The Desirability of Disability: The Social Misconception of Asexuality
By Keith Murfee-DeConcini
DSAB 602.01: Embodiment & Disability, Spring 2014
Disability should be a desired variation on what we consider beautiful, not something to be feared- but people fear what they do not understand. Society views disability as a weakness and something to be avoided. The cultural perceptions of masculinity and femininity do not allow disability to fit into them. Men are supposed to be strong and in control and women are supposed to bear children. These perceptions are crude, and have evolved and expanded over the years to empower women, for example, into having more roles than only bearing children. When people with disabilities try to embrace broader perceptions for themselves, they are looked down upon by society. There could not be a clearer example of this than when it comes to being sexual.
Sexual desire is the driving force of humanity. We are made to seek out sex from desirable partners. The media plays a huge role in shaping the normalized view of desirability. In Sexuality and Disability: The Missing Discourse of Pleasure, Mitchell S. Tepper, Ph.D. states “However, the media has exploited sexual pleasure for gain. Sex is portrayed as a privilege of the white, heterosexual, young, single and non-disabled.” (Tepper, 2000, pp. 285)
Therefore, it is not hard to grasp that social attitudes towards people with disabilities in general and especially in regards to sex are negative, albeit most of them stem from the unconscious level. Society would rather not see people with disabilities as sexual beings with the same sexual needs as everyone else. Why? There are many reasons, and the greatest reason is discussed by Alex Comfort, MB in Sexual Consequences of Disability. “The needs of such people [with disabilities] are better minimized or ignored, rather than discussed, for fear of embarrassing them- by which we mean that they embarrass or disturb us.” (Comfort, 1978, p. 1) It is much easier for society to label people with disabilities as asexual instead of facing the collective insecurities around sexuality and disability.
Understanding the underlying beliefs of this asexual label allows one to better understand the magnitude of the problem this label creates. The first belief is that people with disabilities cannot reproduce and sex was created for that function. If someone cannot do that, then why should they have access to it or even want it to begin with? “Disabled populations are not viewed as acceptable candidates for reproduction or even capable of sex for pleasure. We are viewed as child-like and in need of protection.” (Tepper, 2000, pp. 285) While it is true that some people with disabilities cannot reproduce, it is neither their fault nor is an indicator of whether they want children or not; nor does it mean that they cannot find pleasure in having sex. Furthermore, not every disability prevents someone from bringing new life into this world or taking pleasure in the act of sex.
The second belief has to do with adaptions to sexual intercourse that people with disabilities may have to apply and how society finds that unnatural. It is a widely accepted fact that one way pleasure is enhanced is the multiple positions available for sexual intercourse and just like people without disabilities, those who have disabilities rely on the pleasurable exploration of different positions. A different position is an adaption and society finds some adaptions less wholesome than others.
The attitudes and perceptions towards disability and sexuality are steeped in misconceptions. As a study on this topic done by Shaniff Esmail et al., finds “people have a really specific perspective of what being sexual means and it would be challenging for a lot of people to expand that to include people with disabilities… it is automatically impossible in many people’s minds for people with disabilities to have sex.” (Esmail, 2010, pp. 1151)
Facing the fact that it is not impossible for people with disabilities to have sex may not be enough for some people. It is often demonized, which is parallel to the famous taunt in Othello where Iago tells Brabantio “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” (Shakespeare, 2004, p. 6) The very notion of this act is viewed as vile and unnatural in the play, even though it is between two consenting adults, because the Moor is of a different race than his new wife.
Even romance between someone without disabilities and someone with disabilities makes society uncomfortable, all the stares and hushed whispers as the couple walks past. In Enabling Romance: A Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships for People with Disabilities (and the People who Care About Them), one of the authors, Erica, who does not have a disability but was dating (and later married) someone who has a disability, recalls a shocking experience: “…when I walked into a local bookstore one day and asked the sales assistant whether they had any books about disabled people and romantic relationships. ‘Why would anyone want to read a book about that?’ he said, his face clearly showing his disdain.” (Kroll, 1992, p. 12)
Some parents of people with disabilities struggle accepting that their son or daughter has romantic desires. In The Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires, Tom Shakespeare et al., offer this example: “As the mother of a disabled young woman stated, on hearing her daughter had a boyfriend, ‘I thought your disability meant that you wouldn’t be interested in boys, and that your father and I would be saved this embarrassment.’” (Shakespeare, 1996, p. 17)
Many people consider sex to be a sacred act and the mere thought of people who society deems as defective engaging in that act can be very disconcerting. The same is true in regards to even starting a romantic relationship with someone who has a disability. According to one study, this is attributed to “an overlying ‘fear of being a caregiver rather than a partner.’” This idea stems back to the general public’s inability to reconcile the concepts of physical impairment and emotional/sexual relationships.” (Esmail, 2010, pp. 1151) In addition to this, people with disabilities may fear that “their partners would assume that ‘I deserve better than to be with a defective person.’” (Esmail, 2010, pp. 1151)
Both of these fears are understandable and they are very common fears which are mainly influenced by social pressure. People are taught from a very young age to strive for perfection and find that special someone who is also perfect. Ideally these beliefs evolve as people grow up, out of childhood fantasies into a more mature mindset. However, these beliefs are as deeply rooted as the ones presented at the beginning of this paper. Disability does not fit into the ideal of perfection or that special someone who is also perfect or at least, perfect for us, by society’s standards. Having a partner with a disability is seen as settling for something less than desired, because when people see someone with a disability, they very often only see the disability and not the person with the disability.
