The sexuality of disabled people has long been suppressed and exploited. But in recent years, people with physical and cognitive impairments have been pushing back, fighting for sexual citizenship, and upending standard notions of gender, pleasure, and sexuality.
Top photo featured by kind permission of Sofie Middernacht and Maarten Alexande
Millie Dollar sashays onto the stage in a green, feathered dress to conclude the evening’s entertainment with a sultry burlesque routine. The capacity audience at the ornate Epstein Theatre in Liverpool is enraptured by her sensual beauty.
Burlesque, she says in an interview, gives her a way of communicating through costume, routine and dance – which she does with panache. What the audience can’t see though is the hearing condition that means she must work hard to follow the beat during her glamorous routine.
A number of disabled performers have taken to the stage to entertain mainstream audiences in recent years, although in her routines Dollar (unlike some) does not refer to either her hearing impairment or her depression, which she writes about with candour and insight.
The internationally famed multi-disciplinary performer Mat Fraser has long explored the relationship between disability, entertainment and sexuality. He is currently appearing in the popular US TV series American Horror Story. He said in a recent interview: “When you are disabled the two things people think you can’t do are fight and have sex…so I’ve got a black belt and I’m really good at shagging. The physical pleasures in life are really important to me.”
Research has shown that disabled people are less likely to have a long-term partner or marry than non-disabled people, although this is very dependent on impairment type. When a 2014 newspaper poll asked Britons if they had ever had sex with someone who had a physical disability, 44 per cent said ‘No, and I don’t think I would’.
So how can we shift the negative images of disability and sexuality that still dominate society’s attitudes? Disabled people and their allies have been campaigning for change for decades. While it is not going to be easy, change is on the way, but with it comes new controversies.
A History of Suppression
Disabled people’s sexuality has been suppressed, exploited and, at times, destroyed over many centuries. It has been seen as suspect, set apart and different from the sexuality of non-disabled people.
Dr. Tom Shakespeare, a disabled academic, wrote The Sexual Politics of Disabilitynearly 20 years ago. It remains one of the few evidence-based studies in the field. “I think images of disability and sexuality either tend to be absent – disabled people being presented as asexual – or else perverse and hypersexual,” he says.
The key attitudes identified by Shakespeare appear as threads throughout myth and literature, from classical times onwards. Disabled characters and their sexuality appear relatively frequently in legends and texts but are usually harnessed to powerful negative metaphors.
Consider the myth of Hephaestus, born ‘shriveled of foot’ and cast out from Olympus by his mother. He is married off to the goddess Aphrodite, but she is unfaithful to him because of his impairment, which unmans him in her eyes, and he is cuckolded and scorned. This trope is repeated, much later, in D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where Lady Chatterley satisfies herself with the virile gamekeeper because her husband is a ‘cripple’.
This scenario, where a disabled man is judged to have lost sexual power because of his impairment and his sexual partner has carte blanche to seek solace elsewhere, has become known as the ‘Chatterley Syndrome’.
As Shakespeare observes, disabled men (and, to a lesser extent, women), are rendered impotent and sexless by disability, and thus are seen as unattractive and vulnerable to mockery and exploitation. As Cicero wrote: “In deformity and bodily disfigurement, there is good material in making jokes.”
This may explain an assumption often made in the past – that it was better to shield disabled people from reaching out for sexual relationships rather than risk the potential of being rejected. There was an expectation that disabled people’s sexual desires should be set aside and ignored, because they should not – or could not – be satisfied.
The second trope is that disability is a punishment wreaked for committing a sin and, as such, the disabled person is a wholly unsuitable sexual partner because they are evil and, paradoxically, powerful. One of the best examples is in William Shakespeare’s Richard III, who is written as twisted in body and mind or, as he says of himself, “rudely stamped” and rendered impotent by his physical limitations.
Disabled women have also faced this stigma. Many women with mental health conditions – along with older people showing signs of dementia, and people with benign and cancerous growths – were caught up in the European witch-hunts of the 17th century, for example. One observer at the time, Reginald Scot (a justice of the peace in Kent), noted that they were “commonly old, lame, blear-eyed, pale, foul, full of wrinkles…lean and deformed showing melancholy in their faces to the horror of all that see them.”
Disabled people have also been stereotyped as being hypersexual – a claim used against women with learning difficulties in particular. This has led on to persistent abuse of disabled women, particularly in institutions, where they have been routinely raped and abused for centuries. Early 19th-century whistle-blowers gave evidence of such maltreatment – which extended to rape and murder.
Another powerful archetype, Tom Shakespeare says, is the unconscious – and sometimes conscious – attitude surrounding reproductive fitness that suggests having a disabled partner is potentially contaminating as it could pass the ‘problem’ on to the next generation.
Disabled people have challenged this on many levels: for example, sexual relations are not all about procreation, not all impairments are inheritable, and many disabled people accept their impairment and the possibility that it might be passed on. Deaf (with a capital D) people, for example, consider deafness to be a culture, rather than an impairment, and believe it should be embraced and celebrated.
With eugenics – a now-discredited social philosophy – Francis Galton pursued the theory of contamination to its logical end. He argued, along with others who took up his ideas, that people with disabilities (along with the poor and the generally ‘unfit’) should be prevented from breeding.
The eugenics movement, which started in the UK, was taken up with enthusiasm in the USA. By 1914 nearly two-thirds of US states had made it illegal for “feeble-minded” and “insane” people to marry. The so-called ‘Ugly Laws’, first passed in the 1880s, prohibited the “unsightly” from being seen on the street at all. Between 1907 and 1928 thousands of Americans were sterilised.
The legitimization of eugenic views throughout Europe and America ended in a logical, if horrifying, outcome: the systematic murder of thousands of disabled people in Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933. By the end of World War II, it is estimated that some 200,000 people with disabilities had been murdered.
Asexual, hypersexual, perverse and contaminated: these four damaging tropes from history combine to form a bitter legacy for disabled people.
The Birth of the Disability Movement
The disability movement first started to challenge those attitudes in the USA in the mid-to-late 1960s. The first disabled American war veterans were starting to arrive back from Vietnam and pushing for inclusion. Students were also key to this new civil rights battle.
Ed Roberts was the first student with significant disabilities to attend UC Berkeley in California. In the early 1960s he and other disabled students formed a group, The Rolling Quads, to advocate for UC Berkeley to become the first truly accessible university. From that point onwards British disability activists have looked to UC Berkeley, and to the USA more widely, for inspiration in the civil rights struggle, including around the right to independent living.
Student activists wanted the right to have sex too. The nearby University of California responded by founding a sexuality and disability centre, where sex therapists could give advice and facilitate contact with ‘sex surrogates’, as they became known. Although prostitution was outlawed in almost all US states, the legal status of sexual surrogates was (and still is) undefined – meaning the sexual services they offer are technically neither legal nor illegal.
Disabled writer Mark O’Brien studied English and journalism at UC Berkeley and was commissioned by a magazine to interview disabled people about their sex lives in the 1980s. This led him to explore his own sexuality. He wrote in The Sun magazine: “I wanted to be loved…held, caressed, and valued. But my self-hatred and fear were too intense. I doubted I deserved to be loved… Most of the disabled people I knew in Berkeley were sexually active, including disabled people as deformed as I. But nothing ever happened.”
O’Brien eventually saw a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, and lost his virginity with her. They became life-long friends. Two films were made about him – the Oscar-winning short Breathing Lessons and The Sessions. He had five years of happiness with the writer Susan Fernbach before his death in 1999. Mark O’Brien’s struggle to affirm his right to sexuality has become iconic in the wider campaign for sexual rights for disabled people.
Read More: Here