Note: This is almost 4000 words long… just thought you should have a heads up! I was going to split it but it didn’t feel right…
What is the charmed circle?
In 1984, Gayle Rubin argued that we should view sex as a vector of oppression – we shun what we don’t understand and human sexuality is so varied that we inevitably don’t understand all of it so we do consider some acts as lesser or as abnormal. As such, we then end up oppressing people who carry out those acts and society creates a hierarchy of sex.
“Like gender, sexuality is political. It is organized into systems of power, which reward and encourage some individuals and activities, while punishing and suppressing others.”
A significant consequence of a hierarchy of sex is the creation of moral panic. Historically we have seen panic and moral outrage in response to different sexual behaviour, eg sex outside of marriage, same sex sex, prostitution and obscene material. The theme they share is always that they are outside the privileged, or charmed, circle of behaviour. One reason these panics create such out roar is because the behaviour and activity is seen, ultimately, as a threat to civilisation. If ‘bad’ types of sex are allowed to become mainstream then even ‘worse’ behaviours will follow. We see this when fear of children being molested is brought up in arguments about allowing same sex marriage.
Time and place are important when looking at what is and isn’t acceptable. Sexual behaviours have changed rapidly in the last century and this speed has created confusion about what is ‘normal’ when it comes to sex.
“Regarding sexual normalcy from a social perspective, the individual accepts societal norms for choice of sexual object and activities. Within a given society, sexual norms may differ according to a subgroup’s religion, education, political beliefs, or socioeconomic status.”
– Leslie R Schover and Soren Buus Jensen
To try and illustrate the concept that certain sexual behaviours are considered privileged over others, Rubin developed the charmed circle. Sexual activities which are judged by society as being good or natural are set up within a binary where the flip side is then unnatural and bad. The inner circle is where good sex takes place and the outer therefore is where deviant sex is place. This diagram shows how different values are used to judge the acceptability of different types of sexual behaviours and demarcates the line between normal and abnormal.
In setting up a binary of good and bad behaviour the charmed circle, by extension, creates good and bad people. In reality of course, we are all complex layers of differing, and sometimes competing, identities and this matrix of interaction can balance out certain sexual behaviours or come together to emphasis the prejudice that is cast on a person’s sexual identity. It is important to note that making the ‘right’ decisions about sexual behaviour can result in our belonging to, or not, a particular group, to having citizen ship of a particular society.
As a disabled person who is interested in disability and sexuality, I shall be viewing the charmed circle through a disability lens. Having said that, I don’t feel I can truly step away from my other identities and hence this will not be an unbiased look at the charmed circle. In addition to being disabled, I feel it is important to note here that I am also bisexual, feminist, single and cannot have penetrative sex. These are all parts of my identity and as such they will affect how I view the charmed circle.
What is sex?
As I mentioned above, I cannot have penetrative sex. This obviously skews my concept of what is and isn’t sex, but despite this, for so long I had internalised the dominant discourse that penis in vagina sex is the only legitimate type of sex, or certainly that it is top of the hierarchy. It works well in our culture of black and white thinking as it is a clear cut act. We set people up as virgins or sexual and whilst we don’t value these labels as strongly as Victorian society did, we do still feel the need to have a specific, defining moment where you move from one to the other. This is why penis in vagina sex is so useful in defining sex – it is a very precise moment when you transition from virgin to not and I think we still find ourselves with internalised ideas about what this means as part of maturing.
However, penis in vagina sex is not available to us all. Not everyone is attracted to someone with different genitalia, not everyone has a functioning penis or vagina and even if you do, it doesn’t mean that penis in vagina sex is what you enjoy. This also sets up a goal orientated vision of sex instead of one that focuses on pleasure throughout. How many times do we see male orgasm portrayed in the media as the aim of sex? What about female orgasm? And what about non penetrative acts that are not purely for foreplay? I have problems with that word – foreplay – because it implicitly sets up the idea of a destination and privileges the goal over the journey. I haven’t read magazines which talk about sex for a while now because they frustrate me but they did, and I assume still do, portray foreplay as incidental. As a detour to get to the (male) orgasm.
Margrit Shildrick discusses these ideas and how historical and religious ideas still shape our understanding and definition of sex today.
But for my purposes here, I’m going with the idea of self definition. Sex is what the person or people engaging in it consider it to be.
