Conversations – By Pamela Brent and Stephanie Davis with a little help from their friends
From: Women and Disability – An Issue. A Collection of writings by women with disabilities. This booklet was produced by the Melbourne based Women with Disabilities Feminist Collective in the late 1980’s. The exact publishing date is unknown. Copyright.
The Women’s Liberation Movement for many years has been pro-orgasm and supportive of sexual responsiveness in women. Women have progressed from women’s sexuality being seen in terms of male/penile penetration and vaginal orgasm, to the creation of broadening aspects of sexuality. This has provided both women and men with alternatives to monogamous forms of heterosexuality and also to marriage. The “discovery” of the clitoral orgasm, has been viewed as giving all women an opportunity for sexual satisfaction. However, this analysis or viewpoint, like others, leaves out, denies and oppresses the experience and deeds of women who have disabilities. The implications of “clitoral orgasmist ideology” results in the inference that women who are unable to orgasm will see it in terms of that there is something “wrong” with them. As yet both in practice and ideology too much emphasis is placed upon the achievement of the orgasm, only this time the tables are turned. The following is an interview/discussion that was conducted between two women who have what they would like to term non-traditional and/or reduced orgasm potential.
Pamela: When I became disabled no one ever talked to me about sexuality. I was too young for it to be an issue at that stage, but my disability was not going to disappear. I was able to find out about disability and sex indirectly by contacting the Social Biology Resources Centre (in Melbourne) but this only provided information about male sexuality. I was too embarrassed to ask questions about female sexuality and no mention was made. The information concentrated on male erection and male performance. For me the most difficult thing was not even knowing whether physiologically I could have an orgasm, even though I found sexual arousal pleasurable. I had felt that to be a “real” able-bodied woman you had to be able to orgasm.
Stephanie: I find it hard to control my physical responses and have difficulty in identifying sensory stimulation in the lower regions, controlling muscular responsiveness/non-responsiveness. Also sometimes movement is a problem. I know what doesn’t work rather than know what does through experimentation in sexual encounters. As there is an underlying emphasis on orgasm, sexual interaction and involvement can become a very anxious and guilt ridden time. There are stages sometimes when I lose a certain degree of feeling, so clitoral stimulation has been less effective, particularly in terms of orgasm. At a psychological level frustration can occur and I feel it is more important to make the experience more sensual with less genital emphasis.
Pamela: It took me a long time just to work out what an orgasm was. I was not sure what I was exactly aiming for or if I could even have an orgasm because I had paralysis. It was a relief to find that I could and I think that I would have been less open to discuss this issue if I were still in the stage of trying. It has meant a lot of experimentation with lovers and it has been a progression in coming to know my body. One of the difficulties has been being able to ask for what I want but I think that this is an issue for most women, but particularly for women who have a disability. It is very hard to educate people all the time – the area of sexuality is probably the most vulnerable and exposing. It can also tie in with your whole self concept and body image. I think many disabled people are just not seen as sexual beings with sexual needs and feelings.
Stephanie: I have felt very hesitant about being intimate or being involved in a sexual relationship. My disability started occurring when I was in my teens and when I was beginning to go out socially. At the time I steered clear of relationships for a while. I still believe that most people view sex/sexuality as being performance orientated and I am having great difficulty working through that I see this issue linked to self image in a hard to define sense – even if you are in a steady relationship with one person that doesn’t depend on orgasm to succeed. For me the difficulty is in what I desire in my mind and the energy needed to educate others so that they understand the limitations and redefinition of my body. I hate dealing with rejection based on disability.
Pamela: Because of my lack of confidence due to my body image, I find it very hard to initiate a sexual contact. I couldn’t go to a party and just pick someone up for the night.
Stephanie: Would you feel just as hesitant if someone picked you up?
Pamela: No, because if I was attracted to the person I’d feel that they’d know what they “were getting”.
Stephanie: Does that mean that you wouldn’t have had to take responsibility for your body image?
Pamela: Yes. More than that I would have the power to remain detached. I don’t see that as very positive behaviour but it’s one way that I have found of coping with intimate relationships. It means that I don’t get hurt by rejection but it also means that I don’t really have to confront the disability or my attitudes to it. It is a really limiting way of relating. Have you ever felt like this?
Stephanie: No. Mainly because I have not had many relationships. But I can give you an analogy. When I go to places where a sexual contact is possible I usually do one of two things. I either deny my disability by not talking about it or wearing fancy clothes or secondly try to politicise everyone in the place about disability. Places like discos remind me of what I used to be like. Depending on how I am feeling emotionally that can be very painful or very challenging. I think though that a lot of women with disabilities are open to be exploited. Some women that I have spoken to have talked about this. They will go along with that one night stand syndrome indiscriminately or too readily because it is so flattering to be recognised for once as a sexual being. That means that people who for whatever reason, have found it difficult to have relationships with a “normal” woman will “lower” themselves to have a relationship with a disabled woman. All disabled people are devalued in this society and that makes me angry.
Pamela: I find it much more satisfying to have relationships with people that know me. That means that I am not just recognised in terms of body image, but as a person. It has meant that I have had some very satisfying relationships.
Stephanie: Getting back to the subject of the politics of orgasm, there is a direct link between it and social control. This is particularly apparent in the area of access to information about either sexuality and/or the ramifications of post operative surgery. Hospitals tend to provide information (which is fairly limited) in terms of intercourse and marriage. Disabled women who are “past the years of sexual activity” have their needs neglected. For young women who aren’t meant to be “doing it”, information is given with hesitance or the woman is told to be patient and when she gets married things will work themselves out. Apart from access, or should I say non-access to information, all women are conditioned to feel inadequate and passive. Assertive sexuality and behaviour is seen as bad and to be masculine. With disabled women I often worry about the increased internalisation of feelings of inadequacy. I can see this in myself and other disabled women that I know. Very real fears of rejection based on past experiences coupled with a degree of “blown up” phobias create difficulties in being able to find out new ways of relating sexually and to educate our non-disabled lovers.
Pamela: Yes I agree. There definitely needs to be more discussion about new ways of relating, for example non- genital sexuality. Potentially the women’s movement through its analysis of the politics of marriage, and sex role stereo-typing can create new avenues of awareness and sensitivity. This is the cornerstone to gaining equality with other women. The issues are very difficult though because it is an area that is most challenging and threatening.
Some thoughts: Questions to able-bodied people, particularly women.
When you walk into a room do you:
1. Look around to see who is most attractive, that is who fits into the current heterosexual sexual stereotype.
2. Look to see who fits into your age stereotype.
3. When you meet a lesbian with a disability do you make assumptions that she is non-sexual because she doesn’t fit into the heterosexual able-bodied physicalist stereotype.
4. When in conversation with a group of women do you direct eye contact towards the other women and away from a disabled woman.
5. When you are involved in arranging women’s social activities do you forget and hold them in inaccessible and noisy places.