What I Would Tell My Teenage Self about Sexuality

Recently a Canadian press asked me to write about what I would tell my teenage self about sexuality for an anthology for radical teens. I expanded what I wrote here to avoid copy-write issues and explain more lessons I wish I could tell my teenage self. Enjoy… :)

As a disabled sexologist, looking back on my teenage years I, like many folks undoubtedly, wish I had the chance to go say a few things to myself.  Perhaps had I had the chance to read this or hear this story, I could have many avoided years of self-hatred and emotional turmoil from feeling lack of desirability and the belief that would never change.

I was born with a congenital disability that makes my bones brittle. In my 31 years of living, I’ve had over 60 fractures and 16 surgeries. With all the fractures and surgeries, I spent much of my young life isolated in bed healing from injuries, amounting to at the very least 7-10 years of life alone in bed healing. That created a huge gap in my socialization process and my educational experience. When I was 15 years old, I had a surgery that took me well over six months to heal from. I was incredibly depressed, even when my friends would come visit me. They told me stories of going to parties and out on dates. I didn’t get to experience any of that until my late teens, due to healing from injuries, an overprotective mother and friends who really didn’t want their disabled friend tagging along to “cool” parties.

Naturally, I had to find something to do with my time, so I escaped into the land of fiction – in books, television and movies. For years, I considered those images to reflect reality – and none of those images included people like me. I knew all the stories about the guy getting the girl in the end, even the supposed ugly duckling (who I thought I would be) would end up happily with a man. I had my heart set on living that fiction, yet wondered how I could possibly do so in the body I am in. I would often ask my mother would I ever fall in love and would I ever sex. She assured me some wonderful man would, at some point in the far off future, be able to see past my disability and see me as attractive and brilliant. I didn’t know then that it is absolutely ridiculous and ableist (oppression of disabled people and the production of normalcy) to suggest someone would see past what would become a core part of me.

If I could go back and counter the dialog my mothers and all the fiction I consumed taught me, I would tell me a few sexual truths. The truths that media conceals with its over-sexualization of everything and its overemphasis on a body beautiful standard that most people cannot live up to. I would explain that sexuality is not just sexual activity, and it certainly is not just heterosexual penetrative sex. Sexuality is intertwined in our whole personhood, it is an experience we have for a lifetime (or as sexologists often like to say “sexuality is a womb to tomb experience”) and something that can be celebrated. To feel sexual urges and want to explore your body at a young or old age is perfectly typical. Sexual expression is a spectrum: we all do not express it the same – so we may have different tastes, those tastes may change over time, and some of us may never want to have sex.

From an early age, I had a strong fascination with sex. I was mocked by my step-father for staring with wonder at sexual scenes in movies. He suggested I was perverted to want to see what sex entailed at the age of 10. Despite the shame I felt because of his comments and religious teachings I learned regarding sexuality, I thankfully discovered the delight of masturbation at 11 years old.  It was a great outlet for my bent up sexual energy that had no other outlet. At that age I tried to express interest in boys and girls and it remained unrequited. If I could tell my young masturbating self a few things, it would be to breathe more (to enhance pleasure and elongate the experience of climax), that I was not going against God by pleasing myself, and I was actually teaching myself a lot about my body. I now teach my students – of all abilities – that exploring your body is one of the best ways to know what you want when/if you decide you want to engage in sexual activities with others or yourself.

Another big lesson I would tell myself is that sexuality is a human right that EVRERYONE is worthy of and EVERYONE can find someone to be interested in them. This may sound like a lie, I would have thought it was a lie, but it really is true. Developing or enhancing sexual self-esteem can be enabled through many means; radicalizing disability really helped me. I found disabled friends, learned that disability was not my fault – or my tragedy – it is political. I was supported by my father, who arguably pushed me very hard to develop my personhood and sexuality. There were moments in my mid-to-late teens that we would go to concerts and he would encourage me to hit on people. It was terrifying to try but those moments proved to be excellent learning experiences (and stories to tell later in life).

