Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ableism, Sexuality, and Disability

By Cory Silverberg, Guide

Updated November 22, 2011

Abelism refers to the multiple ways that society excludes people with disabilities from full participation in life, and denies people access to basic rights that other people exercise with greater freedom.

While it isn't the same thing, ableism shares some things with racism in that it is pervasive, behind the scenes of every interaction and it influences not only how we treat others but also how we think about ourselves and what we believe is possible in the world.

Most of the barriers that people with disabilities experience to sexual expression are in some way related to or rooted in ableism. Ableism creates barriers by limiting options in the first place. For example, the ableist assumption that disabled people aren't sexual predetermines who does and doesn't get sex education, who is and isn't represented as sexual in popular culture, and who should and shouldn't be considered when social spaces for sexual expression and exploration are designed and marketed.

Here are some examples of how ableism impacts sexuality for people with lived experience of disability.

How Ableism Impacts Physical Environments
It is an ableist, and incorrect, assumption that being able to walk or run, being able to lift yourself out of a chair, or otherwise being able to support your own weight, is somehow an essential definition of being human. The truth is that there are hundreds of millions of people on the planet who cannot do these things (and, I'll point out, if you live long enough, you will be one of those people). People are not less human because they move differently than someone who is presumed to be the "normative" person. People are not less sexual and they don't have less to contribute because of the way their bodies move. That most people think they do is an example of ableist thinking about sexuality.

But ableism is multi-layered, it's not just about attitudes. So a belief, like the idea that only people who can control where and how their body moves all the time, can produce physical barriers that actually make it harder to get around or harder to participate in sexual expression. A simple example would be the exam tables doctors use to give pelvic exams on. These tables are rarely accessible, and are designed only to accommodate people who can life and support their own bodies with ease. Why were they designed that way? Well, since people who need support with their bodies aren't seen as sexual, they aren't in need of sexual health, and so why would they be part of the design consideration of something like an exam table? They wouldn't. So they are left out and unable to receive something that is considered an important part of sexual health care.

The ableist understanding of who is and is not sexual also means that environments and objects designed to be romantic or sexy are designed to accommodate only so-called normal ways of moving, feeling, seeing, and hearing. Why would you make a bar accessible if you understand social bodies to be ones that can walk up stairs, see without very much light, and hear in spaces that are filled with people talking and have terrible acoustics? Why would you design a cool and alluring smart phone for people whose hands and fingers move in sometimes unpredictable ways? Most designers don't, and as a result many are left out.

The connection between these kinds of inaccessible ‘romantic’ spaces and romance itself has become so engrained, that we may unknowingly define and design romance in a way that excludes people with disabilities. Whether we know it or not, that is an example of ableism.

How Ableism Contributes to Legal Sexual Barriers
You may be surprised to learn that it is actually illegal for some people with disabilities to have partnered sex at all. These laws are manifestations of ableism. Here’s just one example of how this kind of legal ableism plays out for people who are labeled with developmental or intellectual disabilities.

Laws around sex with others are usually based on the idea of consent, and consent is based on the capacity to think and decide for yourself. This standard is vague and unscientific and based on the ableist assumption that everyone processes information in the same way and that there is an objective norm that can clearly show who can think for themselves and who can’t. A single law has different effects for those who it decides can and cannot think for themselves. p>

This has led to a medical and legal system which describes, say a 26 year old woman as having the "mind of a 6 year old" as if her 26 years of life and experience mean nothing. And it is these same systems that determine who is and isn't capable of legally consenting to sex. This means that even if this 26 year old woman can and does consent to sex, the person she has sex with could be arrested charged, and convicted of sexual assault. For this woman, laws based on an ableist understanding of the world can prevent her from ever exploring her sexuality with another person. And for anyone who wants to have sex with someone who is disabled, these same laws can make acting on that desire illegal. Ableist laws criminalize consensual sexual activity. That this impact on the lives of people with disabilities was not considered when such laws were passed doesn’t make it okay. In fact, its another example of ableism.

Internalized Ableism
Ableism isn't just a set of beliefs and practices enacted by non-disabled people. After a lifetime of being told you aren't sexual, you aren't a whole person, essentially that you aren't real; it is hard not to internalize these beliefs. This is what is called internalized ableism. And so if you too believe that you aren't sexual, why would you ever ask for sex education? If you think you are unlovable and undesirable, why would you ever demand access to a dating website, or a lesbian club night? Internalized ableism brings people to a place where they don't expect to be treated as a sexual being and never experience themselves as sexual.

So not only are my options limited in terms of meeting partners, learning about my own and others sexuality, but through constant messaging about how NOT sexual I am, I can come to understand that sexuality isn't a possibility for me at all. I should be happy being people's friend, and not try to explore sexual relationships, sexual desires, and sexual expression.

