Did Our Love Go?
The Sexual Politics of the “Differently-Abled”
By Jen Longshaw
A few years ago there was a television documentary series devoted to the story of "Shelley" a young blind woman in a wheelchair who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. A frail creature nevertheless she was full of spirit and persevered with life despite her enormous disabilities. She obtained a degree, travelled overseas, became fluent in Italian and moved into a flat and learned, with the help of many helpers, to live a fairly independent life. Shelley also "called a spade a spade" and had no difficulty in putting across her views eloquently and with great intelligence.
Before long she met a man with whom she formed a deep and caring bond. They moved in together and eventually Shelley became pregnant. The television cameras were there throughout a pregnancy fraught with difficulties due to her physical state, which was so precarious that it wasn't known as to whether she would be able to even live through the birth. As her small fragile body grew in size she poke about how much she was looking forward to having her baby and starting a new life with her fiancée. She saw her blindness and incapacity as obstacles to be overcome and not insurmountable difficulties.
As time wore on it seemed that her life was hanging by a thread. Ten doctors were on standby to assist at the birth although by this stage they were not hopeful of either mother or child living through the birth process. When eventually Shelley went into labour she was so ill that the fight to bring a new life into the world seemed beyond her. However out of nowhere she seemed to summon up every ounce of strength that she possessed and after a few traumatic hours she safely gave birth to a baby girl. The documentary ended with Shelley's wedding where she was surrounded by family and friends and with her beautiful young daughter as bridesmaid.
The day following this television programme the talkback radio stations were jammed with calls about her story. Some people felt it was inspiring, others felt that she had no right to have given birth due to her disability. But one call stood out beyond all the others; the sentiment expressed by the man making it was reinforced by several callers afterwards.
"Fancy", he said, "wanting to sleep with that!"
Unfortunately that point of view is not unusual.
The only time that it is socially acceptable for someone with a severe disability to have a love life is if they pair with another disabled person. A wedding for example between two wheelchairs is regarded as suitable, cute even, five minute human interest stories with which to end the evening news. It is also agreeable for someone to remain with his or her partner after, say a car accident. In fact it is often regarded as a laudable act of self-sacrifice. However, for an able-bodied person to willingly mate with someone not physically whole is a betrayal. Why would they want to link themselves to someone not "whole"?
Part of the difficulty is that society is based very much on the physical. Youth is glorified with its perfect body and its flawless skin. All good things come to the physically fit so therefore people spend thousands of dollars on developing the perfect abs, toning their thighs and creating a flawless complexion. For those who are not perceived as perfect the world is a judgemental place where they are constantly reminded of their imperfection.
The physically challenged person is regarded as an asexual creature, not male or female but an androgynous "it". It is almost as if losing some of your abilities means you lose your feelings as well. Or that is how it is perceived. The fact is that despite being in a wheelchair, on crutches or using a cane the disabled individual is still human with feelings and emotions. The only aspect of your personality that changes through illness or accident are the new ways in which you have to cope with the world and day today living.
Society seems to gauge a person's worth on their ability to procreate and therefore contribute to the perpetuation of the human species. When their ability to breed is seen to be at an end then so is their usefulness to the race. Although this may seem an extreme view think of how we view the elderly. On entering a Home For the Aged many couples are split up and put in separate rooms.
Mature people attempting to have any kind of physical relationship with another of their peers are regarded as "dirty" and punished accordingly. They are treated like children by their caregivers who regard any such behaviour as abnormal. Yet these people have made their contribution to society, owned businesses and raised a family yet now that they have the time and opportunity to explore the physical side of their nature they're being censored by the false values of those who are paid to help care for them. What better time will there ever be to cultivate an active love life? There is no job to have to go to so afternoon rendezvous can be the order of the day when joints are rested and energy is high. For women there is no longer the fear of becoming pregnant.
More imagination and thought have to go into a physical relationship when disability is involved; even "just cuddling" achieves a deeper significance. That closeness and affection shared with another human being is a vital part of existence. To assume that because someone is no longer physically whole that they shouldn't expect to have someone to share their life with is patronizing and patently unfair. To impose this false censorship onto the disabled just reiterates the "us and them” philosophy that prevails within society. Although we're bombarded with sex by the media on a daily basis, the sexual politics of the "physically challenged" are only thought of and not openly discussed. It is a taboo subject in much the same way, as we prefer not to think of our parents "doing the wild thing". It is only when it comes out into the open in the form of a television documentary that "normal" society's prejudices emerge revealing a disgust and revulsion that is hurtful and depressing.
Love is not just for the beautiful people.
Haeri Mai! Welcome to New Zealand, Aotearoa where the men are men and the sheep get nervous. Keep up with the latest updates from the "Land of the Long White Cloud" with the Kiwi Herald.
Copyright© Jen Longshaw 2000
This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Also by Jen: Zen and the Art of Wheelchair Maintenance