How do disability and sex interact?
Note, different people experience disability very differently and will also experience being disabled and sexual in vary different ways. This makes it very hard to discuss this area comprehensively and yet concisely, as such, please note that some ideas will not apply to some disabled people and there will be other aspects that I haven’t been able to cover.
Earlier I mentioned that sexual activity can be related to someone’s ability to be a citizen of a society and Cashelle Dunn argues that disabled women are denied full citizenship simply by virtue of being a disabled woman.
When it comes to disability, people are reduced to things, objects to be pitied, to be looked after. There is a prevailing view that the disabled person is childlike, especially if they are perceived as being dependant, 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.
Two thirds (67%) of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people.
Over three quarters (76%) think of disabled people as needing to be cared for, and 13% think of disabled people as getting in the way some or most of the time
Just a third (33%) of British people said that they would feel comfortable talking to disabled people, with many worried that they will seem patronising or say the wrong thing
44% of people in a Guardian poll said they had never had sex with someone with a physical disability and probably wouldn’t.
These are not sexy ways to view people. And thus, these attitudes taint society’s view of disabled people having sex. If 67% of people are uncomfortable talking to me, how are they going to feel about having sex with me or even thinking of me as a sexual being?
Disability, sex and the charmed circle
“I am aware that, for many, sex and disability at times seem not so much intersectional as incongruous: “What exactly do you do?” is about as frequent a question for disabled people, in relation to sex, as it historically has been for many queers. The motivation behind the question, however, has usually been different. Although stereotypes of the oversexed disabled person engaged in unspeakable acts do exist, disabled people are more commonly positioned as asexual— incapable of or uninterested in sex.”
– Robert McRuer
Whilst disability is not one of the segments in Rubin’s charmed circle, I would argue that it is implicit in many people’s view of acceptable and unacceptable sexual behaviour. However, because the majority of the population assume disabled people to be asexual, it has possibly not crossed many minds to even include it in the circle. I am positing that for many people, disabled people are outside the circle entirely.
“There is an unspoken taboo about relationships and disabled people. Disabled people’s sexual and emotional needs are rarely included in any discussion or representation in everyday life. This reinforces the public’s attitudes and expectations towards disabled people as seeing them as ‘sick and sexless’ rather than participating in full sexual and family relationships. It is perhaps one of the most pernicious ways in which society has blanked out disabled people from a fundamental area of social life.”
– Lamb and Layzell, 1994
Echoing Rubin’s discussion, Shildrick notes that there is a “cultural imaginary that fears nonnormative sexuality as being a potential point of societal breakdown.”
“Where disabled people are seen as sexual, this is in terms of deviant sexuality, for example, inappropriate sexual display or masturbation. Derogatory stereotypes, concerning for example blindness, are typical of this tendency.”
– Tom Shakespeare
I, obviously, advocate for the inclusion of disability within the circle and whilst I do not believe in a hierarchy of disability or that certain types of disability are acceptable when it comes to sex, I do know that some people, consciously or unconsciously, feel this way. What I mean by this is that, for example, people with invisible disabilities are considered to be potential sexual partners and that it is acceptable in the minds of others for that person to be engaging in sex, with the confines of the other aspects of the charmed circle. On the other hand, a person with no bodily control is seen by the majority as not just not acceptable sexual participants, but as not even in the game. Some of these distinctions become clearer when we consider the other binaries that are featured in Rubin’s charmed circle.
Note: just as I was posting this, I stumbled across a paper which has used the charmed circle model to illustrate a hierarchy of ability. I haven’t read it yet but about 2/3rds the way you can find an image of this. It doesn’t fully illustrate the point I make in the previous paragraph but it does show that the more disabilities you have, the more unacceptable you are seen as being.
Additionally, if we accept, as we should, that disabled people are sexual beings, we must then decide where they fit in terms of the charmed circle. In Rubin’s model, it seems we would tend towards the outer limits simply because of how sex plays out given our particular disability.
According to a variety of different reports from the last 50 odd years, disabled women are less likely to be married than non-disabled women. Interestingly this divide is smaller when it comes to men. From the point of view of having charmed sex, this means disabled women would have to wait longer, or forever, to have sex. There is also evidence that in heterosexual relationships, disabled men are more likely to maintain their relationships whereas disabled women tend to find their partner leaves them.
