Mar 312016

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News and views on sex and disability for February and March.

Here at Ready, Sexy, Able

Sexual Abuse, Sexual Rights, and Intellectual Disability: A Messy Political Stew

Sexual abuse policies at institutions for people with disabilities don’t usually make it into the news, so when they do, that is news. Here, I unpacked what was said, and not said, in news articles about the Montana developmental Center, and looked at the whole picture from a disability rights point of view.

Imagine a world where you don’t get to touch or be touched, or where you’re separated if people catch you having sex you want to be having, where the people don’t ask you if you wanted that sex, or intimate touch, or whatever it was you were doing and whatever that touch meant to you until after they made you stop, and then they’re only asking you to see whether they need to take a sexual abuse investigation to the next level.

Read the rest of the post

Illness and Disability? They get along with sexuality just fine.

Being ill might change your sexuality (just like getting married, or losing a loved one, or making a giant life decision can change any and every part of you) but it doesn’t take it away. Being in pain all the time might make you want sex less (or it might make you want sex more). Changes to your body might suddently and dramatically affect how you express yourself sexually, but life changes will do that too – just sometimes less violently.

Read the rest of this post, and click through to a fun Podcast discussing everything from Scottish fiddle music to chronic illness, disability, and sexuality.

Sexual Health And Disability: Are we afraid to talk about it?

There’s something we’re not talking about.

There’s something the news articles and personal essays, the films and poetry, the sexy photo spreads and opinion pieces about sex and disability are leaving out – safer sex and sexual health.

To be fair, most mainstream discussions of sex and sexuality aren’t talking about sexual health either, at least not in ways that encourage people to take care of theirs.

Read the rest of this post, including a link to some disability-friendly sexual health tips, here.

Dating and Sexual Expression in the News

These articles all highlight, I think, what happens when you add the experience of disability to insecurities around dating and sex that most people feel, in some way, at some point in their lives. There’s no one way a date or sexual experience is supposed to go, and there’s no one way people of a particular age, or gender, or experience level, or anything else, experience their sexuality. When we’re talking about “sex and disability,” it’s usually the disability, and people’s reactions to it, that make the experience of sex and dating unique. Maybe, if we can change cultural attitudes enough, we’ll get to a point where nondisabled people won’t turn down a first date with a disabled person because they don’t want to get too involved – it’s a first date, after all! – not to mention a point where people will shed prejudices about what it’d be like to be in a long-term relationship with a disabled person. Maybe we’ll get to a point where communication during sex, not always wanting or needing to do the same sexual things, a shedding of the idea that orgasm, or “man on top” or anything else other than desire and creativity are required for happy sex, all of these things won’t seem like disability adaptations.

Disabled dating on Tinder: ‘People ask if I can have sex’

Last month, Tinder users took to social media to expose the discrepancy between their Tinder photos and what they really look like – think flattering angles, body-con dresses and blow-dries, versus double chins, coffee-stained T-shirts and bed hair. Unknowingly, a fleeting trend pointed to the dilemma that disabled online daters routinely find themselves in: do I show my disability in the photo? And, if not, or for the many people whose disability isn’t visible: when do I tell someone I’m disabled?

Read the whole article here.

Give chronic pain away

There’s this paradox of being actually fragile while having trouble facing my physical vulnerability as a reality when I’m playing or having sex. I’m pushing back on chronic pain all of the time. Maybe sharing my body and myself fully is being able to let my partner absorb some of my fatigue and my fear of being fragile without feeling guilt or shame.

I have to understand that my lover checking in about my comfort and pain during sex is not an attack on my limits, but a recognition of me.

Read the rest of this post here.

Price of Intimacy: The Time I Hired a Sex Worker

I sent David a cursory email, telling him that I was interested in using his services, but that I had never done this before, that I was nervous. I also casually explained as best I could that I lived with a disability and used a chair. He emailed back some hours later, letting me know that he had experience working with clients with disabilities. David wrote bluntly: “If I’m unsure of something, I’ll just ask.” It was a refreshing change from all the guys who tripped and tumbled over their discomfort.

