As a kid, I thought the idea of mutual attraction between two people was positively magical. And as I did with all magical ideas back then, I laid on my bed, praying to a child’s god about it: “It’s so wonderful that You let two people love each other. Please let someone love me. Anyone.” I scrunched my eyes tightly and pictured the ugliest man I could muster. He was a Crusty-the-Clown figure, with tufts of orange curly hair around his otherwise bald head, bags under his eyes and a belly pouch. “Even him.” I thought, letting God know that my desire to love and be loved knew no bounds.
Many girls grow up praying to the trusty ceiling about their most recent desire to marry the boy in science class or that dude from Full House. And with their hands clutched and faces scrunched, they wish for those silly things, with full intention of fairy dusty failing on the one they desire, followed by a big old happily ever after. Not me though. I sat around wishing with all the fibres in my disabled-kid being, for Crusty The Real Life Clown.
So. How come I was praying for a white-faced, big-footed sadsack while every other kid was bent on John Stamos? I chalk it up to a negative internalization of disability, on top of all the other body-image related things us feminines have to feel bad about. By negative internalization, I mean the discouraging thoughts that tell us there is a problem with our disabilities, our bodies, or both. Being a person with a disability is almost always, at some point or another, accompanied by negative internalization. As we’ll see in some recent research, this internalization can manifest in many ways, but there are a few which stick out.
The Question of Convenience
I just read a study comparing women with disabilities to able-bodied women, specifically in the areas of relationships, marriage, self esteem, body image and abuse. Weird compilation of topics, I know, but read the study, it’ll make more sense, I promise. One of the things this study found was that women with disabilities--though in this sample they experience sexual abuse at the same rate as able-bodied women--they are more likely to be sexually violated by attendants, strangers and health care professionals than able-bodied women. While there is a bit of a duh factor here, I’d like to focus in on the strangers finding. Researchers tell us that women with disabilities are more likely to be raped by strangers “because of the stereotype that they are more dependent, passive, and are easy prey.”
Even without proof in numbers, this rang sadly true with me. To an extent, the thought of men approaching me for what they think will be “easy access” into my special place is a permanent fixture in my mind. More often than, if I’m approached by a guy at a bar, they will oogle a little bit before caving and asking variations of what he really wants to know: Can you have sex? I don’t mind informing them that I can, education is a part of my life, and I see it as an educational opportunity if nothing else. Depending on the guy, they will either take my openess as a cue that they can be open in return (sometimes too open), or stare blankly, wondering what to do with this information.
During these interactions, I tend to feel responsible for dealing with people’s processing of my disability. I make jokes. I look them and the eye and try to laugh their ignorance off. But the whole time they are dancing delicately around the subject of my vagina, I too am processing. I am wondering why they decided to buy me a drink instead of one of the 50 other girls with their clutch purses and their known working vaginas. Do they think that if I tell them my sweet spot functions, it’s an offer to take me home, simply because they’ve figured me to be easy prey? Were they banking on that “yes” to seal the deal with someone tonight? It’s almost always impossible to know.
Do You Like, Even Like Sex?
Perhaps more annoying than the concern that men might only be chasing my tail because of their “easy prey” belief, is the one that says I’m altogether uninterested in sex. Really, guys? I have nothing against asexual people at all, but I thought this poorly-based assumption taken to the electric chair long ago. Apparently not.
According to the national survey of women with disabilities, (whose researchers, by the way, seem a little too surprised by the fact that many women with disabilities have “overcome this stereotype assault.” Hmph.), women with physical disabilities sometimes, “adopted the societal view that they are no longer eligible for dating, that they have become asexual and should no longer expect anyone to be attracted to them.”
Oh dear. When described in this way, asexuality sounds like the depressing end to the tragedy that is being disabled. It describes women giving up on themselves, on sexual pleasure, and on seeing themselves as sexual beings.
In case you haven’t noticed, I have a bone to pick with this part of the research. Not only have I never considered myself “asexual due to despair,” but my brief stint with what these researchers would categorize as a trigger for asexuality completely backfired. The incident went something like this:
I was about 14 or 15. My dad was helping me get dressed and ready for school, a part of my daily routine, while I was still half-asleep (also part of my daily routine) I remember looking at my stomach, which was protruding because I was sitting, and saying, “Ugh. How will a guy ever like me?” I was mostly mumbling to myself and expected the usual, “Don’t be silly,” response from my dad, if any response at all, when he said:
“Things are going to be different for you.”
I woke up in that moment.
“What do you mean?” I asked, unsure I wanted his answer.
“Some boys might not see you like that because you’re disabled. It might make things more difficult for you,” he answered, in his usual frank way.
That tid-bit of truth given to me as a teen is the closest I’ve come to asexuality. It was discouraging, but I knew enough to realize it was real. And rather than becoming asexual, it made me more boy-crazy than ever (that’s a story for a whole other entry).
Unfortunately, the concept of asexuality is not discreetly defined within the study, but in its context throughout the study, it seems to refer to a lack-luster toward sex. I can’t help but wonder how asexual people would feel about this interpretation. From what I understand, asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a switch to flick on and off according to individual circumstance. It is not a symptom of a greater problem, or even a conscious choice, but a way of being. A lifestyle.
Whether or not it is asexuality that the research is actually reporting, its findings admit that loss of sexual interest is both a choice and a societal stereotype that is internalized by disabled women. This is the thinking that, “No one will find me attractive, therefore I am not attractive, and never will be.” It is upsetting to me that a different societal approach is not taken, something more along the lines of, “Sexual until proven uninterested.” because clearly this stereotype not only perpetuates ignorance among able-bodies, but is harmful to disabled women'self-image as well.
Having to wonder about the motives of men buying them drinks or personal body image issues is something every woman will find themselves worrying about at some point. But with the added layers of what I call the convenience motive, as well as the badgering of undesirability stereotypes, the sexual satisfaction of disabled women becomes extra complicated. And only by breaking these assumptions, can we work towards sexual satisfaction for everybody.