Posts Tagged ‘disabled’

At Least Let Me Call it By Name.

September 28, 2008

Q: What’s one good piece of evidence that I am overly-busy with school?
A: It takes me a month to realize I’ve been referenced and linked by the ever-awesome Cory Silverberg.

There are a couple of points I want to make in response, the most important of which is just an acknowledgment of his spot-on statement about certain people in the asexual community dismissing the issues of people with disabilities. Looking back at the post he linked, I’m smacking myself upside the head a little because it really does ignore — however unintentionally — the issues of disabled persons. I’ve never been a fan of forced asexuality — on teens, on the elderly, on people with disabilities, etc — but I’ve been so focused recently on the asexual perspective, that I think I lost track of the notion that there are other perspectives out there.  And honestly, I think it’s really important that communities in general (and the asexual community specifically) not lose track of those other perspectives, even when they seem conflictual. I think we’re strongest when we recognize the distinct populations within our community, and — in addition, — ally ourselves with other communities.  The disabled community strikes me as a population of potential allies, because in a sense (as Silverberg points out), members of both communities are looking for greater freedom to express their orientations.  Whatever combination of sexual, asexual, able, or disabled we are as individuals, I think we’re all looking for ways to express that and to have it acknowledged or affirmed by others. I think it makes complete sense that we would work together for that kind of freedom, and I would honestly welcome ideas about how to go about it.

There was one other piece of Cory Silverberg’s article that I wanted to address.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s his line, “It still feels right for me to say say that all humans are sexual.”  In all honesty, it’s a difficult point for me to comment on because, although I see it being painful for certain members of the asexual community, including people I consider friends, it’s not particularly problematic for me on a personal level.  Since I’m not all that attached to the “asexual” label, since it’s not one I use to identify myself, and since a broader definition of sexuality (that encompasses a good deal more than sexual relations) really would satisfy my own needs, I don’t feel entirely “qualified” to comment here.  And yet, my gut reacton to the statement “everyone is sexual” — given that a significant number of people are attesting they’re not, remains one of (at best) unease.

I think I understand what Silverberg intends by this comment.  At the very least, I know what I mean when I’m compelled to say such things.  The desire not to separate, to instead remain unified, is a strong one, and one I think the asexual community benefits from acting on.  A healthy alliance is a fabulous tool, after all, and I understand being concerned about polarization.  My unwillingness to embrace a sexual/ asexual binary was (you may remember) the main reason I stopped considering “asexual” as a potential self-descriptor.  It’s been more helpful for me personally to view asexuality as one area on a continuum (a continuum which stretches into sexuality as well.)  Maybe this has to do with my general dislike of binaries; maybe I simply don’t feel compelled to handle another minority identification; maybe I am internalizing some “a-phobia” or clinging to some sexual privilege — I honestly can’t say for sure.  What I do know is that I gained acceptance of myself and my orientation first by exploring the asexual community and later by shelving that identifier.  Although technically my participation in the asexual community (sans identifier) continues to shape my orientation and increase my ability to accept who I am, for me personally both statements are true.  Silverberg’s desire to see everyone as sexual — albeit with a broader definition of “sexual” than many people I know (more on that in a later entry) — is one I often share.  That’s hard for me to admit, and yet, it’s true.

However.

Before I left California,  I had a really marvelous conversation with David about how much I dislike the binary and how it concerns me to see asexual people distancing themselves so much from sexual folks (and vice-versa, although I think it happens less in the other direction, if only because relatively few “sexuals” are aware of asexuality — even now — and those who are don’t always validate it enough to identify in opposition.  If you’re going to use something as an Other, I think you’re required to accept it as a reality first.)  David’s responsee was really interesting, and suggested to me a reason for constructing those much-detested binaries that I’d honestly never considered before.  His point — as best I can remember it — was basically this:

