Normalize Sexuality for Persons with Disabilities

For our third blog in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re covering sexual empowerment for persons with disabilities since March also happens to be National Disability Awareness Month.

On its surface it might seem like a departure from “women’s issues,” but it bears considering that at the heart of true feminism is liberation for all. This type of feminism is famously known as intersectional feminism. Intersectionality is the acknowledgment that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and we must consider everything that can marginalize people – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability if what we’re after is freedom for all. Smashing the patriarchy means acknowledging that women are not the only ones harmed by it, though, we will cover some of the barriers and challenges specific to women with disabilities in this blog.

In the spirit of freedom for all, we note that when it comes to larger, cultural conversations around persons with disabilities and sexuality, the mainstream silence is deafening. And because this topic is quite expansive, we’re going to cover it in two parts. This blog will focus on physical disabilities and in a separate blog we will consider intellectual or mental disabilities.

Sexual Wellness is for Everyone

When people think about disability rights, an example of things that immediately come to mind are public accommodations (i.e. wheelchair ramps, accessible bathroom stalls), transportation, etc. We don’t much consider the topic of sexual wellness because there has long been an erasure of sexuality of persons with disabilities, and consequentially, a privileging of abled bodies in these contexts

When it comes to physical disability, in particular, it's often seen as THE defining feature of a person — to the exclusion of everything else. A heady mix of misguided piety, cultural norms that have taught us that viewing a person with a disability as a viable sexual partner is predatory, and plain old societal conditioning with stereotypes have kept persons with disabilities out of the realm of sexual wellness. This erasure of a fundamental part of life dehumanizes persons with disabilities, making the fight for disability rights more about the disability itself and less about the person with the disability. This is part of why we’ve moved away from the term “disabled person” to “person with disability,” to avoid a reductive viewpoint of someone who happens to have a disability. Because the bottom line for any fight for equal rights is to be seen as an equal person which includes everything being a person entails - the mind, the heart, the spirit, the soul, the body both sexual and otherwise. A full person with a full identity that doesn’t get defined only by the color of the skin, the gender identity, or the disability. It’s only when we acknowledge the full humanity of persons with disabilities can we achieve sexual wellness for all.

The Roots of Erasure: Eugenics

The societal viewpoint that sees persons with disabilities as somehow lesser is given historical context by the popularity of social movements like eugenics. A now-discredited social philosophy, Eugenics argued that people with disabilities (along with the poor and the generally “unfit,”) should be prevented from breeding. The eugenics movement, which started in the U.K., was taken up with enthusiasm in the United States. By 1914 nearly two-thirds of U.S. 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 sterilized.

Women with Disabilities: The gendered shame of disability

It's worth noting that women and girls with disabilities face systemic marginalization and attitudinal and environmental barriers that are distinct from their male counterparts. In addition to the lower economic and social status that persons with disabilities face, women face an increased risk of violence and abuse (including sexual violence), gender-based discriminatory practices, and barriers to access health care including reproductive care. According to one study for women, disability often means exclusion from a life of partnership, active sexuality, and denial of opportunities for motherhood. Part of this stems from negative experiences in clinical contexts such as underlying staff apathy that excludes women with disabilities from the childbearing and the reproductive health arena.

Due to the greater societal pressure on women to meet unrealistic beauty standards, women with disabilities uniquely report aspects of self-image and sexuality that include the need to attend male expectations to be attractive. Women with disabilities also face greater sexual repression and the absence of dialogue about sexuality and sexual activity than their male counterparts. This hinders their participation on an equal basis with others.

Disability Rights Movement

The disability movement first started to challenge those attitudes in the U.S. in the mid to late 1960s. The first American war veterans with disabilities were starting to arrive back from Vietnam and pushing for inclusion. Students at U.C. Berkley were key to this new civil-rights battle and advocated for U.C. Berkeley to become the first truly accessible university. From that point onwards, British disability activists have looked to UC Berkeley, and to the U.S. 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 University of California responded by founding a “Sexuality and Disability Center,” where sex therapists could give advice and facilitate contact with “sex surrogates,” as they became known. Although prostitution was outlawed in almost all U.S. states, the legal status of sexual surrogates was (and still is) undefined—meaning the sexual services they offer are technically neither legal nor illegal.

The Role of sex-work (Sexual Surrogacy)

Sexual surrogacy is a therapeutic practice designed to help a person become more comfortable with sex, their body, and/or the emotional and physical skills they need for intimacy. The client works together with a licensed sex therapist and a sex surrogate, or surrogate partner. In some countries where legislation around sex work is permissive (e.g. Holland, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland), there is a flexible attitude towards services for persons with disabilities. In Holland, as in Denmark, social workers ask clients with disabilities whether they need any support with their sexuality and may even fund limited numbers of visits by sexual assistants or sex workers. A rather clinical masturbation service called White Hands has been available to some men with disabilities in Japan since 2008. In Australia, an organization called Touching Base works with dementia and people with disabilities' organizations to develop consent guidelines. 

Some argue that the state should decriminalize sexual-assistance services for people who are not able to have sex independently and even fund them to use these services. Others call for peer support on subjects like how to regain sexual confidence after acquiring an impairment. While these conversations are still considered controversial, there appears to be a general consensus that sex education should be more inclusive of disability. 

Sexual Violence, Sexual Safety

A very real consequence of persons with disabilities not being seen as sexual beings is that it prevents the knowledge and sexual education that so often serves as a protective measure against sexual violence as well as promotes sexual safety. For instance, Hernon et al.’s 2015 study reveals how children with disabilities are largely excluded from mainstream child protection policies due to societal disableism which creates barriers to disclosure and support. Kennedy (1996), and more recently, Taylor et al. (2015) argue that there is a notion, among professionals, that abuse toward children with disabilities is more acceptable than when directed toward able-bodied children. They attributed this to practitioners over-empathizing with parent/carer–perpetrators who were seen to be under increasing stress with caring for a child with disabilities. 

Touch, Connection, and Sexual self-esteem

Advocating for sexual rights and sexual self-esteem clearly has very real day-to-day consequences in people’s lives. Moreover, without the education and knowledge about sexuality, it becomes harder to express sexual autonomy and desire, to form and maintain dating relationships, and participate in one’s own sexual wellness. Pleasure is only one aspect of sexuality and while it’s an important factor, what we’re honing in on here is more about sexual self-esteem. Our sexual self-esteem or self-image, the feelings we have about our body and our confidence level in how we relate intimately to someone else, the ease or difficulty with which we receive or offer touch, all have great impact on our connection to the world and how we relate with other people. It’s also a fundamental way that we connect with ourselves. 

People with disabilities have historically been excluded from the dominant processes of socialization and learning that prepares one for love, sex, and reproduction. Parents, teachers, physicians, and other caretakers feel reluctant to speak about it. But the fact remains that persons with disabilities are sexual beings, and deserve equal rights and opportunities to have control over, choices about, and access to their sexuality, sexual expression, and fulfilling relationships throughout their lives. 

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