In talking about stereotypes, there was a massive one I didn’t mention because I wanted to devote an entire post to it: the pervasive belief that disabled people are asexual.
In season 2 of Downton Abbey (spoiler alert) handsome posh guy Matthew Crawley is paralyzed from the waist down. The show then depicts the grief process that many people who become disabled undergo – including the feeling that they have been robbed of their sexuality. Cue a lot of talk that any woman who stays with Matthew is doomed “to live the life of a nun” and that Matthew “has nothing to offer any woman.”
But then something really special happened. The show depicted Matthew’s transformation into a flourishing disabled man – including his discovery of a new, different, but equally thriving experience of sexuality. We were shown once again by mainstream media how sexual and sexy disabled people can be.
Haha, no – I’m kidding of course. Matthew Crawley was magically cured. And it was obvious from the start that his disability would be temporary. You can’t have a leading man in a wheelchair! It just wouldn’t work! Leading men have to be sexy!
Our culture associates sex and sexuality with our ideas of perfect bodies. So when we’re confronted with bodies that completely contravene our image of what perfect bodies should be like, we’d rather not think of those bodies as being sexual, thanks very much. Which is a shame, really – in part because of the way it disenfranchises and stigmatizes disabled people, but also because disabled people get up to some truly awesome shit in the bedroom. And if you’re anything like me, you’d rather know about these things.
For example, the non-genital orgasm. The what now? Yes, the non-genital orgasm. Studies have shown that women with complete spinal cord injury can still experience orgasm. The physiological responses (raised heart rate, endorphin rush, decreased sensitivity to pain, etc) associated with these non-genital orgasms are similar to the more familiar genital orgasm, but the sensation is located in a completely different part of the body (which part can vary from person to person). These responses used to be called “phantom orgasms”, until people realized this term was derogatory. “Phantom limb sensation” is sensation that you experience as being located in a limb that no longer exists. These orgasms aren’t “phantom” – they’re real orgasms, they just aren’t centered where orgasms are usually centered. How cool is that? (Side bar: this is a must read.)
It’s true that many – though certainly not all – disabled people have an experience of sexuality that is somewhat different to that of non-disabled people. But it’s important not to understand these differences primarily in terms of “overcoming obstacles”. A lot of disabled people find that the differences in how they experience sexuality are valuable and important to them. These differences include: trying out new and unusual sexual positions, widening their notion of “sex” to include things other than intercourse, exploring less well-known erogenous zones, becoming less goal-oriented and performance-driven during sex, experimenting with methodologies like Tantric that focus less on physical activity and more on emotional connection. In general, embracing sexuality as a disabled person can be a part of moving away from heteronormative ideals of what your sex life should be like. And it can be really freeing, and really rewarding, to move away from those norms and expectations.
For further discussion, you can watch this fantastic mini-documentary:
There’s also a lot of buzz right now about the upcoming film “The Last Taboo” by disabled filmmaker Alexander Freeman. Check out the trailer below.
(Warning and apology:
unfortunately neither video is captioned. The longer video isn’t captioned. Our friends over at Radical Accessible Communities have made a captioned version of The Last Taboo trailer, which you can view here: http://www.universalsubtitles.org/en/videos/rIMgVbwru2S2/info/the-last-taboo-2012-trailer/)