Pleasure, porn and power: rethinking sex and disability

I recently had the below article published in The Conversation; please click here to go to the original article.

Alluring woman in red dress laying down.

Is sexual attraction to curving spines, scarred stumps, leg braces and prostheses any different to finding certain types of breasts, waists, and legs appealing? Devotees don’t think so.

If you don’t know, a (disability) devotee is someone who identifies as having a sexual attraction to disability – someone who finds the kinds of bodily difference that impairment can invoke sexually appealing, titillating and desirable.

In prevailing sexual cultures that reify sexual normalcy, this form of sexual attraction is pathologised as sexual perversion and paraphilia – a state in which a person’s sexual arousal and gratification includes fantasising about something deemed “atypical”, “abnormal” or “extreme”. Examples of this include abasiophilia – an attraction to disability aids such as leg braces, and acrotomophilia – an attraction to amputees.

documentary on devoteeism, with a disabled presenter, the wonderful Emily Yates, recently aired on the now online-only BBC Three.

As a proud disabled woman who researches the intersections of gender, sexuality and disability as a sociologist, it struck me as I sat watching – at 31 – how seldom I’d ever seen a disabled woman as a presenter or protagonist on television. We so rarely get to see disabled women as thinking, feeling, and acting subjects.

Yates’ confident and interventionist approach – which involved making her own devotee porn as part of her research for the documentary – served to counter common assumptions of disabled women as inherently vulnerable, undesirable and sexless.

Her self-made devotee porn film, in which she filmed herself transferring from her wheelchair to her car (it is not uncommon for devotees to want to see the pragmatics of living with disability), has since had more than 4,000 views, much to the excitement of the Daily Mail.

Such an approach embodied for the audience a woman – a disabled woman – provocatively playing with power, desire and pleasure in ways seldom avowed.

Hopelessly devoted to you

The debates that surround devoteeism as a practice are complicated, and take place both inside and outside of disabled people’s own communities and movements.

Devoteeism is a vehicle that opens up possibilities for rethinking the conventional erotic body at a time when narrowing aesthetic ideals – which very few people embody – are closing it down.

Devoteeism is often only viewed as a sexual fetish – a pleasure taken from the product of niche pornography – rather than a sexual preference, a form of intimacy, or part of a loving relationship. The latter are some of the ways disabled people in my own research have spoken about devoteeism, and of their own experiences with devotees.

Representations of devoteeism often reiterate well-rehearsed “preference or perversion” debates, when in reality devoteeism can be both, neither, and anything in between.

Proponents of devoteeism often argue that it serves to challenge conventional notions of beauty and attractiveness, as common understandings of the impaired body as “abject” and “grotesque” radically shift.

Power and pleasure

But for many, devoteeism is often far more about power than pleasure; a form of exploitation. Disabled people of all genders – but particularly women – can be abused and exploited by devoteeism.

In the documentary we see Yates become upset at the objectification of devoteeism – she questions whether the devotee with whom she is engaging is looking at her or her body, herself or, as she puts it, her “struggle”, the daily tasks she finds hard.

Devotees’ potential arousal at Yates’ “struggle” – marked as a point of shame for her – is degrading. A common thematic across much of mainstream pornography. Maybe, then, this raises broader questions about the limits of pornography, and disability within it?

Disabled people are routinely objectified, made a spectacle of and denied a lack of privacy in their lives; often reduced to object, other and burden. But the visual politics of pornography do not always have to render the subject an object. There are forms of pornography, such as self-directed porn and feminist porn (porn made by self-identifying feminists), which can give the subject much greater control over representation.

Sexual violence?

The documentary touched upon devotees secretly filming disabled people on the street, and stealing their images from social media – which of course, without consent, is sexual violence.

Disabled women already experience sexual violence in greater numbers than disabled men and non-disabled women. They also experience an overwhelming lack of access and support to leave situations of violence – partly because the majority of women’s services and refuges don’t cater to their needs.