When he was “questioning” what made him different from his friends who were so interested in sex, there was no binary.  The term “asexual,” the asexual/ sexual binary, and the potential continuum of asexuality/ sexuality essentially (i.e. for practical purposes) did not exist.  All that existed was sexuality, in its very limited “sexual relations” sense.  And given that he did not feel such a sexuality fit him, he had to go outside of it, create another term, and establish a meaning for that term in order to communicae his experience.  If, in the years since then, the “non-sexual” identified space has begun to grow into sometehing as clearly (or rigidly) defined as sexuality was in David’s (although honestly I don’t know that it has; my experience of the ase community is that it’s very open to fluidity and exploration), then things have shifted from the days when he founded AVEN.  In a sense, I think this represents a victory for the asexual community, but I can also see why some people are inclined to say the next step should be expanding “sexuality” to include the “asexual” space.  A more fluid definition of sexuality allows all of us to be part of the “healthy” “normal” group, without challenging the notion of what is healthy and normal. It allows all of us to be “the same” without questioning why we have to be. Difficult as expanding the definition of a term can be, in a sense, this is still the simpler path, and it’s hard, at times, for me not to be one of the people advocating that we take it.

And yet, when I stop to think about it, when I try and imagine how I’d feel if “asexual” were an identifier I used and valued using, the suggestion that asexuality is “just” another sexuality starts to strike me as a hurtful move.  I identify as lesbian, and I can basically guarantee for you that no matter how broad, inclusive, and accepting “heterosexuality” grows, I will never feel quite comfortable or truthful or right identifying as straight.  Even if heterosexuality evolved to a point where other straight people could conceive of my identity and experience using that label, I think the terms I use now — lesbian, queer, etc — would remain important to me.  I think those of us who don’t identify this way need to remember that the term “asexual” has functioned — and functioned importantly — for people whose experience of sexuality was not one like Silverberg describes, of an aspect or filter of experience that exists in all of us, regardless of whether we desire sexual relations, but rather one that was much more limited, often to sexual relationships or the desire for sexual relationships.  In my opinion, we need to include in our effort to advocate for sexual expression the absolute right to self-identify.  We need to be able to adopt the term (and the definition of the term) that suits us best — because protecting our idea of the universal human truth has to be less important than allowing each other to fully communicate our individual experiences.  I suspect that Cory Silverberg (to continue semi-unintentionally singling him out) recognizes that, because he recognizes the problem of one group of people telling another group of people it doesn’t exist, but given that some asexual people don’t view their asexuality as a sexuality at all, I worry that his earlier statement might be taken as just that.  My sense of the situation remains that, if we’re going to really listen to each other, which is something I feel we need to do more of, — (it’s a fundamental part of intimacy, isn’t it?) — we have to allow each other the right to our own words and the right to defining our own words, even as antonyms of those chosen by another, and even when we, personally, don’t necessarily see them as oppositional.

ETA: Since I wrote this, Cory Silverberg posted the following comment clarifying his statement about everyone being sexual: “I’d be interested in what you think […] about the way I describe people as sexual. Essentially what I’m saying is that people who are asexual are sexual, and their sexuality is expressed in a way that’s different than someone who isn’t asexual. I think if we started with the premise that we’re all sexual, but that doesn’t have to mean we all want or do the same things, it would address both people who are asexual and people with disabilities.”  I’ve already offered my own thoughts on that here, but I’d love to hear from other people (however they identify).  What are your thoughts?

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It’s My Right (Which I’ll Engage if I Want To.)

August 1, 2008


The image above is from one of six posters being distributed by the Family Planning Association (fpa), (the UK’s leading sexual health charity, according to their website), as part of their annual Sexual Health Week, the theme of which this year is “It’s My Right!”  The “It’s My Right” campaign strives to convey that everyone, (including those with learning disabilities/ difficulties), has a fundamental right to have sex and relationships.  This image, which I ganked from their homepage, is followed immediately with the line “Everyone has the right to have sex.”  Although I have a soft rule against agreeing with statements as general as this one (on the basis that more things are gray than aren’t, and I have a sense, always, that someone somewhere could come up with a situation in which I would disagree), my impulse here is to support the statement.  In a consensual relationship, without exploiting the other person(s) involved, with the understanding that consent and exploitation are tricky lines to define, I believe that everyone has the right to have sex.  However, I do take issue with aspects of the campaign, or the language the campaign is using, because while I follow them as far as that endstop, I also want to edit out the period, put in a semi-colon, and add “everyone has the right not to have sex.”  Now… given that this year they’re attempting to advocate for a population (people with learning disabilities/ difficulties) who society attempts to force into an asexual identification and lifestyle (similarly to the way we attempt to control and limit the sexuality of other populations, such as senior citizens), I understand that the flip-side of that statement isn’t necessarily relevant to their cause.  But isn’t there a way to articulate their cause without hurting other groups that are just as in need of strong advocates?

