Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Results of Sexualizing Disabled Individuals

Lately, BrownFemiPower has been acting as my muse. I was blessed to have her respond to my Sex & Disability posts. You can take a gander at them below my post here. Her questions are too tempting for me to pass up the opportunity to answer them. Well, I'm not so conceited that I believe I can provide the answers but I can certainly explain how I see things. Yallah, let us proceed.

I really wish that I had seen these programs so that I could critique each of them separately. As it stands, I can only judge them from how they've been described and what I've observed on similar shows. I am of the opinion that any depiction of disabled people on the Howard Stern show is likely to feature the exploitation of "the odd and unusual" for the purpose of entertainment. That's his niche and he is quite effective at filling it.

I've found that PBS is usually rather progressive when it comes to handling portrayals of individuals with disabilities. However, I do not agree with broadcasters using the issue of how disabled people engage in sex in a titillating manner to draw in an audience. It's a cheap ploy that those with real talent would not resort to in order to keep people's trigger finger off of the remote control. I'm not surprised that this occurred, though. When it comes to television programming, viewership seems to rule everything. If the Discovery Channel wants corporations to purchase advertisement time with them, the programming has to attract a significant amount of people. Such pressures are, evidently, enough to contribute to them engaging in exploitation from time to time. As the Bible says, "there is no new thing under the sun", so I guess that's to be expected though not respected. Just yesterday, I saw CNN broadcast a story about a woman with Body Dysmorphic Syndrome. CNN exploited her troubles in a similar attempt to get the viewer to stay tuned in past the commercial break.

BrownFemiPower asks "how does the sexualization of disabled people by a broad power structure further violence against disabled communities?" Honestly, I don't think we can know for sure. If what has occurred in the past is any indication of what we should expect to see, it's very likely that disabled people would be victims of violence more frequently than other marginalized groups because some individuals with disabilities face a greater disadvantage when it comes to defending themselves physically. The abused individual on Stern's show who used a wheelchair provides a prime example of this.

I don't think we need to look at this issue as one with only two options to choose from: continuance of the idea that disabled people should not be viewed as sexual at all or a world where disabled individuals are objectified in order to excuse viewing them as having little or no purpose other than to fulfill the (sexual) needs of others. The golden mean would be a world where non-disabled individuals don't make assumptions about what individuals with disabilities should do or are capable of doing.

Because of how far the pendulum leans towards treating sex as taboo for disabled people, we have a lot of work to do before fighting sexualization needs to be our priority. Striving to make living with disabilities be seen as normal would do more to improve our lives than simply fighting against those relative few who have managed to acquire a view of us as fitting some sexualized stereotype.

I don't believe that if society were to eventually accept disabled individuals as sexual beings, we would likely become more "rapable" than we already are. That's because our status as having disabilities already makes us quite "rapable". If we were to become members of society who are recognized as having the same sexual needs and vulnerabilities as other marginalized groups, perhaps social justice movements would be more likely to include disabled people among those who are defended and advocated for. The acknowledgement of our sexuality won't solve all of our problems but I do not believe that it would result in a net increase in them either.

I think the issues involved with those who would "rather be dead than live like that" are somewhat separate from this but I'll try to address it a bit. Personally, I do not see anything wrong with people preferring to die than to live a certain way. I think disabled individuals have a real interest in these people having that desire respected. I also have certain situations where I'd prefer death over continued life. This attitude is only problematic to me when it is based on misinformation. If someone thought that being disabled in a particular way meant that they could no longer care for themselves or have a sex life or engage in their favorite emotionally fulfilling activities, this could be why they'd rather be dead. If a particular disability didn't actually mean losing these abilities and people were aware of that, they might prefer life in such situations. So, again, the key is educating people about what it means to be disabled.

When it comes to the cultural acceptance of aborting disabled fetuses, I think we should err on the side of choice but let it be educated choice. Furthermore, I don't see the acceptance of aborting fetuses with disabilities as necessarily being a sign that society values the lives of such ones less. That's not to say that I believe society does view them as being of equal worth.

If we want to find evidence that non-disabled people view us as inferior that's as easy as examining how often society refuses to allow us to determine when and how we should die. If someone decides that they no longer want to live with some permanent disability, that decision is not respected. In many places society will even incarcerate those who try to help disabled people die on their own terms. Instead, some non-disabled people think that they are the best judges of what a disabled person should be willing to tolerate. Our views on the right-to-die issue matters very little in comparison to those of non-disabled people.

Just look at the Terri Schiavo case. There were disabled individuals who sided with Schiavo's parents and others who agreed with her husband. Did the media focus on these individuals? Since Schiavo was unable to express herself or talk about her situation, the disabled activists could certainly speak about these issues with the first hand experience that even Schiavo's parents and husband lacked. Yet the media only saw fit to use these activists to fill a few camera shots during the down time between monologues given by non-disabled individuals chosen to act as representatives from both sides.