In this way ableism could be considered the greatest barrier to sexual expression since it can prevent people from exploring their options in the first place.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Common Myths about Sexuality and Disability

There are many common myths about sexuality and disability. Most start with the biggest myth of all, which is that people with disabilities are all the same, and that you can talk about them as one single group. This is completely false. People living with dis-abilities; they don’t all have the same experiences or the same perspectives.

However, their individual needs and challenges are not recognized by the normal world. This is particularly true in overcoming obstacles of full sexual expression.

Myth: People with disabilities and chronic illnesses are not sexual:

Fact: All humans are sexual, regardless of how we express our sexuality. People with disabilities are denied sexual rights in part to keep them outside of mainstream society, and probably in part because people with disabilities are treated as if they are children, and children are also excluded from having any sexual rights. People living with disabilities are as sexual and express their sexuality in ways as diverse as everyone else, although we don’t get to see this as much because mainstream culture only shows us one image of sexual expression.

Myth: People with disabilities and chronic illnesses are not desirable:

Fact: What turns us on sexually is unique to each individual. We are raised to think that sex is for the young and beautiful, that if you don't resemble a twenty-three-year-old supermodel, no one will want you or if you can’t produce multiple G-spot orgasms on cue or perform like a stud, you're not worth going to bed with. But none of us meet these standards, and desire is enflamed by an unpredictable mix of things (looks, personality, values, timing, etc). We only see the supermodel scenario so over time we come to believe it, and question whether anyone would ever find us attractive or worth loving.

Myth: There is a right way and a wrong way to have sex:

Fact: We are raised being told many lies about sex and this is the biggest one. The truth is there are no rules as to what sex is (although I’d like to suggest the fact that it be between consenting adults is a good simple one). Sex doesn’t have to look like, sound like, or smell like anything other than that which is turning the people on who are involved. Some people say sex should be spontaneous, and that can be hard if you have a disability. But the fact is that we all plan for sex more or less.

Myth: People with disabilities and chronic conditions can't have "real" sex:

Fact:It follows that if there’s a right way to have sex, and you can’t have it, then you can’t have real sex. It’s true that not all of us can run down the beach, roll in the sand with music swelling in the background, and have a sexual romp without ever mussing our hair. It’s also true that not all of us want to do that. Most of us have awkward uncomfortable sex, most of us masturbate much more than we have sex with other people, and most of us don’t talk about it. So we pretend that there’s a “real” kind of sex, and if you don’t look the part, you can’t play the game. This is simply false.

Myth: People with disabilities are a bad choice for romantic partners:

Fact: Relationships are hard and full of compromise, and a good relationship involves equal compromise and work from the people in it. People who partner with people with disabilities are often told how “noble” they are, as if being non-disabled makes you a great catch, and having a disability makes you nothing but a liability. The fact is that living with a disability doesn’t mean you can contribute less to a relationship. You may do less of the heavy lifting, but how important is that in a relationship? Also, if you live long enough, you will eventually be in a relationship with someone with a disability.

Myth: Disabled people have more important things than sex to worry about:

Fact:We all value sex differently, and for some people it’s the most important thing in their life. If you live with a disability or chronic illness you will likely have people around you telling you that you've got more important things to deal with that sex is a luxury you can't afford. This is ties in with the myth that people with disabilities are childlike and need to be told how to prioritize their lives. This attitude is held by many non-disabled people, and even some disabled activists claim that talking about interpersonal issues and disability is bad because it “fragments the cause.”

Myth: People with disabilities are not sexually adventurous:

Fact: Living with a disability does not necessarily impact your sexual tastes or choices (even though it can impact who you get to have sex with). It is assumed that people with disabilities are sexually passive and non-initiators. People don't believe that someone who uses a wheelchair might want to be tied up and spanked, or that a man with no legs gets off dressing up as a ballerina. These are false assumptions, but they fit in with the general myth that all anyone wants is to be just like everyone else, so if you’re different already, surely you must want to be sexually conservative, right? Wrong!

Myth: People in institutions shouldn't have sex:

Fact: One of the greatest barriers to developing a positive sexuality is a lack of privacy. This is nowhere more evident than in institutions like rehab hospitals, hospices, group homes, and nursing homes. Most institutions systematically deny residents the right to be sexual. No locks on doors, no privacy, the right of staff to treat people as objects to be carted around, talked about and controlled, are just a few of the ways that institutions make it clear that sexuality is not acceptable. Sexual rights are human rights, and people living in institutions have the right to be sexual on their own terms.

Myth: Sex is private

Fact: If you use attendant services, live in an institution, or aren’t able to monitor your own body responses, privacy is a very different thing. We’re told that sex is a private thing, but one of the most common sexual fantasies is about having sex in a public place. Having privacy can make having sex easier, but if we aren’t able to lock our doors or we have to request private time, we still have the right to be sexual, and to expect those around us to facilitate that by giving us as much privacy as we ask for.

