Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sex and People with Disabilities: So Basic a Human Right



So much of what I write here is informed/catalyzed/inflected by conversations I’ve been fortunate enough to have been a part of elsewhere. And by far, the talk that instigates most of what I share with you happens during my time with women and men alike, who’ve been conditioned by the culture to gloss over matters like sex, under the erroneous assumption that adults - by definition- most probably know all about sex that there is to know already. That is, by the act of achieving adult status alone, we’re somehow in possession of all we need to know about human sexuality.

On the other hand, many folks come to me, after thirty, forty, fifty years on the planet, rightly assuming that there’s still some “stuff” they don’t know, but not altogether sure about what that unknown stuff might be.

Either way, what transpires between us is almost always like gold, precious and beautiful, unnervingly empowering for nearly all concerned. This is particularly true for the so-called “aha” moments, the unexpected epiphanies large and small, when the proverbial light bulb comes on. It can happen for a single soul or sometimes for many in synchrony, due to nothing more than a serendipitous confluence of events bringing us together to discover something profound about our collective humanity.

Moreover, the longer I do this, the more convinced I am that there are trends to be discerned here. By that I mean large swaths of misunderstood territory, wherein myths about desire and function abound in the public consciousness like so many fleas on an unkempt canine. Often they’re unknowingly couched in racist ideologies and/or gender bias, sometimes completely unquestioned by the believers who hold them dear. This is where the real work begins, I assure participants. This is where the important job of prying open our eyes and recalibrating our awareness of others’ lived experience becomes the priority.

And so, we come to the issue of sex and people with disabilities and their fundamental right to inhabit and leverage their sexuality - to be sexually fulfilled insofar as they choose to be - sans negative, patronizing labeling from the world around them.

I’ve got to say, I’m often a bit surprised at the comments I hear from so many:

“I just assumed they (persons with disabilities) didn’t have sex.” Or “Can they really have orgasms? Do they want to? Are you kidding? How?”

Hmmm….

As one might surmise, much of our misinformation about sex and persons with disabilities comes to us via popular culture – television, movies, print media and the like wherein people with disabilities - if they’re even interested in sex at all - are framed as sexually frustrated folk who have no choice but to resort to buying sex, or else suffer along without.

Of course, even using the term, “people with disabilities” as an alternative to the term “disabled” or even worse, “invalid” (as people used to be called when I was a child) requires that we acknowledge that the language we employ is inadequate at best. After all, this is an extremely diverse group of folk who live with a vast array of different physical, mental, emotional disorders and the catch-all terms that we tend to resort to homogenizes their individual experiences and life circumstances in deeply troubling ways. That said, this is a conversation well worth having despite the inevitable shortcomings of language. Further, it’s a conversation that often slips so far below eye level that many of us fail to see that the issue exists at all.

So why is it that so many of us tend not to consider the reality that the differently abled - people dealing with physical, mental, and/or emotional disorders - are also human beings with sexual rights, needs and desires? I’m not quite sure, except to say that it just might be akin to the fears that we have about our own sexuality, and our inability to understand what’s going on in our own bodies, let alone what might be happening in the minds and bodies of people whose lived experiences are perceived to be so altered by their “disability” that we perhaps can’t relate to them in the same way that we relate to others seen to be more “like us.” It’s much easier, then, to turn a blind eye to the fact that generally, with few exceptions, persons with disabilities have sexual desires, feelings and most certainly, sexual rights that are no different from those of other people.

Interestingly enough, though, in the not too distant past, rather than seeing the disabled as poor unfortunates who were somehow dead from the waist down,  mainstream ideas about people with disabilities centered around the false and dangerous notion that most were hopelessly hypersexualized, that is, ready to rape and copulate with little or no internal restraint, and that “normal” society needed to be protected from the disabled population’s brutish, overly sexualized ways.

Sadly, that false and horrific view was held by some clinicians, governments and the general public alike, leading to programs aimed at the forced sterilization of people deemed unfit to have control over their own sexuality. In fact, well into the second half of the twentieth century in the US, disturbing numbers of people who were considered mentally disabled were routinely castrated, or subjected to forced hysterectomies, as a way to prevent what others saw as their wanton sexual behaviors and of course, the concomitant pregnancies that so-called “normal” society feared.

As with much in human experience, the truth lies not with a notion of the disabled being dead below the waist, nor does it lie with some stereotyped view of the disabled as riotously over-sexed. Rather, as is true with the vast majority of people, members of the differently abled population are somewhere in between. Being differently abled, or challenged, or dealing with a disorder, or anything else we want to call it, does not in and of itself signal some sexual lack of control. Neither does it signal some corpse-like absence of sexual desire. Moreover, it doesn’t even have to mean a lack of ability to function. And for the large majority of people with disabilities, the ability to have orgasms is still very much a part of life. That’s right. Even in the presence of spinal cord injury, orgasms are indeed possible for a great many people, although admittedly not for all.

As a matter of fact, women with “complete” spinal cord injury, or injury below the vertebra T-6, often find that they're still able to experience orgasms even when they self-describe as having no feeling from the waist on down. It seems a paradox, I know, but it’s due to a bundle of nerves called the sensory vagus that effectively bypasses the damaged spinal column and, in many cases, carries pleasurable orgasmic sensations coursing from the genitals up to the brain.

But what about people who truly aren’t able to have orgasms in the so-called usual or traditional ways? It’s worth remembering that we are, after all, resilient, creative sexual beings whose ability to respond to sensory sexual stimuli simply is not limited to our genitalia. Eastern practices like Tantra speak to this reality, as does our ability to respond sexually to a host of external stimuli like sights, aromas, tastes and sounds, and of course, erotic, intimate touch elsewhere on our bodies. Of course, it’s helpful in this regard to get way past the foolishness of thinking that some kinds of sex are inherently better than others or that only some behaviors constitute truly “authentic” lovemaking, while others do not.

I recently concluded a series of lecture-discussions with a passionate group of deeply thoughtful adults, who, after much discussion and reflection, came at last to a pivotal and stark realization: Regardless of ability status, sexual freedom and expression of our sexuality is a fundamental, basic, inalienable human right. It’s one that should be protected by all of us who have access to power, in heartfelt solidarity with those of us who don’t.


Bravo to that group! I’m seriously glad we got there.


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