Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to introduce Sins Invalid’s film, An Unshamed Claim To Beauty? The film was screened as part of Dis/Cinema, University of Sheffield, which facilitates film screenings with themes of dis/ability, mental health, difference, and otherness. Check out its work here and follow Dis/Cinema on Twitter at @. Below I share my introduction and slides. Not surprisingly the film instigated some powerful discussion which followed themes of privilege/power and race, class, gender and nation; the beauty industry and the economics of (bodily) shame; how we culturally come to be repulsed by otherness through fear; and our own experiences of being/enacting the spectacle of disability. A big thanks to Dis/Cinema and everyone who came along to contribute to such a stimulating night.
When I got invited to facilitate this session, my immediate thought was, how on earth does one introduce Sins Invalid? What can I possibly say that can prepare you for the transgressive beauty that you’re about to witness in its Kickstarter-funded film, An Unshamed Claim To Beauty?
So I thought I’d begin with a story of the first time I saw Sins Invalid. It was live, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). I had just graduated my PhD, in which I’d spent three years working with disabled people to tell sexual stories, and moved to Toronto in order to undertake my first postdoctoral position at the wonderful School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University.
This was a massive move for me, particularly culturally, as I’m from Milton Keynes, which, as much as I love it, really is where culture goes to die*. Everything I saw that first week of living in a new country, far from home, was new, rich, and vivid. But seeing Sins Invalid, and sitting with its audience, opened me up to the possibilities of politicising pleasure, (or disabled people’s lack of intimate justice to pleasure, sexuality and love), through art for the first time; that art, politics and power enable silenced stories to be ‘loosed into the world’. These threads have persisted through my own research since that very night.
So what does it mean to “politicise pleasure”, and why is it important to advocate for disability justice, the politic centred in the work of Sins Invalid? Activist Mia Mingus describes disability justice as a truly collaborative and intersectional movement that brings the body back in; as that which proudly centres accessibility; and which shatters the inherent Western, ableist and neo-colonial myth of independence. Patty Bearne, Co-Founder and Director of Sins Invalid, defines disability justice like this:
‘A Disability Justice framework understands that all bodies are unique and essential; that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We know that we are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them. We understand that all bodies are caught in these bindings of ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation state and imperialism, and that we cannot separate them. These are the positions from where we struggle. We are in a global system that is incompatible with life. There is no way stop a single gear in motion — we must dismantle this machine. Disability Justice holds a vision born out of collective struggle, drawing upon the legacies of cultural and spiritual resistance within a thousand underground paths, igniting small persistent fires of rebellion in everyday life. Disabled people of the global majority — black and brown people — share common ground confronting and subverting colonial powers in their struggle for life and justice. There has always been resistance to all forms of oppression, as we know through our bones that there have simultaneously been disabled people visioning a world where we flourish, that values and celebrates us in all our myriad beauty’.
For me, Sins Invalid offers us a new lens through which to come to know, see, and feel bodies in ways counter to the dominant culture. It makes space to think about bodies, self and desire in affirmative ways – that bodies with what disabled feminist Susan 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 open up new ontologies of pleasure and alternative economies of desire.
Disabled people have long had their intimate citizenship and justice deprioritised – dominant discourse renders our sexual lives, selves and bodies at best as unimportant, secondary to things like housing, care, education, and legislation; as if civil life is detached from intimate life; like the personal isn’t political. We might think, in the current age of austerity, where in the UK and beyond, successive governments have served to denigrate disabled people, our communities and our families, that access to sexuality and intimacy is of lesser importance. That in a new world order controlled by Trump, May, LePenn and others, sexuality becomes, once again, the very least of our worries.
But austerity, neoliberal-ableism and global instability inevitably proffer new forms of precarity that drive us, at best, back into the normative body and self: meaning now is the time to politicise the impacts of such forces in our intimate lives; to claim, as the wonderful Tobin Seibers affirms, a sexual culture of our own.
Asserting, celebrating and living our own pleasures at this time in our history offers radical counter narratives. We can affirm the vibrancy of disability life through pleasure and desire in the face of social and literal death that austerity brings to our communities, and at the same time chip away at the normative boundaries of human pleasure which deem it unnecessary and grotesque for a range of marginalised bodies: disabled, fat, queer, Crip, black and POC, and genderqueer and Trans bodies. It is important, in times of such existential precariousness, that pleasure and sensuality (regardless of their form) are not relegated to luxury, but are means of survival and thus necessary for creativity, vitality and disability future.
I want to end with the words of the wonderful Eli Clare (2002: no pagination). Words which speak to the very bringing together of pleasure, politics and power that Sins Invalid demands: ‘I want to read about wheelchairs and limps, hands that bend at odd angles and bodies that negotiate unchosen pain, about orgasms that aren’t necessarily about our genitals, about sex and pleasure stolen in nursing homes and back rooms where we’ve been abandoned, about bodily—and I mean to include the mind as part of the body—differences so plentiful they can’t be counted, about fucking that embraces all those differences. It’s time.’
Thank you: here is Sins Invalid. See the trailer and buy the film here.
* Sorry to those who live in/love MK – I do – but it ain’t no Toronto for culture…