But while abuse, exploitation and violence can be a reality for disabled people, these aren’t necessarily behaviours inherent to devoteeism as a practice – as long as full consent is present.

But we must also be mindful that disabled people can exploit and abuse devotees – vulnerability isn’t inherent to, nor the preserve of, disability.

So while devoteeism isn’t for everyone, sexual modes through which disabled people can erotically play with disability – in ways that do not reproduce them as an object – can be progressive.

It might be more helpful then, to consider the ways in which devoteeism, like kink, BDSM, and voyeurism can be safe, consensual, and reciprocal; and acknowledge that together pleasure, power and play are not innately deviant or dangerous, even in the context of disability.

Either way, Yates’ explorations embodied these complex debates in new and interesting ways. She has moved the conversation forward and done so from a perspective that is so often missing – that of disabled women themselves.

Lancaster Disability Studies Conference 2016

Inaugural Sexuality Stream 2016 Call for Papers

Convened by Tom Shakespeare, University of East Anglia, and Kirsty Liddiard, University of Sheffield

The foundational text, The Sexual Politics of Disability, was ‘the first book to look at the sexual politics of disability from a disability rights perspective’ (Shakespeare, Davies and Gillespie-Sells, 1996: 1). Ground-breaking in its contents and its approach, the sexual stories contained within the covers of the book – told by disabled people themselves – challenged the prevailing myth of asexuality and other tropes which render disabled people as perverse, hypersexual, or as lacking sexual agency.

Despite this scholarly activism, the sexual, intimate, gendered, and personal spaces of disabled people’s lives remain relatively under-researched and under-theorised in comparison to other spaces of their lives. Rarely are disabled people themselves authors or co-producers of this work. Where austerity policies dominate, we are unsure of how this impacts the possibilities for intimacy and relationships. Conversely, we lack evidence about the impact of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Significant gaps remain in our knowledge of disabled people’s experiences of sex, love and relationships, then, often in marked areas.

This inaugural sexuality stream marks the 20th anniversary of The Sexual Politics of Disability (1996). In this stream, we aim to celebrate and encourage the broad bodies of work that have emerged within the ever-expanding field of disability studies, gender studies and sexuality studies. For this stream, we will prioritise papers containing original social research, as a response to the relative dearth of empirical work within the field.

We are thrilled to have Don Kulick, Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology at Uppsala University, Sweden, as keynote speaker. His books include Travesti: sex, gender and culture among Brazilian transgendered prostitutes (1998), Fat: the anthropology of an obsession (2005, edited with Anne Meneley), Language and Sexuality (2003, with Deborah Cameron) and most recently Loneliness and its Opposite: sex, disability and the ethics of engagement (2015, with Jens Rydström).

We welcome papers on the following themes:

  1. Identity and imagery: masculinities, femininities, Queer and Trans* identities
  2. Intersections of gender, race, sexuality, class, nationality, age, and religion/faith/spirituality.
  3. Sex education and sexual health
  4. HIV/AIDS
  5. Pleasure, sensuality and desire
  6. Sexual and bodily esteem, confidence, self-worth and self-love
  7. Impairment, embodiment and corporeality
  8. Psycho-emotional disablism
  9. Barriers to sexual expression
  10. Youth
  11. Parenting
  12. Learning disability and sex/uality
  13. Mental health, distress and intimacy
  14. Intersections of personal assistance, residential and social care, and intimacy
  15. Sex work and sex industries
  16. Sexual, emotional and intimate-partner violence
  17. BDSM, kink, and fetish
  18. Online and cyber sexuality
  19. Sexual drugs, enhancements and technologies
  20. Human rights law and disabled sexualities
  21. Researching sex/uality: data collection, methodology and analysis
  22. Theoretical contributions: Critical Disability Studies, Feminist disability studies; Queer Theory; Crip Theory; Posthuman and DisHuman studies.

Contributions that reflect on any of these themes are invited from academic and non-academic researchers, scholars, activists, and artists. These themes are indicative only, and we will consider proposals that fall outside them so long as these relate to the overall conference stream. We welcome offers of traditional academic papers (20 minutes max) and also welcome proposals and presentations in alternative and/or creative formats (e.g. film, animation, poetry). Submissions should be made through easychair and please specify you wish to be considered for this stream.