I would also explain to my teen self, that all the sexual attraction can be real. When I came home from middle school and junior high talking about crushes on boys and girls, my mother explained the feelings for the boys were real but I really just wanted to be like those girls. I believed her for years not knowing her rationale was ableist and relied on my internalized ableist notions of wanting to nondisabled that made me believe that crap. When my father told me that I was gay when I was 16 years old, I was baffled yet felt like something finally fell into place. All of those crushes and attendant feelings finally were unveiled as real.

Because I didn’t know that sexuality was a spectrum, I bounced between what I thought to be the only sexual categories – heterosexual and gay. Through the bouncing, I experienced different folks with many types of strokes. Growing up with an OB-GYN nurse as a mom kept me safe(r), as I used condoms, lube and gloves throughout my sexual life. Though I tried many types of people, sometimes sex just was not hot or even satisfying (and yes I faked an orgasm or two). Sounds terrible but if you try different types of people through the years, some fit better than others.

I would also let me know that the sometimes scary and saddening sexual trajectory I hit hit when I moved to college would help me figure out more about myself. Even with my father and new college peers coaching me, I was a terrible wreck at trying to date or arouse attraction. Despite really emphatic efforts to be like my nondisabled peers, I couldn’t do it. I tried my damndest to drink as much and bring home guys from bars. Most often I would leave clubs alone and upset because I wasn’t even getting looked at. I had a few really rough semesters when I moved away. In the spring of my first year in college, my roommates and I hosted a party in which I was, again, sexually ignored. I got so frustrated that I took several pills, chased them with liquor and hoped I wouldn’t wake up. I didn’t want to be invisible anymore.

Looking back, I realize how grateful I am that I was not successful in not waking up. It would have been a truly sad waste of life; because I grew from the experience and only months later I knew I would never, ever want to sleep with anyone at the party. I’m grateful I made it through the pain alive because it has allowed me to see how important it is to talk about sexuality. I know feelings of shame and suicidal ideations regarding lack of desirability are not unique to me, and that we can work to change these social structures.

My closing sexual lesson is that experiencing love and sex are on-going processes. I’m still learning who I am, how to give and receive pleasure, and how to love myself and others. After gaining some sexual self-esteem through many fumbles, I started to understand what I really wanted and I began hunting for it. Certainly, this method does not work for some and many find it off-putting, but it worked often for me. More subtle approaches that are recommended by my less aggressive friends include meeting people with similar interests and building friendships into something more. Additionally, online dating websites are increasingly wonderful ways to meet people and their minds, not just their bodies. I found that to be an awesome modality through the years. After years of searching for someone who fit me, it turned out that it was me that needed to get to the stage of wanting to settle down. When I realized that I was ready for love, I spent awhile asking the universe for exactly what I wanted in a partner: intellectual and physical stimulation, the ability to make me giggle (and be ok with my giggling) and a true love for ranting. This happened only three years ago, when a friend helped me write a Craig’s-List (a free online source for various activities, including dating and casual hook-ups) explaining what I wanted in a partner. My now wife’s best friend found the ad and pushed her to respond to me. We consider our first date our anniversary. I knew within weeks, she was the one I wanted and I’m terribly grateful to the universe for allowing our friends and the internet to bring us together.

Even though I’m now with someone I truly adore, the internalized ableism I struggled with during my teen years remain. There are still days when I wonder – and ask – why she would want me and not a nondisabled person. Those moments of my depressed teenage life have not left, the feelings exist in my marrow (to borrow from Eli Clare), but there are now more and more moments that I can look at myself and see how sexy I am. I can often see why she loves me and may even think I’m a catch. That lesson would blow my teenage brain apart and even though I can’t tell young Bethany this, my eyes welled up with tears as I typed knowing that I made it through, I have faith others will too and I hope more of us share our stories with people that need to read and hear them.

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Political Economy of Disablement

In response to a recent blogroll on Disablism – I chose to share a talk I gave last week about poverty and disability for Georgia State University’s chapter of Amnesty Intentional; specifically to address their new “Demand Dignity Campaign.” I chose this topic because it is a perfect example of an aspect of the institution of oppression associated with disability – ableism/disablism/disablement (these labels vary by context, country, and linguistic leaning).

