Disabling Dominant Perspectives on Sexuality and Disability: A Reflection

For the past few days I have been in San Francisco at a Summer Institute on Sexuality held by San Francisco State University’s Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality. I am attending this Summer Institute to jumpstart my research on sexuality and engage with the practitioners in the field. It has been both an amazing and terrifying experience. Studying sexuality–at least studying topics in sexuality in courses such as Feminist and Womanist Theology–within the boundaries of a theological community seems different from studying it within a broader context. I’ve learned about BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) as possible healing practice for people with early trauma; the differentiation between gay males and MSMs (Males Having Sex with Males which doesn’t necessarily mean they self-identify as gay) and the startling statistics about sexually transmitted infections in the MSM community; micro-aggressions against people who are transgendered; and surrogate therapy (a surrogate therapist works with a therapist and the therapist client to help the client navigate sexual issues through direct contact–you can figure this one out) as a bridge to healthy sexual experiences within and without relationships. These are just some of the topics we’ve covered in my time here, topics that I have held at a distance because I have never participated in them nor do I know anyone else who has. But yesterday something/someone cut across the distance. Tuesday’s experience was actually a continuation of a discussion on Monday about disability and sexuality and reconsidering our perceptions of the sexual nature of people with disabilities. Our time on Monday morning shed light on the fact that some people assume–consciously and subconsciously–that persons with disabilities are asexual. The assumption is that such persons are so involved in their disability that they have no sexual feeling or that their disability renders them incapable of having sexual desire or feeling. But this began to change when we watched a video entitled Sex-Abled: Disability Uncensored. In this video, people with various levels of disability discussed and joked about their sexual desires as something that exists just like it does for people with no perceived disability. This was my first time seeing something like this and I was blown.

Maria Palacios, Sins Invalid

Maria Palacios, Sins Invalid

On Tuesday we continued this discussion with Sins Invalid, a performance project that “incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized.” Two of the members of Sins Invalid, Patty Berne and Leroy Franklin Moore Jr., spoke to our group about the mission and work of the organization in general and disability justice and the power of sex in particular. At the beginning of class they handed out a pamphlet and a postcard-size Sins Invalid flyer featuring a young black man in a wheelchair being embraced by a black woman. I thought nothing of this image. Then the lights dimmed. Patty and Leroy presented clips of past Sins Invalid performances which ranged from Matt Fraser, a young man with phocomelia/short arms doing interpretive dance to the patronizing and patently offensive words of persons without perceived disabilities to Maria Palasios, polio survivor, feminist writer, poet, and disability activist who boasts a healthy sexual appetite and wants others to know, “Disabled People Are Sexy.” I was at a distance watching all of these people while slowly having my preconceived notions shattered and then he came on the screen. First I recognized the voice, the DynaVox, an electronic communication device for people with disabilities that affect their vocal ability. Then I recognized the face, a young black man with the defined nose and eyes of his father and mother. Then there was his body, usually enshrouded by his motorized chair but recognizable by its length and its sometimes erratic movement. Finally when the camera panned out and all parts were put together like a puzzle I realized, “It’s my cousin! It’s my cousin! It’s my cousin.” I audibly shouted this to my fellow Summer Institute participants and then I settled down into the space of tension I had been occupying throughout the institute, excitement and terror. Here I was watching my cousin Lateef, a poet, writer, and soccer player who has cerebral palsy. He was sitting in front of a mirror doing a dramatic reinterpretation of his poetry to the sound of his Dynavox. He slowly struggled out of his clothing as he spoke about his sexual and romantic desires. I entered a state of shock as I listened to him explain the guilt he felt after pleasuring himself, the Protestant guilt that threatens to consume us all. The pleasure and guilt around sexual pleasure, a cycle that repeats itself in his life as it does in all of our lives–at some point. His experience as a person with a disability or–“different abilities”–mirrors that of every human being but I, along with many, ignored or were ignorant of it. Now I could no longer ignore it, my cousin Lateef is a sexual being. Not to emphasize his disability but I have to for the sake of the argument I am trying to make here and that is that people with disabilities are not asexual–at least not all of them and it is unfair to categorize them as such by default. Many people with disabilities experience desire and, from my cousin’s depiction, it seems particularly painful because there are fewer people who can fulfill those desires and fewer still that give attention to the fact that persons with disabilities have the same intrinsic value and desires that we all hold to be significant. Between Monday’s discussion and Sins Invalid’s time with us, I had to confess that I was guilty of “asexualizing” people with disabilities. I subconsciously bracketed sexual desire from their lived experience, thinking that it is nowhere on their list of concerns and, being painfully honest, not something they can feel anyways–contingent upon their particular disability. I was particularly convicted during my time watching my cousin because we are not only spatially distant but spiritually distant in the fact that I have not connected with him because of my own issues. I’ve had trouble overcoming the gap in communication I feel between me and him. I’ve struggled with talking to him on the most basic level during the few times we do get to see each other. I’m utterly guilty of letting his disability dictate how I relate/connect to him and yesterday was just another reminder of the ways I have failed not only him but others. But yesterday was also the day that created a bridge for me to cross to get to him. Yesterday felt providential and put some purpose into my time here. I came here to jumpstart my research in sexuality. I wanted to put some meat on the bones of my doctoral interest and walk away with some new questions for that work. But my time at the Summer Institute on Sexuality has created a greater space for me to work in and a broader community to consider in my work. I’m staying with Lateef’s mom and dad for the duration of this trip (my aunt and uncle). They are a side of the family I rarely get to see because I live on the East Coast but my time with them has been enriching in ways I can’t begin to explain fully here. Seeing Lateef in the Sins Invalid clip, created a surprising space for a dialogue that isn’t normally open. I didn’t know I would see Lateef in that clip yesterday, and I wasn’t prepared to see him in that light but that I saw him and was able to bear witness to his feelings and desires connected me to him and this family in ways I may have never been connected if it wasn’t for the Summer Institute.

