Having a perspective that is never represented in public is a tough position to be in. Especially when what you see is something about how silly or wrongheaded things are and how they could be made much more fair, more just, if only everyone could start seeing things from multiple perspectives, including yours, rather than through the narrow lens served up 24/7 by schools, the media, our governments, and our insular and homogenous communities.
For years you might try to ignore or deny what you see. Maybe the rest of the world is right and you’re wrong. After all, there are so many of them, and they all seem to agree. You have times when you think you’re not just wrong, but delusional or paranoid. That you’re actually imagining what you see, or that your perspective itself is a sign of illness, disease, sociopathy.
But hopefully you hang in there. You might spend years figuring it out, thinking and feeling it through, talking with friends and others, some of whom learned from your perspective, or told you that you’re right, that there’s nothing wrong with you, and that the world would in fact be a better place with if your perspective were shared.
And then maybe one day, after being ignored for your whole life, and never seeing someone with your perspective given a platform to speak to the public, someone comes along and says they find you fascinating and they’d like to help you share your thoughts with the world.
There’s just one catch. They get to write it all down, and then they will edit what you say, and rearrange your words, and even add some of their own. And above it all, in big letters, at the very top, will be their words, not yours.
What do you do?
This is the position that journalists put disabled activists in every time they decide that the subject of sexuality is one that might suddenly apply to people with disabilities.
And this is the conundrum that I was thinking of while reading an important but typically ignorant piece in the New York Times about sexual surrogacy in France.
The ignorance announces itself in the title:
“Disabled People Say They, Too, Want a Sex Life, and Seek Help in Attaining It”
First of all, “disabled people” aren’t some small, homogenous and easily defined group you can point to and say “Look! I found the disabled people!”. In fact, as disability activists often point out, disability is part of identity, rather than a medical diagnosis and what’s more by most definitions of disability, disabled people comprise the largest “minority” of the global population. Since the article isn’t about specific functional limitations, it implicitly acknowledges this, but the headline explicitly doesn’t.
The article itself and the accompanying video focus on one woman, Laetitia Rebord. Even though the video is edited for maximum dramatic effect (complete with music that lets you know how poignant each and every moment is), it’s clear that Laetitia is funny, insightful, and has a complicated take on issues related to sexuality, bodies, desire, and rights. Instead of conveying any of that, the article begins:
“In her sexual fantasies, she is a fit and impetuous blonde who dominates her male partners. In real life, she is a virgin who relies on an electric wheelchair, her body touched only by home care aides and medical personnel.”
And so everything that is actually interesting (and complicated) about Laetitia and about this story and about the broader social context is reduced to a stereotype that feeds the basic ableism that will already be stirring in most New York Times readers as they read this article.
To be honest, in my fantasies I’m a fit and impetuous blonde who dominates my partners. And in real life I’m none of that. Does the fact that, for now, I move through the world using legs instead of wheels, make this fantasy any more or less tragic? Is the New York Times aware that our fantasies almost never conform to our realities? Or that we generally don’t really want our fantasies to come true (I’m sure my imagination would be sorely disappointed by real life as a blonde)? Folks at The New York Times might know all this, but they wouldn’t apply such logic here, because it’s assumed that everyone who wheels around wishes they could walk for real.
It’s sort of an amazing feat of writing. An article which is ostensibly about a group of disabled people fighting for their rights manages to strip the main characters of agency at every turn.
Take for example the one line description of Mark O’Brien, the poet and journalist whose article about seeing a sex surrogate was the basis for the 2012 film The Sessions. Here, what was a bold journalistic enterprise and a major personal journey becomes “the sexual awakening of a disabled man by a sexual surrogate.” This is kind of like describing someone climbing Mt. Everest, and giving the credit to the ropes.
But even having said all of that, I still think the article is important and I’m glad it was published. It raises several questions about sexual rights, sexual support, and what it means to have a sex life, which are rich questions to consider. And if you can read through the self-importance of the paper of record, it also introduces us to a few people who have managed to hang in there and are trying to help us understand the world a little better by example. I wish they didn’t have to sacrifice so much for the lesson, but since they have I think it’s the least we can do to dig in and consider these other perspectives.
Next week that’s just what I’ll do.
Read More: Disabled People Say They, Too, Want a Sex Life, and Seek Help in Attaining It
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