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Disabled People Are Still Waiting For Their Sexual Revolution

June 27, 2016

Born with a debilitating spinal disability, 53-year- old Frenchman Marcel Nuss, met his first wife, Gaby, in hospital as he battled for his life at the age of 22. Now divorced, he lives with his partner, Marie, and his two children in the leafy suburbs of Strasbourg.

“I often had comments like ‘Oh, he’s a bit ugly’,” Marie reveals in Disability and Sexuality: Exploring the Intimacy Option, a documentary exploring the interplay between disability and sexual liberation.

Yet ableism would not drive a wedge between the two: “If you’re drawn to someone they must be attractive to you, so they cannot be ugly. I was fascinated by his vitality, his desire to move forward, the look in his eyes, his enthusiasms, and his love for life. It’s beautiful, really.”

Marie and Marcel’s relationship is one example of how love can be marred by stigma and ridicule. Kirsty Liddiard at the University of Warwick argues [pdf] that “disabled people have a sexual history marked by oppression, prejudice, discrimination, and violence”.

As someone with a visual disability, even my largely unexciting sex life has been the butt of a few jokes. During my first year at university, a rumour spread like wildfire that I had got lucky the night before. (Regrettably, that’s all it was: a rumour.) Nevertheless, the usual questions – Who? Where? When? Are they going out? – were never asked. Surprise, shock and laughter were the typical reactions.

Soon enough, people were shamed for having had a raunchy rendezvous with the same person as me: “Drink if you and Allan Hennessy got with the same person” made its way into the drinking games. The best one, however, was the boy who gossiped a bit too loud in the cafe: “How did he even know where to put it in?” (I’ve always wondered since what said boy knows about mood lighting? Bright lampshades are almost as unsexy as socks in bed. Get back to me on that one, Henry.)

At least I didn’t have it as bad as Hannah, one of Liddiard’s research interviewees: “A lot of friends will ask, ‘Does Shaun’s willy work?’” Or Kadeem: “Family members made comments like, ‘We pray you get better so you can and have kids’ … that broke my heart.”

People sometimes forget – or try not to remember – that disabled people love, lust and desire. The stereotype foisted upon us is one of passivity: defeated, damaged, immobile and, most inaccurately, asexual.

Yet what people don’t realise is that it’s easier for the blind to recreate some of the kinky scenes from EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey than our sighted counterparts. We don’t need to make the embarrassing trip to Soho to get the gear. We’ve got our canes at home, trialled and tested; nothing like a good ol’ white stick to get ’em going!

I do not apologise for my crassness; I’d rather laugh than be laughed at. The dehumanisation and asexualisation of disabled people, or the fetishisation of their sexual relationships (midget porn, anyone?), comes against a backdrop of largely futile changes to human rights law.

Ten years ago, the first international human rights treaty of the 21st century, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), was negotiated in New York. To date, 160 countries have signed it.

One such country is Indonesia, where people like Rafi are regularly chained up for days on end because the community believes that their psychosocial disorders are in fact possessive evil spirits. To my mind, that is a clear breach of article 17, which calls on states to respect the “integrity” of disabled people.

The Committee on the Rights of Disabled Person’s April 2016 report on the implementation of the treaty expressed serious concerns about potential breaches in Thailand, Uganda (which has recently discussed legislation criminalising homosexuality), Chile and Slovakia.

Even ostensibly liberal democracies such as Australia, were found to have breached the rights of its deaf nationals. And EU member states are no better: the committee was “deeply concerned” that Portugal is neglecting disabled women’s “rights to vote, to marry, to found a family, and to manage assets and properties”.

The problem with law is that it lags behind social change. Law is rather like a sheep: it follows rather than drives change. Forced, premature legal change doesn’t work. The social milieu must change, the law responds afterwards. Unfortunately, CRPD is one such case of prematurity: the treaty is way ahead of its time – social attitudes towards the interaction between disability and sexuality have not changed. Sadly, 50 articles in an international treaty, which even lawyers struggle to make sense of, won’t change hearts and minds. And even if they could, it is lamentable that the word “sexuality” does not feature in the convention once.

Perceptions about disability and sexuality need to change outside the courtroom. The end of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the first Beatle’s album marked the start of the sexual revolution for the “able”. That was the early 1960s. Today, in 2016, the disabled community is yet to be sexually liberated. And as the long walk to freedom is yet to even begin, we – the asexualised or fetishised – know that neither the UN nor ageing judges can give us the sexual revolution we yearn for. Our fate is in your hands. Give it to me, baby!


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