Read more about Andrew’s interaction with David. Hint: It has a happy ending.

Dating With A Disability

Living with a disability often means facing inaccurate assumptions; dating with one is no different. People sometimes assume those with disabilities only date others with disabilities, for example, and others believe that “if you’re disabled, you better hook up with someone who’s not because it will just be too hard,” says Julie Lynn Williams, an associate professor in Wright State University’s School of Professional Psychology who studies disability issues. There’s also a stigma that people with disabilities are asexual, or that they should be so they don’t reproduce, Williams says.

Read the rest of the article for a sweet story on disability and romance.

How Does It Feel? The Question I Wish You’d Ask Me as a Queer Man With Disabilities

Sex and disability feels scary. I have given up counting the times that I have held my breath after I’ve let a man in my apartment. I watch him come in, and I watch him look at the realities of disability that fill the space; commode chairs, ceiling tracks, portable lift devices that have been specially designed to meet my needs. I watch his eyes checking for the tiniest hint of doubt in them, ready to give him an out should he need it. I sit there in those milliseconds that tick by like millennia, hoping that he doesn’t leave, that he won’t want to go away from here, from me, from what is yet to come.

Read how the mechanics of sex with a disability are only the teeniest, tiniest part of the whole sexual experience.

The Disability Experience

Gimp At The Porn Awards

Everyone I talked to was engaging and super-friendly. Not overly friendly, like those with fake sweet tones dripping from their voices when addressing those with visible disabilities. I can’t hear well, but I can hear that grossness. I find ableist tones are imbued with overt sweetness, assumptions of lacking cognition, dismissive, or a mix of all that fun! Aside from an academic I chatted with, not a single person spoke to me like I was an infant or something to be placed on a pillow to be looked at. People interacted with me like a fellow human. It was remarkable. It is also quite sad to even have to note this truth; it shouldn’t be rare yet it continues to be.

Read more about Bethany’s experience at the porn conference.

Radio talking Disability & sexuality, the social model and disability pride

This is well worth a listen! Access note: There is no text transcript of the interview.

I did a little interview on Clementine Ford’s Misandry Hour and talked about Disability & sexuality, the social model and disability pride.

Radio Interview on sexuality and disability and disability pride with activist Jax Jacki Brown

‘Pretty Cripples’ and the people turned on by disability

In a world that constantly tells us anything out of the realms of “normal” is undesirable, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed by the idea that there are people out there who would happily love and accept every little bit of me, especially the bits that I’ve always considered flawed.
But, as I started to come face to face with people in the devotee community, I felt wary.

learn more about disability devoteeism.

Disability and Sexual Intimacy

Fantastic to see an independent living center offering workshops on sexuality!

Disability and sexuality is not a subject that is at the top of the list of the enquiries we receive at ILC in Nedlands or at ILC Cockburn. Talking to Occupational Therapist colleagues and Carers it seems that the subject can be perceived as a taboo subject or sometimes it can be the white elephant in the room, it’s there but who mentions it? Should it be mentioned? Who should mention it first?

Read the rest of this post here.

Marriage and Parenting

I Didn’t Want To be a Burden on Our Minimoon

My beautiful husband didn’t take to the Internet to complain that my pain ruined his weekend, but actually wrote a loving Facebook message about how amazing our accommodation was, that I am sore but it’s nice to spend time with me doing nothing. It was so uplifting and reassured me he had a good time and I’m not a burden.

Read more about how Carly and Adam celebrated their marriage, in disability-friendly style.

Parenting with disability. What it’s really like.

Children are resilient and adaptable.