If you suspected I meant the asexual community, you guessed right, although honestly it’s not the fpa’s decision to leave out the second-half of that “everyone has a right” statement that bothers me.  (After all, we’d never get anything written if we also had to write the flip-side.)  It’s the fact that some of their language strikes me as directly harmful to asexual individuals, which I find bothersome.  For instance, in the image above, if you can manage to read it, the caption says, “People with learning disabilities enjoy sex. It’s a fact of life” which frankly, sparks a serious facepalm on my part.  A fact of life?  Seriously?  I recognize the possibility that they’re trying to play on the “facts of life” rhetoric that surrounds those painful, sit-com-esque discussions of “the birds and the bees” but I think they make a serious misstep when they imply that enjoying sex is a universal given.  Are there no learning-disabled people who suffer pain during intercourse for medical reasons?  And even if they are somehow exempt from such problems, do they also manage to magically land further from the asexual-end of the desire spectrum than the rest of us?  (Do they not have the same probability of being asexual, even if that probability is truly 1 in 100?)  This seems especially ridiculous to me given that autism sometimes leads to a learning-disabled classification (however problematic that equation is) and autism has been notably prevalent in the asexual community. The truth remains that even if the fpa could prove that all learning-disabled people desire sex, I would still take issue with their claim that all people do, given that I’ve met several who simply don’t.  I much prefer the less catchphrase-worthy version on their Sexual Health Week page, which reads, “Everybody has the right to have sex and relationships if they want.” (Emphasis, not surprisingly, mine.)

I think this struck me more tonight because I just finished reading about a decision by a circuit court in DC that declared “sexual relations” a “major life activity,” such that the inability to engage in them (in this instance, due to various treatments/ surgeries related to breast cancer) would qualify as a “disability.” Now, obviously, asexuality is not defined by an inability to engage in sex, but rather a lack of desire to do so. Still, I think there are serious ramfications for asexual people as part of this decision, especially since the “you’re disabled!” argument is one of the ways people routinely invalidate asexuality as an orientation.  By (legally) declaring sexual relations a major life activity, the court is setting up for oppression a population of people who haven’t engaged in that activity.  Just as people who are “missing out” on marriage or “missing out” on having children suffer the social consequences of those decisions (whether are not they truly are decisions), those who would dismiss asexuality now have one more prop for their argument that asexual individuals are “missing out” on experiencing sex.  (Regardless of whether or not they’re compelled have sex in the first place.)

Still more bizarre is the fact that the circuit court decided to focus on this particular aspect of the case in the first place.  Granted, I don’t have a great deal of legal expertise, but it seems to me that this case — in which Kathy Adams was fired from the US Foreign Service after developing breast cancer — was one of employment discrimination and/or potential paternalism by the employer.  The case went like this: The State Department argued that “many of its posts lack[ed] the follow-up care it believed Adams required” which gave them cause to revoke her medical clearance.  Adams then sued, on the grounds that the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 “prohibits federal agencies from discriminating in employment against disabled individuals.” The State Department shot back that Adams had no record of a disability, in response to which she apparently argued that “her breast cancer treatment rendered her completely unable to engage in sexual relations.  Due to the scarring from her mastectomy and breast reconstruction, her overall post-surgery physical appearance, lack of physical sensation, loss of libido accompanying her medication, or some combination of these factors, she claim[ed] that her ‘ability to enter into romantic relationships ha[d] been crippled indefinitely and perhaps permanently.'” Rather than sorting out whether the State Department had the right to fire Adams based on their understanding of her treatment requirements, the courts (apparently) took the bait and spent their time determining whether Adams’ post-treatment condition constituted a disability, such that she would deserve protection under the Rehab Act.  According to the court’s decision, “as a basic physiological act practiced by a vast portion of the population, a cornerstone of family and marital life, a conduit to emotional and spiritual fulfillment, and a crucial element in intimate relationships, sex easily qualifies as a ‘major’ life activity.”

