Disability and Sexuality

9 May

What is it about the conjunction of disability and sexuality that is so unthinkable? For many people the very idea that those with disabilities – whether physical or developmental – should experience sexual pleasure and desire is something never considered, or evenly actively disavowed. It’s a thought that makes those in mainstream society uneasy, perhaps somewhat shocked or repelled. Yet many contemporary studies show that the emotions, feelings, longings and disappointments that we all associate with sexuality are just as prevalent among disabled people as among the nondisabled. Having a spinal cord injury or a congenital skeletal disorder, for instance, does not expunge desire nor the potential of pleasure. There may, of course, be physical obstructions to the practicalities of sexual experience – a lack of appropriate sex education, care situations that discourage or prohibit sexual relations, or over protective parents who fail to provide adequate privacy – but these are often things that can put right by more sensitive policy decisions. What are more difficult to change are the socio-cultural attitudes that simply devalue bodies that don’t work in the same way as the norm. If the mores of sexual expression mandate a narrow range of acceptable practices, then it is not just those who choose otherwise – like gay men or women – who offend against social standards, but all those, including many people with disabilities, who literally cannot conform to expectations. Why, then, are alternative ways of experiencing sexual pleasure so debarred?

The problem, it seems, is that those who count themselves as nondisabled want to feel that they are always in control of their own bodies and that those bodies are predictable and stable over time. They are made highly uneasy by other bodies that appear disorganised, sometimes highly dependent and often unreliable. So anomalous corporeal form is difficult enough in its own terms, but put it together with a mode of behaviour and affect – sexuality – that already breaks the rules that define the modern autonomous subject and there is a heightened sense of anxiety. Isn’t sexuality already one of the most highly monitored and regulated areas in life precisely because it always threatens to get ‘out of control’? It breaks down the carefully defined separation of self and other, it disrupts language, it compromises rationality, and it draws attention not to the ideally closed status of each body but to the fluidity between and within bodies. The conjunction of disability and sexuality, then, speaks to any number of hidden fears and provokes at best silencing and at worst a real disgust. In my recent book, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality (2009 Palgrave), I try to tease out all these issues and suggest a more ethical way forward. Of course we need an ongoing reformation of law and social policy to secure the interests of disabled people in their own sexualities, but we also need to rethink the attitudes and values around sexuality that so effectively limit the possibilities of those who are embodied differently. It isn’t enough to meet needs as defined by the nondisabled majority; the achievement of socio-cultural equity for all requires an open response to the desires and affects that most challenge normative standards. Disability and sexuality may currently be a taboo area, but once society’s internalised fears are acknowledged, there is no reason for it to remain so.

Margrit Shildrick

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