Nov 172015

Day 3 of the Breaking Silences Sex and Disability Conference at Wright State University.

Deviant Sexuality and Disability: The Hypersexuality of Women with Bipolar Disorder

Meghann O’Leary, M.A
University of Illinois at Chicago
Hailee Gibbons, M.S
University of Illinois at Chicago

Most of the academic and popular literature on sexuality and disability focuses on how disabled people are desexualized, or seen as nonsexual. Meghann and Hailee mentioned several writers and theories; one term that was new to me (though the idea is familiar) was Harlan Hahn’s concept of “asexual objectification.” This is the idea that disabled women, disabled people of any gender really, are seen as things that don’t have a sexuality – in the most extreme cases, as things that don’t have a humanity. IN a session I went to earlier in the week, asexuality was presented as a sexual orientation, a way someone relates to their own sexuality, so I use the terms desexualization or nonsexual instead. I’m hoping Meghann and Hailee will mention this shift to more inclusive sexuality terms in their literature review. Maybe Hahn’s term can be updated to “nonsexual objectification.” Updating the concept this way still contrasts pervasive attitudes towards disabled people with the ways North American cultures tend to sexually objectify people.

(here’s more information on the theory of asexual objectification.

These theories usually describe the experiences of people with visible physical disabilities.

Women diagnosed with mental illness, especially bipolar disorder, are instead seen as hypersexual. “Hypersexuality” is one of the bipolar disorder symptoms listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), the diagnostic tool most often used by psychiatrists and other mental health practitioners in the United States. There’s no definition of “normal” sexuality to go along with this “symptom.” For that matter, there’s not really a definition of hypersexuality beyond evaluating behaviours like how many partners a patient or client has had, or how frequently they’re engaging in sexual behaviours.

So, each mental health practitioner makes their own judgments about what is normal, and how or whether their patient or clients deviate from that. (And medical and mental health practitioners rarely get a lot of training in sexuality, let alone in how to manage their own professional biases and personal beliefs around it.)

With no standard, sexual preferences, orientations, and sexual practices might be labelled as hypersexual, as deviant, in a way that medicalizes sexuality and sexual choice.

I asked the presenters whether practitioners tend to evaluate things like whether the patient or client is using safer sex practices, showing judgment in the partners they choose (I.E. Not having sex with their coworkers, their children’s teachers, etc.), and how they feel about their sexual activities and choices. They didn’t know about any research around this, but as people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, they shared that they had never experienced or heard of clinicians’ doing this type of in depth evaluation, and that the evaluation focuses on numbers of partners and frequency of sex.

The other part of this research is an examination of popular media. TV shows and films with female characters who are either specifically labelled as bipolar in the show, or who are understood to have mental illness and behave in ways folks with bipolar disorder are expected to behave, usually show these characters as out-of-control sexually. The narrative in one film mentioned in this session showed the character losing her job because she slept with all her coworkers; her struggle and eventual triumph in the movie was establishing a stable, heterosexual, monogamous relationship with the male lead.

Most media depictions of women with bipolr disorder or other mental illness that involves erratic behaviours or emotions are white.

Meghann and Hailee suggested that this is because women of colour are already hypersexualized – any sexual expression is seen as being out of control – especially in film and television depictions. Mental illness in white female TV and film characters is used as a creative tool to develop hypersexuality and tention. It also offers an element of cure or healing; the characters usually wind up not behaving so “inappropriately” by the end of the story, also reinforcing the idea that illness should always be fixed and that women should be sexual, but not too sexual and only sexual in accepted ways.

I think this research is raising important questions and issues, such as whetehr a person’s sexual behaviours are intentionally chosen, or are driven by brain chemicals and reactions that make evaluating safety and personal preference feel dificult or unneceessary – whether sexual activities and choices are done and made with consideration of safety, or are erratic, either without consideration of danger or with delusions of invincibility (E.G. “No one will find out I’m having an affair.” “I won’t (or can’t) contract STIs.””

Another important takeaway is that clinicians need to make sure they don’t use their own feelings about whether it’s okay to be sexual with more than one partner, to have group sex, to have sex with someone of the same gender, to engage in BDSM activities – to label a patient as deviant when they’re just acting out their wishes and desires.

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