Disability Defined

I began with a definition of disability using the definition set-forth in Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

This definition is useful for three reasons. 1) It is relevant to describe exactly what disability entails when espousing a theory related to disability to people who claim no disability knowledge thereof – even though we are everywhere. 2) It is imperative when talking about any issue – particularly on a global level – that uniform definitions be utilized. Uniform definitions help with effective assessment and quantification of any variable appealing to funders and people who want to know the scope of a given issue. And it seems that a definition that was arbitrated and agreed upon by a global constituency seems to be a good place to start to find a uniform definition. 3) The definition gets at the sociocultural aspect of disability that is so often glossed over when talking about disability; with the normative understanding of disability entailing a personal tragedy that structural and environmental forces play no role in.  The sociocultural component of disability (disablement) will be taken up at length in a moment.

The United States is one of the 144 signatories of the CRPD yet did not ratify it (only 85 nation-states did). When a nation-state ratifies a treaty it becomes binding law in their land. Therefore the ideas codified in the CRPD could be actually enforced in the US. Gasp! What do you mean people could have the right to free from torture (Article 15) and be included in the community (Article 19) – i.e. not be institutionalized? Well, not in the United States. Why, you may ask?  Ah good ole American Exceptionalism – the idea that we already have good binding law in our land (the Americans with Disabilities Act – ADA) thus do not need any other doctrine to rule. The problem with our fabulous US law, the ADA, is that it is an unfunded mandate – to enforce it one has to sue and most disabled people are economically ghettoized making it difficult, if not impossible, to enforce the law.

Did the US not sign the CRPD because we do not want to be held to an international standard of human rights law?

Disability & Poverty Globally

Before getting into the specifics of the economics of disability in the United States, it’s important to note that disabled people comprise the world’s largest and poorest minority group.  We are often the poorest of the poor and the most isolated of the isolated.  Of the 650 million disabled people in the world, 2/3 of us live in poverty.  Of those, 650 million disabled people, 100 million of them are impaired because of issues stemming from poverty – malnutrition and poor sanitation.  This fact illuminates a dynamic with poverty – in which poverty creates disability AND disability enables poverty. This cycle of the poverty is illustrated below.

Disability in America

According to the US Census Bureau report on disability in 2005, 1 in 5 people are disabled equaling 54.4 million people. Of those who are working age, 30.7% of disabled people are employed compared to 75.2% of nondisabled people of the same age.  The 2 million disabled people incarcerated in institutions nationally are not included in Census numbers.

The American Disability Poverty Trap

The question implicated from the above recitation of disability statistics is: what happens to all the working age disabled people who want to work but aren’t?  This question acknowledges that there are some/many people who don’t want to work and think we should get over the idea that personhood hinges on working.

Those of us who can’t or don’t work often have to rely on the vicious machine of social support which come in the form of Social Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). The viciousness of this system comes to fruition in its creation and maintenance of poverty for disabled people.

About 9 million disabled people receive SSI or SSDI in the US, with 75% kept at or below the poverty line.  The statement cannot be made universally that SSI and SSDI compels poverty because of the nature of the funding systems. SSDI is something one pays into and can procure after acquiring disability – so the amount one gets is contingent on how much one made during their nondisabled days (similar to unemployment).  SSI is funded through state and federal dollars so in some states one could get (in theory) a livable amount of money. For example, in California one can make about $800 dollars on SSI, whereas in Georgia one can make about $600. Neither of those sums of cash seem livable. I dare you to try to live on that income and survive; actually I don’t.

Another big problem in this system is all the disincentives that are associated with getting off these forms of income (and OUT of poverty). To procure SSI or SSDI one must demonstrate they cannot work and are really disabled. The latter is almost humorous because so many of my federally defined “severely disabled” friends and I have been denied SSI because we “aren’t disabled enough” despite wheels, spazliciousness, etc. Proving we cannot work creates a deleterious psychological barrier for disabled people. Through shoring up our case that we need social support, we have to argue the point so strongly  that we might internalize it as truth. This internalization reifies the culturally pervasive assumption that disabled people have no work-value. This assumption is aided by (and pushed on us through) the network of people who make a living by establishing and enforcing the boundaries to procure SSI and SSDI.  It is reasonable to assume that those pushing the “lack of work-value” ethos actually believe it.

