Can disability be sexy? Photographer Holly Norris and model jes sachse challenged common assumptions about disability and sexuality with their American Able project, and now, Enhance the UK is doing the same with Undressing Disability. Disabled models with a variety of impairments including cerebral palsy, rheumatoid arthritis and blindness are posing in their skivvies for a 2014 calendar that confronts social attitudes about disability in a very raw, immediate, and real way.
Nondisabled people often desexualize disabled people, assuming that impairments render people uninterested in or incapable of sex. These attitudes can lead to very patronizing treatment of disabled people when they attempt to exert autonomy, engage in relationships and make their own sexually empowered decisions. Such attitudes can range from surprise and confusion about seeing disabled people in sexual relationships to harmful court decisions stripping disabled people of the right to see or live with their partners, as seen in the case of Paul Forziano and Hava Samuels, who were forced to sue for the right to live together after marriage.
“How do you have sex?” “Can you even have sex if you use a wheelchair?” These are the kinds of questions disabled people encounter, along with even more intrusive and rude queries about anatomy, physiology and sexuality. In relationships where one partner is nondisabled, that partner is often viewed with pity and sympathy by outsiders who assume the marriage is one of charity or mercy, not a rich, loving relationship that also includes a healthy sex life. Those with visible disabilities are assumed to be sexless.
In “Undressing Disability,” men and women pose in sultry, warm, friendly poses that both showcase their beautiful bodies and their sexuality, sending a potent message to the viewer about disabled sexuality. The message isn’t simply that disabled people have and enjoy sex, but that they can be empowered sexually. While some may use adaptive methods to enjoy sex, disabled people are both having and redefining sex and relationships, thinking outside the box courtesy of their impairments.
The calendars are available for free although Enhance the UK requests a donation with each order. Proceeds from the sale of Undressing Disability will be dedicated to a campaign to provide inclusive sex and relationship education to young disabled people. This is a particularly pressing issue not just in the United Kingdom but in other nations; unfortunately, disabled people are often left out of sexual education because instructors assume they are not sexual, and thus not interested in learning more about safe, healthy sexuality and their rights as individuals.
Sadly, many disabled people are actually targets of abusive relationships and sexual assault, making such education especially critical for them. Comprehensive sexual education for young people that offers education about what healthy relationships look like is important, as is an acknowledgement that disabled people are sexual.
An empowering discussion about disabled sexuality can help disabled youth make strong, informed choices for themselves and live fuller, happier lives. Such education can also help disabled people fight social attitudes by giving them tools to combat stereotypes, rather than forcing them to live in ignorance and seek out information piecemeal on their own.
Photo credit: Enhance the UK.