Undesirable: Toxic Romantic Dreams, Disability, Sexuality and Relationships

sexy ISA

Image Description: A stenciled modified image of the International Symbol of Accessibility, A presumably male stick figure in a wheelchair being straddled by another stick figure who is presumably female because of the addition of a ponytail hairstyle.

CW: This post contains discussion and descriptions of sexual harassment, violence and bullying

 

Considering the Kathy Lette article in the Daily Mail (which I wrote about here and Carly Findlay wrote about here). I want to offer my own narrative of disability and sexuality, a narrative that isn’t driven by a parent or other third party.

It is often said that disabled people are perceived as nonsexual and this is certainly the experience of some people. I previously wrote a response to this New York Times piece Longing for the Male Gaze. As problematic as I found the author, Jennifer Bartlett’s romantization of sexual harassment, I do understand it. While I do not and never shared that particular longing. I do understand the creation of problematic desires and fantasies created around cultural expectations of romance and relationships. My personal experience, however, was not so much marked by being viewed as nonsexual but rather simply undesirable.

In fact, my sexuality was not only acknowledged it was used as a weapon against me.

For as long as I can remember I have been excluded. It was the first form of bullying that I experienced as a child. Starting in kindergarten and continuing through to the end of high school. While that exclusion in those very early years was certainly not tinged with romantic rejection—we were all too young for that—it set a precedent for my being denied even friendly personal relationships. It created a deep desire within me for inclusion and acceptance.

As I got older the bullying became more direct and aggressive. From about grade six onward, harassment from girls in my class often contained aspects of sexual humiliation. From being cornered at my desk and being told that if I wasn’t already a lesbian I would be within a year to mocking me when they realized that I didn’t wear a bra.

As a physically disabled autistic person, bras have been a source of stress since I started wearing them. They are often inaccessible and more often uncomfortable. Yet, within days of the first comment about my lack of bra (I really didn’t need one), I started wearing sports bras (the only bras I could stand to wear at the time) just to stop the comments.

Eventually, the bullying turned to my relationship status (or more accurately my lack of one). The girls first dropped a note off at my desk which said: “Maybe if you got a boyfriend, you’d have more friends”. They later cornered me to deliver this message in person. I clearly learned that being in a romantic relationship might lead to broader social acceptance. I was, however, unable to acquire the boyfriend necessary for this entrer into social acceptance.

In elementary school, I was told I needed a boyfriend to be socially valuable. In high school, that message continued but it was also clearly accompanied with the message that no one would ever want me.

The very idea that someone might be interested in me was unthinkable and the source of much amusement for my classmates. In grade 9 one of the girls’ favourite torments would be to try and determine who I had a crush on. They used whether I blushed as evidence—I am very pale and blush easily—they got a lot of amusement out of embarrassing me in front of whatever boys happened to be present.

In high school, the boys joined in this abuse. It started with my being mock proposed to repeatedly to the uproarious laughter of the audience.

It culminated into an incident in grade twelve where four boys cornered me alone in an empty classroom and explicitly described pornography in detail and mocked my embarrassment, telling me that if I couldn’t handle such information that no one would ever want me.

When I reported the incident to the school, I was told that I probably misunderstood what had happened and that the boys probably didn’t realize that they were bothering me. Because disabled women can not only experience sexual harassment, they can also have it minimized and ignored when it happens.

The idea of dating me was so much a joke and a repugnant idea to my male peers that having it suggested that they were dating me was an insult. A rumour started that I was dating my science partner (because if you so much as speak to a member of the opposite sex in high school, regardless of context something sexy must be going on). He blamed me for the rumours. He got so sick of denying them that he eventually found me alone in a hallway one day and screamed every insult that he could think of at me. There was a small justice in this instance because he didn’t see the health teacher come up behind him and witness the entire tirade. He was swiftly and loudly told off.

Through all of this, I was hyper aware of what made me different from the other girls who were not treated with the disgust and scorn that I was. Namely, the fact that I had cerebral palsy. I became hyper aware of anytime someone might have to come into contact with my left hand (the most visible aspect of my CP).

As a kid, I participated in a lot of group activities whether it was church youth group, brownies or that time I participated in French Youth Parliament (my French really wasn’t up to the challenge). As a consequence, I frequently found myself having to play ice breaker games. One that always seemed to be played was where everyone stood in a circle and grabbed the hands of random people across from you. You then had to twist and wind between people’s hands to try and return to an untangled circle.

Every time this activity was announced, I had a moment of panic because I always feared that when I reached my left hand out, that no one would take it. Though someone always did.