Besides working around not driving, my kids have always lived with the knowledge that sometimes they can’t touch me.
My family deals with my disabilities and associated disruptions pretty well. It is hard not to see myself through the eyes of other parents, or the eyes of my 14-year-old’s friends, when they ask my why his mom doesn’t drive and then, by association, “What’s wrong with her?” And he has to explain.
I hope my kids aren’t embarrassed. We live blocks from the schools, doctor, dentist, library, bank, and a couple restaurants. I walk everywhere, when I’m able. My husband works at a flexible job. I work at home. That’s how I do it. A lot of help and careful management of time and resources.

Learn more about how this family adapts to Mom’s disabilities.

The Disabled parenting project
This is a new online space, launched in March, that seeks to bring disabled people together to discuss and share resources around parenting as people with disabilities.

The DPP also seeks to inform social policy through the development of resources, created by and for the disabled parenting community, and to promote social justice for disabledfamilies.

Visit the Disability Parenting Project

Mar 172016

It’s not every day that policy changes around sexual abuse reporting at an agency for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities are covered in that agency’s local newspaper.

What’s not unusual is the amount of stuff there is to unpack around how disabled people’s bodies, sexualities, even our very lives are treated. You can double or triple how true this is when it comes to talking about people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

This reporting misses just as many issues and questions as it uncovers.

Below, I unpack some of these issues and fill in some of the missing pieces that need to be in this conversation.


Imagine a world where you don’t get to touch or be touched, or where you’re separated if people catch you having sex you want to be having, where the people don’t ask you if you wanted that sex, or intimate touch, or whatever it was you were doing and whatever that touch meant to you until after they made you stop, and then they’re only asking you to see whether they need to take a sexual abuse investigation to the next level.

Even if all of this is happening for a reason – because you or the person you were with has a history of being abusive and the people who take care of your physical needs are tasked with making sure you or they don’t hurt anyone else, or if you or the person you’re with has been abused and the people who take care of your physical needs have been tasked with keeping everyone safe – living this way still isn’t going to feel comfortable or nurturing.


The Story: The Montana developmental Center has updated their sexual abuse investigation policies to meet federal standards. Before the update, all sexual contact between clients was assumed to be nonconsensual, and was treated that way. Clients found engaging sexually with each other were separated immediately and a sexual abuse investigation was set in motion. After the update, sexual contact between clients still isn’t allowed, but if clients are caught having sex, whether or not they consented to that sex will factor into the investigation. If it’s found that a. Everyone involved in the sexual activity agreed to it. and B. Everyone involved was intellectually capable of consenting the investigation wouldn’t go any further.

Yes, it’s commplicated.

It’s even more complicated because the guidance clients get about what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour doesn’t match the policy around what is and isn’t abuse. Clients are told that no touch is allowed between clients. This leads to confusion since clients report nonsexual touching because they’ve been told they’re supposed to. The systems in place don’t require opening an abuse investigation for nonsexual touching.

I can’t help thinking that this confusion over the expectations of clients would make a lot of clients feel unheard, if they go to report something, because they think they’re supposed to, and only then are they told it’s not a big deal.


About touch: I wonder if, instead of restricting and monitoring it, in not allowing touch instead of allowing it under supervision…might this not be interfering with the clients’ abilities to grow and develop new ways for understanding and relating to the world?

Research has shown that touch can be a great vehicle for sharing and understanding emotions – though I don’t agree that these findings support that men are from Mars and women from Venus; there are plenty of other reasons for gender differences in research results.

There’s also research to support that touch is crucial in emotional regulation, something especially important for folks who may have trouble with verbal communication. This reminds me of a story I heard about a woman who worked in a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities. One of her clients had the nasty habit of hitting other people. Somehow, I’m not sure of the details, this staf member figured out that if the client received a backgrub every day, he was much more relaxed and much less likely to hit people.

Sure, this was controlled touch,, in a regulated situation, done for a specific purpose.

I can’t help wondering though if allowing clients to touch (nonsexually) under supervision couldn’t be highly beneficial as well. There seems something so cold and clinical about living somewhere where you’re forbidden to touch at all, instead of being encouraged and taught to touch in healthy ways.