Perhaps the psychological barriers argument seems a bit soft-science driven your sensibilities, so here are some hard facts. If a disabled person wanted to make more money (to survive) than SSI or SSDI provides, they might seek additional sources of income. But SSI and SSDI benefits are reduced by $1 dollar for every $2 dollars of additional earnings procured; that’s a tax rate of 50% (higher than that of the wealthiest people in the US). Who wants high-taxation that keep people in a system “draining” taxes? Along with the extreme tax-rate of earned income, disabled people may lose their housing subsidies and food-stamps when seeking to earn money other than social benefits.

Even more alarming is that one will lose healthcare (Medicaid and Medicare) if a disabled person procures “too much” additional funds. This is one of the most diabolical active agents of the disability poverty trap because so many of us are dependent on healthcare. This is especially true for people who need long-term support care (or attendant care to help with activities of daily living, like bathing and dressing). Thus disabled people have the choice – do we take the leap and hope that a job we procure can provide good healthcare (and has no “pre-existing conditions” clause) or do we stay in the system to survive? Also, what happens during the gap between losing a dream job and the struggle to get back in the system to survive?

As a sexologist I cannot neglect to mention the disincentive to marriage that is associated with the procurement of SSI and SSDI.  In sum, disabled people may lose their benefits if they marry because their partner’s income will be judged as their own assets. This can mean that marrying someone living at or just above the poverty line can trigger loss of benefits – and loss of survivability for disabled people and their partners. This puts some folks in a precarious situation because they want to marry – and not live “in sin” – but can’t (coalition-building example here with queers seeking marriage rights).

These facts address the fallacious and oppressive idea that disabled people (along with others trying to survive on social benefits) enjoy a great life “draining” the government.

Underpinnings of the American Disability Poverty Trap

Undergirding the disability poverty trap is our history of pathologization and devaluation (i.e. stigma) that is enacted in discrimination.  Stated another way, disabled people historically have experienced structural violence through forcing us to live in cultural or environmental locations that harm or claim our lives. This hinges on the archaic belief that there is a biological root to our “degeneracy.” This is part of the philosophy of the rampant eugenics movement which occurred in the US until the early 1970s. Eugenic programs targeted not just disabled people, but people of color and those improvised as well (a good coalition-building example). Some disabled people still face sterilization but are not often outright called “degenerates” anymore. Current examples of sterilization are framed as benevolent treatments that help protect us from sexual violence and render us more manageable for our-givers. The passing of time has really brought progressive values.

Many people profit off of our devalued social position, as there is an industry of “care” built around disability. The most lucrative example is institutionalization – with 2 million inmates in nursing homes that are often run for profit (2/3 are) and where one crip body can earn $30,000-$82,000 annually. Ending institutionalization is a heated issue, in which many people are against. As an example, in many localities institutions/nursing homes provide a large portion of the jobs in the area. Understandably many people want to have jobs so they can survive and legislators protect this voiced economic interest of their (valued?) constituencies. What’s lost in the fight for workers’ rights is the rights of disabled people.

Does the disability poverty trap appear to be a cultural caste system – in which disabled people are assessed value based on particular (sometimes immutable) trait?

Ending the Disability Poverty Trap

To address the problem of poverty globally, it is important to examine the cultural context of disability. This means it is unreasonable to assume that disablement operates the same in every location and work that seeks to ameliorate disabled people cannot only employ a western understanding of disability. It requires those who want to work on this issue to listen to the people in the locations we seek to help.

In the United States, many people are working to change the social status of and the social services for disabled people. Crip shoutout to ADAPT: the rabble-rousing group of uppity crips who comprise the radical direct-action contingent of the disability rights movement. ADAPT works to end the Medicaid-bias toward institutionalization and promote accessible affordable housing for all. Check out the narrative of their recent in action in DC by sexy friend Philosopher Crip. Resolving the two issues ADAPT focuses on will help promote the human rights, inclusion and visibility of disabled people – thus working to eliminate the traditional sociocultural understanding of disability that undergirds the disability poverty trap.

