Disabled, Dehumanized and Desexualized

Source: The Huffington Post

Source: The Huffington Post

“Nobody makes a public announcement that they don’t find the woman in the wheelchair to be sexy. There aren’t any articles in Cosmo saying, ‘Men who use crutches have zero sex appeal.’ It is one of those unspoken and often unconscious things making it impossible to prove or disprove, yet disabled people are clear that it is part of their reality.” (Jen)

The current myths perpetuated by the dominant, ableist culture, which further the erasure of disabled people’s potential to be sexual, allows for the denial of “sexual abuse and violence committed against disabled people” (“Desexualising Disability”). S.E. Smith, writer for This Ain’t Livin’, asserts that if disabled people supposedly “have no sexuality,” they couldn’t possibly be assaulted or abused (“Desexualising Disability”). In this regard, desexualization further contributes to the silence surrounding sexual assault of disabled people and lack of awareness of this issue’s severity. Desexualizing disabled people also contributes to the myth that “disabled people can’t and don’t form close relationships with other people,” allowing for disabled people in romantic partnerships in an institution to be separated (“Desexualising Disability”).

Source: Undressing Disability

Myths that reinforce the desexualization of disabled people do not stand alone in negatively impacting the sexual health and wellbeing of this community. Educators, health professionals, and other adults in adolescents with disabilities’ lives may either “deprive them of sexual education or provide them with inadequate information that doesn’t address their specific risk factors” (“Discussing Disabled Sexuality Is a Radical Act“). Among queer and/or trans teens, the lack of information about sexual identity and gender identity can contribute to feelings of isolation, an increase in depression risk and other mental health conditions (“Discussing Disabled Sexuality Is a Radical Act”). Additionally, by not providing specific information of the biological mechanics behind the spread of sexually transmitted infections and the behaviors that cause pregnancy, disabled teens may not be able to identify early warnings signs of either STIs or pregnancy (“Discussing Disabled Sexuality Is a Radical Act”).

The root of disabled desexualization lies in the desire to dehumanize disabled people in order to make a clear distinction between able-bodied and disabled people (“Desexualizing Disability”). “If we can be rendered sexless, neutered, inert, and nonthreatening, it can be made clear that here lies yet another difference between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ another reminder that we are not quite fully human,” writes Smith (“Desexualizing Disability”). I’ve also discussed this dehumanization process in past posts. Social identities cannot stand alone, so being a disabled person also can include oppression from the result of intersecting identities of race, class, and gender, just to name a few. One blogger discusses that when people desexualize them, they don’t only do so as a result of their disability; this desexualization also occurs because they are a disabled woman:

“Even if the attention comes in the form of compliments…it is still behavior based on me being a sexual object not a woman. Desexualized and denied personhood. Sexualized and denied personhood” (Jen).

Desexualizing people with disabilities is not only an interpersonal attack on self-worth, agency, and autonomy; it also impacts the safety and wellbeing of those already living in a world where disabled people are inherently undervalued and dehumanized. In one of the concluding posts of this blog, I will discuss what disability-positive sex education can entail and share stories about the current movement fighting for inclusive sex education.

Next time on desexy, find out why queer couples on TV still sleep in separate beds.

References

Jen. “Newsflash: I’m Female!” People Aren’t Broken: Disability from the Inside Out. Blogger, 2011. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.

Smith, S.E. “Desexualising Disability.” This Ain’t Livin’. S.E. Smith, 2014. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.

Smith, S.E. “Discussing Disabled Sexuality Is a Radical Act.” RH Reality Check. RH Reality Check, 2014. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.

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Relearning Sexy (P. 2): Four Square Epiphanies

Source: Emmett Patterson

Source: Emmett Patterson

With an hourglass figure and a confident sensuality in my step that would make a pin up girl blush, I strode through the beginning years of high school confident with my body. As a competitive swimmer, I prided myself on my toned body, conditioned from hours of practice. I loved the power that my body had. I felt sensual and powerful all at once. In turn, I channeled that sense of power through high femme gender presentation, a killer strut, and some serious attitude.

