New Disability Horizons contributor, Kirsty Liddiard, an academic currently based at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada, who researches disability and sexuality at the university’s School of Disability Studies shares with us an insightful article about the findings of her recently completed PhD research project on disabled peoples’ experiences of sex and intimacy.
Through disability rights movements from the 1960s onwards, we, disabled people, have fought for our rightful place within civil and public life. Characteristically, we’ve done so with an appreciation of diversity and a vivid celebration of pride. However, historically, the considerable inequalities many of us face within the private and intimate spaces of our lives have been overlooked: our sexual politics. Excitingly, this is now beginning to change, and we have begun some challenging and stimulating conversations on disability and sex. Such conversations are important because they counteract the oppressive silence that still exists around our sexualities.
To add a bit of context, I am a sociologist (and a proud disabled woman), and have recently completed my PhD research at the University of Warwick which explored disabled peoples’ experiences of sexual and intimate life. I chose disability and sexuality as the focus for my PhD studies because I wanted to contribute to the emerging conversations I mention above. My research involved facilitating disabled people to tell their own sexual stories on their own terms; I felt it was crucial that the experiences, voices, and stories of disabled people be at the very heart of my research. Therefore, in this article I’d like to share not just my research findings, but some of the voices of disabled men and women who told their sexual stories.
Graham: “It was the first time I realised a woman’s body was warm, with no clothes on, naked, she was warm and that was a shock to me.”
At the beginning of the research process my worry was that disabled people wouldn’t want to take part because of the sensitive nature of the research topic, or that, for a variety of reasons, they might not want to say much. We’re all aware that many disabled people have a sexual history marked by oppression, prejudice, and discrimination, and that disability and sex can be difficult to talk about.
However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I instead gained a collection of sexual stories that encompassed a wide array of varied experiences: vibrant, sexy, sad, fun, cheeky, violent, fearful, innovative, ingenious, laborious, strategic and oppressive, to name just a few. This affirmed to me that disabled people are the ones who should be telling their sexual stories, and that these stories should be central to (re)claiming a positive sexual culture in the face of current ableist cultures which stereotype our sexual identities; for example, as asexual, sexually inadequate, sexually deviant, or inappropriate and perverse.
Rhona: “Sex was brilliant, and we both enjoyed each other immensely: Intimacy, proximity, sensations, comedy, lack of control, feeling desired, being treated roughly and not as though I might break.”
Importantly, the key findings to come out of the research show that we’ve got a lot to talk about. For the most part, participants’ stories showed that having to strive for what we, society, consider as ‘normal’ sex – a penetrative, spontaneous, genitally-focused sexuality which requires male dominance and female passivity – was, for most, more oppressive than the ableist sexual stereotypes ascribed to our lives and bodies. This suggests, then, that our stories have the power not only to challenge the lazy sexual stereotypes which are routinely applied to us, but that our stories can actually challenge – or trouble – the very prescriptive ideals of sexual pleasure and practice.
Grace: “His physical limitations meant that he used fingers and tongue to very best effect. Also, he took time, lots and lots of time. One hour was minimum, more often two or more. Foreplay was everything and he always, always made sure I came first – more than once.”
Moreover, the differences between the stories of men and women were very revealing of the ways in which gender can mediate experiences of sexuality and intimacy when you are disabled. This may sound glaringly obvious, but the current conversations surrounding disability and sexuality, I would argue, are alarmingly gender-neutral and can serve to reaffirm the ways in which we, as disabled people, can have our gender identities denied in society because we’re not considered ‘womanly’ or ‘manly’ enough.
Pete: “Well, I have been asked if my wife was my sister. I’ve been asked if my kids are really mine. I have been asked if my wife & I needed IVF to get our kids. And I have been asked if I needed Viagra. All these things are very much a punch in the gut to masculinity.”
Interestingly, many peoples’ stories revealed the sheer work of claiming a sexual self when you have a disability. For example, disabled participants regularly took on the roles of teacher, negotiator, manager, mediator, performer, educator and resistor through a variety of strategies within their sexual and intimate lives. Identifying and naming this work is important because it contradicts widespread notions that we are sexually passive, or that we lack sexual agency.
Sally: “Up until recently I never doubted I’d someday have sex, but now, I’m really not so sure. It depresses me that I might never have that experience. I am 21 after all!”
Lastly, peoples’ stories showed just how much sexual oppression, disablism and prejudice remain part of the intimate spaces of our lives. Being denied autonomy, agency and sexual freedom through particular social institutions such as inadequate sex education, inhibiting care systems and unhelpful healthcare practitioners and services was common. Additionally, many people told how they’d been bullied, abused, manipulated, exploited, chastised, ridiculed, humiliated and shamed by a variety of people within their intimate and sexual lives.
Pete: “I’d ask for doors to be locked while I was showering. It never was locked… the door was always wide open.”
Therefore, despite the fact that my research findings – and the stories of disabled participants upon which these are based – contribute to emerging dialogues and conversations on disability and sex, there remains considerable research, activism, and storytelling yet to be done in order to begin to move towards positive sexual cultures for disabled people. More than anything, I hope my research has shown that disabled peoples’ sexual politics, and the possibilities and potentialities of our sexualities, can only be discovered and realised through truly listening to disabled peoples’ sexual stories.
If you’d like to read more about my research and its findings please read my Research Summary.
By Kirsty Liddiard
For any further information about any of the contents of this article, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Kirsty via email.
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