This should probably have been the first in my blog posts about disability and sexuality… Essentially, there are two ideas of the disabled person and sexuality; the nonsexual* virgin and the hypersexual, unstoppable fiend.
Where do these ideas come from?
When it comes to physical disability, people are reduced to things, objects to be pitied, to be looked after. There is a view that the disabled person is childlike and this is a barrier to seeing disabled people as sexual. Society wants to prevent disabled people from having sex in the same way they do children.
Then there’s the issue of reproduction – even when a disability has been acquired, somehow it’s assumed that the child would also have a disability and regardless, that having a disabled parent would mean that child suffers. There is this idea that a person with a disability cannot, or should not, have children and the obvious conclusion is then that that person cannot or should not have sex.
And who would actually want to have sex with someone with a disability…? As disability is still viewed on many levels as a deformity, an abnormality, people with disabilities are considered undesirable. So no one would be interested in a person with a disability so general thinking doesn’t even have to consider the idea of a sexual disabled person. And tied up in this is the concept that disabled people can’t have sex; this will feed into and be fed by the idea of the nonsexual disabled person.
Historically people with disabilities have had to live in institutions which often strongly discourage intimacy between residents, again reinforcing this idea that disabled people don’t have sex.
At the other end of the spectrum, the hypersexual stereotypes are more commonly linked with learning disabilities, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. This seems to be because of a perception of lack of control which leads to indulgent, hedonistic behaviour which the person may not fully understand or be fully lucid for.
“Because people with mental disabilities are often not taught or shown the difference between social and private behaviour (or are unable to learn this difference), activities such as masturbation, displaying of one’s genitals, and inappropriate sexual advances may be carried out in public, or in the company of others. For the most part this does not have to do with a lack of intelligence, but a lack of informative education and teaching methods that allow people living with mental disabilities to live within a larger society.” – http://infochangeindia.org/disabilities/disabled-sexualities/asexuality-and-hypersexuality.html
What damage do these stereotypes do?
The nonsexual image means that often people with disabilities aren’t see as prospective partners. Depending on the disability, research has shown that disabled people are less likely to have a long-term partner or marry than non-disabled people. Then we have the sickening results of a 2014 newspaper poll (I think it was the Guardian) which asked people if they had ever had sex with someone who had a physical disability, 44 percent said “No, and I don’t think I would.” Given that estimates suggest 20% of the world’s population has a disability, this is ruling out a lot of potential partners! Although if you were one of the 44%, then I probably don’t want to have sex with you either…
At the other end of the spectrum we have the assumption that people with disabilities are out of control when it comes to sex, this tends to be an assumption used when the person has a learning disability or mental health issue as opposed to the nonsexual person with a physical disability. Concerns around unplanned pregnancies have led to a history of forced sterilisations under the guise of protecting the person with the disability. This comes from both the angle of protecting the person as well as protecting the potential child who could have a disability and from the belief that a person with a disability can’t be a good parent. There’s a great podcast about this issue over on Stuff Mom Never Told You. Whilst it’s mostly focused on the historical aspect of racially motivated sterilisation it’s still a relevant and interesting piece. As is their Sex and Disability podcast. edited to add: The Australian magazine Marie Claire also looks at the forced sterilisation of girls and women with disabilities (pdf).
As well as forced sterilisation, we also have the issue of inappropriate sex education. I’ve heard of disabled young people who missed out on any sex education because it wasn’t deemed necessary… And if you are lucky enough to receive sex ed, then it’ll probably be aimed at ‘normal’ people and you still won’t be empowered through information. And it’s not just that you don’t know how to “do it” safely; if you don’t get a comprehensive education, you can find yourself at risk of abuse or struggle to do anything about abuse – without empowering information, how do you work out appropriate boundaries, how do you tell someone that your friend put his finger in your vagina if you don’t have a word for vagina… This is turning into a post about the importance of sex ed so I’ll leave this point (almost) there. The important message is we should all get appropriate sex ed. Thankfully we live in the world of the internet (if you’re reading this you do anyway, I acknowledge that there’s still a lot of the world without it) and sites such as Chronic Sex and Sexuality and Disability are out there to help (although they still require a certain level of literacy and understanding so will exclude some people…).
And then there’s the impact the nonsexual physically disabled person myth has on health care. I recently tried to get a coil fitted, failed miserably, and then asked if I could try another kind of contraceptive pill. On both occasions, the two different doctors I was dealing with, both assumed I didn’t need it as a contraception. I don’t but that’s not the point. The point is I could have needed it as a contraception but because they assumed not, I didn’t get asked the same questions or given the same advice such as if you’re sick it might not work. Or any information about using condoms to prevent STIs. Thankfully I’m fairly clued up on sexual health but a lot of people aren’t, I return again to the issue of poor sex ed…
*I’m using the phrase nonsexual or desexualised because asexuality is great, when it’s your identity, not when it’s forced on you by society and I think using the same terminology will confuse the issues and take away from someone’s actual identity.