Last month I attended the 37th Annual Guelph Sexuality Conference.
The lineup was amazing, and I learned so much – about consent, about community-based research with youth who have HIV, about how to use gender-neutral language to talk about sexuality and relationships – and about sexuality and disability.
Kaleigh Trace presented Desirability as Resistance: Reading Disability Differently, the presentation title that finally got me to stop dithering and register for the conference.
I had just read Kaleigh’s sexy, funny, thought-provoking book and was excited to meet her and learn more from her.
The aim of this workshop is to critically examine our internalized (and often ableist) ideas about what it means to be disabled, and rewrite these constructs by looking at some of the work being done by radical disability activists today. In particular we will examine disabled activists who work to be visibly sexual. As such, this workshop will benefit all folks who work with people with disabilities and any individuals working in sex ed. through a look at disability and sexuality.
One of the beautiful things about this session was how open and comfortable it felt to be there. Kaleigh got her participants laughing, and gave us plenty to think about, but where she really shines as a presenter is in presenting enough information, and asking the right questions, to spark open and emotionally safe participant conversations. I think we learned as much from each other as we did from her, and most people felt able to share experiences and opinions that made them more vulnerable to the rest of us. Kaleigh also does not set herself up as an authority. She was very clear with us that she speaks about what she’s learned and experienced, from her perspective as a disabled white cisgender woman – hers are not the only opinions or lived realities.
Kaleigh introduced us to the justice model for understanding and talking about disability. Two of the most well-known models of disability are the medical and social models. The medical model focuses on “fixing” disabilities, and people who follow it tend, in general, to ignore the expertise and abilities of disabled people themselves. The social model teaches that society’s prejudice and lack of physical access and acceptance is what disables people, but fails to take into account that many people are disabled by pain or illness, individual situations that society, as a whole, can’t do anything about. A justice model of disability, helps us look not only at the social roots and causes discrimination and exclusion of disabled people, but also the individual histories, experiences, and identities that shape each person’s life.
We talked about desirability, about how we’re taught that disability is the opposite of beautiful or attractive – that any body that doesn’t conform to beauty standards is automatically considered less than. Beauty standards are different from culture to culture, and have definitely changed over time. Right now in Western cultures, beauty standards are hinged on the ability to conform, to be symmetrical (or, at least, to be asymmetrical in a chic way), to be willing to put your body on display in some way (not necessarily through showing skin), to move and present ourselves only in ways that are pleasing to other people (and it seems to be assumed that everyone will find the same, or similar things, pleasing, appealing, or even sexy).
Kaleigh took us on a quick, informal tour of what desirability has looked like – at least the forms of desirability that have been passed down to us through paintings and, later, photos – through the last 500 years in Western cultures, a look she summarized as “people in hats and dresses.” These looks are modest by modern standards. They also force bodies to conform, by covering them up and making them look the same. It’s hard to see certain kinds of disability and difference when a body is covered by fabric, sometimes from head to toe.
The kinds of clothing that are seen as desirable now, and over, say, the past sixty years, bring attention to the body, and show differences between bodies.
What we find attractive to look at hasn’t quite caught up with this trend, so that when people see more of a disabled or different body, and it doesn’t fit into the beauty or sexual attraction standard, they clasify it as ugly, or even nonsexual.
When disabled people talk about sex, especially about their own sexuality, when we change the stories about what and who is desirable by including ourselves or other disabled people, we’re turning our desirability into an act of resistance.
Resistance is a tricky thing. We talked a lot about what it is, what it looks like, and whether we actually want to do it.
Do we want to challenge stereotypes of how we’re supposed to behave or what we should say just for the sake of challenging stereotypes?
If, in resisting these stereotypes, we’re acting in ways that have us not being true to ourselves, are we really resisting what’s expected of us? Or, are we just performing a different kind of conformity?
Kaleigh’s book: Hot, Wet, and Shaking: How I Learned to Talk about Sex
Some of Kaleigh’s picks for “rad disabled activists”
More sexuality and disability resources.