It’s a concept that nondisabled people has extreme difficulty grasping: Disabled people have sex. All kinds of sex in all kinds of positions with all kinds of people. Wheelchair users have sex and so do blind people and people with chronic pain and D/deaf people. Disabled people fall in love and get married and have children. Disabled people are queer, gay, lesbian. Disabled people are transgender. Disabled people are complicated human beings with the full spectrum of experiences that society applies to nondisabled people — because disabled people are human beings, and this is how humanity works.
Yet, society consistently and violently desexualises disabled people. This has really serious implications from a lot of perspectives — for one thing, for example, it erodes the fact that disabled people experience sexual assault, because people assume firstly that sexual violence is about sex, and secondly that disabled people are undesirable or unable to have sex, so it’s not possible to assault them, to rape them. It also suggests that disabled people cannot have children, particularly when it comes to wheelchair users and carrying pregnancies. And it erases the humanity of disabled people, turning them into sexless blobs in the larger landscape — for sexuality is such an important part of human experience for many that to be denied your sexuality is to be effectively told that you do not exist.
One area where the gap when it comes to talking about sex and disability is really troubling, though, is with disabled youth. Many disabled children and teens are extremely isolated, unless they’re fortunate enough to have disabled parents or parents who are willing to seek out information about disability rights and advocacy. The narratives of disabled kids are centred around their parents, not themselves, and that plays out very strongly when it comes to sexuality. Disabled children are sometimes mutilated to ensure that they cannot have sex or bear children, for example, for the convenience of caregivers. They are denied sexual education on the grounds that they don’t need it, which endangers them by exposing them to the risk of STIs, pregnancy, abusive relationships, and much more. In a culture that hates and fears sex even as it is fascinated by sexuality, disabled children are pushed to the side and so are their needs.
Disabled kids often have sexual curiousity and an interest in sex, just like their nondisabled counterparts. Their bodies are growing and changing and they’re experiencing interesting sensations that they want to explore, physical shifts that change their relationships to their bodies. Sometimes, those shifts are negative — a boy starts growing breasts, doesn’t understand why he’s being pressured to wear dresses and participate in a highly feminised culture. A girl struggles to understand why she experiences a sense of attraction to other girls, but doesn’t know how to define it and doesn’t see anyone talking about it, so she assumes it’s wrong and something to be concealed.
Depending on where they live, nondisabled children have access to a variety of resources to help them deal with these things. Far fewer disabled children do. Instead, they’re ignored until their sexuality becomes unavoidable, and no one bothers to talk to them about issues specific about their needs. Maybe people need wedges and other assistive devices to have sex comfortably. Maybe wheelchair users need to be able to communicate with partners about how to help them transfer safely, and how to accommodate their needs. Maybe people have specific concerns like a risk of aggravating chronic pain and old injuries. A society that treats disabled children like they aren’t sexual doesn’t teach those children about how to work with, let alone value or celebrate, their bodies.
With such minimal representation of disability in pop culture, people also can’t turn to film, television, and books to learn more about sexuality — and we already know that pop culture’s handling of sexuality often leaves much to be desired. Very few disabled people are seen having sex in pop culture, and when they are, it’s often tragedised. It’s pity sex, or someone hires a sex worker ‘because he can’t get sex any other way,’ which devalues both sex workers and disabled people. Believe it or not, disabled people have sex with each other and with nondisabled people! They are viewed as sexually attractive! They experience sexual attraction! It’s almost as though they are human beings!
When I see disabled teens struggling with sexuality, gender, and orientation, I ache for them, because I want to live in a world where this shouldn’t have to be the case. They should be able to access the resources they need and will benefit from without shame, and in a culture where people provide this information openly so they can obtain tools that will help them enjoy their sexuality for many years to come. The prudish world we live in refuses to acknowledge disability and sexuality, though, hiding the issue in a box somewhere and teaching disabled people that they’ll never have sex, that their interest in sex is wrong and deviant, that no one will ever be attracted to them, that they won’t find romantic and other kinds of relationships because they’re (1) rooted in sex and (2) no one has sex with disabled people.
Culturally, these social norms are deeply upsetting. Disability isn’t a consideration in sexual education, disability and sexuality don’t appear in pop culture, and those in positions of power are not pushing back against these issues. The consequences are dire for disabled people.
Image: Lesbian & Gay Pride, philippe leroyer, Flickr