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Over the coming weeks -- though possibly not every week -- we'll be bringing you an intermittent series on sex and disability. The first begins a short series discussing Shanna Katz's workshop</em> Hip to be Crip: Intersections of Sexuality and Disability at the Body Love Conference this past month in Tucson. I will also get to writing up some of the other sessions -- but I had to break this one up because there was too much awesome to be contained in a single post!
Also, content notes for discussions of ableism and sexual assault.
I went into the conference as a whole thinking that I would take notes in order to help me remember everything that happened. That didn't end up working for me. The sessions were so engaging that I could either be in them or write about them -- but not both at once. So this write up is more of a "highlights reel," in that it's what I remember from the workshop about three weeks after the fact. ;)
The first idea that stuck out in my mind was that, as a society, we tend to both de-sexualize and hypersexualize disability.
To clarify on the first point, it's not that no disabled people are asexual. Some are; others are not. The problem is not with how individuals themselves identify. The problem happens when some outside entity assigns a person with a disability (PWD from here on out for ease of typing) to the category of "not sexual" on account of their disability.
In a lot of places where we get our collective, public ideas about sexuality -- movies, TV, commercials, books, magazines -- representations of PWD are notably absent. Certainly, lots of disabilities are less visible just by their natures. But when image after image after image shows no disabled people being sexual, it's easy to internalize the idea that PWD aren't sexual -- even though folks with disabilities have as wide a range of sexualities and sexual expressions as do folks without.
This rang pretty true for me. If we did normalize the sexuality of disabled people, then, for example, fashion photography decisions like the "American Able" photo project or Debenhams' more recent decision to include disabled models in their photo campaigns would not have been so newsworthy. (And, like, I'd be able to think of more examples of this sort of thing.)
The flip side of this is that sometimes when a PWD does express themselves sexually, there can be a tendency to hypersexualize that and so label it "abnormal." Shanna gave the example that most people would find the concept of a 25-year-old man who masturbates to fall well within the spectrum of normal. However, she continued, if it's a 25-year-old man with cognitive disabilities who lives in a group home, then all of the sudden a lot more people start reacting to this as deviant behavior and something that must be stopped.
When Shanna brought up this idea, I immediately recalled when I was first re-exploring sexual expression after I was raped. I developed a certain fascination for short skirts and tall, high-heeled boots that, while a new look for me, weren't really out of place on my college campus. However, when I started doing this, some of the folks who knew about the assault suddenly became Very Concerned that this could only be indicative of a troubled sexual psyche (and that in turn could only come from my PTSD). In reality, while my recovery was then far from under control, I was a great deal less troubled in my skirts-and-boots phase than I had been in the months immediately before it.
Ultimately, we just skimmed the surface of this issue -- and before I really had time to form my thoughts to words, we had to move on -- but I do think it set the groundwork for the rest of our discussion: Being a person with a disability while exploring or expressing sexuality is not something that's normalized in our culture, which makes this intersection a lot more uncertain to negotiate.