This blog post comes courtesy of a Twitter rant I thought was getting too long.
My disability has caused many fractures in my relationship with feminism in the past which you can read about in other posts I’ve written on this blog, but one of the areas I feel particularly nervous about talking about is the way that the sexualisation of women impacts upon me as a disabled woman. A friend of mine from Twitter once said in conversation that though she is an intersectional feminist identifying as sex positive, she nonetheless finds the whole conversation regarding female sexuality alienating. This jolted me as it finally put into words my own feelings about things. I want to be sex positive, but I also want to challenge the sexualisation of women, because many of us due to physical or mental health problems, asexuality or any other number of reasons just aren’t sexual and we aren’t visible. It’s an area which seems to be represented by those who oppose the sexualisation of women, but at the same time doesn’t at all. It’s something which is rarely spoken about specifically and even as someone who experiences it I find it difficult to put into words. But it’s a conversation which is worth having.
Being a woman with a disability has placed me in some odd situations and odd conversations during my life. Once such recurring conversation, which seems only to happen with people I don’t know is, “So, can you have sex then?” Whilst I’d rather people ask questions than live in ignorance there are some things which politeness should dictate you don’t ask people, and what they can or can’t do with their genitals should certainly be one of them. My automatic response has always been “Ummm, yeah”, rather than telling them to fuck off. Normally I’m the queen of the “fuck off” but when it comes to that particular question it throws me so far into vulnerable territory that I go along with whatever noise comes out of my mouth. On one occasion a dude asked me if I was capable of having sex, and when I ummm, yeah’d he offered a sigh of relief and asked me out. I politely declined. As it happens I have been unable to make the beast with two backs for quite some time, but I don’t really fancy sitting there with some random, scary person explaining everything that’s wrong with my lady system, nerves and muscles so “ummm, yeah” it remains. When you’re pregnant every other person you pass or say hello to seems to think your womb is public property and they will tell you what to do with it and greedily grab at your bump- being a wheelchair user seems to have the same magical effect at breaking down social mores.
I sometimes wonder if more sexualised imagery of people with disabilities, as part of mainstream culture, would actually be as helpful as opposing the objectifying of women. When I was nineteen and still leaving my house I would be chatted up continuously throughout the night- now, I’m no Angelina Jolie and I would be out with female friends who were far more attractive than myself, but guys would swarm around me like buzzards waiting for carrion. I put this down to three things a) I couldn’t walk off/ run away so at least they wouldn’t have to suffer that embarrassment b) my friends would be dancing so like with lions stalking their prey I was an isolated gazelle (easier to catch) and c) they were working on the general presumption that I, as a disabled woman, wouldn’t be desired by others so I’d probably be flattered by their attentions. I often found the situation would make me vulnerable and patronised. I wanted to be seen in the same way as my able bodied friends. They thought it was flattering, but it isn’t flattering to be treated as different. It’s sort of a desexualisation/sexualisation paradox. Schrodinger’s fanny, if you will. If we brought the sexuality of people with disabilities into the limelight, perhaps there would be more of a chance that women with disabilities would be treated more equally with their peers?
These days, after 8 pregnancies, 3 of which were successful and a body which is more broken than it once was, I seem to be asked less questions about the function of my vagina, beyond the occasional “I don’t suppose you’ve managed to have kids?” (Cue presumptuous sympathetic pout), but I tend to ask myself more questions. As mentioned before, I now suffer from female impotence due to a melange of factors, the impact upon the way I view myself has been great. Perhaps society has done such a wonderful job at selling women only as sex objects it’s tainted my own view of what I SHOULD be?
We are constantly offered a one size fits all view of femininity and female sexuality, when what we need is a plurality of women being represented. I honestly believe the answer lies in bringing people with disabilities into the world of mainstream media- I’d love to see a visibly disabled woman in a mainstream underwear catalogue, and discussions about female impotence or about the many women with disabilities who have raging libidos. We’re all different, but very few of us are represented. Feminism is a great place for that to start.