Disability and sexuality: everything you think you know is wrong

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/)

34 thoughts on “Disability and sexuality: everything you think you know is wrong

  1. I think “asexual” is the wrong word. I think the stereotype is that disabled people are without sexuality, they are not even fully gendered (e.g. being told “nobody would mind” if I tried clothes on in the men’s changing room because the women’s was up a flight of stairs). I wrote about this earlier this year at The F-Word.

    Asexuality is, after all, a sexuality. Some asexual people have romantic relationships and identify as straight or queer on the grounds of the genders of people they’re romantically drawn to. When asexual non-disabled people talk about their sexuality, understanding people think, “Ah, so that’s the way your wired.” whereas disabled people are frequently treated as if we simply don’t have the wiring.

  2. I guess I think the word “asexual” is ambiguous between the designation of a particular type of sexuality and the designation of something that doesn’t have sexuality. You often here the term “asexual” used in art criticism, biology, etc – so it’s usage definitely goes well beyond describing a certain type of sexuality/sexual identification.

    But while I don’t agree that “asexual” is obviously the wrong word, I’m not wedded to using it either. I’m happy just to say the stereotype is that disabled people aren’t sexual.

  3. Although it excludes women totally in favor of talking about men and their penises, the HBO doc Private Dicks is interesting on this front. One of the interviewees is an older man who is paralyzed from the waist down, and he talks extensively about what that means for him sexually. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0209252/

  4. Thanks for writing this. A deep friend and lover linked me to this. I think it is a smart piece to get the conversation going. I also think it is written from such a distanced and “asexual” (for lack of a better term! ;) perspective that it perpetuates everything in “mainstream culture” that it criticizes. My hope is that it will encourage other people to express their own experiences with sexuality in a way that opens up the conversation instead of facilitating more “us and them” diagnosis of a cultural epidemic segregating people into categories.

  5. To elaborate:

    I wish the author had included more examples in mainstream media culture that show people with mobility/sensory/intellectual limitations and/or differences can still get down. In another article linked at the beginning of this piece, there are several female characters portrayed. I understand the need to illustrate people of all sexes doing their thing so for the list off the top of my head here, I will include more than just girl characters.

    Jon Voigt in Coming Home (about as HOT as it gets regardless of anything.)
    Muriel’s Wedding
    The Other Sister
    Mask (it is a 2 for!)
    ER (tv series)
    Young Adult (and althought this one’s about guys — it does address the issue of sexy disabled v. homely disabled)

    And for an interestig blog read, check out this week’s Savage Love column.


    And there’s more. So like I said, thanks for posting this article and all that you do on this website and please continue to open up people and their dialogues.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Yana, but I’m afraid I don’t really understand your criticism. I didn’t talk about mainstream depictions of disability and sexuality because, to be honest, I’ve never really seen any such depictions that fully embrace the ways and varieties in which a non-standard body can be sexual. (Part of the problem, though certainly not all of it, is that most disabled characters in mainstream film and TV, including the ones you mention, are portrayed by non-disabled actors – and that will always bring with it certain limitations.) In any case, I don’t get how not talking more about mainstream depictions of disability makes the post asexual. I don’t talk much about mainstream media, but I talk a lot about non-mainstream media. And, um, quite a bit about sex.

  7. It’s interesting – I always thought that the whole thing in Downton Abbey about Matthew having to live the life of a nun was a deliberate commentary on the era and was intentionally ridiculous – like the characters who are afraid of electricity or won\’t let women vote.

    Thinking about it though, you may well be right – I guess it goes to show everyone’s working on assumptions!

  8. “I guess I think the word “asexual” is ambiguous between the designation of a particular type of sexuality and the designation of something that doesn’t have sexuality.”

    Something yes, but rarely somebody. Sorry – I wouldn’t be such a pedant if this wasn’t a philosophy blog. ;-)

    It’s like the protest that being a wheelchair-user doesn’t mean you should be treated as you are brain-damaged. Only of course, people with brain-damage don’t deserve the kind of treatment being described (e.g. being patronised). And some wheelchair-users have brain-damage.