BrownFemiPower wrote, "I guess I just always feel a bit apprehensive when the sexuality of oppressed groups gets analyzed by non-oppressed groups". While I can understand why that is, I feel differently. I get really excited by the opportunities for progress that exist when non-oppressed groups discuss such issues. The only way that we can ever expect to see less oppression is if the oppressors can be shown the necessity of engaging in such analyses.

Social justice movements have had some success with this when it comes to those issues that are usually championed. However, I think that the nature of such movements makes them prone to disbelief when their elitism gets pointed out. Don't get me wrong, these groups are certainly less likely (than society in general) to accept elitism when it can be proven to them that it exists. But the idea that disabilities shouldn't be discussed is so pervasive that I think it keeps even well-meaning, generally enlightened, individuals from making a concerted effort to get representation from the community of disabled individuals when they are trying to put a face on their cause.

As I see it, a lesbian with an amputated limb or limited mobility could discuss sexual oppression with even more experience than many of the non-disabled women that I've seen chosen to speak on that topic. It's just too easy to say that it's simply coincidence that the opinions of disabled individuals are not usually asked for. I think those who fight for justice need to stop taking disabled activists for granted. If this were to happen, I think that people would find that we (disabled activists) are quite capable of educating those within social movements who can in turn use their already honed skills to do the same with the general public.

1 comment:

brownfemipower said...

what an excellent post!!!!

of course, I have to comment!!

I think that, over all, we are agreeing on the same thing, but I think that you put it much more eloquently than i did...but I do still take exception to the idea that:

Because of how far the pendulum leans towards treating sex as taboo for disabled people, we have a lot of work to do before fighting sexualization needs to be our priority. Striving to make living with disabilities be seen as normal would do more to improve our lives than simply fighting against those relative few who have managed to acquire a view of us as fitting some sexualized stereotype.

on that howard stern show I talked about, evidently, women with missing limbs is quite a rampant sexual fetish at the moment...I have actually had people come to my blog under search words like "women with stumps f***ing. ANd, believe it or not, on the stern show in question, one of the women even talked at length about how she could tell if a man was going after her just because he had a sexual fetish with her stump or if he was really interested in dating her.

on the other hand, I think that you are 100% correct to say that most people with disabilities are not considered sexual in any way...but I think that is what I am talking about when I say sexualized violence...not so much that disability gets sexualized (as in the case of women with stumps), but that sexual violence like rape or mutilation is targeted towards a person because they are not seen as fully human. They are seen, as you have stated, as people without sexual desires, without personalities, without human needs. ANd i think that if you look at institutionalized disabled folks, you will see more of what i am talking about--the woman in a coma who turns up pregnant, for example. Disabled people, disabled women specifically, are seen as *things* that can be used as needed by able bodied people--disabled women very often times can't resist and even more times, can't speak out in a way that society is willing to listen to.

For example, the spanish film, Hable con Ella (talk to her)...in this film, a comatose woman is raped by an attendant and eventually she is impregnanted by him. the man eventually winds up in jail, but the main character clearly empathizes with the man and even credits the man with "waking" the woman through the impregnantation. There is only a light glimpse at what the woman must've felt--there is no discussion about the violence of being raped and not knowing it, of the violence and permanent changes birth can inflict on an ablebodied woman's body much less a comatose woman's body and then to top it all off there is no discussion of the fact that the baby she gives birth to winds up dying!!

Overall, the movie basically asks the viewers to accept that as long as person who takes sexual advantage of another person, who clearly has no ability to affirm or reject his/her advances, does it with the best of intentions, then all is ok.

Another question for you as well...the reason I began learning about, talking with, and figuring out ways that disabled women could be centered in my own fight against violence against women was because disabled women are *not* normal--in the sense that disabled women need more help living in many cases-- how transformative could it be for this society if instead of saying that disabled folks are normal just like "us" (meaning able bodied people), we say that what disabled folks need to live are what we as a society are going to base the fundemental rights we give to each member of our society? I'm not sure that made sense, so I will try to explain...if we center the most disabled of disabled persons requirements to live a productive, meaningful, blessed life in social programs like medicaid/medicare, in how we as a society allow our government to spend money, in what values we give our kids, in how we take care of each other, in how we as a society value life, in how we as a society value death, how transformative would that be for our society? For example, if we as a society *really* valued disabled persons quality of life, while at the same time we realize that we need money to help this disabled person live that quality of life, would we be so willing to spend a billion dollars a week on war?

ah, I don't know mujer. I did want to say that I realize that I unintentionally made the arguement that disabled folks were not sexual beings in the post of mine you read. I see now, how I did that. What I was trying to do was actually be protective more than anything else...the "go away you sickos" sort of thing as opposed to the "disabled people don't have sexual needs." but I do see now that by not being aware of exactly how disabled people are positioned on the whole as not having sexuality at all, I actually furthered this thought in my own arguement.

it's so hard to figure this stuff out some times, I want to thank you for allowing me the safe space to figure this out!!