So here’s something that I promised to post two weeks ago. I went on vacation and thought I’d have time to write this. I didn’t. So here it is now. Sorry about that. Also, I’m gonna be talking about sex, something I almost never do. I’ve never had a proper sex ed class and everything I’ll talk about comes from personal experience and research so you may notice some of my own personal hang-ups about it. There’s nothing I can do about that. Sex is highly personal. Everyone knows that. Except for douche bags who feel like they have something to prove.
The intersection between disability and sexuality can be a touchy subject. Because of the long history of segregation, mistreatment, sterilization, and infantilization of disabled people, they have emerged from that history desexualized. The stigma surrounding their sex lives is pervasive. They’re assumed to have either no sex life or a deviant or unhealthy one (eg. not having ‘real sex,’ being ‘oversexed,’ being too spontaneous, too rigid, too freaky, too vanilla, etc), although the lack of sex life is the more common assumption. Either way, a healthy, satisfying sex life is out of the question and the underlying assumption in nearly all cases is that they should be denied sex.
Because of this, disabled people are marginalized in the world of sex. The intellectually and developmentally disabled are thought of as perpetual children who want to remain virgins and the physically disabled are supposedly unable to have sex. Unfortunately, these views make things worse. Not only does denying their sexuality run the risk of repressing their desires and give them no outlet for expression, thus stunting their development, but also it makes them vulnerable to sexual abuse; they won’t know how to navigate (potentially) sexual encounters because no one thought to tell them how.
Consent vs. Sexual Abuse
We take it for granted that sexual abuse is a real issue and I won’t harp on it here. The numbers for the intellectually and developmentally disabled are staggering at 30% for men and 80% for women because they could be easily taken advantage of. They are the most sexually vulnerable group of people.
However, our feelings about disability and sex together are so conflicted and out of whack that even consensual sex is sometimes thought of as rape or abuse if it involves a disabled person. I’m not denying the reality of sexual abuse towards the disabled but because we assume that they aren’t sexual, we blur the line between consent and abuse. We don’t know if they consented because we never ask them and we never ask because we assume a lack of sexuality from the start.
I’m going to use the Anna Stubblefield case to make my point. To make a long story short, Stubblefield, 45, a philosophy professor specializing in ethics and social justice at Rutgers, is facing a potential 40-year sentence for two counts of (alleged) aggravated sexual assault towards DJ, 35, a black man with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair and is unable to speak. Stubblefield took him on as a student in 2009 and helped him learn to communicate using facilitated communication (a controversial method but that’s a different story altogether). According to Stubblefield, the two started developing romantic feelings for each other and had consensual sex twice (hence, the two counts) in 2011. The court found Stubblefield guilty on the grounds that DJ supposedly had the mental capacity of a toddler and was therefore unable to consent to sex.
It’s important to note that DJ was not allowed to testify – his only method of communication was considered unreliable in the court – and he was only used as evidence by his mother, who got the case started because she assumed that her son couldn’t have consented to sex due to his cognitive impairments. Since DJ was never given the chance to tell his side of the story, I can only conclude that we don’t know for sure if this is a case of sexual abuse or a real encounter to which DJ consented.
Again, I’m not denying the numbers – sexual abuse is a serious matter that shouldn’t be treated lightly – but after hearing and thinking about the Stubblefield case, I’m starting to wonder how many other cases were there where a court case is built on ableist assumptions and delivers a verdict in which disabled people are not treated like autonomous beings.
Sexuality As A Key To Good Development
I’m not just talking about the right to have sex without people thinking you have no say in it or thinking that you should be ashamed. According to Leslie Walker-Hirsh, an expert on the intersection of disability and sexuality, “sexuality is a huge part of a person’s development. It impacts how you perceive the world and how you interact within it.” So what happens when an individual or a society attempts to repress that side of themselves? Your personal development becomes stunted and you won’t know how to express yourself sexually when the time comes. It’s no coincidence that the more sexually open (NOT promiscuous) nations of the world tend to be happier and have lower rates of sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, and mistreatment of women. Obviously, the picture is more nuanced than that but that’s the general pattern and the same principle applies here.