Myth: People with disabilities don't get sexually assaulted.

Fact: If you aren't seen as sexually desirable in our culture, you won't get sexually assaulted, right? Wrong. People with physical disabilities are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault, statistics suggest between 2 to 10 times more likely. This abuse ranges from pervasive power abuses by medical and rehabilitation staff to rape and other forms of sexual assault, forced confinement, physical abuse, and more. Supports for disclosure of the abuse, legal action, and counseling are scarce for people with disabilities. This is especially true in institutions.

Myth: People with disabilities don't need sex education.

Fact: We’re all sexual, and we all need education. Sexual ignorance is an enormous obstacle for all of us when trying to figure ourselves out sexually. Our situation is made worse when we are systematically denied access to the little bit of sex education most people get. Some people say that the reason non-disabled people deny people with disabilities access to sex education is because they believe that it will encourage them to want sex, and that will open up a can of worms.

Source: Kaufman, M., Silverberg, C., & Odette, F. (2007). The ultimate guide to sex and disability: For all of us who live with disabilities, chronic pain and illness. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Struggles of Dating

I recently have been spending a lot of time with one of my female best friends. Over the past year we have become very close and I find myself falling more and more in love with her. She has helped me in times of great need and crisis. This has only deepened the love I feel for her. Recently, I was contemplating all the qualities that she possesses that I would be looking for in a partner. She takes great care of her body, is physically gourgous, has an open loving heart, a sharp intellect, and deep connection to Spirit. I know that she is also looking for a partner to build a future with. So far our relationship has been completely platonic. However, our relationship is quite sensual in the fact that she is my massage therapist and we dance together quite often during contact improvisation. So I thought it is possible that she might feel the same way.

So I felt compelled to share this with her and to see if her feelings are mutual. My hope was that she would feel the same way as I and our relationship would become more romantic. My fear was that she would freak out and distance herself from me. So I prefaced the conversation by telling her how much I love and appreciate her and had something very important to share that might freak her out a bit. But I also trust the depth and connection of our relationship.

So I shared my deep love and appreciation for her. And I also shared how she possesses so many of the qualities I'm looking for in a mate. I could tell she was deeply moved by my vulnerability and authenticity. And then she told me that while she loves me just as much she does not feel the same sexual chemistry that I feel.

So while this was a big disappointment, I felt proud that I was able to share myself so openly and honestly. And I also felt that our friendship will only become stronger from this experience. However, the next day I fell into a fairly deep depression. Feeling alone and so badly wanting to be with a partner that loves me in the same way that I love her. I could not stop thinking about her and feeling so depressed and alone. I also know how difficult it is to date and find someone that is willing to not only love me and deal with all of the challenges to go along with my disability.

So I reached out to several close friends and they told me what I already know. Which is I am a great person capable of finding true love and a partner that will accept me exactly as I am with my disability. I also allowed myself to fully express the sadness and depression through tears. I've always found that a good cry changes everything. When I harbor dark emotions within myself that's when depression becomes even worse.

I know what I need to do is take action and be more assertive in asking out women that I'm attracted to. I'm just not very practiced at this. And like with any skill you become better with practice. So my goal is to go on four dates a month. And now that I've made this public I think it will encourage me even more to move towards that which I desire.

The hardest part is feeling stuck. Is just action that is necessary. I know we all go through these periods of feeling stuck and depressed. A good friend of mine once told me that movement creates movement. So today I'm going to go out and find an attractive woman that I don't know and start a conversation and asked her out for coffee or tea and see what happens!

So today I sent a message to a woman I met on FetLife, a social networking site for people with sexual fetishes about meeting up for coffee. And guess what? She accepted! So I have accomplished my goal and am quite excited about the date that I have this coming Monday! So stay posted for the the dating adventures of a Crip looking for love :)

Monday, January 10, 2011

a SPECIAL dance

by Harmony Gates

I was lying on my back
in the center of the room
the music was slow
the lights were low.
A ritual preparation
tuning in
to the room
to the music
to my body

he rolled up to me slowly
deliberately, I thought
and peered down at me
head cocked to the left
mouth slightly open, teeth just showing.

I'd had this happen before
another day
another dance.
he'd rolled up next me,
peered in my direction
I'd offered to connect,
and he'd rolled right on past.

But this time felt different
He stopped.
I waited.
He looked
I held his gaze.

My right arm was outstretched
Hand open, reaching
in slow motion
Inviting, offering

Wanting nothing
allowing everything

As if called forth--
his left arm,
pinioned to his chest
like an unfurled wing,
began to extend.