A Retrospect on Sexual Fantasies and Attraction

… feels sorry for any man, who after discovering my views on sex, decides I’m not worth talking to. I’m not the problem, your view of intimacy and a woman’s worth is. If you think someone is worth having sex with 24 hours after you meet them, knowing nothing about them, then you may want to re-evaluate your life and not mine. The stakes in life are too high to be so foolish…

Last night I was scrolling through my countless Facebook posts over the years when I stopped at the post above. I remembered it like it was yesterday…

Man and woman at bar

Image courtesy of Introverted Playboy

I met a guy at a friend’s birthday party who I thought I connected with. We had a good conversation filled with laughter and innocent flirtation and decided to exchange numbers. He texted me the next day and we commenced to getting to know each other. Our conversation started out innocently with all of the perfunctory “getting to know you” questions but it shifted when he asked me, “What is your fantasy?” Wanting to believe he asked me that because he wanted to know my vision of the ideal life, I told him something to that effect. Sadly, he wasn’t satisfied with my G-rated answer, so he asked me again. “No, I mean your sexual fantasy.” I was angry at the sight of his words and thought to myself, “How dare he ask me about my sexual fantasy? We just met yesterday!” I told him that I thought that it was inappropriate for him to ask me that so early in our knowing each other and that I felt disrespected because he jumped so quickly to wondering about my sexual imagination. I told him that if having sex with me is all he is interested in after knowing me for a nano-second, he could lose my number. He responded once more trying to justify his actions but I ignored his response and deleted his number.