Sometimes, the expectation that a person with an intellectual or developmental disability won’t be safe doing something is more harmful than finding ways for them to do that thing safely. This is especially so for basic needs that so many of us take for granted, such as the ability to spend time alone. One of the stories shared by the social worker who presented this workshop, was about a young man who was deemed so out of control he needed to have two support workers with him at all times. Yet, the intensity of his behaviour revved down once a way was found for him to safely spend fifteen minutes alone every day.


I do wish that this reporting on sexual abuse policies had also included an acknowledgement of the broader issues around the sexualities of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. People with intellectual disabilities are often thought of and discussed as if their sexualities either don’t exist, or are wildly out of control, and referring to sexual abuse, actively minimizing desires by explaining that no sexual activity is allowed, reinforces this either/or of helplessness or harmfulness.

To be clear, sexual abuse, whether being an abuser or being a victim, doesn’t have anything to do with sexual rights, but whenever we acknowledge that people can or may be being consensually sexual, we need to (or at least I think we need to) recognize that people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are just as likely to have fully formed sexualities of all diferent shapes and expressions as anyone else, and just as likely to find ways of acting on these sexualities as to be the victim or perpetrator of abuse.


This is the point where I stop to share that this piece is dificult to write. The mess of responsibilities, rights, care needs, community resources, feelings, behaviours, institutional histories, power dynamics – it is a stew, and not the tasty kind.

It’s painful to acknowledge that people with developmental disabilities, a population we’ve done so much wrong to as a society, are also capable of doing harm to others, and that, to keep them and others safe, their interactions with others may need to be limited.

Some people with developmental disabilities are sexual abusers. Treating and working with this population is a big part of what the Montana Developmental Center does. Not easy stuff, by any stretch of the imagination.

There are people who are a danger to others. There are people who have trouble understanding personal boundaries, or even with understanding which of their actions will hurt others and which won’t. There are Some people with intellectual or developmental disabilities express really strong feelings through violent behaviour, and don’t understand how their strength affects others.

Some folks, because of developmental delays, never learned, in ways they could understand, how to interact with other people, or how to manage their emotions, the way other children (mostly) do.

People with intellectual or developmmental disabilities are, by and large, not much different, in the grand scheme of things, from the rest of the population – which means that some folks are or will be violent, and will probably have a harder time hiding those violent behaviours than many people who are, or can pass as neurotypical do. Neurotypical folks just (usually) conceal their dangerous behaviours better.


Dave Hingsburger has worked with people with developmental or intellectual disabilities for over four decades now. He’s been an unfailing advocate for the rights of people with developmental disabilities to express their sexualities in all ways that make them happy and keep them, and others, safe. Dave is also very clear that some people with developmental disabilities are violent, and that these violent behaviours need to be managed, and prevented, for the safety of everyone who lives and works with the violent person.

There are precedents for respecting the sexualities of people with intellectual disabilities and actively preventing abuse.

Organizations have developed models for honouring these sexualities while while providing the needed level of “protection from harm, abuse, and exploitation.”


I wish the article about policy changes had also explored what changes are being made to hold everyone accountable when there are cases of staf sexually abusing clients. Staff abuse of clients happens far too frequently in institutions – the Montana Developmental Center will be closing soon, partly because of high rates of abuse.


The people of Boulder Montana, where the Montana developmental Center has been located for over a century, feel angry and betrayed by its closing. The community is furious that a prime source of income and employment is being taken away from them. The people in this town have every right to fear these things, but this article is disappointing for its lack of discussion about why the institution is closing, beyond several interviewees’ firm conviction that the state should have considered the town’s needs in this decision. There’s no mention in the article about the history of deinstitutionalization, its pros and cons, or what community placements for folks with developmental, intellectual,or psychiatric disabilities actually look like.

There’s a lot of material in this article that demands to be ripped apart from a disability rights perspective, but I’ll just highlight three points that I think are especially indicative of general attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities.

