Thoughts and observations from day one of Breaking Silences, Wright State University’s first sex and disability conference.
I opted for participating in discussions over taking notes, so these session summaries are just that, summaries of the content and my reactions to it.
Bringing (A)Sexy Back: Exploring Disability and Asexuality
Cara Liebowitz of That Crazy Crippled Chick wants to make sure we’re not leaving asexual disabled people out of conversations around sex and disability.
People with disabilities have been treated as nonsexual beings for such a long time. The efforts to correct that narrative have resulted in focussing on disabled people’s sexiness and sex lives, not on sexualities as a whole. IN general, for people who are disabled or nondisabled, we have a narrative that tells us that sex is all about looks, and about bodies, and about having sex with partners, and there’s practically no room for the words of people who have looked at and thought about their sexualities, and realized that they don’t experience sexual attraction or desire the same ways, if at all.
I’ve understood asexuality theoretically for a while now, but Cara gave some examples that helped me understand the experience better.
IN college, Cara’s friends would say they were “horny” all the time. Cara asks: What does horny feel like?
Asexuality isn’t necessarily the absence of sexual thoughts or feelings. Many asexual people desire and enjoy romantic relationships. Many have “passionate friendships” – Cara described these as close friendships with lots of physical (not sexual) intimacy like hand-holding, snuggling, etc. this makes a lot of sense to me since most people thrive on touch.
Some people on the asexuality spectrum do have some kinds of sex, with themselves, partners, or both.
Cara gave the example of an asexual person exploring sexual activity with a romantic partner. finding that they Enjoy learning about their body and they enjoy closeness and connection with their partner, but that they’d be just as happy having a pizza and movie date.
What does all this have to do with disability?
Some disabled people are asexual.
When sex and disability researchers and activists criticize the way disabled people are wrongly seen as asexual, we can be implying that asexuality is bad.
Cara suggests we use the terms nonsexual and desexualized to talk about the erasure of disabled people’s sexualities.
People also tend to use a lot of ableist language when talking about asexuality – assuming something must be medically wrong with an asexual person, that people are broken for not wanting sex.
Lack of sex drive. Disintrest in being sexual with a partner. Those are only problems if the person experiencing them says they’re problems.
Cara reminds us not to use all-or-nothing language in our quest to prove the sexiness of disabled people. Many disabled people want their sexual desires to be recognized and celebrated for what they are, but not all.
Two informative pieces Cara referenced in her presentation:
If You Can See The Invisible Elephant, Please Describe It
I think the announcement that Sins Invalid would be one of the Keynote presentations sold me on going to this conference.
It was worth the trip for that alone, though I was disappointed the whole Sins Invalid cast wasn’t there to give us the energy and passion of a live performance.
But, we did get to see a live performance by Maria Palacios the “Goddess On Wheels”, a showing of the Sins Invalid documentary, and a question-and-answer session with Maria Palacios and Sins Invalid Founder Patty Berne.
The documentary is touching, powerful, creative, unabashedly sexual, edge-pushing, and thought-provoking. I especially appreciated that the performance includes hard-hitting and painful details of disability history, including the forced sterilization of disabled people and medical experimentation on people of colour. That history is important, and not really well-known, and adds complexity to the sexier elements of the film. The beautiful is so much more beautiful when set against the ugly.
Maria palacios’ performance was sensual, her poetry both lyrical and firmly planted in her lived experiences of disability.
This line has stuck with me:
Flirting is the projection
Of what the soul wants to say
What the heart wants to speak.
You can read some of Maria’s poetry here
Exposing Undergraduates in Human Sexuality Courses to Sexual Health Among People with Disability
Frederick Peterson Psy.D. and Colleagues
This was an overview of some preliminary research by professors who teach undergraduate human sexuality courses.
They wanted to know what kinds of material on sexualities and disabled people they should include in these courses, so they asked their students to anonymously submit any questions they had on the topic.
The most common questions asked, in different ways, how disabled people have sex, or if disabled people even want sex and feel sexual desire
I’ll admit I was surprised by this. I suppose I thought that even if people couldn’t figure out how physically disabled people would go about engaging in the acts around sexual pleasure, that they’d at least not have questions about whether disabled folks even desire that pleasure.
Reasons suggested for these responses: Students’ lack of knowledge about sex in general. Lack of exposure to concepts that disabled people date, have intimate relationships, have sex. Lack of exposure to disabled people in general.
The researchers also suspect that lack of sexual diversity and accurate information in education systems such as Abstenince Only Until Marriage programs (which often teaches incorrect facts about sex, sexuality, safer sex and birth control) also might colour students’ idea of what is possible.
This research is fascinating, and I’m eager to see what the next stages will be, including what conclusions the researchers will draw about how to teach undergraduate students about sexuality for all people, including folks with disabilities. Pete (as he likes to be called) pointed out: The research can only tell educators so much, since students only know to ask about what they don’t know. there could be and is plenty that people don’t know they don’t know.
Reclaiming Maternal Identity: The Impact of Forced Sterilization of Women with Disabilities
Alette Coble-Temple , Psy.D.
John F. Kennedy University
Kayoko Yokoyama, Ph.D.
John F. Kennedy University
Megan Carlos, Ph.D.
American School of Professional Psychology Argosy University, San Francisco Bay Area
Loved this presentation! There’s a lot to say about and in response to this topic, so I’ll just give a short overview of the presentation here.
Experiencing microaggressions day after day can negatively impact a person’s mental health. (or example: “No, but where are you REALLY from?”-Racial Microaggressions and their effect on Mental Health.
With this in mind, the presenters started with the idea that the history of forced sterilization and other reproductive violences against people with disabilities has left its mark on the identities of girls and women with disabilities, especially around reproduction and parenting.
Some examples of microaggressions against disabled girls and women around reproduction:
- Doubt that a visibly disabled woman’s baby is hers.
- a visibly disabled parent being asked who takes care of their baby?
- Healthcare providers showing surprise when a disabled patient becomes pregnant
- Healthcare providers (and others) assuming that a disabled pregnant person will want or need to terminate the pregnancy.
It’s not just reproductive injustices of the past that stand in the way of disabled people becoming parents.
Many states have laws preventing disabled people from becoming parents.
Some people hold a deep (and well-founded) fear that their baby or child will be taken away from them by social services. This has happened many times, for no other reason than that one or both parents had a disability. Removing a child from its family when it is happy and safe in that family is an unnecessary trauma for the child, parents, and other family members.
Disability is still used in divorce proceedings as a reason to award full custody of children to a nondisabled parents, whether that’s the best choice for the child or not.
The statistics and stories in this presentation were grim, but the overall feeling was one of mutual support.
The presenters were open to questions, and invited audience members to talk about their own experiences and feelings about having children (or not having children). Two of us shared that we had chosen not to have children for reasons related to our disabilities, and our stories were welcomed as part of the overall narrative around disabled people, choice, and parenting.
Next up: Day two of Breaking Silences: “Don’t Call Me Inspirational, and, Research Into Deaf People’s Experiences of Interpersonal Violence.