It wasn’t until I was 22 and in a cultural exchange program that some failed to take my left hand when circumstances dictated they should. We were dancing to Malian music in a line holding hands and when the Canadian group leader joined the line he grabbed wrist instead of my hand. I was startled and just blurted out “you can take my hand”.

“Are you sure?” he asked, he clearly didn’t seem to want to.

“Yes”, He did it reluctantly and soon decided to leave the dance.

These fears of being rejected in social settings and the continued messages that I was undesirable did not culminate in my wanting to be perceived as a sexual object like Jennifer Bartlett but they still left me with toxic dreams about relationships.

I didn’t dream of being seen as a sexualized ideal. I just wanted to be loved and included. Getting this attention from one person would have been enough. I was desperate for it.

The desire to be loved and wanted is not in and of itself dangerous or unhealthy but it can be when you’ve been told over and over again that you are undesirable and that this undesirability is also what makes you a social outcast. I was also clearly told that I was so undesirable that to be seen with me would have social consequences for anyone willing to be with me. This lead to expectations that any relationship I had would likely be isolated from the rest of the world. While I heavily romanticized this scenario as a teenager and young adult, I am well aware now that this kind of dream and the level of desperation that I had for it, left me at serious risk of abusive relationships.

This is evidenced by how I behaved around and responded to boys I had crushes on. I wanted so badly to feel loved, that I would pretty much develop a crush on any boy who would initially speak to me with any degree of kindness. When I was 16 this meant I was infatuated with a boy who was initially very charming but in reality, had a deeply misogynistic streak to him.

I can’t remember what precipitated the incident (I think I had said something sarcastic to him) but one day when we were rehearsing for the school musical he slapped me hard across the face. It was witnessed by the stage manager (another student) who came over ready to punch him for having hit me. I talked him out of it and while it was probably best that they didn’t get into a fight in the school gym, I wasn’t trying to de-escalate a fight. I was defending the person who had hit me. I still wanted him to like me.

I am not sure when exactly when I was able to start thinking critically about those toxic romantic dreams. I suspect it began after I actually found social spaces where I was accepted as a friend. This didn’t do anything to ameliorate my romantic prospects but I did finally have a space where my desirability as a sexual or romantic partner was not held up as necessary for social inclusion. A relationship was not a social status symbol and association with me was not cause for a person to be mocked.

The thing is that this didn’t really start to happen until I reached grad school. I was also in Disability Studies which attracts a disproportionate number of disabled scholars. In my master’s program, I was one of three people with cerebral palsy and there were many other disabilities represented.

This was huge in terms of creating a sense of self-worth and community but I shouldn’t have had to wait until I was in my late twenties and surrounded by people with common experiences to be accepted.

This is why first person narratives of disability are so important, particularly in relation to sexuality because we can talk about the social impact of being deemed undesirable. Third person narratives like those of Kathy Lette about her son really just buy into the social stigma and work with it rather than challenge it.

Her son asked her if he would ever get a girlfriend. A question to me suggests a desire not just for sex but for a relationship, a prolonged romantic experience. Lette’s response was to consider hiring a sex worker which really meets none of those desires even if sex is a desired part of a romantic relationship.

Considering hiring sex workers as a solution even in part to the issue of the widespread cultural disinterest and even disgust with the idea of sex and romantic relationships with disabled people is in some ways to accept and fail to challenge those ideas.

A sex worker is not going to offer a relationship beyond what is agreed and paid for. Disabled people know this. It is not a comparable substitute for actually being accepted and wanted.

I want and deserve meaningful human relationships both simply social and romantic. These are not things I can buy. In order for me to be able to have them. I need people to actually interrogate why disabled people aren’t seen as options for romantic partners. I need more than the platitudes I received from a male friend at 18 when in a moment of bravery I shared my insecurities and the sentiment that no one when I fantasize about an as yet unseen and unmet lover, thinks of someone like me. I even asked him outright if he had ever thought about dating a disabled person.

He deflected by magnanimously claiming that he was open to falling in love with someone who was disabled. He would however not answer my question directly because of course, he had never actually considered it. He, however, wouldn’t directly admit as much because to do so would be to admit to an internalized bias and discrimination.

I want people to be aware not only that disabled people are sexual beings but also be aware of the widespread messages that they tell each other and disabled people about how we are undesirable. I want them to understand the harm that causes and how it sets people up for potential abuse. It goes beyond them simply not considering having a disabled partner.

I want those ideas directly and actively challenged. I want to see disabled people culturally framed as beautiful and I want this to happen without a flurry of think pieces on how progressive it is. Those think pieces are evidence of how strange it still is how people still feel the need to applaud it. The change will come when disabled people can be portrayed as beautiful and sexual and the response is to agree and admire that beauty without qualification.

