Review: Sex and Disability

Sex and Disability (ed. Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow), Duke University Press, 2012.

Sex and Disability is a fascinating collection of essays bringing together two taboo topics, discussed from a multitude of perspectives. As the editors point out in their introduction, sex and disability are ‘…two terms that are, if not antithetical in the popular imagination, then certainly incongruous.’ Integrating crip theory, queer studies, and related fields, the essays in the text explore a variety of subjects, from cultural attitudes about disabled sexuality to the need for intersectionality in historiography.

Daringly, Sex and Disability heavily blurs lines when it comes to the personal and the political. Some of the essays are intimate personal stories that would feel out of place in an academic text, but mesh seamlessly here. Others go even further, interweaving explicit personal narratives with rigorous academic examination. Chris Bell’s ‘I’m Not the Man I Used to Be,’ for example, examines narratives surrounding sexually active people with HIV/AIDS, and discusses his own experiences as an HIV-positive Black man.

The text also presents some essays that may be uncomfortable for readers unaccustomed to thinking about sexuality and disability; while it may be too advanced to use as a primer on the subject, it’s an excellent collection for people starting to explore these topics more deeply. Individual authors discuss the social and medical contexts of disability, examine who defines disability, and challenge readers to think about how they conceptualise disability. They also highlight some of the tensions between disability studies, activism, and other frameworks, as Leonard J. Davis illustrates in ‘An Excess of Sex’:

In the absence of a medical diagnosis, should sexual addiction be permitted to enter the safe confines of the disability category? If we say ‘no,’ are we ratifying the medical profession’s authority to define disability?…Members of the psychiatric survivor movement assert that they, not psychiatrists, are the best authorities on their bodies and minds. If disability studies refuses to accept a disease entity because it is named and defined by the people who ‘have’ it, would the field be dismissing the very tenets of the psychiatric survivor movement?

Of particular interest was Michelle Jarman’s ‘Dismembering the Lynch Mob,’ which examined intersections between between disability, race, and attitudes about sexual menace. Along with other authors, Jarman pointed out that popular attitudes about disability and sexuality among people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities create an artificial divide; either disabled people are desexualised innocent angels, or depraved beasts. This takes on a particularly loaded context in the case of disabled people of colour and nonwhite people accused of sex crimes.

As she discusses, many lynchings have involved a disability aspect as well as a racial one, yet this is often not a subject of examination. She opens the chapter with the horrific beating of Billy Ray Johnson in Linden, Texas in 2003. Much reporting on the case has focused on his race, framing the assault solely as a racist hate crime, but Johnson was also cognitively impaired, and this clearly played a role in the attack and why he was viewed as a target.

She argues that historic lynching discourse and pushes to sterilise people with cognitive disabilities, particularly men, must be viewed together, not as separate issues, because they are critically intertwined. Evaluating this intersection is important not just from a historiography perspective, Jarman says, but also from a modern one; it will give us a deeper understanding of current violence, and how to address it effectively.

Alison Kafer’s ‘Desire and Disgust’ was also an intriguing read, exploring the culture of devoteeism. While devotees are a subject of academic study, much of that study has been framed from imperfect perspectives, some of which Kafer deconstructs in her piece. As she points out, devotees are often viewed as disgusting or reprehensible because they are attracted to disability, and she argues that this is connected with a belief that the bodies of disabled people are revolting, and the idea of being sexually appealing while disabled is alien. This serves to further alienate and desexualise people with disabilities, by suggesting that attraction to a disabled partner is a pathology in need of treatment.

However, Kafer points out that this doesn’t mean devotee culture is free of problems. She discusses the objectification evident in the way many devotees talk about disability, as the sole locus of attraction. Focusing on heterosexual devotees, she illustrates that much of the discourse focuses only on amputations, not other attributes, physical or emotional. Her piece also incorporates a discussion about stalking and tracking behaviours, clear violations of privacy that devotees may consider ‘innocent,’ while amputees and other people with disabilities may find their freedom of movement and safety restricted as a result of fear of exploitation.

She delves into the false divide created by devotees, some of whom argue that they are the only people attracted to disability and capable of supporting disabled partners. Under this dichotomy, anyone dating an amputee must, perforce, be a devotee, and people with disabilities shouldn’t be involved with non-devotees who might be repulsed by their bodies. This leaves limited room for nuance, let alone more complex discussions about disability and sexuality.

In addition to a number of strong, fascinating, engaging essays, the anthology also includes some pieces that are more troubling, along with some overarching themes of concern. A persistent issue throughout the text was the use of ‘asexual’ to mean ‘desexualised,’ which contributes to further confusion about asexuality as an independent sexual orientation, and devalues the vibrant, complex, and diverse asexual community.

Some authors appeared to be floundering for a word to discuss the fact that disabled bodies are socially desexualised, and unfortunately landed on ‘asexuality’ as a descriptor; asexuality refers to the individual absence of sexual attraction, not to the social forcible desexualisation of people deemed sexually unappealing. The persistent confusion between desexualisation and asexuality in the text was a grave disservice to disabled asexuals, many of whom have been fighting for recognition in discussions about disability and sexuality. The editors missed an excellent opportunity to solicit an essay on disability and asexuality exploring these themes.

The essay ‘Normate Sex and Its Discontents’ was also flawed, and the logic floundered under even superficial examination. Abby L. Wilkerson attempted to argue that nonnormative sexualities fit into a disability framework, a claim reminiscent of the ‘everyone’s a little bit disabled’ argument occasionally trotted out, which ultimately dilutes disabled identities as well as appropriating hard-fought social victories. Shoehorning groups into the disability community on the grounds that disability is solely about nonnormative bodies illustrates a misunderstanding of disability, social attitudes, and self-identification.

While the issues Wilkerson covers are critical, attempting to insert them into a disability framework would be a mistake—not least because the communities she is discussing may resist external identification as ‘disabled.’ She makes the error of believing that the queer, trans, and intersex community must be folded into the disability movement to build solidarity and create a coalition, rather than acknowledging that intersectionalities do not mean the groups are identical. Furthermore, there was little discussion in her piece of people who belong to both groups, and may view their individual identities differently.

Overall, the collection is stimulating, thought-provoking, and fascinating. Many of the entries left me with food for thought, including some intriguing reframing of social issues that will inform my own work in the future. Even the flawed essays left me with material to engage with; refuting poor arguments is sometimes an excellent way of developing strong points for future use.