The stares and hushed whispers from other people can be very difficult for a couple to handle, especially when concerns come from people they care about, such as friends and family. Comments such as “They’ll always hold you back.” or “Wouldn’t a partner with a disability understand you better?” may seem well-intended but do nothing to inspire confidence in a new relationship, rather only voice society’s distain. (Kroll, 1992, p. 13)
As Tepper concludes “In the words of Benjamin Seaman, a visitor to sexualhealth.com, access to pleasure is ‘the real accessibility issue. Full inclusion means access to pleasure. It means a reasonable chance for relationships’”. (Tepper, 2000, pp. 289) When people hear the term “accessibility”, they think of things like ramps, lifts or specialized restrooms. However, the term needs to have a broader focus, one that includes interpersonal relationships at all levels because they enhance the quality of life most of all.
The third and final belief that attributes to the asexualization of people with disabilities, which is the most shocking and demoralizing, is the notion that if someone who does not have a disability is intimate with someone with a disability, then they will get infected by that disability. There is no data or research done at this time, or at any time to the author’s knowledge, to suggest or support this fear. It is not farfetched if the medical model is interpreted in combination with the generalized fear and stigmatization of disability. The scope of this final point will extend beyond this paper but it is worth being addressed.
According to an article published by Disabled World, a worldwide disability news site “The medical model is presented as viewing disability as a problem of the person, directly caused by disease, trauma, or other health condition which therefore requires sustained medical care provided in the form of individual treatment by professionals.” (Langtree, 2010)
This model puts the term “disability” on the same level as the term “disease” and it has been used historically as the normalized view of how society constructs disability. Disease equals danger which brings the possibility of substantial pain or death and since the act of sex is the physical merging of two separate life forms into one, spiritually and emotional speaking; the fear is understandable, however completely irrational.
Society has referred and although to a lesser extent publicly, still refers to people with disabilities as “unnatural”, “unclean”, “defective”, “weak”, “diseased” to name but a few choice phrases. Therefore, this paper has only scratched the surface in exposing magnitude of the problem imposed by society of labeling people with disabilities collectively as asexual beings, in order to classify and put them in a box, thereby taking away their humanity. It is this act, above all else which the author finds truly hideous.
Comfort, A. (1978). Introduction. Sexual Consequences of Disability (pp. 1-4). Philadelphia: George F. Stickley Company.
Esmail, S., Darry, K., Walter, A., & Knupp, H. (2010). Attitudes and perceptions towards disability and sexuality. Disability and Rehabilitation, 32(4), 1148-1155. Retrieved March 17, 2014, from http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09638280903419277
Kroll, K., & Klein, E. (1992). Our Own Love Story. Enabling Romance: A Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships for People with Disabilities (and the People who Care About Them) (p. 12). Horsham: No Limits Communications.
Langtree, I. (2010, September 10). Definitions of The Models of Disability. Disabled World. Retrieved April 19, 2014, from http://www.disabled-world.com/definitions/disability-models.php
Shakespeare, T., Gillespie-Sells, K., & Davies, D. (1996). Barriers to Being Sexual. The Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires (p. 17). London and New York: Cassell.
Shakespeare, W. (2004). Act 1, Sc. 1. Othello (p. 6). New York City: Simon & Schuster.
Tepper, M. (2000). Sexuality and Disability: The Missing Discourse of Pleasure. Sexuality and Disability, 18(4), 283-290. Retrieved March 17, 2014, from https://thesorce.co.nz/assets/Resources/Sexual-Diversity/Tepper-2000-SD.pdf