Saturday, February 11, 2006

Sex & Disabilities--The Information Void (Part IV)

In BrownFemiPower's post, she mentioned how social justice movements have mostly failed to include the issues faced by individuals with disabilities. She states that "a very big reason for this is the fetish able-bodied people have with disabled people's sex lives" but I see things differently.

Before such movements can incorporate "disabled people's issues", these issues have to be clearly defined. That has yet to happen. I believe that this is because of the "don't stare" message people are commonly given as children. I think it's well-meaning but ultimately leads people to believe that ignoring disabilities is actually the best way to show respect for those who have them. I really don't see what the point is in teaching people to pretend that they don't see the differences that make us unique. Perhaps that's because I feel no more ashamed of being disabled than I do about being a woman or being a person of color but I'm not naive. I understand the reason why people treat disabilities as if they are something that one should try to hide.

Despite the fact that we are living in the twenty-first century, many people have really archaic ideas about disease. In the past, it was not uncommon for people to associate disease and other misfortunes with sin. The Old Testament of the Bible has several instances where God used illness to discipline those who had gone astray (e.g. Miriam's Leprosy, Nebuchadnezzar's insanity, Egypt's plagues). Given the prevalence of Judeo-Christian beliefs even in the modern world, is it any wonder that people still tend to blame people for their disabilities?

When I became disabled, I thought people would just be sympathetic and that is how most of those in my life reacted but there were exceptions and quite a few of them. Some people actually began to avoid me. Others actually tried tell me that I probably got cancer because of something I did or ate or some medication that I took. I think they needed to believe that I was somehow to blame because otherwise, they'd have to deal with the reality that they too might wake up one day and find themselves in the same shoes as I must wear. And for many people that's a very scary thought.

I think that people would be less likely to be so afraid of being disabled if they actually understood what it means to be disabled. However, the way people are taught not to acknowledge disabilities for the sake of being "polite" makes that impossible. The only way that we can change things is through education. That means answering the questions about how people with disabilities engage in the behaviors that the rest of the world participates in, including and especially sex.

Even though it would be great if people were as eager to learn about other aspects of being disabled, I am always happy to see people in the media ask those questions about people with disabilities and how we engage in sex. It may seem like exploitation and perhaps the argument could be made that it is but I don't see it that way because it serves an important service. You might assume that doctors would know to bring up the topic of sex when someone becomes disabled but I've found that this just doesn't happen, at least not as much as it should.

I have yet to have a doctor initiate such a conversation with me. Did they think someone else was going to tell me? Depending on your situation, a person with disabilities may be left without the slightest clue about what it is they are still able to do and whether those options are even within the realm of is okay for "normal" disabled people to do. Disabled people, who have been raised amidst all of the myths and assumptions people tend to have about "proper" sexual behavior, can feel too embarrassed to bring up the topic of sex with their doctors.

Given the current state of things, disabled people often have to resort to getting their information from those experienced advocates who are willing to talk frankly on the topic with the media. If disabled people who can provide such information stopped doing so, they'd be doing the rest of us a great disservice. Not only would such knowledge be kept from the general public but it would also result in more disabled individuals suffering in silence. With all of the struggles that people with disabilities face in a world where they are unnecessarily judged as deficient, not having the information needed in order to express oneself as a sexual being can make it nearly impossible to experience a feeling of wholeness.


brownfemipower said...

Hey girl!
Wow! great posts! must'a took you forever!!! (I've been trying to get some posts written and my kids have turned into just about the neediest children in creation lately!!! ;-)

so, I have some initial reactions...first, I see what you're saying about disabled peoples lack of resources concerning sex...and this makes more progressive television programming like that LINK program more understandable to me. *when i get some time!!!!* I plan to go back to that post and update it with a link to your site. Looking back on that program, I can see now where it was really a much more radical program than I thought it was...The program highlighted MS, little people, injured later in life, obesity, and folks in wheel chairs. AND it included a racially diverse mix of folks as well, black and (I think) native, and it had a transgendered person as well. I can see now, that a program like that is a huge service as opposed to a weird fetish.

On the other hand, I still am not entirelly convinced that programs on PBS, discovery channel and (groan) howard stern, are not simply exploitative. For example, I saw a program on the discovery channel that highlighted conjoined twins, and how these women fufill themselves seemed to be the "draw" to get viewers in--the program kept hinting to the viewer that it was going to tell their "secret", only to make the viewer wait until after the commercial break.

Because I center violence in most of my organizing/activism, I just can't help but wonder, how does the sexualization of disabled people by a broad power structure further violence against disabled communities?

For example, just on the howard stern show (really, i'm not a sicko watching all this crap, I like to watch/listen to this stuff to make critical analysis! ;->) a wheelchair bound man talked about how when his partner got mad at him, he would take him out of his chair, throw him on the bed, and leave him there until he felt like dealing with him again. Most of the Stern gang laughed at this story.

A lot of women of color scholars make the arguement that because "colored" bodies have been racially sexualized (for example, the crazy Latina f**k, the nubian n*gg*r, etc), our bodies have become "rapable" other words, it is "ok" to rape a woman of color or perpertrate horrific sexualized violence against her body simply because her body is brown.

I have to believe that if mainstream structures create this "more rapable" acceptance for women of color, that it also, in some way, does the same thing for disabled people in general and specifically disabled women of color.

I have heard a horrifically large number of people say that they would rather be dead than to "live like that" (of course meaning disabled).
And then there is the cultural acceptance of aborting disabled fetuses...if there is already little cultural value for a disabled person's life, then what happens when that disabled person becomes sexually objectified? Does that person become "more rapable" as women of color do?

I guess I just always feel a bit apprehensive when the sexuality of oppressed groups gets analysized by non-oppressed groups--clearly, however, for disabled people, this plays out in much different ways than it does for able-bodied folks!!!

brownfemipower said...

ps I was also wondering about your comment that people think you got cancer because of "x"--usually some thing to do with your behavior.

I don't agree with that sentiment at all, but I have been exploring the idea of state created disability...that is the children who have been exposed to agent orange, the children exposed to nuclear waste, the children exposed to dioxins, waste, poison and other enviornmental filth that the state specifically creates or edorses the creation of.

do you think that the disability movement has the potential to create an alliance between disabled folks and those suing for reperations (in the case of agent orange?)

And how can the fine line be drawn between valuing disability while at the same time recognizing that the state has an instrumental role in creating disability?

just some more thoughts...sorry if I am overwhelming you!