I don’t want any more disabled people growing up to be told that no one will want them just because they are disabled.

 

 

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Issues of Disabled Sexuality and Consent: When Parents Get Involved in Their Children’s Sex Lives

 

sexy ISA

Image Description: A stencilled modified image of the International Symbol of Accessibility, A presumably male stick figure in a wheelchair being straddled by another stick figure who is presumably female because of the addition of a ponytail hairstyle.

 

Australian-British author, Kathy Lette considered hiring her son a sex worker*. She considered doing this because her son is autistic. This narrative in and of itself is not new or particularly shocking. Parents have discussed considering hiring their disabled sons a sex workers before. I’ve seen narratives written by disabled men talking about their experiences hiring sex workers. The thing that makes Lette’s article so horrifying is the lack of involvement and consent from her son as she goes through her consideration of hiring him a sex worker.

There is also the fact that this narrative comes from her and shares a lot of extremely private medical information about her son. The over sharing of private information about disabled children is inappropriate and exploitative generally but is particularly heinous in the case of Lette as she is literally using her son’s story to sell her novels.

Lette describes her process of seeking a sex worker for her son as follows,

Not one, but two of the mothers I’ve befriended through the National Autistic Society suggested that we take our sons to a brothel. I mean, what kind of mother gives her son the sort of advice championed by Silvio Berlusconi?

But even the temporary solace of sex might do something for his flagging confidence.

Is soliciting a prostitute a seriously abnormal thing to do? Yes. But mothering a child with autism tends to recalibrate one’s view of normal. And so we asked our male friends how to go about it – only to be met with blanket non-co-operation till one pal replied facetiously, ‘Great idea. I’ll just run it by my wife, shall I?’

I asked a French girlfriend who is very worldly. ‘How can you, a feminist, condone prostitution?’ she responded with a searing glare.

Soon after, I was driving past a red-light district near Liverpool Street station. On impulse, I veered off the main road into a labyrinth of dark streets. As women skulked towards me out of the shadows, my heart thumped against my ribcage. What the hell was I doing there? I was more likely to be found at a book club than on a kerb crawl.

Besides, even if I did pick up a prostitute, how would I negotiate the transaction?

No, this was a bad, bad idea. I waved my hand back and forth like a windshield wiper to shoo the women away. When it came to parenting, I obviously needed a hat marked ‘trainee’.

It also crossed my addled brain that I was contemplating an illegal act. Kerb crawling for your child would prove a pretty hard concept to explain to a judge. And, how would I survive in jail? I’m a writer. The only wound I’ve ever received is a paper cut.

I went into spooked deer mode and bolted.

At no point, does her plan involves discussing it with her son. I can only imagine the bizarre and awkward scene that would have followed her impromptu “kerb crawl” if she had in fact succeeded in hiring a sex worker and had taken her home to her unsuspecting son.

“Hello, dear, I hope you’re having a good evening. By the way, I’ve hired you a sex worker. Here she is. Go at it. Have fun.”

The best case scenario is simply a lot of awkwardness. The worst-case scenario is that she, having presented her son with a sex worker, ends up pressuring him into a sexual experience that he does not want and is thus along with the sex worker complicit in a sexual assault.

This narrative falls into the egregious stereotype of disabled male sexuality which suggests (quite incorrectly) that their sex drive is simply constant and completely undiscerning. The very idea that you could simply present someone with a willing partner and assume that they would automatically be attracted to that person and in the mood for that sexual liaison is absurd.

The level of hopelessness that Lette describes, about her son ever finding a girlfriend (which he does eventually do all by himself) is also unnecessarily exaggerated. He is in his early twenties. Contrary to narratives in popular culture, it is still not entirely uncommon for people regardless of disability to have not had a successful relationship by the time they are twenty-one.

I am also struck by the masculine centred nature of these disability and sex worker narratives. The horrific failure of consent that is the Lette example aside. These stories are so frequently couched in a need to explore and affirm sexuality. But they are almost always focused on men. I have never heard a narrative written by a disabled woman or from the parent of the disabled woman in which they seek a sex worker. A 2005 survey suggested that 22% of disabled men had sought the services of sex workers as opposed to only 1% of disabled women had done so.

When it comes to narratives of providing supportive assistance in facilitating sexual relationships for disabled people, women are left out. The social taboo of women hiring sex workers completely overrides the narrative of affirming sexuality that often accompanies stories about disabled men.