    So we should simply say that wheelchair-users should not be patronised.

    Disabled people should not be assumed to be asexual, but some are and being asexual is not a bad thing to be. Being treated the way disabled people are treated when it comes to sex and romance, especially in terms of media representation, is a bad thing to be.

    Coming from an asexual point of view (which mine is not) Kaz put this rather stronger than me at the disabled feminist blog a few years back: Disability and Asexuality

  9. I don’t think we’re going to agree on the usage of “asexual”. I think the term *is* often used to refer to people, but not in a way that picks out a particular sexuality. In art criticism, for example, it is often applied to images or representations of people, and I’ve heard it used similarly in discussion of drama and dance as well.

    But anyway, I think the issue of usage may be a red-herring. To say that there’s a misguided stereotype that disabled people are asexual isn’t in any way to imply that there’s something wrong with being asexual. It is, rather, to imply that there’s something wrong and unhelpful about assuming a connection between disability and asexuality – that is, in assuming that someone is asexual just because they are disabled. After all, there are also stereotypes that disabled people are saintly or intuitive. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with either of those characteristics! But there *is* something wrong with assuming that someone has them just because they are disabled – because of how it marginalizes and “others” disabled people.

    So, in general, I don’t think “it’s a stereotype that disabled people are X” can in any way be read as implying that it’s somehow bad to be X. The point is simply that it’s a mistake to thoughtlessly connect disability with X. And I think that’s true on either of the readings of “asexual” I tried to disambiguate above.

    That being said, I’d like to respectfully request that we bring discussion of terminology and word-choice issues to a close. There is no uncontroversial or universal terminology in these areas. And I often get frustrated by feeling that discussion of wider issues gets sidetracked by endless back-and-forth over which terminology is best. And I also worry that such discussions make non-intiates afraid to say anything at all. No terminology in this area is unproblematic. But among friends, I’d hope that we can assume good faith and good intentions, and move on to discussing the deeper issues.

  10. Fair play. I’m curious to know what you think of fetishists with regard to exposing people to a wider concept of sexuality. I find it hard sometimes as a woman to navigate the hypersexual notions with the de-sexualized perceptions and break free from the “either-or”-ness of it.

    At the same time, i don’t know many people voicing this discussion who are like, “I get down and I’m also a whole person,” able-bodied or not.

  11. I am surprised that the author thinks that word choices that reinscribe epistemologies of ignorance aren’t ‘deep issues’. (Another ‘word choice’ problem occurs on this blog with the use of the term birth defects in another post.) To this reader, the series on disability comes off as patronizing and very basic. If you want to care about disability within the discipline of philosophy, I challenge you to begin with and *cite* current scholarship.

  12. Dissenting voice: i am grateful to you for calling attention to the problematic wording I took from the article I mentioned.

  13. Dissenting voice, these aren’t scholarly discussions. They’re blog posts. I’m sorry that you don’t like them.

    Radicalaccessiblecommunities: Thank you *so* much. I’ll update the post with the captioned video immediately!

  14. I’m sorry, magicalersatz, maybe I’m misunderstanding the purpose of the name of this blog…. It is called the Feminist Philosophers blog which, to me at least, would suggest a more informed and articulate (even somewhat scholarly) discussion of any particular topic one chose to post on the blog. I mean, why not call it uninformed feminists blog or I just feel the need to vent blog or purple elephant blog? If one chooses to call a blog a “Feminist Philosophers,” it suggests a higher level of communication and articulation of subject matter; it suggests academe; it suggests that a particular set of people (people who consider themselves feminists and philosophers) post and follow this blog. Yet, your excuse for your lack of knowledge is, “these aren’t scholarly discussions”? Your response to criticism is, “I’m sorry that you don’t like them”? Perhaps, I expect too much from academics, scholars, philosophers and feminists. Perhaps, I should not expect people to claim and own their words, opinions and accept responsibility for their knowledge (and lack thereof) and privileged positions. Perhaps, I should not expect an informed and articulate discussion of things related to discrimination, prejudice and privileging. And, admittedly, I should know better than to expect these discussions to be informed and articulate from scholars, academics, philosophers and feminists; there is a history of a promotion of privileging, discrimination, prejudice and exclusion from these various groups, after all. I apologize for expecting more from, quite frankly, less.

