A mere generation ago, if you used a wheelchair, communicated in sign language, or lived with a cognitive disability, the United States considered you less of a person.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) changed that, legally speaking, when George H.W. Bush signed it into law in 1990. The act transformed America and prompted the public to (literally) open its doors for the first time to citizens whose bodies may challenge the norm.
Last month, everyone from Obama to Google celebrated the 25th anniversary of the ADA and the various civil rights victories it has spawned, like a slow-but-steady increase in employment and better access to housing.
But take a look at the news cycle, and you’ll still find some uncomfortable Americans who don’t seem to be ready for the mass shattering of taboos that people with disabilities are accomplishing. And now it seems, the issue of disability rights is moving onto to our country’s favorite bloodied battleground: sex and who can have it.
When it comes to sex, people with disabilities have always been caught between two extremes. They’re either assumed to be completely asexual, or they’re accused of being sex maniacs. As far back as the 1600s, some physicians actually believed that mental disability was a consequence of too much sex. This belief, combined with the Eugenics Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, provided the legal justification for laws that banned marriage between people with disabilities and allowed for the forced sterilization of “mental defectives.”
As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously decided in 1927: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Even post-ADA, sex is still effectively the “Berlin Wall” for people with disabilities, as disability awareness consultant Stella Palikarova told the Toronto Sun.
Palikarova and Andrew Morrison-Gurza—activists with disabilities themselves—along with marketing guru Fatima Mechtab, are trying to break down this wall, and they’re feeling the pushback. On August 14, Buddies in Bad Times (BIBT) Theatre in downtown Toronto will be the site of the first ever sex-positive masquerade ball, called “Deliciously Disabled.” The party is sponsored by the Oasis Aqualounge and will welcome people of all bodies and all sexual orientations.
“Sexuality and disability should be celebrated,” Morrison-Gurza says. “People with disabilities are so often denied the chances to celebrate it and be in spaces where they feel safe to be sexual and be sensual and have access to that part of themselves.”
Because Oasis’s historical location makes access difficult, BIBT agreed to lend its completely accessible venue to the event. But critics seized on the fact that the theatre receives grant money from various government initiatives like the Ontario Arts Council, and triumphantly announced that Canadian tax dollars were funding this accessible “orgy.”
“Toronto-based theatre group/gender politics activist organization Buddies in Bad Times (BIBT) is heavily subsidized by multiple levels of the Canadian government,” Oliver Lane wrote in a Breitbart article. “Figures seen by Breitbart show BIBT received a remarkable $458,291 in government grants last year alone, with funding going back for decades.”
The article goes on to quote Christine Van Geyn of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Association, who told Breitbart, “The host organization received $458,291 in government grants last year, which pays for their staff, space, and operating budget. With highways falling down and local taxes going up, subsidizing any kind of orgy should not be a priority for public funds.”
“There has been some pushback, as there is whenever you are doing something whereby you want to actually change the status quo,” Morrison-Gurza says. But he emphatically explained that “Deliciously Disabled” is privately sponsored. None of the public funds BIBT has received are specifically for the party, but merely to maintain their venue for all of the organization’s work. Critics could have made a similar tax-dollar argument if the party had been held at a public park.
The Oasis club itself told The Daily Beast in an email: “The only way in which taxpayers are even associated is peripherally. They are not directly involved…Offering this as a topic of discussion only serves to skirt around the issue of the lack of accessible spaces in Toronto.”
Meanwhile, a second incident surrounding sex and disability came to a climax this summer. Last year, well-known Syracuse University professor of bioethics William J. Peace submitted an essay for the Winter 2014 issue of Atrium, Northwestern University’s bioethics journal. In it, Peace describes the deep anxiety he felt over whether or not he could still be sexual following his spinal cord injury at 18 and how one nurse eased his fears while still in rehab.
“I was playing with myself without much luck. She explained I had to be a bit more vigorous and try non-traditional approaches. Then she rubbed my leg and pulled the skin on my inner groin, and sure enough I grew hard. I started to cry in relief,” Peace wrote. “She brought me to orgasm, and I was taken aback when I realized no ejaculate had emerged. She explained to me that this is common for paralyzed men and that it involves a retrograde ejaculation. She assured me it would not affect my fertility or my sex life in a major way. My son is living proof she was correct.”
But when Northwestern administrators—particularly Eric Neilson, dean of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine—got wind of Peace’s essay, titled “Head Nurses,” they immediately demanded that Atrium censor parts of it from the online version. Atrium’s editorial staff felt the block on Peace’s essay was so unfair that they actually chose to remove the entire journal from the Internet and temporarily suspend publication rather than abide by the censorship.
“I suspect the visceral negative reaction was the idea a man paralyzed at age 18 still was interested in sex,” Peace wrote in an email.
As of now, Atrium—along with “Head Nurses”—is back online, but only after faculty members reportedly threatened to publicize the censorship. The journal now faces a “vetting committee” that it must consult with before publishing any future issues.
“The sad fact is disability in the broadest sense of the term and sexuality are considered polar opposites,” Peace says. “This goes for any other person with a profoundly different body or merely old. My essay undermined this quite effectively.”
Obviously the ADA was a massive leap in the right direction for disability rights, so we’re right in celebrating its success. But maybe we should also be asking: What good is accessible housing when the bedroom is still off limits?