Disabled Women & Sexual Objectification (or the Lack Thereof)

Today in The New York Times Opinion pages there was a piece called Longing for the Male Gaze. It is a personal account of a disabled woman’s experiences of not being socially perceived as sexually desirable. I have mixed feelings about the piece. On one hand while it is reasonably well known that disabled people are either viewed as nonsexual by default, there is very little available on the lived experience of not being accepted as an attractive, sexual being. This piece challenges that trend and does so in The New York Times.

On the other hand much of the framing of the piece is problematic. It focuses less on being seen as attractive and sexual within interpersonal relationships and more on not being treated as a sexual object. Jennifer Bartlett (the author) focuses on her lack of experiences with cat calling and other forms of sexual harassment.

This is problematic for a couple of reasons. For one it gives a lot of social power and validation to harmful social interactions. For another, the author actively plays oppression olympics between sexism/misogyny & ableism. In so doing she fundamentally fails to comprehend the very real harm that can come from catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment.

I do understand her frustration with the fact that disabled women are left out of the sexual objectification faced by our nondisabled peers. It is a catch-22 of intersectional oppression that even being denied an oppressive force usually experienced by part of your identity as a result of its intersection with disability is in fact further oppression.

That disabled women are often denied sexual objectification only shows how disability has denied us the ability  to live up to social and cultural understandings of gender presentation and punishes us by denying us not only the consequences of being sexually objectified but also of simply being seen as fully women.

That is a conversation that hasn’t happened enough and needs to.

Unfortunately, Bartlett is not starting that conversation. She instead writes almost longingly of being sexually objectified as though being seen as worthy of catcalling would also mean she was worthy of being seen as a sexual being in healthier interpersonal interactions. Unfortunately, in this she is probably right.

That however does not negate the issue of her downplaying the seriousness & real dangers of sexual harassment and catcalling. She writes,

On one hand, I know that I am “lucky” not to be sexually harassed as I navigate the New York City streets. But, I am harassed in other ways that feel much more damaging. People stare. People insist that I have God’s blessing. People feel most comfortable speaking about me in the third person rather than addressing me directly. It is not uncommon that I will be in a situation where a stranger will talk to the nearest able-bodied person, whether it be a friend or a complete stranger, about me to avoid speaking to me.

I also do understand what it feels like to get attention from the wrong man. It’s gross. It’s uncomfortable. It’s scary and tedious. And in certain cases, traumatic. But I still would much rather have a man make an inappropriate sexual comment than be referred to in the third person or have someone express surprise over the fact that I have a career. The former, unfortunately, feels “normal.” The latter makes me feel invisible and is meant for that purpose.

She does acknowledge that attention from the “wrong” men can be scary but still positions it as preferable to the erasure of the ableist interactions she does experience more frequently.

I would however argue that catcalling and sexual harassment is an erasure of the humanity and personhood of women. It can also be deadly (link to When Women Refuse a blog which collects stories of women who are either harmed or killed when they didn’t respond favourably to male attention).

Like Bartlett I am a woman with cerebral palsy. I however have not lived a life as free of catcalling and sexual harassment as she describes her life to have been. I have also experienced the stares, question, prayers and being ignored in favour of nondisabled companions. I am however not going to say that one is preferable than the other.

In every single incident of street harassment that I have experienced. I have felt either utterly dehumanized or genuinely threatened. I however cannot say that I have left every dehumanizing disability specific negative interaction feeling totally safe either.

Being a disabled woman who has experienced street harassment, I can also attest to the fact that it hasn’t done anything for my being accepted as a sexual being by society. In fact it is sometimes used to reinforce the fact that I’m generally not viewed as sexual.

As I’ve written about before, as a result of my disabilities I am not able to perform femininity to cultural expectations. This has resulted in men yelling questions like “are you a man or woman?” at me out of car windows or men foregoing the question altogether and simply loudly debating the question as I walk by.

