Disability, entertainment and sexuality has been a convoluted relationship not typically explored in mainstream media. There are many societal misconceptions of people with disabilities being seen as non-normative, other or deviant, which has shaped how sexuality of people with disabilities is seen as problematic under the public gaze.
Internationally famed multi-disciplinary performer Matt Fraser, most known for his role in “American Horror Story,” has made it his mission to explore this dynamic and break down the negative misconceptions revolving disability and sexuality.
“When you are disabled, the two things people think you can’t do are fight and have sex … so I’ve got a black belt and I’m really good at shagging. The physical pleasures in life are really important to me,” he said in a recent interview.
How do we shift away from constant negative images and portrayals of disability and sexuality depicted in entertainment that continue to dominate society’s attitudes? People with disabilities and allies have been campaigning for a long time to see change happen, but that does not mean it’s easy.
Tom Shakespeare — an academic with disabilities who authored “The Sexual Politics of Disability” — wrote, “I think images of disability and sexuality either tend to be absent — disabled people being presented as asexual — or else perverse and hypersexual.”
Lived history and media has exploited people with disabilities and their sexuality, suppressed or destroyed for non-disabled peoples’ entertainment. The intention is to set apart and differentiate bodies from abled or not.
The negative legends of theater
From the classic era and onward, these metaphors and tropes have been woven into the very legends and literature presented on stage. Sexuality in relation to disability is portrayed frequently but in a negative light.
For example, the Greek myth of Hephaestus explains how he was born “shriveled of foot” and cast out of Olympus for this. He married the goddess Aphrodite but was unfaithful due to his “impairment.”
Even the novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” exposes the “Chatterley Syndrome” to show the stigma surrounding disability.
The “Chatterley Syndrome” discusses how a man with a disability is considered to have lost his sexual power, leaving the partner to find solace in someone else. Rather than condemn the act of extramartial affair, it fuels the assumption that people with disabilities are incapable of sexual relations. The asexual tripe limits men with disabilities to be impotent, unattrative and vulnerable to exploitation.
It leaves them open to mockery, being used solely for good joke material to ridicule deformities. It perpetuates this notion that people with disabilities should be shielded from sexual relationships or suppress their sexual desires under assumptions they cannot — or should not — seek out pleasure.
A common trope shown throughout William Shakespeare’s work is the idea that disability is a punishment stemming from sin and evil. Most prominent in his work is Richard III, who is viewed as an evil man, punished for committing sins and rendered impotent. He is written as twisted in body and mind — he’s “rudely stamped.”
This type of trope is paradoxical to say the least. It describes disability as a retribution for his evilness yet he is shown as extremely powerful in his life, even though he is viewed as an unsuitable sexual partner.
The invisbility and oppression of sex lives of people with disabilities can have detrimental effects, contributing to low levels of sexual knowledge and inadeqaute sex education. It perpetuates the confusion of sexual identity, reduced self-esteem and self-doubt in embracing their sexual identity. Even on-screen portrayals of the sexual body are focused solely on bodies without disabilities and cater to a certain audience.
Film: “Cripping up” and representation
Sex and disability has long been excluded from popular culture, representation being consistently omitted from the screen in favor of something society has deemed “normal.” The few instances of representation have been problematic or conforming for what the audience wishes to see.
More often than not, people with disabilities are represented by actors who do not have those disabilities. For instance, “The Theory of Everything” shows Eddie Redmayne in the role of Stephen Hawking, joining the long line of actors without the disabilities of the characters they portray — and literally walking away with an award.
Despite this problematic issue, the film does feature Redmayne’s character as capable of sex and jokes around about the topic. The notion that disability and sexuality is an “issue” continues the legacy of asexuality associated with people with disabilities.
“It’s simply really; for us the ‘issue’ is primarily the attitude of others. And it goes beyond an acknowledgement that we have a right to sexual experience. We know we do. But we fight … to have our views genuinely represented in all their forms, and expressed by our own creatives across all art and popular culture,” said Penny Pepper, poet and disability rights activist.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood still has a problem when it comes to representation, however there is little acknowledgment of the problematic casting of able-bodied actors in roles of characters with disabilities.The phenomenon is termed “cripping up.”