If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Kirsty or Tom: k.liddiard@sheffield.ac.uktom.shakespeare@uea.ac.uk

Please see here for the Mad Studies stream and here for the main conference call for papers.

 

#ScholarTed and the Academics with Cats Awards 2015

While I typically blog purely about my scholarly work, research and activism, this month is a little different. That’s because – without further ado – the legendary Scholar Ted has won the Academics with Cats Awards 2015!

Scholar Ted

Scholar Ted’s trying to shake off his radical feminist tendencies…

The awards, run by the brilliant Academia Obscura blog, asked academics to tweet pictures of their cats as they “work” alongside them: flopped over the keyboard; laying over books; getting in the way; pawing playfully at studious faces… the list is endless. Check out the #AcademicsWithCats hashtag to see the brilliance. Entrants were shortlisted and after a nervous wait, winners were announced just before Christmas. Scholar Ted won Best in Show (1st Place) and also Best Writing…

Scholar Ted

Scholar Ted loves how posthuman politics contest the anthropocentrism of life.

Scholar Ted, who lives through the perils of academia with me, usually on my desk, has been a scholar for some time – the awards merely offered a chance to show his scholarly self in action. Scholar Ted is the scholar I would love to be: he is confident; he knows his worth; he is openly critical of the dis/ableist neoliberal academy, venting without fear; and simply refuses to work the obligatory 60 hours a week. Instead, he chooses self-care: napping up to 14 hours a day, putting himself first, and only crying for another pouch of Felix As Good As It Looks (other reputable cat foods are available…) In short, he’s a bit of a legend. He also sits on my desk everyday, meaning he’s a great collaborator. He has now been featured in the Guardian and The Times… Checkout our #ScholarTed on Twitter, and send Ted a tweet if you’d like. He has a growing fan base and would like to get to know you.

Scholar Ted

Hmm… So it’s Dis/Ability now…

Finally, a MASSIVE THANK YOU to Academia Obscura and to everyone who voted for Ted; he’ll be taking up his new role as Mice Chancellor in the next academic year.

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Paw-Reviewing

Scholar Ted

Paw-Reviewing

Scholar Ted Scholar Ted Scholar Ted Scholar Ted

Talking about Sex, Sexuality and Relationships: Guidance and Standards

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog post has been re-blogged from here).

Assistance for supporting young people with life-threatening or life-limiting conditions (sic) who want to explore their sexuality and develop relationships is offered to practitioners in a new comprehensive guide co-authored by Dr Kirsty Liddiard from the Faculty.

Talking about Sex, Sexuality and Relationships: Guidance and Standards is published by The Open University in partnership with UK children’s palliative care charity Together for Short Lives and the OU Sexuality Alliance. The publication gives guidance and standards for health, social care and education practitioners who support young people with limited lifespans.

The guide has been developed with young people, local and national organisations to help break down taboos around disabled young people and sexuality, and to help professionals develop communication skills and confidence in exploring sexuality for these young people both safely and legally.

It aims to boost the confidence of practitioners in talking to young people about intimacy and their sexuality and help organisations to provide robust governance and better understand the legal framework.

Dr Kirsty Liddiard, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Education said: “Participating in the OU Sexuality Alliance and co-authoring the Guidance and Standards was a way for me to utilise and apply new key knowledges of disability, sexuality and youth from my doctoral at the University of Warwick, and later, my postdoctoral research at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. It also offered experience of working across practitioner, academic and charity settings, and with a range of multidisciplinary health and social care professionals.

“I am really proud to say that a key part of creating the Guidance and Standards was seeking the views of young disabled people themselves, listening to their experiences and responding in ways that centre their sexual and intimate rights.

“The aim of the guide, for me, was to ensure that the myriad of professionals and carers that work with young disabled people are well equipped to support, advocate and care in holistic ways.”