That seems to be one of our biggest problems – dominant culture does not value disabled people. The graph below helps illustrate that at the root of the disability poverty trap (and the circular nature of poverty creating disability, as well as disability causing poverty) are sociocultural values that harm disabled people.  Thus, if parties are really invested in ending the disability poverty trap, it is crucial to work to dismantle the negative assumptions associated with disability, as well the enactment of those assumptions. This is how work like that around sexuality and social inclusion are useful to address the political economy of disablement.

Please consider working with the disability rights movement, if you aren’t already. Support work done by groups like ADAPT. Critically engage your (and others) understanding of what constitutes valued personhood. Subvert the understanding of normal (at least in your own mind). As cheesy as it may sound, through changing minds, we can change the world.

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Getting Emotionally Naked: Notes on an Activist Voice

I just submitted a paper to Atlantis with my good friend and colleague from SF State’s Sexuality Studies graduate program Sonny on coalitional politics and embodied scholar-activist efforts to further a theory we call bodiosexual justice.

Bodiosexual justice is a neologism (= nerd sex) that is meant to convey how our trans and disabled bodies are similarly stigmatized, how this stigma impacts our sexual health, and how our oppressions stem from similar sources thus encouraging us to work together to further embodied justice. We discussed how queer bodies – those deemed “Others” through the social construction of the imagined normate, including aging, poor, fat, raced, trans bodies, and disabled bodies etc. – are often denigrated through interlocking systems of structural and conceptual oppressions.

We shared our very personal narratives and experiences working together.  We did not speak for other identity groups who have queer bodies because we recognize that is often a part of the oppression we seek to redress.  A substantive component of the piece dealt with the practicalities of coalition building – with a lot of the focus on the role of emotional work  and honest communication in effective coalition building.  It was one of the most beautiful writing experiences of my life, largely because I reclaimed a sense of rabid activism in my writing.

Somewhere along the way in procuring degrees and mentally jerking off with more and more nerds, I lost my edge and started to feel I had to rely on other people’s voices entirely too much.  While I used citations in this piece to respect the work I build on, Sonny and I both engaged with our embodied identity knowledge as sources of expertise.  It was liberating and emotionally gratifying. It made me cry and shake a bit from feeling like I was being more honest with myself and others than I have been in a long time. I credit love, dealing with my most recent injury, and blogging with the specific intent of trying to capture in writing the way I give speeches for this reclamation of my activist voice.

Below are enhanced/altered pieces (for copyright purposes) of my crip narrative that was part of the paper:

In my ten years of working in disability culture/studies, I have journeyed from a self-loathing disabled person who struggled to admit my disability to a self-described uppity crip. My sexy comrade Robert McRuer (2006) explains that the word ‘crip’ works to build coalitions across different disabilities (parallel to the word ‘queer’) and signals proclamation of disability pride by reforming and embracing a historically derogatory word (i.e. ‘cripple’). My use of the word ‘crip’ provides me a method to deny compulsory able-bodiedness through verbal assault.  McRuer makes clear that able-bodiedness is an institution in which American culture “assumes in advance that we all agree: able-bodied identities, able-bodied perspectives are preferable and what we all, collectively, are aiming for.”

Though some disabled people strive for able-bodiedness through the search for a cure, most notoriously (and disdained among many uppity crips) Christopher Reeve and his campaign to cure his spinal cord injury, many of us embrace our queer bodies and feel better in our skin by doing so. This is true for me; as I decided at the age of fifteen to begin to use a wheelchair despite my mothers decry that I “would never live a normal life” if I did not walk. I stopped walking because I went through a cycle of several fractures stemming from having brittle bones and a femur and double tibia rodding surgery that kept me bed-ridden for about six months. It exhausted my mental health and I decided walking was not worth the psychological cost.

