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.