Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, the day when glowing women skip through the streets, arms overflowing with bouquets, and every restaurant is crammed full of smug couples. Ruth Patrick feels that now seems as good a time as any to look at issues of sex and disability.
Sex and the “right” to a sex life are not easy things to campaign over, and it is perhaps not surprising that the disabled people’s movement has often steered clear of high-profile campaigns on the sexual rights of disabled people. Although no one can demand a right to sex, we should aspire to an environment which enables the sexual expression of all, regardless of disability, age, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Indeed, some do talk in terms of sexual rights, not to sex, but to the opportunity to pursue a satisfying, safe and pleasurable sexual life.
Until 2004, an organisation devoted to matters of sex and disability did exist – SPOD (The Association to Aid the Sexual and Personal Relationships of People with a Disability). However, SPOD closed due to difficulties in attracting funding, as well as problems getting disabled people on board. Its former director (and Disability Now contributor) Simon Parritt, believes that “sexual rights are perhaps one of the last areas where disabled people’s organisations have struggled to find an effective campaigning voice”.
Today, two linked organisations, Outsiders and the Sexual Health and Disability Alliance (SHADA), both seek to promote discussion around sexuality and disability. Most recently, Outsiders created a Sexual Respect Tool Kit to help GPs and other health professionals initiate discussions on sex, relationships and loneliness with disabled people. They have also challenged councils to give more consideration to the sexual needs of disabled people. As Dr Tuppy Owens, founder of Outsiders, argues: “It is damaging to disabled people if our sex and relationship needs are not included in consideration of our general needs.”
There is certainly scope for campaigning around sex and disability, particularly if we consider the mileage in a social model take on these issues. Just think of the disabling barriers which society erects to the full and equal sexual participation of disabled people. If a wheelchair-user wants to go out nightclubbing to pick up some talent, they will often have to overcome sizeable physical and attitudinal obstacles along the way. Being sexual and glamorous costs money, money which disability benefit claimants may often not have, particularly as this Government continues its great-welfare-robbery!”
There are also ingrained myths around disabled people’s asexuality which, as Tom Shakespeare argues, is symbolically represented by providing three types of public toilets – male, female and disabled. When disabled people’s sexuality is acknowledged, it is often constructed as threatening, particularly for people with learning disabilities and mental health issues.
So, plenty of work to be done on myth busting and calls for a social model approach to disabled people’s inclusion in the sexual life of the nation. And yet…
It is much easier to campaign on ramps and transport than on personal matters of sexuality. This, in part, may explain many disabled people’s reticence to get political about sex. Standing up and loudly proclaiming one’s sexuality and demanding greater recognition in this domain certainly takes guts!
However, the fact that it’s difficult shouldn’t stop us trying. Looking to the future, Simon Parritt argues: “A campaigning organisation on sex and disability is vital if some light and hope is to be introduced into a world which society at large would like to ignore and which disabled activists, with a few notable exceptions, have avoided.”