His hand,claw-like in it's spastic contraction
met mine

With incredible power and strength
he closed his fingers
around my upturned hand
and we began to dance.

Pressing back into his resistance
meeting him right there
with my full self
I said "yes" to this invitation
this challenge
this moment of connection

My world is this dance.

With curiosity and commitment
I begin to explore.
Informed by what he brings to me
I respond. I sense, I listen, I move
with him.

Lying on my back,
reaching up to meet his hands
He bends forward bringing his face and chest
toward me.
Suddenly I feel limited by this hand to hand contact.
I want to meet his body
with more of mine.

"Can you come
out of the chair?"
A whispered yes.
Pressing into his hands
using his reisitance,
I slide around
to face him.
Place my feet against his chest.
I wonder "can I fly him
out of the chair?"

But he is glued to it.
I finally give up.

when from standing
I finally lift him to the floor
I discover
He's been buckled in.

I rise to my feet
Clasping his hands.
As I face him he pulls me in
our heads meet.
His head pushes toward mine with force
like my cat when she wants a strong rub
And I return the pressure.

As he brings his chin up
our faces press into each other, rubbing
His energy is vital, insistent, animal

I can pull away anytime
But I love feeling his desire, his wanting, his need.
I respect it. I honor it.
So I embrace it
I want him to have what he wants.
I take him in, meet what he gives me
take pleasure in the intensity of this encounter.

He speaks.
He's asking a question.
It's hard to hear. His voice is soft. There is barely sound.
I pull my head away from his.
Bring my ear close to his mouth.

It's more his energy that I understand than his words.
A gentle smack from his lips.
I ‘hear’
He wants a kiss.
"I hear you," I say.
"What did you hear?" he asks
I kiss the air.

I'm thinking, "He should have this too."
His longing is intense
And why should I deny him this?
Why draw a line here?

So I let him kiss.
And I kiss back.

I realize that I AM aware
and suddenly concerned
that our actions are visible
to a room full of other dancers.

In conflict.
I search for a boundary
and find this one:
"I don't kiss in my dances"
Which is true.
Or has been up until now.

It's as much to respect myself
as to respect the others
who come here
to this sacred space
to dance.

"I'm sorry," he says,
though he still wants it,
and continues until pull my face away.

Now we dance the ‘getting out of the chair’ dance.
His arms are incredibly powerful
He grips around my neck
I scoop up his legs and back
And squat with him in my arms
gently lowering him to the floor.

The chair is forgotten.

Slowly, experimentally,
we begin to move together on the wood floor.
I notice we are surrounded by legs and feet
the bodies of dancers moving to the now upbeat tempo

But I am with him.

Can I ask you a question?, he says.
"Why did you dance with me?"

I'm a contact dancer
I know how to move intelligently with another body
I'm an Anat Baniel Method Practioner
I know how to facilitate movement refinement
I'm trauma recoveree
I know how to co-regulate another’s nervous system
to help heal attachment wounds.

Why do I dance with others?
I dance for healing.
The healing I receive
and the healing I offer.

“Why did you dance with me?”
“Why not?” I answer.
"But I'm in a wheelchair,"
he says.
"So what?" I counter.

And give him my full attention,
my full concentration,
my full heart,
my full body,
my full Presence.

Rolling, stretching, squeezing, pulling, lifting.

One moment:
One arm wrapped around his chest
holding him close,
my other hand comes to the top of his head.
Gently and fondly I begin pulling and caressing his curly dark hair.
In response,
one of his hands finds the top my head
and returns the loving gesture.
Only later do I realize the significance
Of his palsied hands managing that.

"Can I ask you a question? he says.
Will you be my friend?"

"Of course!" I say, my heart full of tenderness and love.

And then.
I'm ready to experience the freedom
and spaciousness
of dancing
with the rest of the room.

I let him know
He understands
Amazingly, I'm able
to scoop him up
off the floor
and deposit him
into his waiting chair.

A fellow dancer comes close
ready to assist
But I find I am strong enough.

I'm wanting to dance now,
the big Dance Jam way I dance
Expressing myself freely
while allowing others
to influence and inspire me
Sometimes dancing with one
Sometimes dancing with several
Sometimes dancing the whole room.

Sometimes dancing only with me.

There is closure here first though
before I can go.

Jason asks me to buckle him in

He reaches out contorted hands
I give him mine.
He pulls me in close
pressing us:
forehead to forehead
cheek to cheek.
He looks me in the eyes
"I'm glad I met you." he says.
"I'm glad we met too," I say,
"I'm really glad we danced."

I draw back,
my hands still tightly gripped by his
our Eyes lock, I’m smiling.
His arms extend smoothly, gradually his grip softens
I slowly slide my hands from his,
touching fingertips
and then only air.

And I'm off to the next dance.