Push(back) at the Intersections: It's Sexytime, So Let's Get It On

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

As a disabled person, I’m naturally interested in examining depictions of disability in pop culture, as you may have gathered from previous posts in this series. I’m also interested in the depictions of marginalised groups that aren’t present, as I discussed in ‘I Think You Dropped Your T.’ Sins of omission can be almost as interesting as sins of commission.

There’s a notable gap when it comes to depictions of people with disabilities on television, and that’s sexual relationships. Most disabled characters are not sexual, or only allowed to be sexual under very special and controlled circumstances. This perpetuates a lot of really harmful ideas about people with disabilities: we don’t have sex at all, we only have sex when we are being exploited, or that when we are sexually active, we are actually expressing some kind of pathology.

I am reminded of the Grey’s Anatomy episode ‘How Insensitive.’ One of the storylines on the episode involves a very fat and disabled patient who becomes a topic of morbid fascination amongst the Seattle Grace crew. After seeing him for the first time, Christina and Meredith sit in the cafeteria speculating with horror and fear about how he can possibly have sex with his young, conventionally attractive wife.

I feel like this exchange between Meredith and Christina is actually a pretty accurate reflection of how a lot of Hollywood writers think about disabled sexuality, as well as fat sexuality. It’s scary and unimaginable and is the topic of lewd commentary in the cafeteria, but not something that actually happens, let alone something that can safely be depicted on television. As it turns out, the episode flipped this, having the man’s wife show up and point out that a.) yes, they do have sex and b.) it’s no one else’s business.

That’s why I was so pleased when Private Practice dared to have a wheelchair user as a love interest, and dared to have sex scenes that didn’t disintegrate into prurient speculation. I’d say that both Rhimes shows do more than a lot of other shows currently airing to debunk popular mythology by showing, not telling, and forcing viewers to confront their own internalised attitudes.

This sort of thing is extremely rare, however. Many disabled characters are neatly and effectively desexed. There are exceptions, like the character with Down Syndrome on Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC after-school special that actually has some pretty interesting content, social justice-wise, and Artie’s fumbling kisses with Tina on Glee, although given that we’ve seen plenty of sex scenes with other characters, I think it’s high time to see Artie in the bedroom, given that he’s obviously very interested in sexing it up.

When we are allowed to have sex in pop culture, it usually takes the form of a character with mental illness having sex because of the mental illness. I get this with Brenda Chenowith in Six Feet Under, where it’s suggested that she seeks out casual sex not because she’s an independent woman and she wants to, but because she’s desperately trying to fill some sort of hole in her life. I see this with other disabled and sexual characters as well; they’re not having sex in uncomplicated ways, because they want to or it’s fun or they are in long term relationships with people they love, but rather because they are mentally ill.

There’s a patronising narrative that happens with a lot of disabled characters. They don’t act out of free will, but because they are disabled. They aren’t allowed independence, because they are disabled and clearly incapable of acting on their own. Other characters do things ‘for their own good’ and this is depicted in a neutral or even positive way. These ‘small details’ that barely register with nondisabled viewers make me cringe and make me approach something that other people love from a completely different perspective.

This has real-world impacts on how nondisabled people interact with us. If you are a wheelchair user or you are in a relationship with one, people will ask you ‘How do you have sex?’ If you are a person with mental illness, you are going to be continually questioned about whether you are choosing relationships out of free will or because you’re sick. If you have a cognitive or developmental disability, there will be concern trolling about whether you are able of making independent choices.

I’d like to see more Dr. Fifes and less Brenda Chenowiths, personally, and more honest depictions of disabled sexuality in all its facets.

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Thank you

I appreciate this post, as I tend to observe these depictions of disability in pop culture as an ally of the community, and as one who is interested in how marginalized persons and groups are depicted as hyper- or hypo/de-sexualized in media. Basically, it's important to call out the ways society and particularly media police the sexuality of groups by deciding the ways it can be expressed or cannot be expressed. In this vein, not all visibility is created equal, and I agree, we need to see more manifestations of disabled characters' sex lives that are not tokenized or stigmatized...or fetishized.


<em>"If you are a wheelchair user or you are in a relationship with one, people will ask you 'How do you have sex?"</em>

I was asked by a counselor recently "Is your husband capable of having sex?" When I tried to point how inappropriate this was, I was told "It's normal to ask about your sex life in counselling." Which, okay, but she didn't ask about my sex life. She asked if my husband was able to have sex. This is not actually the same thing at all. And it infuriates me. And yes, I think it's fueled, at least in part, but what you've written about here.

Thanks for making that

Thanks for making that distinction! I am a therapist, and asking about someone's sex life can be really important information for therapy (if it's important to the client). However, the way that we ask questions can reveal a lot about our implicit assumptions and biases and I think that as a profession, we would do much better if we were held accountable by people like you. It is totally different to ask how your sex life is or if you find it satisfying than to make an assumption about your husband and ask a question that already demonstrates a lack of understanding and sensitivity.