Returning again to the 44% of people who haven’t had sex with someone with a physical disability and probably wouldn’t, we are left with just over half the population to consider relationships with, and if you are heterosexual that figure roughly halves, if you are of a sexual minority then you’re really limited, especially given some of those people will already be in relationships. And if you manage to find that needle in a haystack, not only do you have to date them, you have to both want to marry each other as well before the sex is considered acceptable.
For Rubin, this excludes masturbation. As we saw with marriage, this could leave disabled women in particular unable to have any form of acceptable sexual experience. There is also the consideration of facilitated sex:
“Where sociocultural mores and the law broadly support a normative image of sexuality as heterosexual, private, ideally reproductive, and above all autonomous, facilitated sex—which by definition cannot be wholly private or self-directed—all too clearly draws attention to the difference of anomalous bodies. If the public discussion of sex and, more particularly, sexual variation is still a strong taboo in many Western societies, then the very notion of such hands-on involvement is even more disturbing.”
This also brings up some legal aspects which Shildrick expands on:
“Although consensual acts of homosexuality are no longer always a crime in many Western jurisdictions, a homosexual act remains illegal under the Sexual Offences (Amendment). Act 2000 in the United Kingdom, for example, if it takes place in a situation deemed to be not private. Given that the presence of any third person or persons is understood to break that privacy condition, then clearly gay disabled sex is, strictly speaking, illegal if it is facilitated by a personal assistant whose physical presence is required.”
This assumes that all people are fertile, would make good parents and want children. I want to be clear here that disabled people can be parents and can make amazing parents, that is a stigma which would be an entire discussion on its own. But not everyone can be. I can’t dress myself, let alone a baby and I certainly couldn’t life one or safely hold it. I also don’t want to pass on my genetic condition. These are choices I have made due to living with my particular disability.
I would also argue that many people assume that disabled people are not having procreative sex but I have lost the research I read about perceptions around disability and parenting…
To privilege procreative sex also turns sex into a goal orientated activity. One which is phallocentric and by necessity requires male orgasm and penis in vagina sex. Extending this idea of goal orientated sex, one which is prevalent in our society where the goals is penetration or (normally male) orgasm, the idea of sex as a destination is one that troubles me and seems to take away pleasure. Penetration as goal rules out anyone who can’t penetrate or be penetrated and there are so many reasons why disabled and non disabled people could find themselves in that situation, whether as a one off or ongoing. It also dismisses other pleasurable parts of sex and also, a lot of penis in vagina positions are physically demanding in a way that other activities might not be.
Sex toys and things like sex swings and positioning aids are all ways in which disabled, and non disabled, people can have a satisfying sex life and the stigma around them has lessened since Rubin’s writing in 1984. But there is still some stigma and reluctance to discuss sex toys which impacts on those of us more reliant on them. If you have hands which don’t function well or you can’t get an erection or need help positioning yourself then sex toys can come to your rescue. Whilst non disabled people use sex toys, for some disabled people they can be the difference between sex and no sex but again place the disabled person in the realm of unacceptable sex, at least in the 80s.
This requires that you do not live in a group home or sheltered housing or anywhere were you have limited privacy. Deinstitutionalisation has made it more likely that a disabled person has a home space but having carers and other types of support can limit your privacy, even within your own home. It also pulls in ideas we saw when we looked at couples only.
Disabled people often feel an additional pressure to play out all intimacy within a private sphere. I have heard time after time stories of disabled people being out in public with their partner and being assumed that they are actually a paid for carer. Further, if the couple hold hands or kiss, the common narrative either feels pity for the non disabled partner, congratulates them for being an amazing person or pressurises the disabled partner to feel grateful that they are loved.
“Whilst law may allow women with disability to participate in sexual activity, society tolerates it only if it remains in the private sphere.”
This is a more controversial area and not one I want to go into right now but some people who have disabilities have argued for the right to use sex workers to meet their needs. When society is set up in such a way that disabled people are not seen as sexual it can be difficult to find someone who wants to have sex for free.
Disability Now conducted a survey in 2005 which revealed that 22 per cent of disabled male respondents (compared to an estimated 10 per cent if you look at the whole male population) reported having paid for sexual services compared to just 1 per cent of disabled women. Similarly, just 16 per cent of disabled women had considered paying for sex compared to nearly 38 per cent of disabled men.
