Research has shown that disabled people are less likely to have a long-term partner or marry than non-disabled people, although this is very dependent on impairment type. When a 2014 U.K. newspaper poll asked people if they had ever had sex with someone who had a physical disability, 44 percent said “No, and I don’t think I would.”
So how can we shift the negative images of disability and sexuality that still dominate society’s attitudes? Disabled people and their allies have been campaigning for change for decades. While it is not going to be easy, change is on the way, but with it comes new controversies.
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Disabled people’s sexuality has been suppressed, exploited and, at times, destroyed over many centuries. It has been seen as suspect, set apart, and different from the sexuality of non-disabled people.
Tom Shakespeare, a disabled academic, wrote The Sexual Politics of Disability nearly 20 years ago. It remains one of the few evidence-based studies in the field. “I think images of disability and sexuality either tend to be absent—disabled people being presented as asexual—or else perverse and hypersexual,” he says.
The key attitudes identified by Shakespeare appear as threads throughout myth and literature, from classical times onwards. Disabled characters and their sexuality appear relatively frequently in legends and texts, but are usually harnessed to powerful negative metaphors.
Consider the myth of Hephaestus, born “shriveled of foot” and cast out from Olympus by his mother. He is married off to the goddess Aphrodite, but she is unfaithful to him because of his impairment, which unmans him in her eyes, and he is cuckolded and scorned. This trope is repeated, much later, in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where Lady Chatterley satisfies herself with the virile gamekeeper because her husband is a “cripple.”
This scenario, where a disabled man is judged to have lost sexual power because of his impairment and his sexual partner has carte blanche to seek solace elsewhere, has become known as the “Chatterley Syndrome.”
As Shakespeare observes, disabled men (and, to a lesser extent, women) are rendered impotent and sexless by disability, and thus are seen as unattractive and vulnerable to mockery and exploitation. As Cicero wrote: “In deformity and bodily disfigurement, there is good material in making jokes.”
This may explain an assumption often made in the past—that it was better to shield disabled people from reaching out for sexual relationships, rather than risk the potential of being rejected. There was an expectation that disabled people’s sexual desires should be set aside and ignored, because they should not—or could not—be satisfied.
The second trope is that disability is a punishment wreaked for committing a sin and, as such, the disabled person is a wholly unsuitable sexual partner because they are evil and, paradoxically, powerful. One of the best examples is William Shakespeare’s Richard III, who is written as twisted in body and mind or, as he says of himself, “rudely stamped” and rendered impotent by his physical limitations.