Overcoming the Stigma Surrounding Disability & Sex
Disabled people make up 56.7 million people in the U.S., yet, are still frequently viewed as nonsexual beings. With disabled people comprising nearly 1 in 5 people in America, changing these perceptions is long overdue. The question is how do we do it?
Susan Wendell addresses this in her book, The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability, writing: "When people are blamed or made to feel responsible for having non-ideal bodies despite their reasonable care, when unprovable theories are generated to explain how someone could have avoided becoming ill, when people with disabilities are seen as having their psychological, moral, or spiritual failures written upon their bodies, and when every death is regarded as a defeat of human efforts, the myth of control is at work.”
The media’s influence on ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities) and the public’s perception of how disabled people can also, despite any misconceptions, be sexual individuals is often contributed to a lack of visibility and affirmation.
The “myth of control,” as Wendell suggests, guides people into thinking that disabled people can’t be powerful, sexy and in control. They are powerless. They are what the American dream tries not to be. They resemble suffering, loss and most important, fear. The notion that a disabled person in fact can be sexual confuses able-bodied people. Defining disability in public campaigns, advertisements and discussions can appropriately yield cultural views about what it means to live with a chronic illness.
Multidisciplinary artist Traci Fowler says that the public sees able-bodied people as superior and that it’s “unfathomable that we can be and often are sexual people with a varying range of sexual interests and desires just like the rest of the population.”
When asked why they think the public has so many common misconceptions about disability and sexuality, Fowler says that people tend to assume there are physical limitations. More than that, they argue that a lot of people’s hang-ups about sexuality and disability are simply people’s hang-ups about sex in general, including a lack of knowledge/education, unreasonable standards, rushing through things, heteronormativity, focus on male pleasure and female performance and fear of being considered “weird," among other things. This combined with the power dynamic that exists in our society defines disabled people as inferior, Fowler continues.
"People don’t like being uncomfortable, and we make people uncomfortable because there’s a lot to unpack before you can truly interact with us in a real way and get to know us as individual people,” they add.
Issues dealing with body positivity and disability are all-encompassing, but looking at specific campaigns, like the body-positivity movement, they rarely feature disabled bodies. Their voice claims to uplift, empower and encourage women, but it stops short at stretch marks and thick thighs. Individuals with chronic illnesses have not been visible in the overarching movement.
This brings up thoughts of why, & how can we fix this problem in mainstream media?
A recent study discovered that 95 percent of disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors. Where is the visibility? Where is the acknowledgement of disabled representation? Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation told the Washington Post, “We’ve progressed with other minority groups. With disability, the representation is still woefully inadequate and we think that’s based on a stigma that’s prevalent in society and also in Hollywood.”
Moreover, visibility influences positive feelings. When disabled people are portrayed as weak and sickly, it becomes difficult for a viewer to see them in a positive light. Each person’s disability is different, especially when based on socio-economic status, race, gender and age. Nevertheless, disabled people exist, and they deserve a representation that stands alone and beside those who yearn for body positivity.
Emily Yates from the Love Lounge agrees that society’s standards of beauty are flawed. She says, “Unfortunately, in society today, disability is still deemed undesirable, and disabled people are frequently looked upon as ‘hard work,’ ‘a burden’ and less sexy in general than their nondisabled peers.”
How can we overcome the stigma surrounding disability & sex?
How are people with disabilities coping with their sexuality, visibility and body positivity? Simply put, they are making it happen themselves. Groups like the Lutte Collective, and the #DisabledAndCute campaign are creating online spaces for all bodies, no matter what their ability may be and celebrating all-inclusive bodies.
The Love Lounge, an online forum based in the U.K. that opens up conversations about sex, disability, love and relationships, is the first of its kind. Yates, who runs the forum with Mik Scarlet, says, “The goal is for the combination of disability and sexuality to no longer be so much of a taboo and for disabled people themselves to feel comfortable and confident in their right to be sexual beings.”
A study in the U.K. in 2008 found that 70 percent of people said that they would not have sex with someone with a disability and only 4 percent said yes. This question is unfair. Obviously, disability ranges from chronic to mental and many people may not even fully comprehend what falls under the umbrella of disabilities. The answer, again and again, is education.
Yates agrees that “we can educate ourselves and raise our own awareness and we can encourage conversation amongst others to happen” in order to change the public’s idea of what it means to be a sexual and disabled person.
In order to ensure that all body types know they are valuable, we must begin at the core of what is influencing the wider public. Being exposed to more disabled people on public platforms and not shielding them away is at the foundation of how we can alter misconceptions about sexuality.
For Fowler, they “try to always have the sex” they want to be having. They go on to say that “people can be mean, and people are very impatient."
Fowler says sexting is difficult for them and meeting up in person is even more difficult. But social media helps them to have a platform to share what they're feeling.
"This all helps me to not feel alone and to embrace the sexuality in me,” they add.
Sexuality is a form of expression and for finding solace in one’s body — to be adventurous, to be vulnerable. Individuals who are less able than others don’t miss out on those dynamics. They aren’t shielded or held back. Contrary to popular belief, those people are having sex.
“Getting to know my body, the way it looks to other people, the way it feels from day to day, what I can and can’t do with it. I take a lot of nudes and a lot of selfies and I share them as often as I can online or with friends. The more I have normalized my body for myself, the more I am able to love it and treat it right,” says Fowler.
Because of society's belief that sex equals penis-in-vagina, we can see how complex interactions outside of those boundaries may confuse the majority. However, sex does not equal penis-in-vagina. Sexuality, ability and orientation are not binary — it’s complicated, it’s complex, and it’s worth talking about.