Friday Night Lights

I'm not disabled so I may not be sensitive enough to the topic, but I thought Friday Night Lights (the tv series) did a good job depicting Jason Street, a high school football player paralyzed during a game, continuing to be a sexual person. He and his girlfriend were shown attempting to figure out sex and he has a casual relationship with another character that leads to pregnancy.

one depiction that I think

one depiction that I think might be worth mentioning was Macaulay Culkin as wheelchair-bound Roland in "Saved!" (does anyone else remember that movie? I watch it like once a year and it's never a single bit less awesome.) he is shown as having a sex drive and it's implied that he's sexually active. uh...thoughts?

Saved! did it well.

Reading this post also made me think of Saved! and its depiction of Roland. He is bound to his sister for transportation, validation, and, therefore, even basic human contact. He doesn't seem to have any friends of his own; he simply exists as an extension of his sister. As the story continues, he gets visibly more unhappy with his dependence, and visibly more interested in his offbeat classmate Cassandra. As their interest in each other and his thirst for independence grows, so does his sister's indignation that he would dare suggest that he can function on his own or that he doesn't need her. Eventually, he leaves school with Cassandra in her car, rejecting his dependence on his sister entirely. By the time the movie ended, I felt pretty sure that if Roland and Cassandra hadn't yet had sex offscreen, they surely would once the credits were rolling. It's also worth noting that Roland was often a voice of reason, wisdom, and insight throughout the film - but not in a wacky, silly sidekick way - a role that I rarely see disabled characters play.

Roland was clearly a sexually charged character, but it was clear that that wasn't because he was sick or disabled or perverted, but merely human. It was refreshing, but since I am myself not disabled, there very well could be some points to call into question that my privilege keeps me from seeing. I would be very interested to hear the OP's author's take on Roland.

Can I just say...

I had no idea what it was like to have people turn their noses up at the idea of my sexuality. Not even an inkling...until this summer. I was reading a blog/article on the New York Times website about A.D./H.D. I have attention deficit disorder, so I'm always curious about how I'm being depicted, as I don't think of my A.D.D. as a big deal. Nothing about the piece surprised me. It basically stated that A.D/H.D. can make things complicated in a marriage if one partner doesn't have it or understand it or if the A.D/H.D. partner doesn't know they have it (this is a no-brainer for me, especially the part about the partner not understanding, because why would you marry someone who didn't get that you have A.D.D. and you won't just wake up one morning and be otherwise? But I digress).

Nor was I surprised by the number of the wanna' be skeptic trolls who unrolled their usual nonsense about A.D/H.D. "not existing." I'm really fucking tired of being told I'm really just lazy, stupid, and/ or attention starved, because I'm none of those things. I'm also not "just looking for a pill to solve my problems." I am medicated because it helps me function in a work/ school environment, but I also had to go to therapy for a couple of years because stimulants will only take you so far and they don't help everyone. As I say, I'm fucking sick of this, but it in no way surprises me.

What did surprise me were all the comments like this one "ADD and ADHD people should not have children. It is a brain defect and shouldn't be propagated," or this one "I don’t know who’s worse, someone stupid enough to marry an ADDer, or the ADDer stupid enough to enter into married life," or this one "I can’t imagine why anyone would marry someone with such a disorder." Yeah...fuck you too, strangers. I know these comments say "marry" and "have children" not "have sex with," but the idea is the same: that I shouldn't breed and am not worth love/ a long term relationship.

People should think before they say/write this kind of crap. As much as it angered me, it also hurt my feelings in a whole new way. I'm used to the "You're not really disordered; you're just lazy," bullshit. I've heard it plenty. I'm not used to the idea of people expressing disbelief that someone could love me...and I don't want to get used to that.

Personalities have many facets

I've heard the same sort of comments. I have severe anxiety and depression issues (enough that I dropped out of high school and have never had a job where I don't work from home) and I'm often hearing and reading comments where people say that mentally ill people can't have valid relationships, should not have children, should be forcibly treated with medication and/or should all be institutionalized.

It's hurtful, because those comments are treating me like I'm just a walking embodiment of my problems. My mental health issues do impact various aspects of my life, but they don't outweigh everything else that I am. I'm a person, and personalities have many facets. I'm creative, intelligent, and empathetic, I have friends, I have a part time job, I take voice lessons for fun, I have several hobbies that I can share with other people. Is it so surprising that I can also have healthy romantic and sexual relationships?

If you asked my husband why he married me, he wouldn't say it was because he felt sorry for me because I'm mentally ill, or because I manipulated him because I'm mentally ill. He also wouldn't say he regrets being with me because I'm mentally ill. Sure, he's frustrated when I have a day where I'm sad for no reason and can't do much or when I'm too anxious to make a simple phone call, but we move past it. He does frustrating things, too. The fact that he's able-bodied and has never had mental health problems doesn't make him perfect.

Nobody's perfect. That's life.

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