I had the great pleasure of being part of a panel at the Women with Disabilities ACT Annual general meeting last Wednesday. The topic was safe relationships and disability. There was a film called Mirrorball shown which was made a few years ago and looked at attitudes around dating, sex and relationships for people with (mostly intellectual) disability. The film involved interviewing people with disability and their parents. The thing which struck me was the high level of assumptions of incompetence and deficits-thinking from many of the parents. They almost universally saw relationships and dating for their kids as a negative and something to be concerned about. The panel included myself, an autistic asexual non-binary person, Katie, a heterosexual cis gendered young woman with down syndrome, Sue, the Chair of Women with Disabilities ACT and a doctor from the Sexual Health and Family Panning Clinic. It was a great discussion and it got me thinking about the way society thinks about disability and sexual relationships and why it needs to change.
Historically people with disability have been viewed as sexless and childlike or as oversexed and sexually inappropriate. There is little in between those two views. People with disability are also often viewed as exclusively heterosexual in their interest although in reality a lot of people with disability have a non-heterosexual sexual interest and expression. Sex is often viewed as something to discourage and a problem, rather than how sexuality is thought of for everyone else – pleasurable and something positive to have in your life.
Another issue is around children. When I was kid in the 1980s, my mum worked in a doctor’s clinic as a receptionist. She told me how what she termed the ‘simple girls’ used to come in once a month and get their contraceptive so they didn’t get pregnant. While that might seem OK to some people, it is actually extremely fraught and problematic. Who makes that decision around controlling somebody’s reproductive rights? Are there any other groups in society who may not be good parents who have forced sterilisation? Do they do that for people with drug and alcohol issues or people who are abusive? They don’t. This goes to the heart of the issues around sexuality and disability.
I think the reason there has been and presumably still is control over the reproductive rights of women with disability and that sexual relationships are viewed as a negative relates to that view that people with disability are incompetent and need to be controlled and managed. There is often a sort of blanket view of the incompetence of all people with disability which makes no sense at all. I saw an example of this when I had a mental health worker who had a facial difference. People would speak to her like she was five years old. It used to really upset me and I would say ‘but your thinking and personality are in your brain, not your face!’ I know wheelchair users who get people talking down to them as if they are children and it baffles me. This results in people with disability being viewed as having pretty much the same needs and experience. This results in those view of incompetence and the need to have people doing things on our behalf.
When we look at sexuality another issue is at play as well. The idea of a physical or mental ‘norm’ and disability being a deviation from this. ‘But how can you have sex?’ people might ask incredulously. In society, things that are viewed as sexy rarely intersect with things viewed as related to disability. Sex is presented as the domain of conventionally ‘beautiful’, able-bodied people. If you are physically, cognitively or mentally ‘different’ then the conventional view of sexiness does not include you. This can result in people being very uncomfortable to even think about, let alone discuss, sex and disability.
These things all point to the sexuality of Disabled people being something of a political act. we challenge the status quo simply by expressing ourselves sexually. It is one of those areas where I wish we didn’t have to be political because love and sex should not need to be. We should just be accepted and respected to do such things in the same way anyone else is. However, as we are not, bring on the activism I say! And this IS an area which requires activism.
On a personal note, I do not undertake sexual activity. I am not a prude and I am all for love and sex if other people are doing it, but I am asexual and have very little interest in sexual intimacy. As a disability advocate this causes me a lot of soul-searching and anxiety. I live a stereotype and it is a really unhelpful one. My asexuality is not something I talk about much and my concerns about it possibly justifying some unhelpful thinking are behind that. However when I stop and think about this, I realise the issue is not me or my asexuality but the existence of the stereotype itself. Asexuality is the way I am and I should not feel ashamed of that. Challenging that stereotype but being true to myself is probably a better approach than trying to hide away.
Things do seem to be changing in these areas, although maybe not as quickly as I would like them to! This is a huge area for advocacy as it goes deeply to the heart of ableism and discrimination. Our loves and relationships as Disabled people should be a cause for celebration and joy not concern and worry. We have as much right to be happy in a relationship and to enjoy the pleasures of sexuality as anyone else is. We are not sexless children and we do not need control over every aspect of our sexuality and expression. The theme for International Day for People with Disability this year is empowerment and inclusion. Let us be empowered to express our love and relationships in a way that might not be conventionally beautiful and may differ form the ‘norm’ but which is beautiful nonetheless. Let us be equal in our capacity to love and to be loved. Yes let’s talk about sex and disability and challenge the prevailing views so that people can express themselves and who they are sexually.