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l’azile » a few thoughts about sex and disability

May 1, 2011

a few thoughts about sex and disability

catherine @ 10:59 pm

This post is my contribution to Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011 (BADD 2011).

I am probably going to get hell for writing about this but anyway, here it goes…

A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop on the sexual rights of people with disabilities. This workshop was part of the Disability and Citizenship Week (Semaine Citoyenneté et Handicap) at l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), a major university in the province of Quebec. It was the first time in a long time that I had heard of an event that broached this subject in my part of the world. I had two conflicting thoughts when I heard about it:

  1. Hmmm, how come we still need to talk about this in 2011? and;
  2. Well, this should be a change from the usual stuff I hear about (like accessibility, HTML5, blablabla).

Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, none of the 4 speakers kicking off the workshop were a person with disabilities. Sure, among the 25 people or so in attendance, there were perhaps 6 or 7 of us with a visible disability and while you can never presume to know it all, I am pretty sure there were no more than that. The speakers were all academics of sexology or humanities or legal sciences at UQAM and there was a special guest speaker who is a rights commissioner for people with intellectual impairments (his presence was not surprising since sexual rights for this particular segment of the disability community is an important and complicated issue). And while I do not mean to diminish the contribution of these speakers, my overall feeling was “Are you seriously telling me you could not find one person with a disability to be a speaker at this workshop? Are you actually saying that no one with a disability in the whole province of Quebec has anything to say about this subject??”

The talks themselves were actually pretty boring, save for the commissioner guy. Oh but wait, I guess I should back up a bit and mention that the main goal of this workshop was to ascertain whether a charter of sexual rights was necessary for people with disabilities. Now, this charter would have no legal power, it would just be an affirmation of the sexual rights of people with disabilities, some piece of text that people or perhaps institutions could point to and say euh, what?, “we agree” or something? But, as the commissioner guy said, the rights of people with disabilities are already enshrined in various laws, treaties, etc., and sexual rights are a part of that so this sexual rights charter thing would have no additional value that I can see.

Anyway, after the talks were over, there was a brief period of exchanges before a scheduled break and quite obviously, no one was really interested in talking about creating this charter and more specifically, the people with disabilities present were more interested in sharing their thoughts and experiences with regards to sexuality.

Unfortunately, the organizers did not seem very interested in hearing about them. They were quite obviously focused on their charter and while I understand how frustrating it can be to have discussions go another way than you were hoping, I found the organizers’ attitudes rather insulting. They did not seem to want to hear about sexual integrity (in reference to the Ashley Treatment specifically) or about the right to procreate as well as other subjects that people with disabilities present wanted to discuss.

I left during the break because I was getting pissed off but it would be interesting to note that at one point during the post-talk exchanges, a guy in a wheelchair spoke quite candidly about hiring prostitutes. This provoked a lot of squirming and blushing and whispering. Some people were taken aback by this topic and at the break, a few female students seemed troubled and actually questioned this guy’s IQ (as if being in a wheelchair means you can not have questionable morals). Which says a few things about people in Quebec, about how far away we are from having really frank discussions about sex, whether in relation to disability or not.

Now, let me be very clear before I go on. I am not taking a position for or against sexual attendants or the use of prostitutes or whatever. I have not thought and learned about this subject enough to offer more than an uninformed personal opinion and that is rather uninteresting.

But what troubled me about this guy’s story was that after an unspecified period of time, his neighbors apparently thought it was OK to get involved and to tell him to stop hiring call girls. I do not know all the details of how this transpired and I am sure (I hope) they probably meant well but I highly doubt they would have acted the same way if this guy was not in a wheelchair. As I said, I am not interested in debating whether it was right or not for him to hire prostitutes every first of the month. That is another subject. Rather, I am interested in why these people felt they could just tell someone with a disability what do to with his sex life. I mean, they could have reported a crime or minded their own business but instead, they staged an intervention. And, I am guessing they were persuasive that he comply because he stopped but he was obviously euh, sad about the whole thing.

OK, so what am I trying to say with this incoherent post? Well, I guess this incident reminded me of how people often really do not accept people with disabilities as full-fledged euh, human beings (qualities and flaws and all). Even when they think they do, they really do not see us with equal or full measure. A lot of people think they can use us and speak for us and decide what is best for us and not ask our opinion about it or if so, disregard it in the next breath because they know best, etc.