The shift to using a wheelchair has made me more visibly queer. This visible push farther outside the bounds of normalcy has forced me to work to reconcile the “jagged edge between [acculturated] self-hatred and pride” (as the delicious poet/activist Eli Clare wrote) because my queer body provokes daily reminders of my non-normativity, often through being the object of staring and/or intrusive questions about my body. Often I find these socially acceptable microaggressions to be more taxing and disturbing than other aspects of ableism, such as lacking physical access, because they happen so frequently. Despite the exhausting nature of being a spectacle, I find using a wheelchair to be freeing; I can now glide through life as fast as I want without the pain and struggle related to walking. And in making the decision to wheel, I have allowed myself to live my “normal” life – i.e. the way my body feels most comfortable.

Interrogating disability through my work has been revolutionary for me because it has helped shift the focus away from my body as a problem to society as the problem. This idea captures the social model of disability by moving away from the medical model through separating the personal issue (impairment) from the social issue (environmental and attitudinal oppression).

This theory often fails crips because it prevents acknowledging emotional realities of frustration noted in impairment. It creates a political impetus to be silent about our nuanced realities; this denies us the ability to confess the embodied nature of disability. This recent realization that I do not always have to pander to the requirements of the social model has been liberating because it allows me to acknowledge that it is difficult when I am in physical pain and/or frustrated with my impairment. Likewise, the daunting process of breaking apart internalized disability narratives may not end until oppression ends; therefore it is reasonable to feel sad and angry when negotiating stigma.

Much of my anger stems from internalized ableism and shame around my body.  Sonny has helped me reframe my sense of shame by stating “shame=oppression and shame=injustice… [this] helps me to feel validated in my shame because [I realize] it comes from outside, even though it is a very internal emotion.”  Even Karl Marx is in concurrence here as he wrote “shame is the fuel of revolutionary consciousness.”  Processing and talking about internalized shame is a revolutionary process.

But to be clear there is a lot to be angry about aside from internalized shame.  And being angry or sad does NOT make me a bad scholar-activist!  Anger is often the fuel of revolutionary acts.

Pervasive social assumptions about disabled people  make us justly pissed.  Some of those commonly-held disability assumptions include the belief that disabled people are childlike, dependent, and asexual or hypersexual.  These ideas compose part of disability oppression.

The effects of these misconceptions entail the legitimation and social endorsement of human rights violations exacted upon us.  A few are highlighted here.  Globally, disabled people comprise the world’s largest (650 million or 10% of the population) and poorest minority group, amounting to about 20% of the world’s poorest people. Disabled people continue to be “humanely” sterilized and killed in various places around world, including most aggressively in the Netherlands. And while eugenics is often perceived as a Nazi project, US legislation for compulsory sterilization of ‘degenerates’ – including intellectually and/or physically disabled people; especially those of color – existed nearly a decade before the Nazis started 4 Tiergartenstraße and served as its model. Disabled people are subject to countless hate crimes, often unreported and at the hands of our care-givers; yet until 2009 were not a protected class of people in United States federal legislation.

Along with denying disabled people our basic human rights, these commonly held beliefs about disability are sociopolitically disempowering. Even those of us who are not incarcerated in institutions face extreme social isolation due to lacking physical access, accessible transportation and/or adequate monetary and social support.

All of these issues have a deleterious impact on our sexual health. The World Health Organization (2006) has called for a holistic understanding of sexuality in which sexual health is defined as: a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.

This definition makes clear that disparities in sexual health are often a result of the presence of oppressive social forces, such as discrimination and coercion.Therefore, disability oppression does not just wok to make disabled people poor, subject to abuse, sterilized or killed; it also harms our overall sense of health.

I encourage everyone to get emotionally naked and join Sonny and I in this incredibly enriching intellectual orgy of embodied praxis by engaging with your emotions around your corpo(realities).

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Paying for Pleasure: Interrogating Sex Work for Crips

I recently came across this video clip from the National Geographic television show Taboo.

In it a seemingly cool guy with one of my favorite disabilities (arthogryposis) talks about using government subsidized services of a sex worker to satiate his sexual desires.  The clip raises critical sexual justice issues – specifically that society tends to view disabled people as asexual or otherwise not sexually worthy and that parents often reify those sentiments by sheltering their disabled children.