As I mentioned in the last installment of Relearning Sexy, my presentation changed drastically when I entered into my first serious relationship at the start of my high school career. I hung up the hoodies and gym shorts and slid into the most form-fitting of dresses and the skinniest of jeans that I could get my hands on. In hindsight, I don’t know if entering my relationship with Nate+ caused this shift. I can imagine at the time, I might have felt pressures to be more feminine because I was in a (what others thought was) heterosexual relationship. Maybe this shift occurred because of the cataclysmic warning of my family friend to “grow up.” Maybe at that moment in my life, I was just redefining what comfortable meant to me.

Source: Emmett Patterson

Source: Emmett Patterson

There’s a lot of maybes in this story. At this point in my life, I can remember only few specifics. Telling a story about the person you used to be can be rife with inaccuracies. While it may be easy to point out “facts,” I think it’s more difficult to remember how you were feeling at any given moment. That feeling is so critical to how I remember and tell this story. So, I look to the facts and try to interpret what I may have been feeling at that moment. No story, especially those about ourselves or the people we used to be, can ever accurately capture how we may have felt in one particular moment.

But I distinctly remember how I felt on one day late in my junior year. It was an ordinary day in gym class. I was absolutely destroying my opponents in foursquare. Business as usual. Although my school had co-ed gym classes, the class seemed to segregate itself. Four square was a predominantly male-dominated corner of the gym that I gravitated towards. As I advanced quickly to the king’s square, I continued to strike people out.

One stray spike sent the ball flying across the gym. As I jogged to reach it, I noticed my body feeling heavier than usual. I was about 100 yards from the ball. For some reason, I started feeling exposed, like in that dream where you’re standing on a stage (or, you know, jogging through the middle of a crowded gymnasium) in nothing but your underwear. Suddenly, a thought shot forward into the front of my mind: “Wow, my chest is huge.” Standing in the middle of the gym’s paneled floor, my stride and my world came to a screeching halt.

Where the hell did that come from?

Source: Emmett Patterson

Source: Emmett Patterson

Every time I tell my coming out story, I struggle to find the origin of where I began to understand that I wasn’t a woman. I look into the arsenal of memories I have, from childhood up until the first night I purposefully dressed to look like a man. But this day in the gym stands out in my mind as the origin of this questioning. As I stood alone in the gym, long after my classmates had shuffled off to their next classes, I knew something wasn’t right. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

On the next installment of Relearning SexyI talk about about the beginnings of my identity exploration and the impact that my partners had on me.

Next time on desexy, how does dehumanization impact perceptions of disabled sexuality?

 + Name has been changed.

De-story: Ami

Ami+ identifies as “a biracial Japanese American born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a White American father.” Ami also describes herself as having light skin and very rarely (if ever) White-passing. Ami presents mostly in a gender-normative, feminine manner, and experiences sexual and romantic attraction “to men, women, and many other kinds of people.” Through engaging heavily in queer theory and politics, Ami has taken to advocacy and organizing for queer communities. Ami notes that her queer mindset has led her “to forefront my sexuality more than those who are cis[gender] or het[erosexual]. Even if it isn’t specifically about queer sex, I find myself thinking and talking about sexuality more than many of my peers, and I attribute this partially to the intentionality required by my queerness.”

This is her story.

Tell me about a period of time or a particular experience where you felt desexualized.

I don’t feel as though I am necessarily desexualized for my social location—if anything, I am hyper-sexualized as a young Asian woman—but I continue to find that my sexuality is invariably read through my race.

I’m going to use the word ‘ethnicity’ to refer to the multiplicities of my national origins, linguistic and cultural competencies and family histories, and ‘race’ as the way that most Americans see me: as monolithically “Asian.”