And every time I make this observation, as I did during that workshop, I can not help but be surprised. But I think that is a good thing. To continue to be surprised by this reality. For I think it means that an another reality most certainly exists.


  1. Hello Catherine,

    Thanks for this post, for as far as I know, the subject is rarely raised and discussed openly, although it’s a critical one for people with disabilities. And I think it’s important to expose it, in order to dissipate misconceptions and finally make things and minds evolve.
    First, for clarification sakes, I’m very ignorant of the topic, and not even remotely personnaly involved. Still, I hope I can shed an additional light to your post.
    Lastly, I attended a public meeting in my small town (in the area of Paris, France), about the challenges people with disabilities face to live in the city. The subject of sex (and the related difficulties) was discussed. There I learned that a debate took place, in France, about sexual attendants for people with disabilites. The idea had been massively rejected by the authorities, who saw there a disguised way to legalize female prostitution. As the speaker (a well-know disability rights activist around here) noted, actually the request came mostly from women with disabilities, as they are the ones who suffer most from the lack of partners. Just for the same machism-induced reasons that apply to every women in our so-called advanced societies, and that made decision-makers believe that such request could only come from men!
    Foremost, what most people wished for, was attention more than sex. Getting a hug every now and then, even if it meant paying for it, would suffice to many… Which says a lot about the deepness of the issue.
    So here too, there was a moral objection to a natural and legitimate need, that should have deserved closer examination. Rejecting blatantly the proposition as a whole, as it happened, was ignoring the very reality, and being immoral in its own way. And sadly, that is to me very representative of how the disability policies fail to address people’s actual needs generally.

    Comment by Olivier — May 2, 2011 @ 4:20 am

  2. Thank you for your post and for contributing to Blogging Against Disablism Day!

    I think your observations say a lot about how we handle the vulnerability of disabled people. Because on the one hand, we are vulnerable - but being seen and treated as vulnerable all the time only makes us more so. Any other guy, as you say, people would have regarded paying for sex as a vice. But the intervention suggests they thought he was making a naive mistake or even being exploited himself.

    But should we, as disabled people, ever buy into the idea that there are people who can look after us better than we can look after ourselves, that’s where we risk the very exploitation that these folks seek to protect us from.

    I’m not entirely sure that makes sense, but anyway, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

    Comment by The Goldfish — May 2, 2011 @ 5:32 am

  3. Great post on an often invisible issue, thanks. And I’m also shocked they wouldn’t find one person with a disability to speak!!

    Comment by Selene — May 2, 2011 @ 6:58 am

  4. I touched on this last year as it is a topic near and dear to my heart. I’m impressed that they had a conference about this, even though it sounds less than titillating and rather frustrating. I find that here in the US, the attitude of the gentleman you mentioned’s neighbor is pretty common place. I wasn’t nearly what I would consider disabled when I chose to procreate, but became disabled during my pregnancy (the 7lb 6oz straw that broke this camel’s back!), and I have been scratching my head over the presumptuous and nasty opinions and comments of able-bodied folks in regards to my body and my health and my parenting since. Hopefully, even though it is 2011, the prudishness and constricted nature of society will begin to loosen up and start embracing reality, like so many other “taboo” sexually related topics have. Fingers metaphorically crossed! :-)
    Here’s my link from last year:

    Keep up the fantastic blogging!

    Oh and as I just reread your last couple of paragraphs- “they” never consult us or really seem to want to know how we feel or experience pretty much anything. As a physically disabled woman who also happens to have Autism, and a child with autism, I find it completely frustrating and illogical too (then again, I find a great many things about the outside world illogical- glad to hear that other people feel the same about this stuff!).

    Comment by Bek — May 2, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

  5. It’s so sad that we actually need a tooth-less legal piece of writing to say that people who have disabilities are fully human beings and have a right to sex lives. Seriously? This is a basic human right and people shouldn’t have to fight to have it recognized.

    Comment by Ruth Madison — May 4, 2011 @ 9:21 am

  6. Excellent billet! Au Quebec on oublie souvent l’importance du “nothing about us without us’. Je serais curieuse de connaitre l opinion des leaders du milieu de la défense des droits des personnes handicapées.
    Merci Catherine de briser le silence devant l inacceptable!

    Comment by Laurence — October 1, 2011 @ 11:44 am

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