Disability, Normalcy, Sex and the Vanilla People: Beyond a conventional position

Because disabled people were not able to make love in a straight forward manner, or in a conventional position, they were impelled to experiment and enjoyed a more interesting sexual life as a result. (Shakespeare et al, 1996,p106)[1]

When I read this quote, I had just started a Philosophy undergraduate degree at the University of Hull, it was 1998, I was twenty years old and impotent.  I have cerebral palsy, and years of analgesics and anti-epileptics had siphoned the desire right out of me.  Any sexual desire I had was now a mere faint libidinal memory, a long forgotten trace in an avalanche of diazepam, clonazepam and diclofenac.  So when even the first disjunctive of this quote annoyed me, It’s use of the past tense particularly troubled – I mean ‘were?’  When did this ‘were’ pass, apparently we are now ‘able to make love in straight forward manner’ and on a conventional position…apparently,.  But I was not able to make love, a fact which remains to true to this day.  But I at the time, the twenty year old me was far more interested in the second part of the quote.

they were impelled to experiment and enjoyed a more interesting sexual life as a result. (Shakespeare et al, 1996,p106)[2]

A more interesting sex life?  This was would assume they had an understanding or an experience of what sex entails?  A better sex life, was way off.  As a twenty year old,  I had never even masturbated, I mean, it wasn’t just that I didn’t, it’s that I didn’t even know it was an act that could be performed, and wouldn’t know for another  five years.   I simply didn’t know about it.

I fear, I may be losing my audience, surely that preceding paragraphs cannot be true?  Alas, reader it’s all true.  But for me there was something more destructive behind those quotes, and that was a valorisation of abnormality.  I am ‘impelled’ or forced to ‘experiment’ (whatever my twenty year old mind thought that was, and my thirty-four year old mind and body still doesn’t know), so what does it mean?  I get to experience blow jobs?  Yay me!

Well no, not quite.  You see, at this point in my life, not only was I unaware of sex, I was almost unaware of my disability.  Nobody had ever come up to me and said ‘you’re disabled you cannot do this’, so I was almost completely unaware of it.  I only become aware of it at university. I cannot remember the day, what I was doing at that time, but it was around this time that I was made painfully aware that was something the way I walked that was not right.  I had suspected so for sometime (since I was fifteen), but at University I had it confirmed.

Let us remind ourselves of a few fundamentals.  What follows was first written by myself in 2001. It was part of my undergraduate dissertation.

To counteract the medical model, disability studies put forward the following definitions,  which forms the basis of the social model.  This model is the foundation of all ‘accepted’ disability studies, that is, theories about disability accepted by the disability community.

Disability: the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities.  Physical disability is therefore a particular form of social oppression.

Impairment: is lacking part or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body (UPIAS, 1976)

The picture of disability that the social model paints is that disability is merely the  placing of certain bodies  in the wrong environments, environments that do not allow a ‘normal’ range of intentional acts.  If the environment were changed, the ‘disabling barrier’ to use the language of social modellism, would be removed, as would the disability.  Also there is no causal relationship between the  disability and impairment, for the social modelist, for the existence of any such relationship would suggest that disability had something to do with body.  And since ‘Impairment’ is seen as too well documented by doctors and medical institutions, those adopting the social model, (which amounts to all ‘accepted’ disability theorists and activists) are reluctant to theorise about the body.  To do so might give impression that disability was “ ‘really’  about physical limitation after all.”  and might hail a return to the medical model (Shakespeare in Oliver, 1996, p.39). Consequently, impairment remains relatively unexplored by disability theorists.

