Below is my contribution to the brilliant Augmenting the Body Sadler Seminar Series which, thanks to the flu, I’m too poorly to be at. I wanted to share it in my absence, so please feel free to read and share. The paper is written from my keynote for Normalcy 2016 at MMU and my talk at the Society for Disability Studies Conference in Atlanta, US, 2015. It builds upon my collective work on the dis/human with Rebecca Lawthom (MMU), Dan Goodley (University of Sheffield) and Katherine Runswick-Cole (MMU). I thank them for their contributions to this paper. To read more about the dis/human, click here.
Our seminar, with Dan Goodley (University of Sheffield) and Angharad Beckett (University of Leeds), is entitled: Augmenting the Body: Disability, Bodily Extensions and the Posthuman, Leeds Humanities Research Institute, University of Leeds, 5th December 2016.
- The contributions I share below are written in the style of a conference paper.
- Feel free to tweet its contents! @kirstyliddiard1
- To cite this paper, please use the following: Liddiard, K. (2016) ‘Provoking Pleasures: Dishuman Possibilities’. Paper presented at Augmenting the Body Sadler Seminar Series, Leeds Humanities Research Institute, University of Leeds, Decemer 2016, viewed DATE, https://kirstyliddiard.wordpress.com
Provoking Pleasures: Dishuman Possibilities
- Illustration courtesy of Lecia Bushak
I want to begin with the words of Mitchell Tepper (2000: 288), ‘pleasure adds meaning to our lives… [it] is particularly powerful in making one feel alive. It is an anecdote to pain, both physical and emotional. It can add a sense of connectedness to the world or to each other’.
Through being denied access to our bodies and to pleasure, disabled people have been rendered on the margins/peripheries of what it means to be human.
In this short provocation I want to centre pleasure to imagine emancipatory modes through which to think about bodies, self and desire in affirmative ways – that bodies with what Wendell (1996:45) calls ‘hard physical realities’ – bodies that droop, sag, spit, dribble, spasm, ache and leak in ways deemed inappropriate (Liddiard and Slater, fc; Morris 1989; Leibowitz 2005) and minds that confuse, forget, hallucinate, or take longer to learn are not non-human or subhuman but can be situated in the realm of the posthuman and dishuman, and as I later claim, the dis/sexual (Goodley, Runswick-Cole and Liddiard 2015) – where disability opens up new ontologies of pleasure and prises open alternative economies of desire.
Disability, Desire and Disqualification
As I have argued elsewhere (Goodley et al. 2015: 11), disabled people’s exclusion from the category of the Human operates on a number of levels within sexual and intimate life (Plummer 2003): ‘it compromises our entry into normative sexual and gender categories; refutes our sexual agency and selfhood; and silences our calls for sexual, reproductive and parenting rights and justice. It is not surprising, given that humanness, humanity and sexuality are so tightly bound in our cultures, that sexual normalcy subsists as a very powerful cultural and political category of which to gain entry’ (Goodley et al. 2015: 11).
Shildrick (2007: 58) argues that contexts of ableism – the privileging of ability, sanity, rationality, physicality and cognition (Braidotti 2012) – have long disqualified disabled people from ‘discourses of pleasure’ that remain the preserve of those deemed human enough.
Disabled desires are, she suggests, dangerous in ‘a cultural imaginary that privileges corporeal wholeness and predictability above any form of bodily anomaly, and that supports fears that non-normative sexuality is always a potential point of breakdown in a well-ordered society’ (Shildrick 2007: 54). Such a thirst for social order disqualifies the pleasures of myriad Othered bodies, as sick and ill people, fat people, women, queer and Trans people, and Black and people of colour (POC) are rendered disgusting and beyond control (Tepper 2000).
But how might we understand disqualification?
But how might we understand disqualification? For many disabled people, pleasure is institutionalised through multiple forms of incarceration, as particular individualised regimes of care and a disciplining therapeutic surveillance disrupt the expression of pleasure (see Siebers 2008; see also Liddiard and Goodley 2016).
