraged from pursuing sexual relationships, or may have such relationships written off, because the nondisabled people around them refuse to acknowledge that disabled people can be sexual.

In sexual education programmes, disabled people are left out — why teach people about sex when they’re never going to have it? Why discuss healthy relationships, family planning, and various birth control options with people who have no interest in sex, who aren’t sensual, who don’t experience libido? It’s revolting to witness even respected sex educators who should know better acting like disabled people don’t need sex education — and even more frustrating to know that because disabled people are targeted as victims, they could actually benefit from some unique, focused sexual education that they won’t receive because nondisabled people are too focused on denying their sexuality.

Desexualisation also drives gross attitudes like the belief that it’s okay to quiz disabled people about their sex lives on the off chance you see them with partners, and to pity nondisabled people in relationships with disabled people. It must be so hard, you know, without any sex — you’re so brave for staying with her. With disability comes a sort of public ownership and objectification where people feel free to discuss the intimate details of your body — does it even work, you know, down there?

People seem genuinely shocked and unsettled by the sight of disabled people in sexual relationships, by disabled artists and performers who use their sexuality as part of their acts, by arts projects that celebrate sexy disabled bodies and challenge conventional attitudes about what kind of body is ‘sexy.’ Burlesque performer Million Dollar, for example, performs a Deaf Criptease that simply must be seen — sultry, alluring, compelling, and beautiful. Yet, it’s also incredibly confrontational and aggressive, simply because it includes a disabled woman behaving in a sexual way.

What is so threatening about disabled sexuality? Nondisabled people seem deeply upset by the idea that disabled people might be sexual, might experience attraction, libido, and other sensations associated with sexuality. They practically have kittens when they see evidence of the fact that some of us have sex, and that we even enjoy it, that disabled sexuality is as varied, rich, and complex as nondisabled sexuality. (If not more so: disabilities are the mother of invention, creativity, clever adaptation, and brilliant accommodation, and when it comes to sex, we put our creative thinking skills to work in a variety of ways.)

Many people seem to believe that sexuality is a natural and necessary part of the human condition (ignoring the fact that asexual people are human beings, and their lack of sexual attraction doesn’t render them inhuman) — which leads me to suspect that part of the hate and fear of disabled sexuality is the general desire to dehumanise disabled people. If we can be rendered sexless, neutered, inert, and nonthreatening, it can be made clear that here lies yet another difference between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ another reminder that we are not quite fully human. For how, after all, could you live without enjoying The Sex?

Expressions of sensuality and sexuality from the disabled community are sometimes painted as repulsive, as something that makes people feel uncomfortable. Yet, they tolerate the same kinds of expressions from the nondisabled community (within limits, of course — we wouldn’t want fat people thinking they’re sexy, or women of colour imagining that they deserve sexual autonomy). The fear and hatred of disabled sexuality is the thing I thumb my nose at with delight when I see people being proudly disabled and sexual, baring their bodies to the world, talking openly about sexuality, daring to position themselves as sexual beings.