Confronting Prejudices about Disability and Sexuality
It’s an old stereotype: in heterosexual relationships: the man wants to have sex, but the woman doesn’t and pleads a headache. Consent, desire, and illness are all victims in this stereotype. Both women and people with disabilities have been portrayed as unable to enjoy sex. People with certain disabilities are still stigmatized as being unable to have sex or possess a full sexuality or sexual identity. A person’s sexual identity and sexual orientation are independent of his disability.
Much of the prejudice against people with disabilities is rooted in the infantilization that is used to justify the oppression of people with disabilities and allow them to be treated as second-class citizens in the eyes of the law. The same logic has been used in the past to deprive women of sexual agency. In light of the recent surge in legislation aimed at restricting women’s reproductive choices, the issue of governmental control over medical practices and stigmatized bodies makes the analogy more relevant.
The negative stereotypes about women and about people with disabilities, especially stereotypes relating to weakness, are each used to reinforce the oppression of the other. The depiction of women or people who experience disabling pain as weak and less capable is a perfect example. It depicts the pain of women with disabilities or chronic illnesses as less legitimate or irrational. It also hurts men, who may experience this type of pain but are ignored in the narratives of “female illnesses” and female “problems.” Men can have these same conditions, and may even have trouble having sex because of pain-related disabilities, but the narratives surrounding pain disability and sexuality never even address their existence. Queer people with disabilities face similar erasure.
It is important to remember that many disabilities are invisible. Whether people identify as disabled or not, many of us have particular needs and preferences that we might find difficult to discuss with our partner(s). For many people, different physical or psychological needs or concerns may be intensely personal and difficult to share, especially in an intimate setting. Keep in mind that disclosure of a particular need, desire, or disability is often made in confidence, and sometimes with some difficulty. Our society’s reluctance to openly discuss sex and desires makes these conversations more difficult as well. However, this kind of discussion is an important part of treating one’s sexual partners with respect, and it allows everyone to have better experiences.
If our culture stopped ignoring the fact that people with disabilities are sexual beings, then perhaps this would be less of a problem. As a queer person with an invisible disability whose needs change from day to day, I know that most people who see me as a sexual being don’t see my physical limitations and prefer to associate queerness with promiscuity. Even when I try to communicate my personal needs or preferences, they only see what they find attractive. I consider this a form of privilege, but also a source of frustration.
The idea that it is permissible for a woman, but not for a man, to avoid sex because of physical discomfort is a form of ableist and sexist discrimination, and it highlights the issue of how we understand consent. The question of consent should not ever hinge on physical abilities. The fact that an excuse like physical discomfort is even necessary is itself problematic. Anyone has the right to refuse any act at any time, regardless of whether they do so because they are physically or mentally unable to participate in the act. Any conversation about consent should include physical limitations in the same way it includes personal preferences. Just like consent, negotiating you and your partner’s needs and desires is an ongoing conversation about what both of you like, want, and need, regardless of a disability which may inform some of these needs.