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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