More than 25 young people with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions contributed to the report. Two of the young people, Hameed Jimoh (Junior) and Lucy Watts jointly wrote the report’s foreword.

They said: “Yes, talking about sex, intimacy and providing practical support for young people like us can be challenging, but such discussions shouldn’t be ignored and swept under the carpet. Staff just need training and support.”

Here are some articles on the project featured in the Independent and BBC Newsbeat.

Talking About Sexuality and Relationships: Guidance and Standards

Talking About Sexuality and Relationships: Guidance and Standards

Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward

On Monday 9th November, Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward, took place at St Mary’s Church, Sheffield, as part of the Economic and Social Science Research Council’s Festival of Social Sciences. Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward was a workshop for people with learning disabilities and/or autism (hereby labelled people), self-advocates, their families, friends, allies and those who work with and for them (e.g. care staff, support workers, social workers, and associated professionals). Members of the public, students, and activists who share an interest in the workshop themes were also welcome. See here for a blog post I wrote pre-event.

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Event poster (2015)

I’d been planning the event for some time with academic and community colleagues: Dan Goodley, University of Sheffield; Katherine Runswick-Cole, Manchester Metropolitan University; Nick Hodge and Jill Smith, The Autism Centre, Sheffield Hallam University; and Sinead McHugh-Hicks and Sam Matthews from Dimensions, a not-for-profit organisation which supports around 3,500 disabled people and their families throughout England and Wales. We were really lucky to have local autistic activist Grace Parry come to speak on the day. Grace shared her experiences as an autistic woman on the asexuality spectrum (as she described it); Grace’s talk reminded us also of the right to not desire intimacy with others and to listen to labelled people first. We were also thrilled that Romeo Biggs, a labelled Trans self-advocate co-researcher from Making Space, Canada, told his story through a screening of his short film, which you can see here. Attendees were really taken by Romeo’s poignant film in which he centred his denial of institutional and familial support as a Trans person. We also had self-advocate Jodie Bradley from Speak Up Self-Advocacy Rotherham, who at the beginning of the day spoke about her recent international work on intimate citizenship. In short, collaborating in these ways enabled us to bridge academic, community, practitioner, activist and disciplinary divides to host a seminal event exploring the complex interplay of labelled people’s lives, intimate citizenship, and austerity. In this post, I’d like to speak a little bit about what happened on the day. Additionally, check out our lively Twitter hashtag #WaysForward2015 to see the tweets from the day.

What is intimate citizenship?

‘Intimate citizenship’ is a term coined by the British Sociologist Ken Plummer (2003). It refers to the evolving relationships between the private and personal with public aspects of our lives. More simply, matters of sexuality, childbearing and rearing, loving partnerships, intimate labour and work, gender identity, friendships, care and caring relationships, spirituality and other ‘personal’ concerns are increasingly contoured by, and penetrate, public life. Intimate citizenship necessarily involves negotiating body-based, psycho-emotional and social contact with others. As such, intimate problems, commonly understood as private, have significant public and policy implications. Intimate citizenship brings into relief how our apparently private and personal choices — who we love, our work to maintain loving and intimate relationships, and our consumption and capacities that shape and sustain this work — inevitably involve and affect others. Inevitably, changing political and socio-economic relations of public life significantly shape such relations, making austerity a key determinant in the extent to which socially disenfranchised and vulnerable groups have access to and can make claims for intimate citizenship. Katherine Runswick-Cole and I made a short accessible film to explain intimate citizenship; you can watch it here.

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Intimate Citizenship: A Brief Introduction… (Runswick-Cole and Liddiard, 2015)

What happened on the day?

One of the initial activities of the day was discuss the question: What does it take for you to be intimate in your life? This was purposeful towards getting attendees to think beyond “what disabled people need” and more towards a shared reflexivity of the complexities of intimate life for all people, and about the many components that go into making intimacy a reality. I wanted to challenge our far-reaching naturalised cultural assumptions about intimacy, to show that intimacy is always political, economic (with tangible material underpinnings), cultural and social, and that intimacy (for those who want it) is a form of privilege and seldom a right.