This is problematic not because women aren’t seeking sex workers but because it reinforces the idea that men are in some way entitled to sex while reinforcing the idea that disabled women are sexually passive and that disabled women having sex or seeking sex may be in and of itself cause for concern.

Lette’s article reinforces this idea of male entitlement to sex through her complete lack of consideration of consent. It is simply assumed that this is something that he would want and be willing to participate in.

She also entirely fails to consider or address the way that disabled people have been culturallyy desexualized that has led to the conclusion that relying on sex workers for giving disabled men, sexual experiences in the first place. She simply laments that women will not think outside the box. She doesn’t look at how those boxes are created and socially maintained or how they might be broken open and destroyed to include disabled people as socially acceptable and desireable sexual and romantic partners.

Ultimately, the expression of sexuality by disabled people should be led by them. Even in circumstances where third-party assistance might be necessary to fulfil the expression of sexuality, the decision on how and with whom should always come from the disabled person themselves not from a parent or anyone else.

*Lette never actually uses the term sex worker in her article, choosing instead to use more disrespectful language.

 

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Disability Discrimination and the Glorification of Canada’s “Ruthless” Immigration System

Flag_of_Canada.svg

Image Description: Canadian Flag. A red maple leaf on a white background with red vertical stripes at either end.

Today I came across two conflicting news articles, one of them Canadian, the other American. They both deal with the Canadian immigration system but they come to vastly different conclusions. The American article which appeared in the New York Times entitled Canada’s Ruthlessly Smart Immigration Policy, glorifies the Canadian by the numbers immigration system. Conversely, a Global News report looked at Canadian grown advocacy against that same immigration system. Their primary concern, the fact that the system is discriminatory against disabled people.

I have written previously about how the Canadian immigration system actively discriminates against disabled people and what this means for the status of disabled people within Canada and abroad. When I first wrote that article, it garnered very little attention but since the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States it has become one of the most consistently viewed pieces on my blog. As the issue is garnering attention again both in Canada and abroad, I think it’s time to revisit this issue in light of these two reasons articles.

Jonathan Tepperman, the author of the New York Times piece applauds Canada’s immigration system which is primarily a merit-based system. This means that immigrants to Canada have to meet certain criteria before they are able to immigrate to Canada. It differs from the American system which is primarily relationship based. Most American immigrants gain residency through a familial connection to someone already living in the United States. In Canada, family immigration is limited primarily to immediate families including minor children or a foreign citizen marrying a Canadian.

I am not going to actively compare the pros and cons of those two systems, I am however going to criticize again the Canadian system for how an almost entirely merit-based system leads to the systemic discrimination against disabled people. The Canadian immigration system actively excludes people on medical grounds. The natural consequence of this is widespread discrimination against disabled people within the immigration process.

Tepperman looks at the economic and educational outcomes for Canadian immigrants versus American ones and includes that the primary reason that outcomes in Canada tend to be more positive as a result of this merit-based system. He does not consider any of the other policy and legislative differences that exist between Canada and the United States. He does not consider how our government funded healthcare system for differences in education delivery and retraining might also have a significant impact on positive outcomes for immigrants in Canada versus those in the United States. He also does not consider the cultural differences between our two countries in which Canadians have a sense (accurate or not) that we are a welcoming and actively multicultural society.

Instead, he credits and extensively numbers based system which applies an economic value to human beings in determining whether or not they can have access to Canada. Regardless of the inherent discrimination that ultimately results from putting a dollar value on human beings.

Canada’s Immigration Minister claims that no one is automatically denied permanent residency in Canada based on disability and while this is strictly true it ignores how Canadian immigration policy is written in a way that disproportionately targets and excludes disabled people. It ignores the systemic discrimination in inherent in the way the law is written and also ignores how it is in conflict with the Canadian Constitution.

Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states

(1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Not only does the Constitution guarantee this equality, it also recognizes that for those groups recognized to be disadvantaged in gaining equality that additional measures might have to be taken in order to ensure that equality is achieved, it continues,

(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

And yet, the Canadian immigration system specifically excludes people from immigrating to Canada on the basis of health status. It determines whether an individual is excluded based on whether it considers an individual to be a potential “excessive burden”. Whether or not someone is deemed to be an excessive burden is based solely on medical grounds.

As the activists profiled in the Global News piece point out, the potential cost of an immigrant on the Canadian system is potentially more than just medical. It also pointed out that the way the financial figure is reached is shrouded in secrecy and lacks accountability. This lack of openness contradicts Tepperman’s fantasy of a clear and honest merit-based system.

