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Ableism, Sexuality, and Disability

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Updated November 30, 2011

A note about language and disability in this article.

Ableism refers to the multiple ways that society excludes people with disabilities from full participation in life, and denies people access to basic rights that other people exercise with greater freedom.

While it isn't the same thing, ableism shares some things with racism in that it is pervasive, is behind the scenes of every interaction, and influences not only how we treat others, but also how we think about ourselves and what we believe is possible in the world.

Most of the barriers to sexual expression that people with disabilities experience are in some way related to or rooted in ableism. Ableism creates barriers by limiting options in the first place. For example, the ableist assumption that disabled people aren't sexual predetermines who does and doesn't get sex education, who is and isn't represented as sexual in popular culture, and who should and shouldn't be considered when social spaces for sexual expression and exploration are designed and marketed.

Here are some examples of how ableism impacts sexuality for people with lived experience of disability.

How Ableism Impacts Physical Environments
It is an ableist, and incorrect, assumption that being able to walk or run, being able to lift yourself out of a chair, or otherwise being able to support your own weight, is somehow an essential definition of being human. The truth is that there are hundreds of millions of people on the planet who cannot do these things (and, I'll point out, if you live long enough, you will be one of those people). People are not less human because they move differently than someone who is presumed to be the "normative" person. People are not less sexual and they don't have less to contribute because of the way their bodies move. That most people think they do is an example of ableist thinking about sexuality.

But ableism is multi-layered; it's not just about attitudes. So a belief, like the idea that only people who can control where and how their body moves all the time, can produce physical barriers that actually make it harder to get around or harder to participate in sexual expression. A simple example would be the exam tables doctors use to give pelvic exams on. These tables are rarely accessible, and are designed only to accommodate people who can lift and support their own bodies with ease. Why were they designed that way? Well, since people who need support with their bodies aren't seen as sexual, they aren't in need of sexual health, and so why would they be part of the design consideration of something like an exam table? They wouldn't. So they are left out and unable to receive something that is considered an important part of sexual health care.

The ableist understanding of who is and is not sexual also means that environments and objects designed to be romantic or sexy are designed to accommodate only so-called normal ways of moving, feeling, seeing, and hearing. Why would you make a bar accessible if you understand social bodies to be ones that can walk up stairs, see without very much light, and hear in spaces that are filled with people talking and have terrible acoustics? Why would you design a cool and alluring smart phone for people whose hands and fingers move in sometimes unpredictable ways? Most designers don't, and as a result many are left out.

The connection between these kinds of inaccessible "romantic" spaces and romance itself has become so ingrained that we may unknowingly define and design romance in a way that excludes people with disabilities. Whether we know it or not, that is an example of ableism.

How Ableism Contributes to Legal Sexual Barriers
You may be surprised to learn that it is actually illegal for some people with disabilities to have partnered sex at all. These laws are manifestations of ableism. Here’s just one example of how this kind of legal ableism plays out for people who are labeled with developmental or intellectual disabilities.

Laws around sex with others are usually based on the idea of consent, and consent is based on the capacity to think and decide for yourself. This standard is vague and unscientific and based on the ableist assumption that everyone processes information in the same way and that there is an objective norm that can clearly show who can think for themselves and who can’t. A single law has different effects for those who it decides can and cannot think for themselves.

This has led to a medical and legal system which describes, say, a 26-year-old woman as having the "mind of a 6-year-old," as if her 26 years of life and experience mean nothing. And it is these same systems that determine who is and isn't capable of legally consenting to sex. This means that even if this 26-year-old woman can and does consent to sex, the person she has sex with could be arrested, charged, and convicted of sexual assault. For this woman, laws based on an ableist understanding of the world can prevent her from ever exploring her sexuality with another person. And for anyone who wants to have sex with someone who is disabled, these same laws can make acting on that desire illegal. Ableist laws criminalize consensual sexual activity. That this impact on the lives of people with disabilities was not considered when such laws were passed doesn’t make it okay. In fact, it's another example of ableism.

Internalized Ableism
Ableism isn't just a set of beliefs and practices enacted by non-disabled people. After a lifetime of being told you aren't sexual, you aren't a whole person, essentially that you aren't real; it is hard not to internalize these beliefs. This is what is called internalized ableism. And so if you too believe that you aren't sexual, why would you ever ask for sex education? If you think you are unlovable and undesirable, why would you ever demand access to a dating website, or a lesbian club night? Internalized ableism brings people to a place where they don't expect to be treated as a sexual being and never experience themselves as sexual.

So not only are my options limited in terms of meeting partners and learning about my own and others' sexuality, but through constant messaging about how NOT sexual I am, I can come to understand that sexuality isn't a possibility for me at all. I should be happy being people's friend, and not try to explore sexual relationships, sexual desires, and sexual expression.

In this way, ableism could be considered the greatest barrier to sexual expression since it can prevent people from exploring their options in the first place.

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