Today I’m continuing with my Ableist Tropes 101 series. This is a series of blog posts where I look at common ableist tropes. It aims to help people understand where to start with educating themselves to recognise potentially harmful rhetoric. I’ve found that people struggle to recognise ableism in books and other forms of media, and I want to assume that’s because of a lack of knowledge.
Today I’m talking about how disabled people’s sexuality is represented in media. Specifically, I’m focusing on the trend of disabled people being desexualised; this is the idea that we’re not interested in sex or romantic relationships. This trend replicates itself in real life and is harmful to everyone in the disabled community, including disabled people who are actually ace or aro.
I want to categorically point out before I start that I am in no way saying that asexual or aromantic disabled don’t exist. I am also in no way say asexual or aromantic disabled people perpetuate this stereotype. Disabled people should have autonomy over their sexuality, and the problem is when that’s removed.
How is sexuality represented in disabled people?
Disabled people are often represented as not having any interest in sexual or romantic relationships. This process is known as desexualisation. This is especially prevalent for people who are neurodivergent, have learning differences, or are visibly disabled (though it happens to all of us).
In the real world, there have been questionnaires that show 54% of people would not date a disabled person. Disabled people often find it incredibly difficult to date. People are often confused by the idea that we even want to. When I went to look up that earlier statistic, the first question that popped up was ‘is it okay to date a disabled person?’. In case you didn’t know, yes. If a disabled person wants to date or have sex, they can.
This translates heavily across to media. You’ve got books where disabled people are never the love interest. You’ve got TV shows all about how weird our dating lives are. Disabled people are so often demonstrated as having no sex life, or dating life. Our relationships are analysed as strange (if we’re with someone who’s not disabled they’re often thought to be so brave and selfless for daring to date us.)
Things are getting better with representation. I’m especially excited to see disabled characters in romance books, or books where a character’s disability isn’t represented as something to ‘overcome’ in a relationship. I’m glad to see asexual and aromantic disabled people actually get nuanced representation, instead of having their autonomy removed. There’s still a long way to go, and there’s not nearly enough good disabled representation out there.
Why is the assumption that all disabled people don’t want sexual or romantic relationships harmful?
The desexualisation of disabled people relies on a bunch of ableist assumptions. One of these is that people think disabled people aren’t desirable. If non-disabled people couldn’t see themselves dating or sleeping with a disabled person, surely disabled people must also not be interested in it. Surprise surprise, that’s not the case.
Society tells people that being disabled means there’s something wrong with you. Whether or not you believe in that statement, you will (at least partially) have internalised it. A lot of non-disabled people think they couldn’t find a disabled person attractive. This is where it’s useful to challenge your own viewpoints on what attraction is, and where your preferences may have stemmed from. You can’t always tell if someone is disabled. People with visible disabilities can be sexy. Do not assume that just because you think disabled people aren’t desirable, means we don’t have desires.
Another ableist assumption this trope stems from is the idea that we are essentially children, and unable to make our own decisions. This is a form of infantilisation. We are not children. I hate the term ‘their brain is the age of a 3-year-old’ as a way to describe people with developmental disorders. It oversimplifies everything. People don’t stop ageing; a 24-year-old with a developmental disorder has the brain of a 24-year-old with a developmental disorder. There are some disabled people who may not be able to consent to dating or sex, but there are plenty of us who can. A lot of disabled might have difficulties with communication, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have an understanding of our own desires. Perhaps disabled people might have different forms of communication – for instance using sign language, or writing, or speech-to-text. Listen to us however we may communicate; don’t try to tell us who we are or what we want.
Having relationships with disabled people might be a bit more complex at times, but when you date anyone you have to get used to their quirks and needs. So many disabled people don’t even realise they can have relationships, or have sex, because society is so determined to tell us we can’t. For example, some people don’t know that there’s a lot of equipment to make sex accessible to people with physical disabilities. Disabled people fuck, even if that makes you uncomfortable. We date, even if you couldn’t see yourself dating us. In a lot of places, financial support is taken away from disabled people if we get married. This is again linked to the idea that we couldn’t be in a relationship; that our partner is our carer. The idea that disabled people can’t be romantically loved, or romantically love, can’t be desired, or desire impacts us at every level of society.
What about asexual or aromantic disabled people?
Of course, asexual and aromantic disabled do exist. The idea that all disabled people are automatically not interested in sex or romance impacts them too. It strips them of their sexuality and reduces them down to their disability. It removes their autonomy. Some ace or aro disabled people might feel as if their identity perpetuates this stereotype. It is not your fault, you don’t perpetuate anything, you will never be responsible for the way ableist society weaponises desexualisation. You can be disabled, asexual, and/or aromantic and that’s completely valid.
Asexuality and aromanticism are often pathologized. There are discourses surrounding the idea that people who don’t have sexual or romantic attraction are somehow broken. Asexual and aromantic people are not broken. Disabled people are also not broken. There’s no need to try and change everyone that doesn’t fit into a preconceived notion of normality. The way these identities interact can be especially difficult to traverse because of this intersectionality (especially so if you belong to other marginalised identities).
You should never have to pick and choose aspects of yourself. We should all recognise that this stereotype exists, but disabled people are a vastly varied group. Asexual and/or aromantic disabled people are just as important as people who don’t identify that way. Our diverse experiences need to be accepted, instead of swept away by ableist narratives of who we are.
I also want to quickly point out that plenty of asexual/aromantic people date or have sex; a spectrum of identities fall under the label. Everyone has a different relationship to their sexuality/romantic orientation and what they want in regards to that. Even if every disabled person was asexual and/or aromantic, some of us would still be dating and fucking. The point here is that the ableist narrative relies on the idea that we don’t have desires, it’s not actually an accurate portrayal of the reality of asexuality or aromanticism.
How should you write about disabled people’s sexuality?
I always struggle to give a proper analysis of what you should and shouldn’t do. There are always exceptions, there’s no rulebook here. You should make characters nuanced and real, not a stereotype. You should examine your own biases, especially in regards to attraction and disability. There are plenty of resources out there to learn more on this topic. Remember that disabled people are as diverse as everyone else and we have a range of sexual and romantic desires. No character is going to represent everyone. Uplift disabled voices. I need more disabled characters in my life who have varied experiences.