Alternative charmed circles
If we accept the idea that some types of sex are privileged over others then the charmed circle could be considered as a model for this, although I do find the use of binaries objectionable. One could consider instead an array of spectrums, for example marriage being highly privileged by our society, couples who live together coming next followed by long term relationships followed by short term relationships and sex with strangers featured at the other end of the spectrum.
If society is set up so that one of the binaries in the charmed circle is able bodied and disabled, then I would argue that in reality there is again a spectrum. Someone who has an invisible disability is privileged over someone who has a visible disability. And someone who can still partake in ‘traditional’ sex would be privileged over someone who, for example, has very limited bodily control.
NB, I am not advocating for a spectrum here, I am noting that in my experience and hearing from others, that this spectrum exists and to ignore it would be to great too large a generalisation about what it means to be disabled and sexually active.
An interesting alternative I found was from Meg-John Barker who flipped the circle so that narrower ideas about acceptable sex where on the outer circle. This is reached by reasoning that people who have less mainstream sexual identities and behaviours often have more fluid and more diverse ideas around sex.
From an anecdotal and common sense perspective I would argue that the same is true for many people with disabilities. The nature of having sex with a disability often means increased communication is necessary. There are also, by virtues of different bodies, a greater number of ideas about what sex is and what sex can be and similarly the use of sex toys and accessories may play a bigger role in sexual activity.
“Some women feel liberated from social expectation as a result of impairment, some men feel doubly inferior.”
– Tom Shakespeare
Having a disability can take you outside of certain societal pressures. If you are treated as though you are invisible and cannot be beautiful because of your disability, it makes it easier to shun society’s expectations when it comes to appearance. Being seen through a genderless role, reduces the pressure to perform to your gender. Of course, these ideas aren’t going to be true for every disabled person and some people may feel even greater pressure to conform to society’s expectations. If you do defy convention then this may extend to your sex life. Personally, not being able to have penetrative sex has created space for pleasure-centric not goal-centric sex.
Non acceptable approaches to sex and disability
Flowing through all of the above is the idea that sex and disability should be viewed as acceptable, as good and not stigmatised. Having set that up, I do want to highlight areas where behaviours are unacceptable as I think this is one of the flaws of Rubin’s model. She has set up a value based model around how we view sexual behaviours and yet has failed to include consent, rape and objectification which are surely crucial elements of any acceptable/non acceptable model.
Disabled people are significantly more vulnerable to abuse, including sexual abuse. For some people there is something inherent in their disability which makes them vulnerable – a lack of understanding about what’s happening, a physical inability to defend oneself – and having carers and other professionals in your home does create increased possibility for abuse. In fact a 2014 study found that more than 40% of women with disabilities had been victims of violent sexual encounters.
The 1995 British Crime Survey found that disabled women were twice as likely to experience domestic violence as non-disabled women. In 2008, Women’s Aid confirmed this was still the case and additionally:
- “Women with learning difficulties are even more likely to be at risk and the level of violence that they experience is also likely to be higher. The more dependent they are and the more complex their needs, the more likely it is that they will be at risk, as are women with mental health problems.”
- “More than 70% of women with learning difficulties are sexually assaulted, a rate that is twice as high as for those in the general population.”
(quotes from Scapegoat by Katharine Quarmby)
I’ve written before about disability devotees, that is people who are attracted to the disability or related equipment but just to touch on the subject, Tom Shakespeare sums up the issue quite well:
“Some non-disabled people are seeking disabled partners for reasons we can only be described as exploitative… Disabled people very commonly find themselves the focus of sexual interest from people who find their particular impairment titillating… the person is being treated as an object, and this implies that the relationship is unequal and potentially oppressive: they become a means to the sexual gratification of others, rather than an equal partner and someone whose own pleasure is valued.”
– Tom Shakespeare
- Thinking Sex, Gayle Rubin
- Contested Pleasures: The Sociopolitical Economy of Disability and Sexuality- Margrit Shildrick
- Disabling Sex Notes for a Crip Theory of Sexuality Robert McRuer
- Rubin Revisited, MEG-JOHN BARKER
- “Cruising” the Charmed Circle Down the Hierarchy, Andrew Card
- Hidden Pleasures, Helen McNutt
- Scapegoat: Why We are Failing Disabled People by Katharine Quarmby
- The Sexual Politics of Disability by Tom Shakespeare