Ironically, while Tepperman decries the focus on familial relationships that dominate the American immigration system, it is familiar relationships that allow the few exceptions to disabled people immigrating to Canada. Those who do make it through the system do so most frequently as children whose parents immigrate for work. The children themselves are seen as having no inherent value having been labelled potential excessive burdens but in successful cases, they are seen as acceptable burdens in exchange for the perceived value of the expertise and labour provided by a parent.

This issue continues to be timely not only because the continued discrimination against disabled people should be fought and protested until it is abolished but also because of the particular political climate of the United States. One of the potential reasons that my previous piece on disability and immigration to Canada has in recent months garnered so much attention is because of how American Republicans have been attempting to rewrite American healthcare law. They are attempting to repeal Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act and replace it with the BRCA (previously the AHCA). A healthcare bill which with the millions of people lose their healthcare coverage, see billions in funding removed from Medicaid and furnish a tax cut for the wealthy. People are justifiably frightened.

While previous elections have seen individuals jokingly stated that if the politician of their choice did not win that they would move to Canada, this election has seen that desire taken far more seriously. Unfortunately, those most likely to be negatively impacted by Donald Trump’s and the Republicans harmful policies are also those who are least likely to be able to escape falling victim to them. As a result, disabled people in the United States are fighting against these dangerous policies at the risk of arrest.

Canadian politics cannot help but be impacted by the realities of the current American government. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has utilized Canada’s softer reputation to create an image of opposition to the harsh realities of Donald Trump. One way that he does this is by claiming that all people are welcome in Canada.

Even though this tweet was written specifically in response to the American response to refugees, it is nevertheless false. Trudeau conveniently seems to forget that while Canada does take many refugees, it still actively limits the number of people that it will welcome into the country. Trudeau’s false universality and welcome also can be taken as hypocritical in light of how discrimination is coded into Canada’s immigration system. Human diversity after all includes disability.

Trudeau’s disingenuous image of universal welcome is also not limited solely to Twitter. He also made statements during his speech on Canada Day (July 1). He stated,

Louis St. Laurent referred to Canada as a place where people joined their talents without merging their identities and it’s true, Canada is a country made strong not in spite of our differences but because of them. We don’t aspire to be a melting pot, indeed we know true strength and resilience flows through Canadian diversity.

Ours is a land of original peoples and of newcomers and our greatest pride is that you can come here from anywhere in the world, build a good life and be part of our community. We don’t care where you’re from or what religion you practice or whom you love. You are all welcome in Canada.

(This section translated from French) But don’t forget that if Canada today is a truly multicultural country, outward looking and open to the world. This did not happen by accident. A 150 years ago, the very existence of our country depended on our ability to accept the notion that citizens of the same country could speak different languages and have different cultures. It all depended on peaceful and active coexistence between people different from one another. Over time, the bilingual character of our country has become a central and defining part of our identity… Across this country we speak French and English and hundreds of other languages.

(English again) And so, diversity has been at the very core of Canada. It’s the foundation upon which our country was built. We may be from every colour and creed, from every corner of the world…We embrace that diversity, while knowing in our hearts that we are all Canadians.

This is a particularly rose-tinted view of Canadian diversity and it is also a lie. Trudeau is far too fond of saying that everyone is welcome in Canada. He does not solely extend this supposedly welcome to refugees, his Canada Day statements are broader than that. The broader the intention the more clear the inaccuracy of the statement.

This is particularly relevant to how Canada and the United States deal with refugees. Our two countries have a “safe third country agreement” which bars refugees who have reached one of the two countries from gaining refugee status in the other. This has caused particular concern for some refugees in the United States who feel the current political climate is unsafe for them. Some of these people have decided to attempt to cross the Canadian border illegally in an attempt to get refugee status in Canada. Illegal border crossings can quite literally be disabling. Crossing the border can be dangerous and particularly if it is done in winter can result in people becoming disabled.

Trudeau’s false welcome to everyone beckons people closer to Canada only to potentially shove them away whether those people are refugees or simply disabled people seeking to immigrate.

Not only does our unjust immigration system needs to be overhauled as a matter of human rights and as a matter of justice. More presently as Canadians, we must consider that for those of us who stand in solidarity against Donald Trump’s policies. For the thousands who attended satellite Women’s Marches or who travelled to the United States to participate alongside our American friends. We must ask ourselves how accessible is our resistance. How welcoming will we be to disabled people who seek to come to Canada for fear that American legislation and policies threaten their lives? For those refugees who seek to leave the United States and come to Canada, will we care for them if they find themselves permanently injured along the journey. Will we demand that the spirit of Justin Trudeau’s words become our actual reality and insist that diversity in Canada includes disability?

 

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