I first met Bethany Stevens at American University, where we were both speaking on the Exquisite, Beauty is Disability ableism awareness panel.
Right away I noticed her confidence and passion (not to mention her brilliant mind that didn’t seem to miss a thing) and have been following her work for the past three years.
Bethany generously agreed to answer some questions on what drives her work in the field of sexuality and disability.
Robin: You call yourself “an uppity crip scholar-activist and sexologist.”
Can you tell us what that means?
Bethany: I discovered the word “crip” through Laura Hershey’s poetry in my early 20s, and
identified with the political punch of the word so much that I started signing my email with “uppity crip
activist.” I was ridiculous enough to send my law professors emails with that signature line, whimakes me giggle now.
I am uppity – forceful, bound for resistance, and vocal when discontent about
discrimination. As I have aged, my investment in scholarship has grown to be the primary arm of my
activist life (and I have dropped “uppity crip activist” from my signature line).
My writing and speaking are as important activist expressions as my formal activist work, such as when I successfully fought for
an accessible testing center for students with disabilities to be built at the University of Florida. As of 2009, I took on the label sexologist after finishing my time in Morehouse School of Medicine’s Center of Sexual Health Scholar’s Program following completion of my Masters degree in Sexuality Studies at SF State. All together, these labels mean I am relentlessly vocal about the sexual and social value of disabled people. I may not be protesting as much, but my activist voice remains strong in me and will
always inform my scholarship. Disability culture and communities are a big part of my chosen family and home, my work will always be informed by these ethics.
Robin: What would you most like disabled people to know about sex, sexuality, and intimate relationships?
Bethany: It feels so simple yet deserves reiteration until the world knows this truth: disabled people are worthy of pleasure and love. We can give and receive pleasure in so many ways. Our bodies and minds sometimes require adaption to engage in sexual activities with us; those adaptions become
artful shifts away from “normal” modes of existence, opening up space to value different ways of being.
Meaning the ways we accommodate our bodies and minds can teach EVERYONE so much about sex – like communicating about where the body has sensation, slowing down to avoid triggering trauma for someone, or using specific strategies, like focused breath to enhance pleasure.
I love that if people got hip to disability and sex that this could be THE catalyst for a huge sexual awakening. While I wait for the massive awakening, I enjoy the moments of individual transformation and continue speaking to affirm disabled people’s sexual lives.
Robin: What would you most like nondisable people to know about disabled people’s experiences of sex, sexuality, or intimate relationships?
Bethany: Relax, we have sex or we don’t. Some of us are asexual, just like nondisabled people.
While it’s “cute” you might think it’s totally cool to ask a disabled stranger whether they can have sex – it’s not. Don’t be this person, please. Stop with the noise.
Disabled people are not all that different from the nondisabled people running around the planet. I’m not suggesting that disabled people do not experience unique structural and attitudinal barriers stemming from ableism, and other systems of
power associated with other identity markers. I am merely pointing to the fact that disabled people likely think of sex as much as others, we have been rejected, we have rejected people, life happens – and it doesn’t spare us because we walk with crutches or stim.
I would also encourage nondisabled people to query whether they find disabled people attractive. It’s important when doing this to unpack – or really describe – what disability looks like to the person. The key here is to figure out if disability is deemed attractive, why or why not AND where those feelings come from. I am not suggesting that everyone should be hot for me, for example, however when a
person has an all out ban against being attracted to disabled people there is something deeper going on.
Much like some authors have been saying the inclusion of “no fatties” or “no blacks” on Tindr profiles are reflections of fatphobia and racism, excluding disability just sets the same kind of prejudice into operation. Disability isn’t attractive because of ableist garbage we have been feed through various social means our entire lives.
One side-note: do not tell a disabled person or our friends that we are somehow either brave or going “to heaven” just for being us. Truthfully, before speaking these off the wall statements, think: “Would I like a stranger saying this to me?” before serving us microaggressions.
Robin: What are your favourite scholarly, activist, sexuality, or disability resources?
Bethany: Good grief, you know this is a hard one when you are a nerd. My most recent highly cited website is yours! The authors that have truly shaped me have been Marta Russell (wrote about how people make profit off disabled people), Barbara Waxman (named the need to politicize sexual pleasure of disabled people AND named disability hate), Laura Hershey (her artful poetry made me reconsider aspects of loving myself), Cory Silverberg (a true ally in the verb, not noun sense).
Robin: What are you working on right now?
Bethany: My nerd is showing again, because I am working on getting myself together to apply to PhD programs in sociology. There is a particular program that has a sexuality and gender focus that I am eager to start. I thrive on deadlines and generally in the classroom. I love teaching and with the degrees I have now, I am locked into teaching law and policy. While I appreciate those aspects of life, and bring them into my work, I need more space to talk about the social aspects of sexuality. That is where my
passion exists and I want to nurture it. Within the last year, my invited university talks have been focused on aspects of pleasure – how to politicize it and specific ways to achieve it. I am working on some projects with my friend and colleague Robin Wilson-Beattie (@sexAbled) that will take us into new audiences, which I am not ready to speak
of yet but would ask your readers to send some good energy to us. Our world needs more conversations on sexuality, because sexual health is central to our personhood, and our work is crucial to broadening those conversations to be inclusive of disability.
Bethany Stevens is a member of the inaugural class of Center of Excellence for Sexual Scholars program
at Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM), working under the 16th Surgeon General of the United States
Dr. David Satcher. From 2009-2013, she was a policy analyst and faculty member in the School of Public
Health (SPH) at Georgia State University. She continues to promote disability justice through disability
advocacy and independent scholarship.
To learn more about Bethany read her full
bio and check out what she
would tell her teenage self about sexuality.
You can find and dialogue with Bethany on Twitter.