This is where my jaw started to drop, friends. I mean, any points they gained by trading in “everyone” for “a vast portion of the population” were basically demolished for me when they decided sex was a crucial element of intimate relationships.  I don’t think it even requires the introduction of asexual couples into the conversation to prove that not all intimacy is sexual.  As often as we use “intimate” as a euphemism for “sexual,” it still doesn’t even rank among the top 5 definitions (of thirteen, mind you) on dictionary.com. Intimacy also covers friendship, personal closeness, and even those romantic relationships that do not involve or do not yet involve sex.  So, how is it a crucial element exactly?  And how is it a cornerstone of family and marital life, when plenty of married couples aren’t having it (or aren’t having it often), and I can vouch (much to my relief) for the fact that I personally have never had sex with anyone in my family, and I don’t think this has lowered the quality of our dynamic.  (Quite the opposite, actually.)  While I can see, to some extent, the notion of reproduction as a potential cornerstone, unless we’re giving “sexual relations” the rather limited and heterosexist definition of “egg meets sperm” I don’t think that qualifies either.  Ever heard of in vitro fertilization anyone?  Surrogate parenting?  Adoption?  We can make families without sexual relations, even if babymakin’ still technically requires the fertilization of an egg.

The court even went so far as to state that, “at the risk of stating the obvious” (emphasis mine, again) “sex is unquestionably a significant human activity, one our species has been engaging in at least since that biblical injuction to ‘be fruitful and multiply.'” Oh.  Snap.  Did you seriously just cite the Bible as a historical source in a legal judgment, DC?  Tell me you didn’t.  Please.  Please tell me you didn’t.  Of course, even if you strike that last part, you’ve still managed to silence the experience of an untold number of people who are not having sex, on top of declaring them disabled.  Rather than dealing with the main issue at hand (potential employment discrimination), you’ve taken it upon yourself to label sex significant, when plenty of people who have every ability to engage in it are vocally disagreeing with you.  Can you see me rolling my eyes at you, Washington?  Are you paying attention?

To top it off, the decision is being cheered by certain members of the sex-positive/ sexual communities, who feel that the open-ended definition of “sexual relations” (read: the lack of a definition), which both the plaintiff and the judges seem to understand pretty broadly, (in that they imply everything from “body image and libido to ability to engage in physical activities and the emotional and spiritual fulfillment that may result from sexual activities” is included), suggests legal protection for sexuality in general, rather than simply for reproduction (as was the case in previous rulings.)  To be perfectly honest, I’m a big fan of a broad definition of sexuality.  I would really like to live in a society where “sexuality” and “sex” mean more than sexual acts, although I doubt many people think about more than that when they hear the words at this point.  I am all for a more inclusive definition, and legal protection for newly included populations; I would just urge the sex-positive community (and the fpa and Washington) to pay attention to all the voices out there (including those at AVEN), and make a serious effort not to throw anyone under the bus in their attempts to advocate for someone else.

Short version (since what preceded obviously wasn’t one): Everyone has the right to be who they are, but that includes the right to not be who they aren’t. So, while we all have the right to safe, healthy, consensual sex; we also have the right to no sex at all, and to not be granted a “lesser” or “disabled” status based on where we fall on the a/sexual spectrum… which I guess just points back to why we need to fight for a DSM that doesn’t pathologize asexuality, as well as a place in the sex-positive community, which would lend toward enough of a dialogue that decisions like this one aren’t so automatically praised.