Thursday, May 17 2012
It’s Saturday night and the music is loud. Lurid red lights, thoughtfully tinted to disguise stretchmarks and cellulite, flood the stage where a slim-hipped teenager snaps bubble-gum and shimmies. Coiffed Amazons in stilettos stalk amongst groups of suits, artlessly negotiating lap-dances. In the midst of this Bacchanalian revelry, renowned astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking reclines in his wheelchair as scantily clad ladies writhe above him.
The 70-year-old, who is almost paralysed due to a motor neurone disease, was outed this month by Radaronline.com as a regular client of a Californian strip club. Jokes about g-string theory aside, the media seemed to be wholly tickled by the news. But what was so funny? That an astrophysicist would go to a titty bar? Or, that a man in a wheelchair would frequent a strip club, just like one of the guys? One charming source found the image of Hawking “paying naked women to grind all over his genius crippled body” particularly amusing.
Hawking, it seems, is just another example in a long line of negative media portrayals of the disabled. US hit TV show Glee came under fire in 2009 for hiring an able bodied actor to play Artie Abrams, a paraplegic character. In an exceptionally enlightened episode, lucky Artie gets to lose his virginity to pretty blonde Brittany. Obviously, there’s no danger of Brittany falling for Artie—it’s all a ploy to make another girl jealous. The implication is clear: damaged goods don’t date cheerleaders.
Clearly, portraying the sexual experiences of people with disabilities is a minefield. The prevailing cliché of pitiful, wheelchair-bound souls pining for a ‘normal’ life is almost cheesy. And if they do manage to get some, it’s usually out of pity or under very particular circumstances. Perhaps audiences are just more comfortable with this image. But what’s so discomforting about the disabled getting it on ‘just like the rest of us’?
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 20% of the population has a disability of some kind. Dr. Patsie Frawley’s project, Living Safer Sexual Lives, illuminates the challenges facing the intellectually disabled in relationships. Stories collected from people with intellectual disabilities helped inform her research. She points to the high risk of sexual and physical abuse among these individuals and to the way in which the sexuality of disabled people is often marginalised: “For many people with severe and profound disabilities, I would say, the major concerns for them would be that it’s just not an area of their life that people engage with them about.”
“They’re a group that primarily are still seen as ‘not able’ much more so than other groups because of the nature of their disability,” says Frawley. “It’s much harder to prove you’re able when you have an intellectual disability and you mightn’t be able to communicate terribly well, or you may be dependant on understanding the world through other people. Certainly, there’s a lack of recognition that people with an intellectual disability can have positive sexual experiences and can and want to have relationships.”
“For young women with an intellectual disability, particularly, those with a mild intellectual disability, a massive issue is parenting,” Frawley notes. “In fact, it’s still a huge experience of people having that right to be a parent questioned and there being interventions around that.”
Vicky*, an intellectually disabled participant in Living Safer Sexual Lives, shared her own experience with Frawley’s team. “I had two children”, she writes, “The Welfare took ’em. I haven’t seen them… I miss them.” A 2001 report from Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) highlighted the prevalence of unlawful sterilisation protected under Australian law. Underreporting is rife, and WWDA has championed the banning of the invasive and irreversible practice.
It’s not just parenting that is off-limits. Sydney blogger and disability rights activist, Chally Kacelnik believes that “people with disabilities are routinely seen as bad catches.” Kacelnik, who is chronically ill, points out the challenges facing disabled women when it comes to sex and relationships.
“There is actually some kind of societal effort to understand disabled men as having sexualities, which we see with, for instance, various sex work programs designed for them. If you’re not a bloke, however, your sexual desire and pleasure don’t seem to matter a whole lot to society. Disabled women are often not seen as gendered, sexual, or visible”.
NSW advocacy group Touching Base works with sex workers in order to create a safe and supportive environment for clients, but as Kacelnik points out, like most sex work, these services are marketed primarily towards men.
“People with physical disabilities are often asked whether they can have sex, or how they have sex, which are really rather personal questions,” Kacelnik notes.
“Personally, I reckon that if you can’t figure out how to have sex with someone with a disability of a kind that makes conventional sex difficult, you’re the one who’s going to be the bad lay as you’re clearly lacking in imagination.”
- This name has been changed.