Through similar paternalistic processes, pleasure is also colonized, co-opted and pathologised through the interventions of education, medical and social care professionals. For example, masturbation training, chemical castration and over-medicating are routinely used to assuage the assumed animalistic hypersexuality of learning disabled, Black, queer and Mad disabled people (primarily men) (Gill 2015).
Or pleasure is denied (particularly to disabled women and queer people) through a lack of access to sexual and reproductive healthcare (Browne and Russell 2005; Wong 2000; Anderson and Kitchen 2000).
Ignagni et al. (2016) argue that pleasure is further mitigated through material deprivation/poverty, and through exposure to multiple forms of violence: most notably sexual violence (see Sherry 2004).
And, as I have maintained elsewhere, pleasure is readily criminalised through non-normative sexual activities such as sex work (see Liddiard 2014).
And then there are the emotional, psychic and affective politics of pleasure, which includes things like: the absence of Crip sexuality and pleasure in the cultural sphere (film, TV, media); the endemic shaming of disabled people’s sexual expression through oppressive care practices (Slater and Liddiard, forthcoming); and psycho-emotional disablism – what the wonderful Carol Thomas (1999, 60) calls ‘the socially engendered undermining of emotional well-being’ – which can exacerbate the existing denials of an erotic self (Liddiard 2014).
And if that isn’t enough, there’s internalised ableism: the insidious process learning to hate ourselves (Stevens 2011). Crip Sexologist Bethany Stevens (2011: 12) describes this as not being able to ‘muster the capacity to see love for my body’.
Theorising a dishuman disabled sexual subject
Despite such routine and persistent disqualification, however, Crip pleasure exists, persists, survives and thrives – (Liddiard 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016).
Elsewhere, I have used Goodley, Runswick-Cole and Lawthom’s (2014) generative tool of the dis/human to explore what I label the dis/sexual (Goodley et al. 2015). Through the dis/human, it becomes possible to ‘recognise the norm, the pragmatic and political value of claiming the norm while always seeking to disrupt and contest it’ (Goodley and Runswick-Cole 2014: 5).
In an easy digestible sentence, the dis/human acknowledges a desire for the Human, at the same time as challenging its very narrow boundaries.
Similarly, then, the dis/sexual positions disability as productive disruption to the idealised forms of human sexuality from which we are excluded, but recognises that the majority of disabled people, like those in my own research, hold a desire to be included (Liddiard 2012).
The dis/sexual offers a space through which disabled people can claim their humanness through conventional modes of sex and gender (if they so choose), yet simultaneously defy and exceed its confines (Goodley, Runswick-Cole and Liddiard 2015).
I want to give 3 brief everyday dishuman examples from my own research to embody some of this theory and ask, what is the dis/sexual?
In this first example, the Dis/sexual might mean welcoming non-normative and queered pleasures and practices (that some impaired bodies often demand) into heterosexual, or otherwise normative, sex.
On the slide is a verbal exchange from Shaun and Hannah, a couple I interviewed for my research. They are discussing the wondrousness of the displaced erogenous zone – a product of Shaun’s impaired body – and the ways in which this re-inscribes their heterosexual sex with new meanings (for them):
Shaun: “I have very sensitive areas on my shoulders and… ‘cos that’s where I was injured so that’s kind of a natural thing… so it’s nice just for the touching side of things, really.”
Hannah: “Yeah, I remember the first time, because I didn’t know that about spinal injury and I was stroking Shaun’s shoulder and he was like “wow!” [Collective laughs] I was like, “What?!” I think I must have stroked it for an hour!”
Shaun: “She gets bored after a couple of minutes now! [Laughs]”
Hannah: “So that was an eye opener; that wow, so… I think you could get to the stage of having an orgasm through touching above the injury, which is amazing really.”