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Group Art Work: What does it take for you to be intimate in your life?

Attendee Art Work

Group Art Work: What does it take for you to be intimate in your life?

We held Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward because intimate citizenship is fragile for many, and is often routinely contested, controlled and contained in the lives of labelled people. This is despite the fact that the rights of disabled people to pursue several spheres of intimate life associated with love, labour and care, including sexual identity and expression, friendship, marriage and cohabitation, family life and parenthood, are enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

In short, we wanted to make space to bring together a range of people – academics, labelled people, community folk, service providers, and students to consider this reality and imagine ways forward to something more; a better reality for labelled people who desire intimacy. This really took shape in Dimensions’ presentation, which asked attendees to consider its practice as a care provider and suggest improvements. It was deeply refreshing for a service provider to open itself up to wanting to learn more (from a range of voices) in order to improve its service provision in this area and, in turn, the lives of those it supports. I would really relish the chance to work with Dimensions again: its positioning of sexual and intimate politics as a priority area speaks volumes about its ethics of care as an organisation.

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Artist Dan Goodley’s pictorial representation of discussions.

To do so is particularly important when, in practice, we actually know little of disabled people’s experiences of intimate citizenship; little detailed exploration of people’s intimate experiences has been undertaken. Even less is known about the spaces disabled people may easily access and stake claims to their intimate citizenship, especially in austere times, and how this may shape intimate subjectivities, relations and practice. Nor do we know what new ableisms — the exclusions, disadvantages and silencing of people with impairments — or other barriers are encountered within the exercise of intimate rights – particularly in the context of austerity. Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward served to create a space where these (changing) facets of intimate life could be discussed, heard, politicised, provided and acted upon. Dan Goodley and Katherine Runswick-Cole’s knowledge cafe at the end of the day asked attendees what they had learned, what they were going to take forward from the day, and the impact it would have in their own work, lives, service and practice. This accountability affirms that the intimate lives of disabled people are not individual problems, but are shared, collective, and social; we are all accountable as disabled people, activists, advocates and allies.

If you’d like to know more about any of the contents of this blog, don’t hesitate to get in touch: k.liddiard@sheffield.ac.uk

 

Attendee Art Work

Dan Goodley: Graphic note-taking.

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Dan Goodley: Graphic note-taking

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Dan Goodley: Graphic note-taking

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Dan Goodley: Graphic note-taking

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Dan Goodley: Graphic Note-taking

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What needs to be done and how? Dan Goodley: Graphic note-taking

 

 

 

 

Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward (Free Event 9th Nov 2016)

The Autism Centre

ESRC Social Sciences Festival Event

Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward is a workshop for people with learning disabilities and/or autism, self-advocates, their families, friends, allies and those who work with and for them (e.g. care staff, support workers, social workers, and associated professionals). Members of the public, students, and activists who share an interest in the workshop themes are also welcome.

The workshop will focus on intimate rights and citizenship – our rights to love, sex, family, intimacy, friendship and community. These integral aspects of life are fragile in the lives of disabled people with learning disabilities and/or autism, who are routinely denied basic rights, justice and access within their intimate lives.

Come along and learn, think through, and imagine ways to create change. For free tickets book via http://intimate-lives.eventbrite.co.uk9 November 2015, 10.00 – 16.00. This event is FREE and lunch is provided. St Mary’s Church, Bramall Lane Sheffield S2 4QZ. For…

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#queercrip2015, #CYFD2015 and #ProjectRevision

July has been a busy month. Three big events within three weeks of each other, bringing together months of collaborative organisation. In this post I want to offer some resources from each event.