I moved from Berkeley, California, where my high school had a plurality of Asian students, to D.C., where Asian people are a nearly invisible minority in comparison. I have experienced a completely different reception in this city than in California; people see my facial structure and react in a variety of bizarre ways. For example, my manager at my job told me last week that every time he looks at me, he is “reminded of a geisha.” He said my eyes and my general demeanor indicated my similarity to geishas. He asked me if that was an offensive thing to say, but then reassured me that he wasn’t being offensive—that it wasn’t that I was a prostitute, but that I was well educated and beautiful and that’s what made me similar to geishas. I had little to say in response. I mumbled vaguely about caricatures and Western imagination, but ultimately said nothing of substance. Good employees and good Asian girls don’t talk back.

This interaction demonstrated the way that my body, and my implied or perceived sexuality, is constantly mediated by my race. Especially in a city where my race is so marked, these exchanges happen almost daily. Offhand comments and “compliments” remind me that I can never just “be”–I can’t just be attractive or good at my job. My image will always call to mind notions of Asian femininity and racial tropes like the submissive sex kitten and the severe Dragon Lady that are in turn projected on to me, obscuring my humanness and turning me into an object of the Western imagination.

Tell me about a positive experience you had of feeling sexual.

One night last semester, I met someone I’d met once through a friend at a cafe in the city. We met at 8PM, but I just had a cup of coffee and we talked and got to know each other.  I learned that Max+ lived nearby so we walked to Max’s house together, where Max lived with five other housemates in a beautiful, historic three-story home. There, we began having sex after very few formalities. The sex was incredible, especially for near-strangers; not because either of us are particularly phenomenal at it, but because we were relatively confident in ourselves and were able to interpret and meet each other’s needs very well. Although Max wasn’t Asian, Max was mixed-race. I think I found comfort and familiarity in that. I trusted Max completely that night. Afterwards we lay naked in bed together, awed at ourselves and each other. We compared tattoos and birthmarks, laughing incredulously; it wasn’t until then that Max clarified how to correctly pronounce my name. Max was saying it wrong all night. It was awesome.

+ Name has been changed.

References

Anonymous. Personal Interview. 6 Nov. 2014.

Not Your Delicate Flower: Expectations of Asian Women’s Sexual Submissiveness

Author’s Note: Because I am white and do not identify as a person of color (POC), the majority of this post will consist of excerpts from POC writers supplemented by my connections between them.

Ms. Rowling, I know you’re just the latest participant in a long tradition of turning Asian women into a tragic fetish.
Madame Butterfly. Japanese woman falls in love with a white soldier, is abandoned, kills herself.
Miss Saigon. Vietnamese woman falls in love with a white soldier, is abandoned, kills herself.
Memoirs Of A Geisha. Lucy Liu in leather. Schoolgirl porn.
So let me cry over boys more than I speak.
Let me fulfill your diversity quota.
Just one more brown girl mourning her white hero.

Rachel Rostrad’s spoken word poem, “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang” ignited after its premiere in 2013. The selection I’ve focused on here relates to a point in my last post, that the history of white colonization contributes to the sexualized desexualization of people of color. This colonialist perspective allows us to take a look at how sexualized stereotypes of submission specifically affect Asian women.

Both South Asian and East Asian women are stereotyped as sexually submissive. However, there is a difference in how this submissiveness is stereotyped. South Asian women are seen as “prudish,” perhaps because of the Western stereotype that paints women who dress modestly as victims oppressed by Islam who need “saved” (“Call-outs and Commentary: ‘To JK Rowling From Cho Chang'”). According to this Tumblr thread discussing “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang,” one user remarks upon the contradicting sexual stereotypes of South and East Asian women.