  15. This blog is called Feminist Philosophers because it’s a group blog made up of philosophers who self-identify as feminists. But a quick perusal of the blog will show you that it’s primary purpose isn’t scholarly. We blog about various things that are of interest to us, and which we think may be of interest to others. Sometimes there is scholarly relevance in our posts, but this isn’t a research-driven blog (unlike some other philosophy blogs). You may wish it was something other than what it is, and that’s fine. I’d encourage you to set up your own blog, more suited to your own preferences. But we don’t have any obligations to meet the preferences of those who wish this blog was different.

    In response to your criticism, I’ll say that I find it interesting that you think you can infer that I don’t know anything about academic discussions of disability simply because I don’t reference or discuss those discussions in these posts. I’m also not sure why you think anything I’ve said means that I don’t “claim and own [my] words, opinions and accept responsibility for their knowledge (and lack thereof) and privileged positions”. I won’t say more here, both because I doubt it would be fruitful and because – since I don’t follow your key inferences – I don’t know what argument you’re trying to make.

    But whatever. At the end of the day, I write these posts in the hope that some people will find them interesting and valuable. I don’t expect everyone that reads them to agree with them or like them.

  16. I’m late to this, but may I just remind the various posters of our ‘be nice’ rules? Several of you are in very clear violation of them.

  17. I would just like to pipe back in here. I think the back and forth about language is important and a real issue. Could you also speak to my question about fetishists and feminism, please?

  18. Yana, could you try to formulate your question about fetishism a little more specifically? To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking.

  19. I am not sure if you clicked on the link to the Savage love column?

    I understand what you discuss in your blog post about ableism and asexuality.

    In addition to this common depiction of people living with disabilities, I think an over-sexualization of people with disabilities also exists (because I believe there is an over-sexualization of most everything in mainstream US culture).

    One clear depiction of an over-sexualiation of people with mobility limitations is the concept of a wheelchair fetish. In a “life is timing” way, Dan Savage’s Savage Love column recently discussed the relationship in which an able-bodied person is attrackted to a person in a wheelchair. I linked the column in one of my comments.

    Often, I wonder about how the interrelationship between feminity and vulnerability keeps women oppressed and locked into archaic sub genres of acceptable behavior. At the same time, I understand that giving main stream culture permission to explore sexuality in new ways can be empowering for everyone. My questions to you ask your thoughts on the matter.

    I am curious to hear what other people have to say on this.

    To me, it seems that there is a great polarization of women with mobility issues. They are either de-sexualized or treated as fetish objects. I have not seen a tremendous amount of material that eliminates the dichotomy. The doc pieces you linked us to, do portray people with disabilities as having sexual needs. Like I have said before, I think it is a great place to begin a conversation.

    I think there is a need to also discuss how delicate the pushing of the boundaries of mainstream depictions can be. Does a wheelchair fetish also keep a woman down and oppressed? Do you think it is as simple as increasing portrayls of these typs of characters as multi-dimensional complicated individuals that just happen to be disabled (like 50 Shades of Gray is sweeping the nation.. maybe the sequal is a devotee relationship with a gal in a wheelchair)?

    Is this a blog for people to discuss personal experiences? And if not, could you facilitate the conversation elsewhere? I think you’ve started a really valuable interchange and I am curious to learn your thoughts on the polarization between asexuality and fetishism with regard to women with mobility limitations.

    (Also, if not responding to my comment earlier was a passive way of dismissing because I did not follow the “be nice” rules, I would appreciate a heads up. I looked over the protocol once someone mentioned that in the comments section and I don’t feel like I violated anything. I also stated in my first comment that I was new to the site and someone linked me to your post, so I would appreciate a direct answer so as not feel marginalized. If you feel like this topic is not something you’d like to talk about here, I get that you are entitled to explore that, but please let me know what’s up. I think there is a need to have these conversations and when you did not respond it hurt my feelings.)