Though I consider myself to be a pro-sex feminist, I find this sort of public policy and media representation problematic for disabled people for reasons I will explore in a moment.  My pro-sex values include the belief that sexual expression and sexuality education are human rights.  I also firmly believe in the value of pornography and sex work. In fact, before I moved to San Francisco to procure a masters degree in Sexuality Studies, I anticipated focusing my thesis on a theory I labeled “pro-sex disabled feminism.”  The theory adds disability to pro-sex feminist arguments – which assert that pornography can be socially ameliorative because we all can benefit from learning from and masturbating to pornography and that sex work should be embraced and legalized to protect the rights of sex workers, as well as clients.  Pro-sex disabled feminism then argues that disabled people can benefit from watching pornography and utilizing sex work services.  I believed that this theory could be a catalyst for a real revolution between the legs and ears of the masses.

I moved away from the topic because I found something more interesting to focus on and I started to problematize policy promulgating sex work for disabled people.  Learning about the government subsidized sex work program in the Netherlands and the fight for one in Denmark makes me increasingly irked by the concept of government funded sex work.

While many disabled people are economically ghettoized, the framing of policy like this reinforces the charitable model of disability by implicating that disabled people are sexually-deprived.  It supports the already pervasive claim that disabled people are not sexually worthy and thereby must seek out the services of a professional, because few, if any, would voluntarily have sex with us.

I internalized and believed this cripsex myth for a number of years and hated myself because of it.  As a sexually frustrated teen, I felt undesirable and believed I might die a virgin.  I assumed everyone in my peer group was having sex and that I was subhuman because I was not.  This primal cry for sexual satisfaction lingers in me and fuels my work in sexuality today.  Many disabled people are sexually excluded and this is something everyone needs to confront. As one of my cripsex colleagues Russell Shuttleworth explained that “When you are growing up in a cultural context that is highly sexualised and you don’t see any models for yourself in terms of being seen as sexy, it can build barriers inside yourself.”  If this was the topic of shows like Taboo – rather than policy solutions such as condescendingly throwing sex workers at us – the disability community would be better served.

While these state funded programs are problematic, they are worth the risk to embrace to assert the human rights of both disabled people and sex workers.  When polices are in place that prevent sexual expression of disabled people, we fall into the pervasive trap of the façade of benevolence in over-protection. This is like the truly oppressive and offensive proposed piece of legislation in Massachusetts which would make the possession of erotic imagery of elders and disabled people a crime – analogous to the possession of child pornography.  Underpinning this proposed law is that disabled people have no agency or ability to consent to being represented as erotic and somehow need government intervention to mediate our pathetic lives.

Anti-agency arguments are also used to “protect” sex workers; such as the one deployed by a woman interviewed in the Taboo clip.  She explains sex work is inherently abusive and non-egalitarian. The problem with her statement, those made by many anti-pornography scholars, and in laws like the one proposed in Massachusetts is the assumption that people cannot consent to sexual activity because of unequal social constructs.  In this line of thought, sex workers cannot consent in a patriarchal society in which women are not paid or treated equal to men and disabled people cannot consent to sexual behavior because we are vulnerable.  Plenty of sex workers are vocal and mobilized to express the contrary – i.e. they have the right to work in their chosen field.  Similarly, disabled people are increasingly telling their stories of the need for sexuality.

While I do not completely embrace subsidies for sex work for disabled people or the media representation thereof, I do think they assert the truth that all people need and deserve mutually satisfying sexual pleasure. If policy-makers are to engage in this topic in a just way – I encourage following the Australian model, in which brothels are made accessible and sex workers collaborate with disabled people to meet their needs360 Documentaries did a good piece on this subject.

Beyond simply the need for sexual pleasure, what is lost in these tired paternalistic debates about pornography and sex work – is disabled people finding agency to have intimacy in addition to sexual pleasure.  Sexual agency then does not just concern sexual activity; it includes the right to intimacy, relationships and love.  These are human rights.  And despite what countless sources argue, disabled people are human enough for human rights.

In sum, please a crip, don’t tease a crip!  Happy Valentine’s Day.

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