This is the sense I get about South Asian women, that we are exotified in this bizarre hyper desexualized context, the kind of bodies you wouldn’t mind looking at but generally don’t want to touch. [B]ecause of the appropriation of yoga, the kama sutra, even the exposed midriff when wearing a sari, South Asian women deal with an interesting, contradicting sexual stereotypes: always a virgin but expected to be kinky, hyper flexible. And like the stereotypes for East Asian women,  entertainers, performers, and dancers have been fetishized: think any kathak performance in any “Mughal” inspired Hindi film ever; think what it meant for Umrao Jaan; think beautiful, submissive, talented, but virgin, but must be untouched. (“Call-outs and Commentary: ‘To JK Rowling From Cho Chang'”)

Source: Poster Palace

Source: Poster Palace

Meanwhile, East Asian women experience hypersexualized expectations to be delicate and completely sexually submissive.  According to Angry Women of Color United, the sexualized stereotypes of East Asian women are the result of white colonization and imperialism: “White sexual imperialism, through rape and war, created the hyper-sexualized stereotype of Asian women…[which] in turn fostered the over-prevalence of Asian women in pornography, the mail-order bride phenomenon, the Asian fetish syndrome, and worst of all, sexual violence against Asian women” (Angry Women of Color United).

Often times, desexualization in this context is only discussed using a passive voice. “This group is desexualized.” But desexualization is not a one-sided issue. It’s a positional relationship. I think it is critically important to address the impact of not only the history of European/white colonialism on perpetuating this stereotype of East Asian women but also the impact of the modern white male gaze. It is important to ask, “Who is doing the desexualizing/hypersexualizing?” and “Why are they doing it?”

Goal Auzeen Saedi’s article mentions a 2011 research study by Bitna Kim that interviewed non-Asian men about their views on Asian women as romantic or sexual partners. Kim found that almost all of the interviewees “started with a sentence that negates Asian women as submissive, but, nevertheless, they all mentioned, in one way or another, that Asian women are submissive: ‘Women serve the men; they do things for him that the Western culture has long forgotten'” (qtd. in Saedi). Another participant said that he believed Asian women are attracted to white men because they “symbolize power and dominance” (Saedi). With beliefs like these predominant among the non-Asian men in Kim’s study, the root of where these sexual stereotypes come from is more easily traceable.

Next on desexy, I interview Ami+ about her experiences of desexualization as a biracial Japanese American.

 + Named has been changed.

References

Angry Women of Color United. Tumblr, Inc., 2014. Web. 3 Jan. 2015.

“Call-outs and Commentary: ‘To JK Rowling From Cho Chang.’” Angry Asian Girls United. Tumblr, Inc., 2013. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

Saedi, Goal Auzeen. “What Is Exotic Beauty? Part II: The Case of the Asian Fetish.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 2011. Web. 3 Jan. 2015.

Damned Either Way: Women of Color and Sexualized Desexualization

Author’s Note: Because I am white and do not identify as a person of color (POC), the majority of this post will consist of excerpts from POC writers supplemented by my connections between them.

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

This old phrase perfectly sums up this posts’s topic: sexualized desexualization. Now, I know that you’re thinking. How can someone be sexualized and desexualized?

Sexualized desexualization means that people have been desexualized by stripping away all forms of desirability but “they also have been sexualized in that all of their worth and value in society is based on their desirability” (Tory). Phrased another way, this means that women of color, for example, are inherently seen as desexualized people and, thus, worthless. But when they are valued, it is only because of their desirability as sexual objects. This contributes to what is called hypersexualization.

The hypersexualization of women of color is rooted in colonialist discourse. Shantyana C. Lledin’s post, “I’m Not Your Spicy Latina,” describes this progression of events by saying, “Colonizing land usually also meant colonizing the women inhabiting that land. They were described as uncivilized, hypersexualized, sexually inferior, and savage” (Lledin). In the context of the United States, this colonialist influence in the history of Black hypersexualization roots itself in this country’s history of slavery:

Slavery existed as a sexual economy, and that black bodies have always been…erotic–kind of illicit erotic commodities in an economy that is built upon our labor. And one of the ways in which black communities try to deal with that is through kind of this culture of dissemblance or scholars discuss it…disidentifying with sexuality…in order to protect their selves from that kind of symbolic and actual threat that…being hypersexual posed. (Chideya)

The existence of hypersexualized desexualization causes women of color to be constantly aware of how they are being perceived and how they are expressing their sexuality. Chideya touches on this hyperawareness when they discuss how Black communities misidentify from sexuality in order to protect themselves from being perceived as a threat. In a personal interview with Shawn+, who identifies as a queer, transmasucline, second-generation Cuban immigrant, they brought up how hyper sexualization impacted them. “I was socialized as a Hispanic female and there is tons of sexualization to ‘live up to,’” Shawn said. “The bodies of women of color have a long history of being highly objectified and sexualized, so when I began exploring my gender identity, I received much backlash” (Anonymous).