  20. Yana, first of all I’m very sorry to have hurt your feelings. I can’t always respond to all the questions asked in comments, unfortunately. I blog in my spare time, and there are a lot of other things that have claim on that spare time. It’s often the case that questions posed in comments are big or deep enough that I’d rather not answer than half-assedly answer. And in the case of your question, as I said I wasn’t exactly sure what you were asking.

    But here’s a quick response. I think disability fetishism is deeply problematic. We need to view disabled people as sexual and sexy. But that’s not what disability fetishism does. Disability fetishism sexualizes *disability*, not disabled people. It often seems to treat disabled people as objects – nothing more than the source and locus of the fetish. I think it also reinforces some harmful stereotypes of disabled people as weak, frail, or needy – a lot of disability fetishism, though not all of it, is tied up in the fetishization of dependency and weakness. This post from Feminists With Disabilities expresses a lot of the concerns I have about disability fetishism in more detail, and no doubt more eloquently. Highly recommended reading.

    It’s possible that I’m overly sensitive about disability fetishism. But it’s not a pleasant topic for me. My own disability is popular among fetishists, and to be honest this never fails to creep me the fuck out.

  21. Cool, thank you for the link. I will check that out. Also, I hear what you are saying about being creeped the fuck out, so I will pose this follow up question to the greater internet and not wait for a response from you directly.

    Is there a way to reconcile that which comes off as creepy with depictions of asexuality?

    I am not convinced the two will always be at odds but I am fascinated by the duality. As a woman, i find the natures of vulnerability and feminity to be closely related to what make the devotee fetish appealing.

    I’m not sure someone who enjoys a fetish has to devalue other parts of their sexual partner but I think the representations of what we see currently in media are quite limitted on all fronts.

    Is there a way to portray a nurturing and empowering fetish relationship or does the “creepy factor” outweigh it completely?

    I ask, because I am interested in presenations of sexuality. And aside from the current stereotype of a lack of sexuality in a disabled person’s life or an overly sexualized relationship, i don’t see many depictions in the mainstream.

    Would writing about such explorations (like in the style of Chelsea Handler’s book talking about ehr sexul exploits) automatically fall into the category of a fetish?

    How can a woman with mobility issues be portrayed in literature to embrace sexuality and not be a tool to demonstrate oppression against women?

    And on a related note: what are some examples of able-bodied women in literature that people feel exemplify a good “role model” for sexual behavior?

  22. Hi, I am your local friendly asexual person who stumbled across this post, flinched upon reading “disabled people aren’t asexual!”, and then saw that a discussion on this had already started in the comments. So I’ll just weigh in, shall I?

    To say that there’s a misguided stereotype that disabled people are asexual isn’t in any way to imply that there’s something wrong with being asexual. It is, rather, to imply that there’s something wrong and unhelpful about assuming a connection between disability and asexuality – that is, in assuming that someone is asexual just because they are disabled. […]

    So, in general, I don’t think “it’s a stereotype that disabled people are X” can in any way be read as implying that it’s somehow bad to be X. The point is simply that it’s a mistake to thoughtlessly connect disability with X. And I think that’s true on either of the readings of “asexual” I tried to disambiguate above.

    With all due respect, I think there are a few things you’re missing here:

    First, that desexualisation stereotypes don’t equate to asexual, the sexual orientation. There are a lot of things I see in the stereotypes about the sexualities of disabled people that have nothing at all to do with my orientation. Some are actually kind of insulting! There’s also a lot of things I consider pretty common in the experience of asexuality and definitely fundamental to mine that never crop up in depictions of disabled (lack of) sexuality. (For instance: talking about it, questioning and exploring, instead of just taking it as a given; participation in the community; working out what sorts of relationships one wants if the standard model doesn’t fit.)

