Tim Dean: “Stumped: The Pornography of Disability”
Guest Writer: Claire Barber

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[On November 12, 2012 the Unit for Criticism hosted Tim Dean (Buffalo). His lecture "Stumped: The Pornography of Disability," is written about by guest writer and unit affiliate Claire Barber (English). This is the second of two posts on the Tim Dean lecture]

Disabled Sexualities: Those Who Shouldn’t Have Sex and Why

Claire Barber (English)

The flyer for “Stumped: The Pornography of Disability” warned that presenter Tim Dean would show a clip of pornography; yet, some audience members were obviously unprepared for this footage as they walked out before he completed the talk. Based on the title, they must have known that Dean would speak about pornography, but some element of this particular pornography was too much for them. In the presentation, Dean provided several explanations for similarly averse responses to representations of sex among disabled individuals. In this post, I reflect on these propositions and draw out their implications.

First, I applaud Dean for treating a topic that is too infrequently discussed: the sexuality of disabled individuals. As a scholar of disability studies, I have been disturbed by the ways in which what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “normates” treat sex among disabled individuals. Whether we’re talking about the amputee and his partner in the video that Dean showed; a sexual relationship between two mentally challenged individuals, as in The Other Sister (1999); or a boy with an autism spectrum disorder discretely masturbating in a semi-public location, as described by Tito Mukhopadhyay, many able-bodied individuals read these as events that shouldn’t happen. And if they do, they must remain hidden from able-bodied individuals or risk public censure.

From film The Other Sister

As in Dean’s study of the bareback subculture, this presentation drew attention to one possible motivation for disabled individuals who create pornography: “to make certain forms of intimacy visible.” By recording and publicizing non-normative sexual acts—what Dean called “stumping”—the individuals in the video he screened push normates to grapple with the uncomfortable reactions that they have to such scenes. These reactions include disgust, the feeling to which Dean paid the most attention. Many able-bodied individuals confronted with “abnormal” bodies and acts judge them as being in bad taste, so to speak; therefore, they attempt to regulate such expressions of sexuality rather than investigating the cause for their reactions.

This feeling—and the attendant desire to disable sexuality—is closely tied to an interest in maintaining the innocence of individuals with disabilities. This term frequently appears in discussions of disability and cultural attitudes toward disabled individuals. Etymologically, innocence has explicit connections to sexuality (via the guilt associated with sin); thus, any use of this term (an autist’s supposed inability to lie, for instance) has sexual undertones. There is a fine line between helping individuals with disabilities to develop their individual capacities and restricting their potential so that they more closely adhere to normative behaviors and expectations. When we infantilize disabled individuals, we affirm the perception that they do not have sexual desires (which children are also supposed to lack). As Dean suggested, an able-bodied commitment to the preservation of innocence relegates disabled individuals to a perpetual childhood closely intertwined with asexuality.

Many able-bodied individuals read disabled bodies as asexual based on an assumption that when (hetero)normative sexual acts are no longer possible, sex itself is out of the question. Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey presents one popular instantiation of this fact. When he is paralyzed (a reference to Lady Chatterley’s Lover), he and other characters acknowledge that a sexual life will no longer be possible for him, which provides sufficient reason to release Lavinia from their engagement. It does not matter that he still can move his upper body, which makes many other sexual acts possible. Reproduction will not happen, so their sex life will not be fulfilling and, thus, shouldn’t exist. Obviously, queer and feminist theories have done much to refute such restrictive statements, but the specter of reproduction still haunts explorations of sexuality among disabled individuals. Surprisingly, reproduction among disabled individuals continues to raise extreme concern in our society, which means that many normates still consider sterilization to be a legitimate option, particularly for individuals with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.
Character Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey

The issue of sexual expression becomes even more precarious when we turn to social attitudes toward individuals with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. Individuals with these disabilities are often read as “weak-minded,” unable to make decisions for themselves, even if they are able to live independently. By contrast, individuals with physical disabilities are recognized to be “able-minded,” in control of their thoughts and desires, even if they are not able-bodied. It is necessary to recognize this distinction between cognitive/intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities in any discussion of sex among disabled individuals, a theoretical area that I would have liked to see Dean develop further.

As individuals with intellectual and cognitive disabilities enter adolescence, a primary argument mobilized by normates against their sexual activity concentrates on consent—they don’t know what they’re doing. One complication with obtaining or confirming the consent of individuals with these disabilities is that they may express themselves or participate socially in ways that differ from normates; therefore, their consent may be more difficult for normates to recognize and, thus, easier to overlook. Consequently, able-bodied individuals often rely on social conventions and legal statutes to disable the sexuality of these individuals.

It is true that there are legitimate concerns about the sexual (and physical) abuse of individuals with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, as the work of Donna Williams and Dawn Prince-Hughes shows. However, the infrequently discussed and yet ongoing problem remains: how to allow disabled individuals to have fulfilling sexual lives without letting them become victims of abuse. While I have no solution for this problem, I want to draw attention to the predicament and state that neither forbidding disabled individuals from participating in sexual activities nor sweeping the issue under a figurative rug resolves the situation.

Therefore, Dean’s presentation pushed us toward an important discussion, one that many people prefer not to have. In the process, he located disability porn as a means of resistance that aligns it with disability rights and advocacy, a provocative claim. With the distribution of “Stump Grinder,” the video’s creator advocates for the existence of sexual desire among disabled individuals and what may seem to many the paradoxical desire of disability by normates. The disabled individual represented here is presented to the viewer as a desired being—available for desire by the viewer, but already desired by his partner.

By making this form of intimacy visible, the maker of “Stump Grinder” has the power to both disable and enable the viewer with the potentially shocking nature of this sexual encounter. Like many of those who left the presentation, we may be disabled by an encounter with that which we would rather not see because to see it means that we must recognize the existence of sexual desires and acts among disabled individuals. The person who created the edited version of "Stump Grinder," "2 guys, 1 stump" (which Erin McKenna describes in more detail) likely found him/herself in such a position. But, this recognition can enable able-bodied individuals to think and engage differently with others. In Unlimited Intimacy, Dean writes that “sexual action generates sexual community,” and “Stump Grinder” has this power to create a community organized around and supportive of expressions of sexuality among disabled individuals.

As Dean suggested in relation to another film, “Stump,” the climax may be not just an individual’s orgasm but also the individual’s “awakening to the sexual possibilities” of his disability. I can only hope that the viewer experienced a similar mental climax during Dean’s presentation as his or her eyes were opened to the sexual possibilities of disability.


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Lauren said...

Thanks for this great post! I am curious if you have watched Friday Night Lights and what you think of Jason Street's character (seems worth comparing to Downton's Abbey's miraculously recovered war veteran.

Claire said...

Lauren, I'm sorry for my belated reply, but you make an interesting comparison. Admittedly, it's been a while since I watched the episodes of FNL that include Jason Street, but I do think he's treated similarly (at least, sexually, until he seems to miraculously recover his ability to have children). His physical abilities receive a much more "inspirational" treatment with the show's direct citation of the popular documentary Murderball (2005). (Mark Zupan from the film makes a cameo on the show.) I will certainly think more about these connections.

I would also direct the reader's attention to a recent article by Bryan Alexander in USA Today, "Hollywood Wakes up to Disability and Sexuality" (Nov. 24, 2012).


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