In 1989 Ellen Stohl, who had become a wheelchair user after a car accident, appeared in an eight-page spread in Playboy magazine. She had pushed to do so, she explained later, because it was important for her to express her right to sexuality. “Sexuality is the hardest thing for a disabled person to hold on to,” she said in a TV interview. “I am a woman more than a wheelchair.”
Regarding Playboy owner Hugh Hefner, she added: “He believed that I could have the same sexual voice as women without disabilities.”
But despite pioneers such as Stohl, disabled women still face acute disadvantage today. Kirsty Liddiard, a disabled sociologist from Sheffield University, has written about how disabled women have found it difficult to claim ‘positive sexual self-hood’, partly because of the lack of positive role models in mainstream culture.
“Where we do – for example, in films and on television,” Liddiard writes, “we are usually depicted as sexless, burdensome and pitiful…Disabled men could, more easily, claim a sexual selfhood they were quite happy with despite the fact that we think of masculinity as being rooted in strength.”
She adds, in an interview, that people idealise womanhood, and the tropes of womanhood that are revered are unmanageable for all women but particularly so for disabled women.
“They have to mediate those two issues – womanhood and disability – at the same time, in a patriarchal world,” she says. “Disabled people have been largely silent about this until recently, where it has been loudly and proudly placed on disability rights and justice agendas.”
When it started (in the UK and USA), the disability movement was largely white, male and dominated by those with physical impairments.
The well-known South African-born activist Vic Finkelstein, one of the founders of the movement, said over ten years ago: “The visible prevalence of people using wheelchairs in UPAIS [Britain’s first disability rights organisation] made some groups…awfully suspicious of what we wanted to achieve.”
Baroness Jane Campbell, in an interview for my book Scapegoat: Why we are failing disabled people, said that the early days of the disability rights movement could be justly characterised as “white and male”. The privileging of male desire – by both disabled and non-disabled people – has to be seen within this context. It is now being consciously questioned by a cadre of British and American disabled women and male allies. (Many leading activists also identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual and have to confront prejudice because of their sexuality as well.)
But at least the conversation about the inequalities between disabled men and women has begun. One person who freely acknowledges the problems is Alex Ghenis, an American disability advocate. He has been instrumental in running panels at UC Berkeley, California – entitled ‘Are Cripples Screwed?’ – that examine issues around disability, love and sexuality. Although they have been pioneering for students and academics (men and women alike), he notes that the road to sexual self-expression isn’t easy for everybody.
“There’s a big spectrum out there, just as there is for able people too,” says Ghenis. “Not everyone identifies as sexually worthy. Women with disabilities seem to have a hard time, because society places such a premium on the sexy female body, whereas there are women with nurturing personalities who might have a relationship with a disabled man.”
Penny Pepper – whose book of erotic short stories, Desires Unborn, explores the desires of both disabled men and disabled women – wants to see equality of access for both sexes to sexual opportunities. She points out, for example, that the campaign to legalise and improve access to brothels in the UK has been, in the main, about satisfying male sexual desire.
She posits something different: “I have fantasised about a playhouse, where you can experiment, where there are sex surrogates and sex furniture. This would be for both men and women.”
Liddiard, for her part, also wants to get away from the “tired media conversation” about whether accessible brothels should be legalised.
She says: “I want to talk about how women still live with constructed sexualities where it is difficult to talk about pleasure, where their sexuality is suppressed, and where they are not allowed to experiment or explore their sexuality.”