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Disabled and Sexual: How the Historical Desexualising of Disabled People Still Impacts Our Sexuality Today

Disabled and Sexual is a new monthly(-ish) column by Hannah Shewan Stevens which will explore all the challenges, comedy, and fun that disabled people experience as sexual beings, even while we are desexualised by a predominantly non-disabled society.

One of the most pervasive myths about disabled people is that we’re either incapable of or disinterested in sex. As a result, society desexualises us because people genuinely believe that no one could possibly find a disabled person sexy. Well, I’m here to tell you that they’re very wrong. 

The desexualisation of disabled people is a complex and nuanced issue but to put it simply: it is the belief that disabled folk lack sexual desire and cannot be desired by other people. 

This twisted view of the disabled community can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greek mythology in the form of goddess of love Aphrodite and her husband god of fire Hephaestus. He was cast off from Olympus as a baby for being crippled and then Aphrodite was so disgusted by his disability that she repeatedly cheated on him with the non-disabled war god Ares. 

With the ultimate symbol of sexuality and sensuality totally rejecting a disabled person, it isn’t hard to see why the desexualisation of disabled people has endured for so long. 

But why does this matter you ask? Because desexualising us eradicates part of who we are. No, not every single disabled person feels sexual attraction because asexual folk exist but there are plenty of us who are very interested in sex in all its forms. 

When society dictates that disabled people cannot be sensual or sexual because it’s “disgusting” it dehumanises us, but this particular treatment has the power to destroy our self-esteem as well. 

Desexualisation of disabled people was rampant in ancient times, evidenced by people like Cicero, who once said “in deformity and bodily disfigurement, there is good material in making jokes.” This highlights another contributor to society’s determination to oust us from sexual environments – humour. Our bodies and differences are considered fair game in comedy by non-disabled folk, even today, so desexualising us comes easy because our bodies are not considered sensual, they’re comical.

Desexualised representations of disabled folk are present in Shakespearean times – he observes that disabled people are impotent and sexless due to disability – and in the early 20th century novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. The book birthed the ‘Chatterley Syndrome’ trope, which is when a disabled man is deemed to have lost all sexual power due to their impairment and his partner seeks sexual solace elsewhere. 

Although misguided films like Crip Camp have tried to introduce the concept of disabled sexuality into the mainstream, the myth that disabled people are “undateable” (let’s not waste words on THAT show) persists. 

On dating apps, disabled people are ignored or fetishized. When we do get into successful relationships with a non-disabled person, their intent is questioned. Are they a gold digger? A fetishist? Stories objectifying our love lives are sold to newspapers and magazines for the non-disabled masses to judge and mock. 

When we date other disabled folk with similar disabilities, it can be even worse. Non-disabled people wonder how we can possibly manoeuvre ourselves to have sex and they devalue our romances because disability is presumed to make us less loveable. 

The legitimacy of our relationships is cast in doubt because non-disabled folk are unable to grasp the concept of a disabled person being sexual and attractive. This is on them though, not us. It is society’s job to get over their ableism and to realise that pre-judging all disabled people by saying they’d never date a disabled person is their ignorance speaking. The only silver lining of outright ableism is that it becomes much easier to avoid bringing a bigot into your bed!

Unfortunately the toughest battle is internal. A lack of representation in sex education, ableism from non-disabled people and ugly depictions of our lives in the media can leads to internalized ableism. 

This can manifest in many ways but doubting our own sexuality is a major one. I refused to even accept the label disabled for years and, when I finally did, I struggled to connect the two. 

Should I even date? Was I still sexy? Would people still want to sleep with me? Do I even want them to? Are they fetishizing me if they do? Questions and doubts plagued me for months before I finally rejected these socialised beliefs and dove headfirst into my own sexuality. 

Another contributing factor is the medicalisation of our bodies. When you are consistently treated as a medical object, it can be difficult to see our bodies as anything but a medical object to be poked and prodded with needles, but our sexuality should not be defined or restricted by hospital visits.

This mistreatment of our sexuality also has a darker side: hypersexualisation. A tactic used most consistently against learning disabled women. The belief that people with learning difficulties were hypersexual lead to them being consistently and horrifically sexually abused in mental health facilities. 

Despite the determined suppression and distortion of disabled sexuality, we do thrive in sexual relationships, love masturbation and are beautiful, sensual beings. We are not to blame for these misjudgements and we’re certainly not responsible for undoing them. 

Non-disabled society must take responsibility for perpetuating these beliefs. Non-disabled people must call each other out when spouting ableist nonsense or asserting that they would never date anyone disabled, because we are too damn tired to keep doing it. 

Spending a few minutes amongst the disabled community online will prove that our sexuality is undeniable, so why does desexualisation persist? The quickest answer is ableism but the long answer involves understanding the history of desexualising disabled people. If we do not recognise and understand the past’s influence on our perception of disabled folk, then we cannot hope to change the present. 

By opening up avenues for more conversations about disabled sex, we will make progress. Hopefully this column will play a role in that. Now we understand a little about the past of desexualising disabled people, we can turn our gaze to the present to understand how disabled sex lives are being affected today. 


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