From Objects of Sympathy to Objects of Desire: Are We Finally Ready to Embrace the Sexuality of People with Disabilities?

In the world after “The Sessions,” it may finally have permeated the general consciousness that people with disabilities have sexual urges, and even that they act on them. Less clear is how well we acknowledge as a society that people with disabilities can also be the objects of sexual desire, experiencing and enjoying a relationship of mutual attraction, not only spiritual or mental, but physical. This week I was presented with two stories that provided interesting insights. One left me despairing and mildly ill, the other troubled my inner feminist a bit, but left the disability activist/sometimes sexual person with a disability in me cheering. I was truly troubled to find a story out of Minnesota this week about Jordan Knapek, a young man with CP going to prom. The author opens by telling us that we are about to hear “a story about how some of life’s best moments aren’t necessarily perfect.” The next 128 words proceed to focus on just how imperfect Jordan’s life is, focusing primarily on his limitations and his need for assistance. Then, we get to the heart of the story. In a tone reminiscent more of how one might talk about an eight-year-old then a 17-year-old high school senior, the author tells us, “Through his communication device, and in front of our camera, a secret got out. Jordan had been crushing on Rachel.”

Now, did Rachel return his romantic interest? Apparently not. Instead, the aspiring nurse said, “I just want him to have that high school prom experience.”

I will say nothing to impugn her motives. It sounds to me like a teenage girl with a big heart wanted to do something nice, and that really is sweet. It is hardly what I understand to be a high school prom experience, however.

My understanding is that usually when a guy asks a girl who does not fancy him to the prom, she usually turns him down, gently or not depending on the individual. Maybe he stays home and mopes, or maybe he bounces back, asks a girl where the interest is mutual, and has an actual high school prom experience. (I am taking no position on teenage sexuality, merely advocating that whatever prom experience two teenagers have, sexual or otherwise, should be genuine.)

Here, the article only tells us somewhat cryptically, “Jordan had to take in most of the night from afar, but his date did take him for a spin.”For Jordan, assuming that he aspires to real romantic relationships, I view this as a negative experience.

Finding real romance, especially for those of us that present to the world a little differently, is a challenge. In my experience, it requires some magical combination of awkwardness and fumbling along with confidence, assertiveness, and a real vulnerability and openness to rejection and heartbreak.

This experience began with a juvenile premise, the sharing of a “crush” with a third party, and ended with pure fantasy, the uninterested object of affection pretending to the bare minima of a date. This no more real than the high school girl who gives one dance to the first grader with a crush, but far less age-appropriate. I only pray for him that he gets to experience the real love of someone who is interested in him as a romantic partner at some point in his life.

This is not my biggest problem with this story, however. My biggest problem is that it typifies the image of people with disabilities as slightly infantile objects of inspiration, suitable for feel-good playacting, but not for real relationships, and certainly not as potential sexual partners.

Mere hours after I read this story, however, I came across a very different portrayal, one that gives me hope that maybe our journey as a society need not end with “The Sessions”, much less the story above.

I was killing time surfing the Washington Post during one of my physical routines, and I came across the news that the runner-up on the show Dancing with the Stars was a paralympian. Curious about this, I followed the link under her name and was brought to a very different story.

The story opens with a sizzling image:

“Purdy and Hough entwined themselves in more ways than you’d think possible throughout a steamy, ingeniously choreographed cha-cha on the season’s first episode. The twisting hips and tight, fast footwork posed no problem for Purdy, a competitive snowboarder.”

Not until two red hot paragraphs later do we read

 “she has abs of steel. Red-carpet looks. Sex appeal to burn, in a lithe body that’s perfect for the show’s skin-baring costumes. And those legs: Peeking out of her adorable gold-fringed cha-cha pants were gleaming metal rods leading to flesh-toned plastic feet, part Terminator, part department-store mannequin.”

Notwithstanding the cheesy imagery and the blatant objectification, which offended my inner aspiring writer and my inner feminist in equal measure, the first mention of disability comes at the end of a series of paragraphs practically dripping with sex appeal.

Now, this is not to ignore that the author follows the tired conventions of disability journalism, using inspiration porn expressions like “She has looked into the abyss, and clawed her way back.” Also, the very emphasis on the way that disability disappears creates a troubling link between sexual appeal and some idea of "normalcy" or passing, but, one societal problem at a time is enough for me.

Also, much of the midsection of the article is a fascinating look at the potentials of prosthetic design, not germane here.

She closes, however, with the following image.

“Tiptoing [sic] onto the stage for her contemporary-style dance with Hough, Purdy wore a simple silver dress with an airy chiffon skirt, the hem short enough to show her muscular thighs and sleek, jet-black shins, exposed metal ankle joints and rubbery Barbie-doll feet in a permanent point. . . . the emotional power lay in the way he and Purdy moved together, as if the dance floor were a private realm beyond reach of physics. And the final picture painted by the author captivates. She writes, “At one heart-catching moment, Purdy melted into his arms and he swept her around his back as if she were weightless. As if she were swimming through air.”

This paragraph describes beauty and power, eroticism and grace, and breathtaking chemistry, and does this not by ignoring the prostheses nor exalting them, but including them seamlessly in the captivating picture. The reader is captivated by the description this woman not because of her prostheses or in spite of them, but rather because of the whole picture of which they are a part. At the end of the article, Ms. Purdy says “I am not my legs.” This is true, but the beauty of this article is that it shows that the legs can be a part of, rather than apart from, the attractive whole.

Without question, this article, like *Dancing with the Stars* in general, is filled with the sort of cheap sexual theatrics of which I generally disapprove. At the same time, I am truly delighted to see the equality of opportunity in the way those theatrics are applied to a woman with a disability. If I have to choose between people with disabilities being portrayed as children, treated to romantic make-believe by their well-meaning peers, or being portrayed as the potential subject of sexual desire, I think the latter is infinitely preferable.

“The Sessions” taught us that people with disabilities seek meaningful sexual relationships. Maybe, just maybe, we are starting to acknowledge that these attractions can be reciprocal. One can hope.