The Rev. Lowell Bartels, who leads the Tuesday services at the nondenominational Good Shepherd Church at MDC, said he fears for the future of those in his congregation.
“We have to keep in mind that these are adult bodies with children’s minds,” he said, fearing where they may end up if they don’t make it in the community setting. “They are going to go to jail.”

No, and no, and an extra dose of no on top! Calling people with intellectual disabilities children in adult bodies is outdated, and wrongheaded, thinking.

Mental age refers to how a person does on standardized tests. That’s it.

Acording to The Arc:

The mental age only refers to the intelligence test score. It does not describe the level and nature of the person’s experience and functioning in aspects of community life.

I’d add that when we evaluate people based only on how well they do on a standardized test, or how they communicate, or even how they relate to the world around them, we forget that there are other senses that we all use to learn about and understand our own experiences and what happens around us, and that just because an adult with an intellectual or developmental disability can’t tell us what’s going on in their minds, or if they can’t communicate memories in ways the rest of us think are logical, doesn’t mean that they don’t retain feelings, sensations, experiences from how ever many years they’ve been on this planet. A thirty-five-year-old is going to have way more of these stored up than will a five-year-old. We need to respect that.

If an adult with a developmental disability chooses activities that are usually more suited to a child, that’s their choice, and has way more to do with what their unique personality and combination of skills and abilities allows them to enjoy, than with them having a “child’s mind.”

We have to stop thinking of and treating adults with developmental disabilities as children

From a nurse who used to work at this institution:

“When I worked there, I loved the people I took care of,” she said.

However, she said, she had her arm broken once and jaw broken twice by clients.

I am so deeply sorry that this nurse went through the physical pain and emotional trauma of being harmed by her patients. That’s a scary fall-out that can happen when people work in healthcare, with any sort of patient or client. I’ve met several former nurses over the years who had to leave direct care after sustaining permanent injuries inflicted by patients. To be sure, the risks might be higher, more concentrated, in a space that works with people who already have a history of violence.

But, try this on for size: IN a place where abuse and mistreatment happens, where the clients have emotional or verbal communication issues, is it really surprising when clients act out violently? If you’ve seen abuse,or know it’s happening,, or have experienced it, and you feel vulnerable, and you don’t feel like you can tell anyone, and you don’t know what to do when you have emotional outbursts (the way most of us do), what else are you going to do but lash out? No, violence is not okay, but the fact that it happens in the course of care should make us look at the bigger issues, and should also not make us assume that people with intellectual disabilities are uncontrolled and a danger to the community.

Placing this nurse’s experiences near the beginning of this article sets us, the readers, up to think that the people living in the town are in in greater danger if the institution closes and its clients are transferred to living in the community. This impression is strengthened by the lack of information given about just what community living for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities can look like, what kinds of supports they’ll have, how their emotional needs and behavioural histories will be managed, and so on.

A current employee at the institution says:

…the clients “do more in their personal life than I do in mine.”

Ah, but Sir, you have choices, way beyond whether you have chocolate or vanilla pudding for your evening snack,or whether you go to the movie theatre or the bowling alley for group outing. Regardless of how much they need the care they’re receiving at this center, none of the clients chose to live there. That’s a basic personal freedom that was denied to them. Having that happen is way bigger than who has how much of a personal/social life.

It feels really awkward that this staf member felt like he had to prove something by telling us he doesn’t have much of a personal life. It feels even more awkward since he is then reported as saying:

And as for the clients, “they grow on you.”

Well, I’m glad we got that straightened out.

In fairness, we don’t have access to the context for this quote. Maybe it was referring to another comment or question that was left out of the article.

Sure, it’d be an adjustment to work around people who don’t communicate the same ways other adults do, who are sometimes violent or unpredictable, who have interests and hobbies we usually associate with children. But, if we approach any group with basic respect, they shouldn’t have to “grow” on us, except for the usual personality conflicts everyone has.

Further Reading

The Arc: Sexuality Position Statement

The Right to Community Integration for People with Disabilities Under United States and International Law

Already Doing It: Intellectual Disability and Sexual Agency