Sexualized desexualization also creates a layer of invisibility. Women of color are not only subject to the hypersexualized gaze of, primarily, white men but are also impacted by the invisibility of desexualization. Zoya Haroon’s article, “Growing Up Brown: Desexualized and Hyper-sexualized,” critically examines the white male gaze:

You’re not beautiful, you’re not desirable, but at the same time you’re somehow overly sexual.You don’t have any power over your body—it does what it likes. Sexuality does not originate from your body, but the possibility of strange men’s sexuality is constantly in your mind, policing what you wear and how you perceive yourself. (Haroon)

White people commonly perceive people of color as the “other” in a predominantly white space. Particularly in dating, women of color are desexualized and made invisible, according to Chaya Babus’ article, “Walking the Tightrope: Good Indian Girls, Race, and Bad Sexuality”:

Women of color were mostly unseen as partner options. And if we landed in the purview somehow, it was, at best, to be mentioned as perhaps pretty and then quickly dismissed (you know, the “Wow, you’re pretty for an Indian girl” line) or, at worst, to be ridiculed for our ugliness. I undoubtedly stood out in this context – ashy knees in the winter, unruly mane of thick, black hair in a sea of pale midriffs and near-ubiquitous gold or platinum highlights – but I was also invisible. And that external gaze is powerful: the invisibility desexualized me. (Babu)

Rather than, “Damned if you do, damned it you don’t,” think about sexualized desexualization as, “Sexualized if you’re seen, desexualized if you’re not.”

Up next, a look at desexualized sexualization and submission of South Asian and East Asian women.

+ Name has been changed.

References

Anonymous. Personal Interview. 11 Nov. 2015.

Babu, Chaya. “Walking the Tightrope: Good Indian Girls, Race, and Bad Sexuality.” The Feminist Wire. The Feminist Wire, 2013. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

Chideya, Farai. “Sex Stereotypes of African Americans Have Long History.” NPR. NPR, 2007. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.

Haroon, Zoya. “Growing Up Brown: Desexualized and Hyper-sexualized.” Feminspire. Feminspire Media Network, LLC, 2013. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

Lledin, Shantyana C. “I’m Not Your Spicy Latina.” The Feminist Wire. The Feminist Wire, 2012. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.

Tory. “Let’s Talk About Sexualized Desexualization.” You Have the Right to Remain Right Here with Me. Tumblr, Inc., 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

Relearning Sexy (P. 1): The Franklin Conundrum

Source: Wikipedia

“I swear. I look like Benjamin Franklin in my middle school yearbook pictures.”

This one sentence sums up my entire experience of adolescent puberty. Shoulder length wavy hair, unkempt eyebrows, and thick-rimmed glasses (my bifocals) served as the markers for this self-reflective characterization. Joking about my uncanny physical similarity to one of America’s Founding Fathers not only entertains my friends but allows me to process the history of my gender expression through humor.

Looking back, I spent my middle school days exclusively wearing basketball shorts and a swim team hoodie, paired with (to my mother’s dismay) flip flops, no matter if the days were sunny or if it had snowed six-inches the night before. Interestingly, I presented more masculinely during my pre-adolescent years than I did before I began identifying as a trans man.