Last night I looked at that status and felt a little sad for my 2010 self. On one hand I understood where I was coming from. I was a 29-year-old woman who was abstinent and taught to frown upon pre-marital sex and the people who had it. This meant that even talking about sexual fantasies was out of the question–not to mention the fact that I barely had any that I didn’t immediately want to send to the pits of hell after laughing about it with friends. Therefore the idea that a man could meet me and want to talk about my sexual fantasies after a day of knowing me was inappropriate and sinful. To be fair, I shouldn’t make myself out to be a saint and this man the sinner. I had my fair share of “everything but sex” sexual activity in college while simultaneously believing that what I was doing was a sin and wrong in the eyes of God. I made out with people and participated in heavy petting and woke up the morning after feeling dirty and begging for forgiveness. I consistently made promises and broke them because, as the scripture we are wont to quote says, “The mind is willing but the flesh is weak.” I even went as far as telling God that I wasn’t quite ready for a committed relationship with him so that I could have fun like everyone else; partying, drinking, and having (almost) everything but sex. So, by the time I met the young man in question, I was back on my promise to save myself for marriage and I had been resting firmly in that promise for half a decade. I couldn’t see how anyone, having met me hours before, would be interested in talking about sex with me. I judged this young man as wrong in his actions and as not viewing me as a person with intrinsic value but an object to gain pleasure from. I viewed him as putting his life in danger all for the sake of sex. All of these were snap judgments based on our little exchange. But what a difference three years makes…

I am a 32-year-old woman who has spent the last three years grappling with the Bible, my theology, and my sexuality in the contexts of theology school and my personal life. In this time my hardened heart and mind have gone soft. This is a result of time spent in reasoning, research, experience, and reflection that has lead me to shift on some of my more conservative views. Three years ago I demonized that young man for announcing his desires to know my sexual fantasies. Three years later, I have the work of Alain de Botton in How to Think More About Sex to give me food for thought. He suggests, “It’s time for the need for sex and the need for love to be granted equal standing, without an added moral gloss. Both may be independently felt and are of comparable value and validity.” Some may shudder after reading that but I think de Botton presents a fair reading of the issue of love and sex. Some of us want love before sex and some of us want sex before love, but assessing the morality of an individual based on which one of these they want first is unfair.

My three-year-old status update also alludes to an issue with premature sexual attraction, but is there even such a thing? As human beings we greet each other interacting–primarily–with our physical selves or, the “physical envelope” as de Botton calls it. He suggests that these physical envelopes play an important role in our destinies and desires. Even the most spiritual or spirit-minded of us may interact with a person and be sexually attracted to them. This is not an absolutely negative thing. This is natural for many people. de Botton argues that sexual attraction is actually something we don’t have control over. We may see someone and be sexually attracted to them or see someone who we’d love to be sexually attracted to but we can’t will ourselves into sexual attraction. Considering this, could the young man help being sexually attracted to me–or attracted enough to want to know my fantasies? There may be a chance that he had no control over it so it, so why lambast him? However, if we are going to follow the claim that sexual attraction is a product of nature, we must then take responsibility for our actions. Being sexually attracted to someone doesn’t give you any right to be reckless in your actions toward them. Instead it holds you responsible for what you do with that attraction which includes discerning whether the person you are attracted to is ready to share their sexual fantasy with you or ready to hear that you want to have sex with them. Sexual attraction and desire, as part of human nature, requires that we live in the tension of–more often than not–being sexually attracted to people who aren’t attracted to us or people who are attracted to us but aren’t ready to participate in a sexual relationship and vice versa. Being sexually attracted to someone isn’t a bad thing and I dare say it can be spiritual and not sinful. But where we err is what that sexual attraction leads us to do. Sexual attraction is not the gateway drug to fornication if we are taught about healthy ways to handle that attraction–and that is a post for another day.

Three years later and I am open. Not open as in available for promiscuous activity, but open as in available to learn and exercise more than tolerance in regards to differing opinions on sex and sexuality. I say “more than tolerance” because tolerance rubs me the wrong way. It implies a “putting up” with a different perspectives instead of a real shift and the shift is what I am looking toward. This may result in some calling me unorthodox but it’s ok because I know who and what is holding this openness together.

So what would I say to that or any young man who asked me about my sexual fantasy not too long after meeting me? Maybe something along the lines of, “I’m flattered that you are interested in what they are, but I’m not interested in sharing that part of myself just yet. Hopefully you’re ok with that and you’ll stick around so that you can find out one day, but if not, it’s been nice knowing you.” No judgment.