The ability to orgasm through ones shoulder undoubtedly queers the sexually embodied norms of the conventional erotic body that dictates that orgasms are, rather boringly, bound only to genitals (Ostrander 2009). But what makes this quintessentially dis/sexual is the desire for orgasm. Hannah and Shaun laboured extensively to ensure that Shaun experienced orgasm, reinforcing the primacy of orgasm for sexual pleasure (see Hawkes et al 1996) whereby the orgasm is, as Thea Cachioni (2007: 306, my emphasis) suggests, is positioned as the ‘natural outcome of sex – the only option for successful sex’. Thus, it was considered too abnormal by the couple (at that point) to embrace sexual intimacy without orgasm.
So, the dis/sexual recognises this desire for the norm (orgasm as integral to sexual practice) at the same time as contesting and disrupting the very entrenched notions of the conventional, charted orgasm and the embodied ways in which this materialises (Masters and Johnson 1959).
In this next example the Dis/sexual means privileging normative modes of phallocentric sexuality via non-normative practices either with/without genitals and/or with the support of (sexual) bodily technologies or enhancements.
At the top of this slide is an image of a piece of equipment called the Intimate Rider. For those of you who don’t know, The Intimate Rider was designed to enable men with paralysis to enhance their mobility during intercourse. Much of its marketing is aimed at re/gaining the physicality synonymous with a normative masculine sex role. The product emphasises a reclamation discourse based on ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ ways of ‘doing’ (importantly, only) normative heterosex.
From a dis/sexual perspective, the Intimate Rider at once extends and restores the naturalised male body to its “expected” purpose at the same time as queering and technologising that same sexual body as hybridised, a mix of flesh and machine, thus constituting a form of sexual cyborg (Haraway 1991) – opening our minds up to the possibilities of dis/sexual technologies, perhaps?
In this final example, the Dis/sexual means having intimate and loving relationships through paid-for sexual encounters. In this example on the slide, Abram is describing an intimate encounter with his sex worker, to whom he lost his virginity. On the slide is a small excerpt of a long and cherished email exchange with her that he generously shared with me during the telling of his sexual story:
[Reading her email aloud] Abram: “It was the most incredible privilege for me to be intimate with a human being as beautiful and sexual. She said, ‘I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t live up to your expectations and I truly wanted it to be a really wonderful and comfortable experience’. Um … she said it was a ‘privilege to be the lady that you chose to experience sexuality with for the first time – it’s an honour that will stay with me for my whole life’.”
The intimacy between Abram and his sex worker challenges prevailing discursive and legal constructions of sex work as social deviancy and anti-social behaviour (see Kantola and Squires 2004; Outshoorn 2001), and disabled male sexualities as deviant when they contradict the typical dis/ableist tropes of passivity, vulnerability and innocence. In terms of the dis/sexual, disability emerges as an extraordinary vector through which devotion, affection, and tenderness can materialise within commercial transactions/interactions. We can see this in commercial caring relationships, too, as Fritsch (2010: 8) argues in her work on intimate assemblages within what she calls ’transactions mediated by capital’. Disability can (re)inscribe, then, commodified, saleable and typically-alienable labour with reciprocity, affect, and affinity.
To move towards a conclusion, then, disability, by its very nature – offers possibilities for opening up new ontologies of pleasure and alternative economies of desire, even within the very confining boundaries of Human Sexuality.
Drawing Some Conclusions
As ever, I’m conscious not to over-conclude; but as a brief summary:
- Each of the examples I have offered – taken from disabled people’s own sexual stories – aspires to a dis/ableist human sexual normalcy and normative modes of pleasure while inherently being non-normative and – in part – non-human.
- Each claims the normative sexual/ised self as a marker of humanity, yet revises human sexuality as we know it.
- Each strives for the “natural” through technologies, enhancements and extensive labour. Thus, each these – I tentatively conclude – embody the dis/sexual.
A couple of critical questions I want to finish on, and which I hope will build into our discussions today, are:
- Do we all – as the sexy posthuman/dishuman subjects that we are (regardless of whether we hold/live an impairment label or not) – want to claim the dis/sexual?
- What is the value in doing so, where our sexual liberation/emancipation, however we might imagine them, are concerned?
- What might it mean – both individually and collectively – to be part of a dis/sexual culture?
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