As part of Disability History Month, Isabel Ralphs sits down with Liberation Coordinator Leo Adams to talk about all things sex, representation and disability in the mainstream culture.
If you’ve been anywhere near the Union recently, you will likely have noticed the plethora of posters adorning the walls in celebration of ‘Disability History Month’ which is running from this month through to next at LUU. Whether you have experience of disability first-hand, second-hand or not at all, it’s a great opportunity to find out a bit more about a topic that really doesn’t get spoken about enough.
As part of the many events going on around campus, earlier this month, Liberation Coordinator Leo Adams ran a frank discussion entitled ‘Disability and Sex; We Shag Too’.
Through history and their own personal experiences, Leo explained how disabled people are trapped between a rock and a hard place when it comes to sex; either being fetishised and gawked at in Freak Shows or completely desexualised and trapped by legislation that makes the subject even more taboo to discuss.
I sat down with Leo to get more of an insight into the subject and dissect their thoughts on what more needs to be done to change how disability is currently perceived in the mainstream:
How do you think society currently views disabled people with regards to sex?
I think there’s a very unfortunate either/or situation. Half the time, disabled people are weirdly fetishised – there are literally entire communities (called devotees) fetishising disabled people and our mobility aids and not viewing us as people. And then the other half is people being consistently very amazed that we’re people who have sex and have relationships. This means that there aren’t many healthy expectations for disabled people when it comes to sex.
Where do you think the responsibility for change lies?
It’s probably a mix of everything. I think people just don’t consider that disabled people want to have sex and relationships and I think positive media portrayal of this kind of thing is a really important way to open people’s minds.
I’d also like to see more attention devoted to telling disabled people it’s ok to have sex and having those conversations to build their confidence up as well as more awareness of disability brought into sex education.
There’s a really good slogan from the early days of disability activism which is ‘nothing about us without us’. Any legislative change needs to be made with a wide range of disabled people consulting on it rather than a group of non-disabled people deciding what they think is best for us.
Do you think big films like ‘Me Before You’ and ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ are doing positive things for disabled people?
I think any representation that isn’t actually paying disabled actors is an incredibly hollow representation. When you want our stories but don’t want our authenticity – that’s not the kind of representation I want to see but it is the kind that non-disabled audiences want to see because often it’s a very stereotypical and unchallenging way of looking at the disabled experience.
The narrative that most of the films currently out there create is one where disability is the central conflict in the relationship and I just don’t think that’s true. For most disabled people, once we’re in a relationship, the central conflict isn’t about disability; it’s about all the standard, weird things about being a person. Disability is just another aspect of it.
What would your ideal portrayal of disability in mainstream TV/Film look like?
My ideal portrayal might be different to my other disabled peers. So I don’t want there to be one, I want there to be so many that everyone’s got a different favourite film about a disabled person because there’s so much to choose from. You can never go wrong with more things than we have currently.
How do laws in the UK work to help or hinder the relationship between sex and disability?
Laws like the Mental Capacity Act and the Sexual Offences Act are put in place to try and help but actually end up making things more difficult for people who are perfectly able to give consent; just not in traditional ways.
I think the main issue with them is that they’re very difficult to get to grips with. It means that for people who live in independent living centres and residential care; their carers don’t address sex with them or present it as an option at all because there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the laws. It’s putting up so many obstacles between disabled people and the perfectly normal desire to have sex by creating an atmosphere of restriction and confusion surrounding it.
As a disabled person, do you feel like people tend to avoid talking about the topic of sex with you?
Yes and no. In medical settings, talking to professionals, there’s a weird, unspoken assumption about what form my sex life does or doesn’t take. But strangers I’ve spoken 5 words to or never met before will just stop me in the middle of talking about something else and be like ‘but can you have sex though?’; as if they’re somehow entitled to know all the details of my sex life.
Would you prefer that the conversation was more open and people felt comfortable asking questions or would you rather people respected your privacy and kept their questions to themselves?
It differs from person to person – I know people who hate talking about the sex that they have and I know people who don’t mind talking about it, but that’s not necessarily because of their disability, it might just be because of who they are as a person. For me disability isn’t the be all and end all of my sex life, it’s just a facet of it and I think that’s what people need to understand. It’s to be approached in the same way as all aspects of my personal life rather than the one thing that dominates anything.
Ultimately it’s about letting disabled people form the narrative themselves about the sex that they have.
On December 3rd; the NUS Disabled Students Officer will be delivering a talk on disabled activism. This will be followed by a panel talk in the evening, run by Leo, about what the future looks like for disabled people.