“Cripping up” is still widely accepted, while mainstream film has begun to distance itself from whitewashing stories. So, what is the actual difference between the two?
When the community with disabilities raises the issue, they are ignored or silenced.
The exclusion of accurate representation and dismantling of stereotypes is important. Furthering the absence of real people with disabilities on-screen perpetuates the stigma of otherness, as well as the presence of sexuality.
A controversial example is “The Shape of Water,” directed by Guillermo del Toro, which follows the story of the mute Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins), and received thirteen nominations at the Academy Awards two years ago. Some critics are quick to show how there is a positive representation of disability and sexuality — Elisa is portrayed as independent and a sexual being.
However, Sally Hawkins is not mute.
Not only is that problematic but so is her attempt to depict ASL (American Sign Language), which can be viewed as offensive towards people who have been signing since they were kids.
Despite the intention of diversifying and depicting underrepresented stories, filmmakers continue to cast and make production choices out of conformity and fear. Choosing to not work with actors with disabilities, they maintain within the realm of problematic mindsets and ingrained stereotypes.
The taboo of sex and disability in TV
Compared to the world of Hollywood, television’s depiction of people with disabilities has come a long way. In the more recent years, there have been shows opening up the conversation revolving disability and stigma.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still many flaws with the recent shows that have come out, but some representation is better than no representation. While women and people of color have begun to have positions of power in the industry — whether that's behind the camera or in front — there is still room for growth when it comes to individuals with disabilities.
Disability representation has gained more traction, especially on platforms like Netflix, which has more freedom and capability to have more equitable portrayals.
One show that has garnered lots of attraction for its portrayal of a gay man with cerebral palsy is “Special.” Based off of Ryan O’Connell’s memoir, O'Connell serves as the creator, producer and star of the show.
The series explores a semi-autobiographical version of himself, displaying the ups and downs of his life and what it’s like to hide both his disability and sexuality.
In an interview, O’Connell hopes to actually depict a sexual experience for a gay person with a disability and break down that barrier. Not only does he work to destigmatize sex work, but also normalize gay sex for mainstream audiences.
“I hope they feel good that their sexuality is acknowledged. I feel like as disabled people, our private parts just get cut off — we’re like Ken dolls,” O’Connell said. “People don’t really acknowledge that we are sexual beings, and that we have our own wants and desires … So I hope that they feel good that that part of themselves is finally being recognized, and it’s not in a gross, infantilizing way — it’s treated with humanity and respect.”
There is still much to progress in terms of disability and sexuality in entertainment. Able-bodied people tend to categorize people with disabilities as either helpless or as “super-crips” — an idealized person with a disability who serves as inspiration.
Look ahead: Who can access the space?
The media’s influence on ableism and public perception of people with disabilities creates confusion around them being sexual individuals, which is contributed to a lack of representation and affirmation.
It’s almost like this “myth of control,” where people with disabilities can’t be powerful, sexy and in control. When discussing the sexuality and sex drive of a person with disabilties, able-bodied people are confused by this due to their deeply-rooted ignronant misconceptions and fear towards the topic.
The sexual politics of disability are ever-present. Yet, by taking a closer look at the sexual rights, identity and sexual expression of people with disabilities in media and entertainment, it works to dismantle the stigma and taboo around disability and sex.
By ensuring there is more representation and space for people with disabilities in all forms, they can claim their identities and place as sexual beings.
Distancing away from the problematic tropes of people with disabilities — asexual, perverse, hypersexual or punishment — enables there to be proper representation from the community.
It’s time for able-bodied people to stop taking space, but making space.
People with disabilities defy the damaging myths around sex and disrupt problematic norms of sexuality and sexual expression. Through accurate representation, they force us to think outside the box and Hollywood’s conforming view of sex.
There needs to be an exploration of the relationship between disability, entertainment and sexuality, but for folx with disabilities like Pepper, it’s important to remember who is being represented and leading the conversation.
“Nothing about us, without us,” Pepper said.
Lauren Souza is an Arts Editor for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.