When the harassment is actually sexually suggestive it’s threatening. Like the time I was lost in downtown Winnipeg at night and someone came up to me while I was trying to get my bearings told me I was beautiful and requested that I go home with him. Luckily when I visibly recoiled he moved on. This interaction was immediately followed by a second man who had witnessed the interaction using it as an excuse to get way to close to me in order to say “well that was creepy wasn’t it”.

These interactions didn’t affirm my femininity despite my disability. They made me terrified. The fact that I am also disabled and less physically able to run away or fight only exacerbated that fear.

So while I agree that in many ways the ability to be viewed as a sexual object is also tied to the more benign assessments on who gets viewed as a sexual being, I do not agree with Bartlett’s down playing of the harm of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment when coupled with disability does not actually reinforce a disabled sexual identity in a culture that continues to ignore that disabled people are sexual beings. Downplaying the harm of street harassment not only erases the real harm it causes nondisabled women who experience it regularly but also ignores that some disabled women do experience it and that it only makes them less safe not more fully human.

 

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When Churches Discuss Disability Without Disabled People

Yesterday, a pastor friend sent me the link to a podcast from the Canadian Council of Churches (The fourth episode is the relevant one if you care to listen). The most recent episode deals with disability inclusion in Christian churches. They wanted my perspective on the treatment of disability. While I already shared some scaled down thoughts with them directly, I really feel it’s important to look at this more in depth in a public forum because religion plays such a huge part in the lives of billions of people and arguably particularly for disabled people, we are affected whether we want to be or not.

As I told my friend, ideologically most of the ideas are generic. A few might actually be considered progressive. What the ideas espoused in the podcast fail to do is challenge or look for meaningful solutions. There’s a lot of talk about moving beyond inclusion to making disabled people feel like they belong. Which is great but seeing as inclusion is still an issue for many and the men interviewed failed to deal with reasons for why exclusion and alienation happen, it’s all rather hollow.

The two men interviewed were a Catholic and a Coptic Priest. The interdenominational discussion is nice. It’s also nice that the issue of disability inclusion is treated as a Christian issue and not an issue for certain denominations.

The first real issue is that both of the men are nondisabled and that there seems to have been little effort to really include the voices of actual disabled people. This leaves an overly optimistic picture as all of the anecdotes about inclusive initiatives come from nondisabled people. It comes across as extremely rose tinted.

Both men mention that they have heard from disabled people that they feel excluded or alienated but the underlying reasons for this is never looked at.

This is one of the biggest problems with the interview. It talks a big game about inclusion and belonging but actively avoids a meaningful discussion about why disabled people are excluded.

The problems of religious inclusion for disabled people go beyond initiatives to hire more disabled people or make sure they are on boards. Though those are good and necessary steps.

In order for physical inclusion to move toward social inclusion and true belonging, churches need to actively acknowledge, churches discriminatory pasts and presents.

Dr. Thomas Hentrich, the Roman Catholic interviewee illustrates this when he shares a story about his disabled son being refused his first communion on the grounds that the church was concerned the boy couldn’t understand its significance.

Hentrich actively refused to acknowledge this exclusion as discriminatory. Framing it instead as just unfortunate and hurtful. I’m not sure what definition of discrimination he’s working from or if he thinks that a theological justification for the action shields it from being discriminatory. Either way, I have to disagree.

Theological justifications for treating disabled congregants need to at the very least be fully laid out and studied and then preferably actively challenged.

Hentrich’s solution of having his son receive communion at a Coptic church instead is also problematic as an example of a reasonable response for several reasons.

1.) By offering this as a simple solution it ignores the harm of the initial exclusion

2.) It ignores that many people see denominations as separate religions, so many people would not be comfortable simply leaving not just a particular church but a denomination.

  • This then could lead those individuals to feel unwelcome and possibly disconnected from God.

3.) Disabled people who want to be part of a faith community should not have to shop around for one that is going to treat them well.