    Second, that desexualisation stereotypes have a negative impact on asexual disabled people too, and this is kind of impossible to talk about if we use the same word for the two things? I think the example I gave in the post linked above is how my sexual orientation gets invalidated in comparison to other asexual people, often *by* other asexual people, because I’m autistic. There’s others.

    Finally: regardless of whether my arguments are convincing, you should know that I, and others, *will* react badly if we see the word for our sexual orientation used to desribe negative stereotypes. I almost bailed on this post completely because of it. If you’re genuinely not fussed about what word to use for these stereotypes, may I suggest you just go with something other than “asexual” and save us some pain and frustration?

  23. Thanks for your comment, Kaz. First of all, I’d like to point out that the post doesn’t ever say “disabled people aren’t asexual!” as you report. I think if it did, it would be problematic. But it doesn’t.

    Anyway, moving on to the points you make, in order. Firstly, of course desexualization stereotypes don’t equate to asexuality as a sexual orientation – as I’ve taken pains to say above. But I think that anyone who seriously looks at word usage of “asexual” would agree that we don’t exclusively use the term “asexual” to refer to the unique and specific sexual orientation, and often use it in the less committal way I’ve done. Now, maybe your point here is normative. We *should* understand “asexual” to refer only to the sexual orientation. And I don’t know, maybe you’re right. But I think it’s simply a mistake to suggest that “asexual” only refers to the sexual orientation – at least as its used in common practice. That being said, maybe people who are asexual (the orientation) will always hear the term as referring to them and their orientation, whether or not this was the intended usage – this is suggested by your last point – and that’s something to take into account. But I also think its something that is tricky ground to criticize others on.

    Your second point is more persuasive to me. It would be easier to disentangle several separable issues if we made sure to use “asexual” to refer to the orientation and “non-sexual” to refer to the stereotype in question. You’re right about that, and that’s probably what I should’ve done.

    On your third point – yes, I’m sure some people will get offended. But the thing is, some people will get offended *whatever* my word choice when I write about disability. That’s just how that goes. If I spent too much time worrying about it, I would never write about disability at all.

    And this brings me back to what I said in c.10 above. It’s disheartening to me that discussions about disability so often get derailed into debates over which word choice is appropriate, or accusations that something someone said wasn’t phrased right. It’s not that I think issues of language and word choice aren’t important. They are. But – and maybe this is just me – I’ve always found them so much *less* important than issues of content, policy, attitude, access, etc. As a disabled woman, I do care what words you use to describe me. But I care about that *so much less* than I care about access, pride, equality, and so on. And I find it grossly implausible that if everyone somehow perfected their language, the other stuff would follow suit.

    Moreover, I worry that constant focus on “correct” language makes people less familiar with these debates afraid to participate, for fear of being called out for not having used to right words. And that’s no way to have a constructive conversation.

  24. I may be speaking to an empty room here at this point. I just wanted to share this link to a TED talk given by Aimee Mullins that I feel is really relevant with regard to the discussion about language. Also, I feel it is a good example of a sexy lady with mobility issues.

  25. […] Disability and sexuality: everything you think you know is wrong (feministphilosophers.wordpress.com) Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted in Essence Revealed and tagged Dan Savage, endometriosis, endometriosis pain, Erogenous zone, Human sexual activity, penetration, Savage Love, Sex, Sexual intercourse […]

  26. This is an excellent blog post, and I *loved* the fake-out paragraph that described what we all *wished* Downton Abbey had done with Matthew’s temporary (urgh) paraplegia!

    If you’re looking for a version of Downton Abbey where your fake-out paragraph actually comes TRUE, check out Trust and Providence. It’s an alternate universe where Mary trusted Matthew with her secret and immediately accepted his first proposal, so they’re married throughout WWI and the whole of his injury and recovery. And yes, it includes explicit sex scenes between them while he’s still a paraplegic with no hope of recovery. Although the story follows the major plot elements from the TV show, its medical details are more plausibly explained and Matthew isn’t magically cured by a tea tray.

    (Full disclosure: I’m the author. :)

    SO cheering you and your blog post on,


Comments are closed.