The Politics of Presenting Cripsex

I recently violated my self-imposed rule of 3 months needed for any event-planning and I’m feeling it. I’m exhausted from putting together the Reel to Real Disability film fest with dynamic panel discussions following the screenings in a short period of time. At the moment, I feel tired of being extroverted and just want to curl up somewhere with Sara and Sullivan near me.

I know better than to rush into events that are multi-layered yet I made the film fest come to fruition quickly. I made the 3 month rule for myself years ago when I planned disability related events at the University of Florida. I put together the first Disability Student Assembly run by and for students; all other student welcome assemblies were hosted by students. I hosted that event for the next few years. After starting a branch of a national service fraternity, Delta Sigma Omicron, I hosted Gator-Wheel-a-thons – wheelchair races with nondisabled people in wheelchairs. Simulated activities are largely panned by disability studies scholars and activists yet I continue to like the idea of displaying fun in disability. Plus I found it fun watching leaders on campus fumble in a chair – sadist alert!

My crowning event at UF was a controversial disability and sex conference, mentioned in a previous post. I received angry emails from people around the nation, many of which were from little people angry at Bridget the Midget’s use of the m-word. I still sit by the idea that people should be permitted to self-identify they way they want to.

The day before the event the Dean of Students office (DSO) backed out on financial and social support of the event – i.e. I had to pay for Bridget’s accommodations and DSO did not want to be publicly affiliated with the event. I felt really disappointed that the people who supported me for a significant period of my time as a student suddenly were scared by sexualized content and distanced themselves from me and my work. But all was right in the world during the event. We had a great crowd, people told me how meaningful it was to them and the after-party was amazing. I had the opportunity to bask in the glory of a good event for a while; I felt like I was glowing from a new love for well over a week.

The week following the event, editorials were written against and in support of the event. I enjoyed the flurry of debate in the newspaper about cripsex. It felt really great to get this often silenced issue talked about. It helped me see how needed the discussion of disability and sexuality is – and how hungry yet afraid people are of it. I had the chance to talk to Karl to tell him about the conference and he was proud, especially because of the cripsex debate stirred up in the paper.

… and now here I am, 5 years later with an advanced degree and a fellowship in sexuality under my pervy belt. I now have a job where I can put my event planning skills to work but continue to face discomfort and hostility about sexuality conversations. No surprise here, as SF ethics have yet to penetrate the country.

What’s of note in my efforts to push the cripsex discourse envelope of late is how exhausted and sad it’s made me feel. Something changed in me; I used to have a sense of internal belief that when I pissed people off, I was on the right track. I didn’t feel so responsible for the happiness and comfort of others. This last event I hosted was powerful and reflects a needed conversation about race in the disability community – but throughout it I felt I was disappointing people. The technical difficulties with the closed captioning made me feel like a crappy ableist. Moderating a panel on race and disability as a white person made me feel like a racist. Babbling about sexual exclusion and sexual stigmatization after being put on the spot by one of the panelists made me feel like an angry outsider. It’s possible to see these issues as a microcosm of the disability community – and how our issues and our needs for access often do not fit together perfectly. As the disability community is rich in differences in abilities, races, ethnicities, religious orientations, political affiliations, genders, sexual orientations, etc. it makes sense that no one event would please or accommodate everyone. Maybe everyone can never be happy regardless of identity markers.

But back to the sex: most folks on the panel talked about sex in such a joyful way, specifically getting at the mechanics of sexual behavior being accessible to all bodies. And while I completely agree every person, regardless of ability level, can give and receive pleasure – I also think it’s really important to expose the social aspects of sexuality. We need to talk about the pain that stems from internalizing pervasive social assumptions that disabled people are undesirable and asexual. We need to talk about our exclusion from media representation, including pornography because it speaks to exclusion from mainstream conceptions of desirability.

I know I’m not the only disabled person who has felt sexually excluded. It was through my recognition of not feeling desirable as a teen that made me realize how devalued disability is culturally; arguably the first step in my disability activist-scholar life. I know these thoughts and feelings do not exist in isolation, thus intuitively, I know cripsex work is valuable and necessary. I also know I could negotiate these issues in a way that would help more people consume my information easier but perhaps at the cost of my cherished edge. At the moment, I’m not ready nor do I want to “attract flies with honey” because it doesn’t feel genuine to me. I want to push people. I know that with that desire, I need to accept that people will be angry that I’m pushing them. Despite this cognitive awareness that my work will make people uncomfortable and angry, I don’t know why I feel I have to make everyone happy.

I will continue to push cripsex as a meritorious sociopolitical issue and work to negotiate the discomfort of others. This is my life purpose and I won’t shy away from it because some people don’t want to hear what I have to say. People don’t need to suffer in silence over sexuality issues, like Karl did. The disability rights movement needs to embrace sexuality as a key issue. These words of Barbara Waxman (1991) are applicable to the cripsex reality today:

“our movement has never addressed sexuality as a key political issue,     though many of us find sexuality to be the area of our greatest oppression. That’s because we are afraid we are ultimately to blame for not getting laid.”

To be clear, we are NOT to blame for stigma dehumanizing us through stripping us of sexual agency and desirability. We do not have to continue to internalize shame over sexuality issues and we CAN work together to change our reality.

I encourage YOU to start a conversation about cripsex by confessing your sexual pleasure and pain to those around you. Together we can politicize our sexual lives and stop the harmful sexual silence that pervades our world.

If you want to explore the cripsex revolution, please join me and other disability activists, allies and partners at Michigan’s Leaven Center September 10-12, 2010 for “Politicizing Pleasure and Disability: Your Sex, Our Movement. The 10th Annual Retreat for Disability Activists & Allies.”