Friday, June 16, 2006

The first time ever I saw your brace

I was thinking of blogging about sex and disability, which may become several entries (sorry). There are a few discussions on the Ouch Messageboard along this theme just now, but they seem to be going around the same old circles; some of us feel that disability makes no difference, others feel it makes all the difference.

Turtle had these wise words to say on the subject;
it's the same with everything though isn't it...if you place too much emphasis on Disability - that which you can't and don't want to change - you're never actually gong to step back and look at yourself and the things you can change. I hear from other people (and me) 'I can't get laid because i'm crippled' and it is a load of rubbish half the time. its actually a bigger problem of self image and how you relate to other people. Disability informs that problem, it does not define it.

Turtle is good like that; you want to say something and you find she has already said it better than you could. By far the biggest problem facing disabled people when it comes to love and sex is confidence. This is not inevitable, but nor has it come from nowhere. All sorts of disabling experiences have the potential to flatten your self-esteem and sex is the area where the average human being is probably most vulnerable to self-doubt and psychological baggage.

However, this doesn’t mean that impairment and disability are always irrelevant to sex and romance. And I wanted to write about the actual factual obstacles that disabled people can face. Of course, I can only write about the things I know about in my normal rambling fashion, but it may be a start.

The first question I want to ask is

Do disabled people look less attractive than non-disabled people?

Some impairments have a fairly dramatic effect on appearance, not necessarily rendering a person unattractive, but in any case I have no experience on what it is like to occupy a very different-looking face or body. I can't really comment on what impact that might have.

However, since I don’t always use the wheelchair, I know that there is some difference in the nature of attention I receive when in or out of the chair. I have received the look of admiration (at least so I like to delude myself) from a young man, who then notices the chair and looks quickly away with an expression of horror as if he had just had a sexual thought about his own grandmother. Sometimes.

Sometimes the gaze is held, the young man trips on a kerb and the next time I see him he’s in a wheelchair too. Which is very romantic, but would suggest some sort of evolutionary basis for the negative reaction.

However, there is no way that we instinctively discriminate against the sexual merits of person because of some slight physical difference or a piece of kit they happen to use – we may make social assumptions based on these things but our shagometers work on a far more instinctive level. Much has been said about alpha males and females and ideal body-shape, but since there are only about three of those perfect men or women on the planet, either we are all destined to disappointment or else the matter is far more complex.

Looks generally matter to most people, but it is usually difficult to determine what makes us attracted to one person rather than another. Some people can recite a conscious criteria of physical characteristics in their ideal lover. Most people I know, of all ages and genders, only have a vague notion of physical attractiveness, much of which relates to internal qualities any; they have laughter lines (they smile a lot, have a cheerful disposition) or have nice eyes (make a lot of eye-contact).

I tend to like men who have long hair, but I can’t say for sure whether it is the long hair I like or the fact that the Bohemian oddballs I tend to go for very often have long hair.

So what’s the problem with the wheelchair? What does the wheelchair imply about me?

Well frankly, it doesn’t matter. Someone who reacts in this way obviously doesn’t fancy me, and I have no interest in attempting to convert them.

Which sounds like I don’t care because I’m not looking. I do care. I don’t like horrifying those poor young men. But what on Earth, in a million years could I do about it?

Some disabled people talk about sex in terms of rights. Historically, some disabled people have been denied rights like that of sexual autonomy, reproductive freedoms, privacy, sex education and access to contraception. At the very least, many of us had parents who went into denial about our sexual development because of our perceived vulnerability. All very unfair.

But sex itself is not an unconditional right for the individual. Love isn’t any sort of right at all. Being fancied is not something we can demand of people who don’t find us attractive.

For one thing, being disabled doesn’t mean that folks who don’t fancy you are necessarily prejudiced. But perhaps most importantly, even if they are, nobody is under any obligation to address that prejudice. Personally, I don’t understand folks who claim they only like to date people of a certain height, hair-colouring, income, or anything nearly so specific, but it is absolutely up to them.

This is a really important point that folks often miss when they talk about sex and disability. Whilst in a an ideal world, all men and women will be considered equal in most areas of life, every individual has preferences and criteria for those people they are attracted to, consciously or not. It doesn’t matter where things come from or what that person might be missing out on; it is none of our business.

But - and it is a big but – it is almost certainly the case that those criteria which exclude disabled people so absolutely are based on a misguided view of what and who we are. And that’s something that, in time, we can change, as we change the overall perception of disabled people in all areas of society.

Still Turtle’s point remains. A less confident person might not have picked up on any gazes from anywhere. A less confident person might assume that any look was a look of curiosity or disgust. A less confident person might keep their eyes in their lap and not notice anyone noticing them at all.


Mary said...

really, really well put. All of it.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Mary. Also much respect for your own contribution to the Ouch discussion.

Mary said...

Re-reading some of the stuff I posted, I think I should make a point of waiting for my painkillers to work before putting anything on the internet, especially on forums where there's no edit button... the gist of my feelings is there but I think I was rather blunter than I would normally have been!

The Goldfish said...

Not to worry; the nature of forums like Ouch mean that most of the time we are simplifying quite complicated subjects - it isn't always possible to use the most diplomatic language and still get your point across within 200 words. Also, whatever you say about a subject as sensitive as this, someone is almost bound to take personal offense.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the problem, whenever this comes up, is that people are not all talking about the same thing and often don't realise it.

Some are starting with plain purely physical sex, an itch that needs to be scratched, whereas others are including under sex all the emotions, and yet others are really thinking about lifetime involvements.

Unless and until people discussing this subject can all agree to define exactly what they are meaning, discussion goes round in circles.

Then we can all start discussing the infinite variety subsumed under "disability."

Not a very constructive post, I admit, but you can't have an argument unless you know what you're arguing about.

The Goldfish said...

El - thank you. It is an important point about perceived fragility or the idea that we have the status of those who need protection.

Charles - that's why I started with looks alone; nobody which of us is up one or other variety of sexual encounter, just by looking at us, so those matters are irrelevant to the question I asked.

Anonymous said...

Goldfish - I meant no criticism of your post, which is eminently clear-thinking and precisely expressed, as usual.

I was merely raising the problem because I have so often seen promising discussions, on ouch! and elsewhere, go of the rails and be ruined exactly because of such semantic confusions, which spring from assumptions that are so unconscious, deeply buried, that people aren't aware.

The Goldfish said...

Yes it's true, sorry Charles, I see what you mean. :-)

Anonymous said...

No - what you said was fair comment, I wasn't addressing the thrust of your argument.