Interrogating QueerCrip and the Body – 3rd July 2015, Sheffield Hallam University

On 3rd July, Jen Slater (Sheffield Hallam University) and I hosted Interrogating QueerCrip and the Body. You will be able to view the filmed talks from this event soon (I will update this blog). In the meantime, to learn more about the event check the hashtag on Twitter: #queercrip2015. Also see here for this brilliant blogpost about the event. With speakers in the morning, and a workshop by researchers on Around the Toilet, an exciting AHRC funded project, in the afternoon, the event contested normative tropes of disability and queerness. The day ended with the book launch of Youth and Disability: A Challenge to Mr Reasonable, Jen’s new book. Also check out Tabu, by our speakers Embla Guðrúnar Ágústsdóttir and Freyja Haraldsdóttir.

Photograph of slide for the event Interrogating queer, crip and the body: an international symposium

There is no Them! Child, Youth, Family and Disability Conference 2015 – 6/7th July 2015, University of Bristol

The seventh in the series of Child, Youth, Family & Disability Conferences took place at the University of the West of England in Bristol on 6/7th July – check out the Twitter hashtag: #CYFD15. The conference is the result of collaboration between colleagues from The University of Sheffield (me!), University of the West of England (Tillie Curran, Sarah Manns & Wendy Merchant), The University of Cardiff (Dawn Pickering) and Manchester Metropolitan University (Katherine Runswick-Cole).  The aim of the conference is to create a space for disabled children and young people, family members and allies, as well as practitioners and academics, to discuss the issues that touch their lives. Over the two days more than a hundred people came together to share their experiences and ideas.

The conference theme this year was “There is no them!”.  The title was a challenge to ways of speaking about and working with disabled children that assume that ‘they’ are all the same or only defined by ‘disability’. Many of the sessions were delivered in workshop formats using creative approaches such as cartoons and drama and this enabled attendees to explore a range of complex issues including: ethical practices; and unlawful exclusion.  Presenters shared information on recreational activities, communication support and the costs associated with living in a disabling world.

Over the course of the conference, it became clear that disabled children, young people and their families continue to experience discrimination and disabling practices, but it was also clear that people are resisting such practices and finding ways to work together to demand change in children and young people’s lives. This conference provides opportunities for attendees to build networks and to gain information and to make positive impacts on disabled children and young people’s lives. To learn more about disabled children’s childhood studies click here (film by Katherine Runswick-Cole).

Contact a Family slide DIAGRAM MADE BY A MOTHER OF THE PROFESSIONALS INVOLVED IN HER CHILD'S LIFE

(The second image was drawn by the mother of a disabled child to depict the amount of professionals involved in her disabled son’s life – Image courtesy of Debby Watson.)

Project Revision: An International Symposium – Imagining Disability Futurities: Proliferating Dis-topias – 20th July 2015, University of Sheffield

The representational history of disabled people can largely be characterized as one of being put on display or hidden away. Self-representations have been a powerful part of the disability rights and culture movement, but recently scholars have analysed the ways in which these run the risk of creating a ‘single story’ that centres the experiences of white, western, physically disabled men. In this symposium, we introduced and theorised with Project Re•Vision, our arts-based research project that resists this singularity by creating and centring, without normalizing, representations that have previously been relegated to the margins. From research creation of short videos made by women living with disability and differences, in this workshop we argued for new disability futures (dis-topias) that hinge upon a more radically conceived body politic. Check out the brilliant hashtag on Twitter: #ProjectRevision This event was generously funded by the School of Education at the University of Sheffield.

 Click here to learn more about Project Revision.

Click here to read our latest Open Access article, Disability at the edges of representation, in Disability and Society.

Project Revision includes:

  • Carla Rice, College of Social and Applied Sciences, and Director/Founder of Project ReVision, University of Guelph, CA
  • Eliza Chandler, School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University, CA
  • Nadine Changfoot, Political Studies, Trent University, CA
  • Kirsty Liddiard, School of Education, University of Sheffield, UK
  • Ingrid Mundel, REDLAB, University of Guelph, CA
  • Roxanne Mykitiuk, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, CA
  • Manuela Ferrari, School of Health Policy and Management, York University, CA
  • Andrea LaMarre MSc., Family Relations and Human Development, University of Guelph, CA

Project Revision Poster 2015 Project Revision Slide