Let’s face it. Everyone thinks about sex, disabled or not. Some think about it more than others but we think about it. It’s our way of producing children and keeping humankind alive so it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective to have sexual urges. We develop curiosity about sex early, which can be seen in children playing with their own genitals (not necessarily masturbating). If the myth that disabled people are non-sexual persists and if we don’t give them the room they need to explore their sexuality, it could negatively affect their social development, they will continue wondering what sex is all about, even if they don’t explicitly show interest, and it may show in unhealthy ways, which may lead to the stereotype of being sexually deviant.
Sexuality is not about being ‘hot’ or having lots of sex – assuming that simply being promiscuous makes one sexually mature is like assuming that eating a lot gives one’s body proper nutrition. It’s about taking full ownership of who you are as a person and how you handle your relationships with other people. It’s about knowing the meaning of consent, understanding the concept of personal boundaries, knowing what gets you off, taking control of your body, and not simply giving it to someone just because they ask for it. One should be encouraged to have sex and make mistakes along the way because this is the only way one can learn about and uncover their sexuality. It’s important to note that a well-developed sexuality and sexual identity can mean the difference between a boy/girl and a man/woman.
What This Means For Autistic People
If one’s sexual development is stunted or discouraged, one’s social development may be stunted too, which makes it a double whammy for autistic people who have enough trouble navigating social norms as it is. Sex is a whole other bag of mice. It can be hard enough to navigate regular social encounters but when it comes to navigating sexual encounters – with poorly tailored sex ed under our belts, if any – it’s nearly impossible. We’re left on our own and it can be terrifying enough to scare us away from sex altogether.
During the one time I had a one-night stand when I actually started exploring my sexuality, I had no idea what to do and it ended up being quite literally a fucking disaster. When you receive the message that autistic people shouldn’t have sex, you feel a sense of shame for having sex at all so I never talked about this encounter with anyone. This conflicted with the thought that I was 19½ years old, still a virgin, and needed to lose my virginity already. Now that I’m more sexually confident and have started coming to terms with the true nature of my sexuality, I sometimes wonder if I’m the kind of person who would actually enjoy one-night stands but I’ll never know for sure. I don’t know if it’s something I’ve repressed or if I’m just not that kind of guy but it’s something I’ll just have to deal with not knowing. I occasionally wonder how my sexuality would have blossomed if I felt freer to explore it without the shame or stigma that came with being autistic.
On top of being very socially awkward and poorly educated on sexual matters while still wanting it is the message that we should not be having it in the first place. There are parents like DJ’s mother who think of their disabled sons and daughters as too innocent and childish to have sexual thoughts, let alone be sexually active. Why? Because of the way they look and move?
To most of us, sexual frustration is a normal part of life. Not because we want it too much but because we are curious and yet are denied sexuality.
So What Now?
The first place to start is to assume that we are sexual beings as much as yourself. There’s no reason to assume we aren’t. Even if we don’t communicate interest in sex, we are interested in sex. We won’t tell you we are because we’re afraid of the judgment. Believe me, it’s there. We are not children.
Do not assume that we are all straight. There’s no ‘autistic sexuality’ any more than there is a ‘neurotypical sexuality.’ From asexual to polysexual, from straight to gay, from cisgender to transgender, our sexualities lie on a spectrum like everyone else.
We need sex ed classes specifically tailored for us. Create sex ed classes that address real issues that we may face, such as sexual abuse, how to navigate sexual encounters more gracefully, how to respect people’s boundaries, and…how to deal with sensory overload during intercourse.
It’s important to note that disabled people are not the only ones who suffer from a repressed sexuality. We cannot move forward in this until Americans stop being so prudish about sex in general. The attitude Americans have toward sex is damaging not only toward disabled people but also toward anyone sexual (meaning everyone). Our inability to talk about sex maturely is the root of all kinds of sex-related problems in America such as rape, teen pregnancy, spread of STDs, etc. Nations that are sexually open such as the Netherlands are not plagued by problems like this (I should also mention that the Dutch government subsidizes sex for the disabled, mainly for therapeutic purposes).
So…don’t be so damn weird about sex and stop taking it so seriously.