Thursday, March 6, 2014

Disability and Sexual Objectification

This episode of Psychology in Seattle sparked this topic in my brain box, and then in a follow up episode, one of my comments on disability and sexual objectification was discussed. This encouraged me, so I had to get more thoughts out! Blogger to the rescue.

There are many different definitions of sexual objectification.

To me, sexual objectification means one person takes certain sexual aspects of another person and leaves the rest. Person A only dates person B because of certain physical aspects or status and “puts up with” or disregards other aspects of person B. If the parts person A want are no longer pleasing or not worth the headache of putting up with other aspects, person A will break up with person B. Of course this manifests itself in many ways. In my definition, sexual objectification is prevalent in relationships where one person is using the other or can seep into long term relationships where one partner is constantly putting their partner in competition with others.

Now, what do I think of when I hear “disability and sexual objectification?” The first thing that springs to mind is the bipolar picture of that objectification.

On one hand we have a high interest in the disability. At the extreme of this end, we get into paraphilia or the fetishizing of disability. But to be mundane, what I’ve seen most often in my experience as a young, disabled, sexual being, is that the disability is turned into a novelty. Just as a white man might want to make it with a black woman just to say he did, just to tell his friends, or to fulfill a fantastic curiosity, such is the way the disability itself is sexually objectified. Guys will ask a lot of question about what it’s like to have sex with me and for some reason don’t believe me when I say it’s pretty much just like having sex with anyone else, I just take my braces off first. A couple guys have said that though they don’t find disability sexy, they are really curious and would want to fuck a girl say, who uses a wheelchair, so they know what it’s like and can add it to their sexual repertoire. Like trying out different beers or driving different cars. I would classify this as objectification.

However, more often than not, my disability is not sexualized, rather has the opposite effect. The fact that I’m disabled deems me as utterly unattractive, to the point of being asexual. Many men have described me as “one of the guys” or say they see me as the little sister they never had. Yet these same guys have egged me on to flash the men at parties and when they find out I have a navel ring become very interested and ask if I have any *other* piercings. So, they don’t have an issue with me as a woman sexually. It’s the disabled bits that they shy away from.

In this way, I often felt dissected. Either I can talk about my disability as a part of my person, my body, myself and be “one of the guys” or I can pretend it doesn’t exist and guys can “salvage” the proper bits of me. At least that’s how it feels. The funny thing is, I didn’t realize how often sexual partners dissected me in this way until I began having partners that treated my disability as part of me. These partners wanted me to be comfortable and asked what they could do so I enjoyed my body sexually (I can’t feel nearly half my body, so that’s kind of an important detail). The other partners had just taken what they could get and left all the painful or uncomfortable bits for me to deal with. If I didn’t get pleasure from say, a sexual position they enjoyed, they simply ended it instead of trying to work with me.

While that illustrates a physical aspect, I feel there was also a very high social factor at play. One partner I had been getting mixed signals from eventually broke down and confessed he really liked me, more than he liked other women. He simply could not deal with the fact that other people would know he was attracted to a disabled girl. He thought it would look “wrong” to other people.

I hear things like this in able-bodied relationships all the time.

“Yeah, she is fat, but at least her tits are huge!”

“I know she’s stupid, but she sucks dick like you wouldn’t believe!”

“My wife is so much better than other women, she goes to the gym all the time. Every other chick I know is lazy and just lets themselves go.”

I’ve heard guys constantly “justifying” why they are in relationships, shuffling “bad reasons” away and putting “good reasons” up on a pedestal, in essence, picking their partners apart and flashing the most socially desired aspects in front of other people.

In fact, sometimes I think guys just look for these socially acceptable traits when they make decisions. Certainly in who to flirt with initially, but even in pursuing long-term relationships. A girl that doesn’t make the cut will be dropped in hopes that something shinier comes along.

Some sentiments guys have shared with me go something like this:

The skinnier the girl, the better. A girl with makeup is automatically better than one without. A girl with bigger boobs is automatically better. And of course, the younger she is, the better, barring being underage. And as one guy actually said to me, “A crazy girl is better than a fat girl, but a fat girl is better than a disabled one.” (As ‘one of the guys’ I get to pry for my sociological studies, and I do appreciate honesty.)

Now, I repeat this ONE GUY said this. Not all guys objectify. And, no, guys are not the only ones who objectify.

Many of my women friends have bashed men behind their backs for being fat, having bad skin, “letting themselves go,” or having a dragon on their shirt. Women easily asses what guy in the room is their type and most of the time, in my experiences, will not be swayed at all, even if the hottest guy is a complete ass-hat-and-a-half.

Either way, being disabled isn’t exactly viewed as socially desirable. Throughout college I was “that friend” that was never asked to dance, never asked for my phone number, and was never bought a drink. I remember the one time a waiter flirted with me over one of the other attractive girls in my group and she was so pissed. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t date. I just had to put myself out there. I initiated conversations and dances, and usually had a good time. However, I always thought it was so weird that these guys would just SEE a girl across the room and suddenly be talking to her and buying her a drink. I had to work for that shit.

Now, do I think sexual objectification is bad? Well, when internalized, it’s pretty shitty. When you constantly feel you are in competition not only with people but manikins and perfume ads, that becomes very draining. I know a couple women with eating disorders because their husbands love them so much because they’re so hot and when their husbands make fun of fat people it’s such a compliment to them for working out and never eating! (They seriously believe that.) Some people put out their physical qualities to get what they want and wonder why they end up being used.

However, objectification is not something that can’t be overcome.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that I am not a slave to objectification. In fact, it really helps solidify why some partners want a relationship with me so I can break up with them accordingly. 99% of the men and women who objectify the most are actually extremely insecure themselves. When I woke up and realized that men and women were trying to devalue my sexuality by objectifying me, as asexual or a kooky novelty, it wasn’t because I was unattractive or a bad person or not “good enough” – They were insecure and trying to justify why they weren’t attracted to me because they couldn’t handle society or were afraid that if they acknowledged my “faults” then I would certainly see theirs and remind them.

Also, some guys simply are not attracted to me. End of story. And that’s fine. I’ve ended plenty of relationships because the person just wasn’t doing it for me. I don’t need approval from others to know that I’m a whole person, not just the pleasure my boobs or vagina can bestow upon someone. Someone shouldn’t be shamed because they are not attracted to someone. It is physical actions, the way you treat others, that should be the determining factor.

Ultimately I think sexual objectification is much more nuanced than what we think. It solidifies in long term relationships, is internalized in behavior many don’t even realize, and is usually exhibited not by people who are selfish but who are phenomenally insecure and have their own issues. Before we can have any deeper conversations about objectification, we need to understand the multi-faceted concepts of shame in sexuality, from many angles. For instance, if we write off men and women who objectify as simply being shallow, we miss a big part of the picture. We also miss a big part of the picture if we focus only on hypersexualization and ignore the asexualization of certain parts of the body or of certain groups.

Perhaps I will revisit this topic, but that is my hearty introduction. I’m still exploring the topic… Any thoughts??


  1. you might want to check out this app

    1. As they say, there's an app for that ;)