In response to the fact that there is currently no society at Leeds University which deals with disability issues, a thought provoking film was shown by the newly-fledged Disability Action Group, who are working towards becoming an influential society. The film took a personal and touching look at sexuality in relation to people with disabilities living in the US, looking at the difficulties they face as well as the joys they experience.
Made in 2007 by a group of women called ‘The Empowered Fefes’, the film shows that, in a world where it is generally difficult to talk about or express your sexuality, it can be even harder to see where you fit in if you are female and disabled. Many people don’t know where to start when talking about this issue (as demonstrated by a young man who the Fefes interviewed, who tied himself in knots over what terminology to use and called people with disabilities ‘normal, just like everybody else’, thus implying that they are outside ‘normality’, and prompting the women to ask him what normal actually means).
It was shown that issues of disability can overlap with feminist issues. For example, the sign language gesture for male masturbation is taught, while the female version is rarely (if ever) demonstrated. The women in the film talked of wanting more respect, and having to negotiate vulnerability because of physical barriers and negative attitudes. One person spoke of how during an argument, her boyfriend put her on the bathroom floor and left her, knowing that she could not get up alone. Disabled women often find it harder to access support and services for domestic violence and relationship problems. Ownership of the body was a prominent issue. One woman expressed the opinion that she felt that her personal assistants believed they had power over her body, and even parents were called out for feeling undue ownership of or responsibility for a son or daughter with disabilities. These women want to be the only ones who get to make decisions about what happens to their bodies. It was not so long ago that Eugenics was a popular science, and between 1900 and the 1960’s, 20,000 Californians with disabilities were forcibly sterilized by scientists who felt they had the right to make complex and personal decisions about the bodies of others.
However, the film didn’t stay in sobering territory. It also showed that women (and men) with disabilities can have relationships as meaningful as any other. “Don’t let the wheels fool you” said one Fefe. These women were not apologetic about talking about sex andreclaiming their sexuality, and their fears and concerns are no different to the ones you or I might have. They too have to consider who to give their heart to, and think about the qualities they look for in a man. A man being questioned about his relationship with a female wheelchair user said that sexually speaking, she was no different to any other person he had been with; he had to learn about her body, and likes and dislikes, and treat her with the respect which all of us deserve. The Empowered Fefes want meaningful, healthy and equal relationships, and don’t want to be targeted by people because of some kind of fascination with their disability; one woman said she was tired of being targeted by older men who just wanted to date someone vulnerable.
In today’s society, sex often seems to be something that only certain people can lay claim to, and if someone is outside of those ideals, they have less of a right to talk about sex and sexuality. However, Doin’ it demonstrated that we all have a right to have control over our bodies and what we do with them; we are the owners of our sexuality. That being said, we cannot get away from the fact that inequalities still exist (such as in terms of impregnation and satisfaction aids which men with disabilities can get but which women cannot receive), and someone being interviewed in Doin’ it spoke about receiving ‘funny looks’. Disabled people are often marginalised from our increasingly sexualized world, and more steps need to be taken towards enabling the disabled to become empowered and take control of their own bodies. Progress is being made, but there is still a long way to go.
Naomi Anderson Whittaker
Image Courtesy of Doin’ it: Sex, Disability and Videotape Documentary