The only other problematic belief that was actually mentioned and again not dealt with is the idea that many Christians hold that disability is a punishment either on the parents or the disabled person themself.

The idea was underplayed and again there was no discussion of the impact this still reasonably widespread idea has not only on disabled Christians but also on nonChristian disabled people who come into contact with people who hold those beliefs.

Instead of actually dealing with it, the podcast brushes it off with one interviewee basically writing off people who believe it as not understanding scripture, suggesting that Christ actually said the opposite and was progressive in his views on disability.

I assume they were talking about this story from John Chapter 9

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

While it is true that it actively counters concepts of disability & sin, it’s not hugely progressive and leads to two other issues that disabled people face in Christian churches. The idea of disability as symbol (often interpreted as object of charity) and faith healing.

So verse 3 Jesus says “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him“. This can be used to mean the miracles performed by Jesus himself but can also be taken to mean that disabled people are to acted upon charitably (which separates them out from others as unequal) or simply as symbols to other people of what could be and that others should be grateful.

Allow me to share a quote about Tiny Tim (Yes, the Dicken’s character) on his disability and his place in the church “He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.””*

For a less historical & literary example about how disabled people theologize their disability as symbolic for others see the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada.

Now remember that Jesus may have denied that disability was caused by sin but he didn’t follow that up with “go forth and create an accessible society that includes and welcomes disabled people”. The above story is just one of many where he heals disability. This is followed by the Apostles healing people and a long history of healing by saints. Disability is very much framed as bad and that people are better off without it.

Which brings us to historical and contemporary beliefs in faith healing.

I don’t actually know a single disabled person personally, who hasn’t had someone pray that they be healed. These encounters don’t always happen in the church. The first time it happened to me, I was walking home from school.

These encounters often also include judgemental statements about people’s levels of faith along the lines of “if you believed enough you wouldn’t be disabled. God would have healed you”.

For the faithful this is a judgement on both their faith and their value. When it happens to nonChristians it just breeds animosity towards Christianity.

Saying that the bible doesn’t support the idea that disability is sinful but then saying that it is progressive shows the same selective reading that people who do link it to sin or at least a person’s level of faith. It also just ignores the reality of people who do think that way and the impact they have on disabled people not only in their churches but in society at large. For an account from an actual disabled person on this read Carly Findlay Morrow on her experiences.

Creating inclusive churches is going to take more than just inclusion initiatives. While it is nice to hear about things like the tradition in Coptic churches of hiring blind cantors and a general desire to get more disabled people involved in the church. This work cannot be done effectively or in a meaningful way if those churches are unwilling to accept and acknowledge that on both church & cultural levels they have created an alienating environment for disabled people.

In recent years there has been some work done on creating a theology of disability but unfortunately like this podcast it is far to often the work of nondisabled theologians.**

Churches need to be willing to be held accountable for their histories of harmful theologies and practices. They also need to be accountable for how these things are still happening.

They also need to be willing to acknowledge and accept that other churches may have even more harmful practices. People affected by these harmful ideas are not going to be comforted by flippant dismissals of biblical understanding. Those ideas need to be actively challenged even if you don’t share them. The fact that they exist and cause real harm needs to be actively dealt with, not glossed over.

Also in terms of physical inclusion, churches need to practice what they preach and try not to have podcasts about disability inclusion that don’t actually include disabled people.

There also needs to be more discussion of not only including disabled people at the church level but encouraging them to enter the ministry. Without disabled people at all levels of the church, true inclusion and belonging of disabled church members cannot happen.

Failure to include actual disabled voices and deal with the ideological issues of the church and disability, the belonging advocated for in that podcast cannot truly occur.

 

 

 

*Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol (Wisehouse Classics – with original illustrations) (p. 37). Wisehouse. Kindle Edition. find it here.

**an example of this is Thomas E Reynolds’ Vulnerable Communion