Rarely do I ever have the chance to think about my gender expression in my adolescent years. In my experience, understanding my gender identity as one outside of “woman” really began when I was almost 17 years old, which will be discussed later in Relearning Sexy. Prior to that, I cannot think of any moments in my life where I felt hyperaware of any gender identity. Yes, I went through a time in my life where I rolled my eyes in defiance when I was asked to wear a dress. I loathed the color pink. Someone might point to these instances of not conforming to femininity as a “sign” of my forthcoming trans-ness. But I never felt aware of how my expression did (or did not) impact my gender identity. For me, the hoodie, the basketball shorts, and even the flip flops were just practical and comfortable, the byproduct of being a student athlete.

Source: Image Arcade

Source: Image Arcade

But looking back, maybe my gender nonconformity did impact how I was being perceived by my peers sexually. I rarely found myself desirable to boys my age. Rather, I found that they viewed me in more of a friend role. When I did try to express my desire for a romantic relationship, I was shut down. I remember being told that I wasn’t “feminine” enough to be considered a girlfriend. A family friend warned me that in high school, I wouldn’t get away with wearing what made me feel comfortable. They told me I should “grow up” and “stop wearing boy’s clothes.” These experiences of rejection and negative comments about my appearance really impacted my overall body self-satisfaction, impeding my ability to see my body as sexually desirable.

An important part of my awareness of my trans identity lies in how I discovered myself. Every trans person’s experience of identity awakening is different. For me, my sexuality and how I interacted with my romantic and sexual partners influenced how I interpreted my gender identity. My gender presentation changed when I began dating my first serious boyfriend, Nate+, at the beginning of high school. My presentation shifted from masculinely gender nonconforming to ultra femme as quickly as the lightning-struck key on Mr. Franklin’s kite ignited the night sky. I will be discussing this drastic shift in the next installment of Relearning Sexy.

Coming up next, examining the impact of sexualized desexualization on women of color.

+ Name has been changed.

De-story: Maria

Maria+ identifies as “female, white, upper middle class, straight, cisgender, and an American citizen.” Maria is also a survivor of bulimia and anorexia.

This is her story.

Tell me about a period of time or a particular experience where you felt desexualized.

I developed my first eating disorder when I was eleven, and showed symptoms of eating disorder behavior at age 8. I was bullied extensively in middle school, which lead to the development of a binge eating disorder. In high school, I became obsessed with going to the gym and developed a form of bulimia known as Exercise Bulimia, in which I would eat a lot of “nothing” then exercise it all off (with “nothing” being non-fat, no sugar, low calorie foods, such as 10 calorie sugar free Jell-O). I was once sent home after spending nearly 6 hours in my gym. In college, I developed my worst and most severe eating disorder: anorexia. I lost around thirty pounds in a matter of months. I was living off of less than 500 calories a day. At the end of my freshman year, I was sent to a treatment facility and spent the summer receiving help and recovering.

During the beginning of my anorexic period, I was repeatedly hooking up with a guy that had started as a friend but quickly turned romantic…sexual. He never really complimented me or said nice things about me, but I just took it as his style. One night, when we were laying in bed together, he looked over at me and told me that I needed to lose weight.

I hadn’t had anything to eat that day.

A few days later I told him that I wasn’t eating. He encouraged this behavior. But a few weeks later, he told me that he didn’t find me attractive and didn’t want to do anything sexual with me because I was “fucked up” because of my eating disorder. He told a bunch of other guys and none of them would even come near me. Many of them had expressed interest in me in the past. However, since learning about my eating disorder, they desexualized me. Eating disorders are extremely stigmatized disorders making those who suffer feel more isolated.

Tell me about a positive experience you had of feeling sexual.

Since going to treatment, I have learned to accept my body as it is. And since coming to this realization, I have become more confident in my sexuality and in myself as a whole. I have been dating my current boyfriend for a year now. He accepted me as I am, eating disorder and all. He has enabled me to feel sexual without the fear of b eing judged for my disorder. He compliments me constantly, not only on my looks and my body, but also my mind and my personality. For such a long time I had a fear of being seen without clothes on. However, since coming to terms with my disorder, and having the backing, support, and love of my boyfriend, I am now able to be comfortable with and without clothes on.

+ Name has been changed.

Reference

Anonymous. Personal interview. 5 Nov. 2014.