Disability theorists do give reasons for their leaving impairment alone.  Some say that there is no in point investigating impairment,  “If a person’s physical pain is the reason  they are unhappy there is nothing the disability movement can do about it…” (Vasey  in Oliver 1996,p38).  Others point out the fact that the disability movement is in the business of emancipating disabled people and there is more theoretical and practical work that can be done with the category’ disability’ than ‘impairment’.[3]

That was my BA dissertation and I still hold to much of it, but now I would go further.   It cannot be doubted that full, barrier free access for disabled has not been achieved. And rather bizarre  views on disability identity.  There are disabled people and there are non-disabled people.  So far so good, I am fine with that, except that it implicitly sets up disabled people as being the ‘abnormal’ against the non-disabled ‘normal’.  Even though, in this construct the non-disabled are not to be understood as able-bodied, they are only the members of the category ‘without impairments that cause discrimination’.  My question is this, is assigning myself – or should be resigning myself to the status of ‘the abnormal’ or dare I say ‘freak’, worth it for the accessibility such  assignation allows?  If there were some kind of utopian accessibility, would the social modelist give the term disability up, if there is no discrimination, on the social modelist’s terms how can there be disability?

I really don’t want to be too critical of the social model; it has been incredibly useful for disabled people.  And yet, I find myself asking, it is it worth the pay off?  To be perpetually categorised as disabled – discriminated against – there is no positive identity of the disabled person in standard disability theory, we are those with impairments that face discrimination.  After a long struggle with discrimination – and make no mistake, it was a hard struggle, and I am thankful to those who fought it and I consider myself one of those fighters.  But what is to come after, I’m not saying ‘the peace’  has come, but how can disability theory help us understand ourselves and he world around us?

My fear is that it cannot.  There is a growing academic movement  – Critical Disability Studies, that wants to attempt to answer these question,  and in I consider myself part of that academic movement[4], they seek answer the question ‘what does it mean to be disabled’, in positive terms, a question that the social modelist’s sense cannot answer.  I have not the time to go into that work here, but I can offer a preliminary picture of a positive disabled identity.

Disability as an non-vanilla embodiment

As an undergraduate, I was a big fan of the work of Gayle Rubin[5], particularly her l metaphorical and literal use of the concept of ‘vanilla sex’,  her critique that idea that there is such a thing ‘ normal sexual relations’, which involves no kink, no toys, not twist, indeed no fun – an entirely fifty shades free zone.   I think such a concept can be applied to disabled people’s situation.  Imagine a person who thinks of themselves as ‘able-bodied’, not just doesn’t limp, but thinks of themselves as being ‘OK’, ‘in working order’ or even – heaven forbid ‘perfect’.  Such a person I describe as a having a ‘vanilla body’ and having a ‘vanilla engagement’ with the world.  I doubt, although I should say, I hope that no such person exists, although in my time dealing with disability issues I have come to the conclusion that ‘vanilla people’ do exist.

However, there is another sort of person a ‘non-vanilla person’, or ‘rocky road person’ who the view relationship between themselves and the world as the difficult one, they may or may not have impairments, they may or may not have disabilities.  They simply do not find themselves ‘at ease’ with the world, they certainly don’t think of themselves as  ‘able bodied’.  It is with these wonderful, outrageous ‘non-vanilla people’ the disability community should turn to and seek to engage.


[1] SHAKESPEARE, T., GILLESPIE-SELLS, K. & DAVIES, D. (1996) The Sexual Politics of Disability

(London, Cassell).

[2] SHAKESPEARE, T., GILLESPIE-SELLS, K. & DAVIES, D. (1996) The Sexual Politics of Disability

(London, Cassell).

[3] Peckitt, Michael Gillan.  The Phenomenology of Impairment and Pain.  Unpublished BA Dissertation.  Hull University.

[4] The work of the following is important here. Shildrick   M. & Price J. (1996) Breaking the boundaries of the broken body, Body & Society,

Paterson, K. & Hughes, B. (1999) Disability studies and phenomenology: the carnal politics of

everyday life, Disability & Society, 14(5), 597–610.

2, pp. 93–113.

[5] See Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, in Carole Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger, (Routledge & Kegan, Paul, 1984. Also reprinted in many other collections, including Abelove, H.; Barale, M. A.; Halperin, D. M.(eds), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader(New York: Routledge, 1994).

Yes I take sugar, but is that all?

The impetus for this blog came from a sense of ambivalence.  One morning, after a long time away from the issue of disability, (I had not written on the subject for at least two years, although most of my previous published work was on disability and the phenomenology of pain) I decided to begin writing again on disability again.  But I did not know what to write on yet.  It’s the 21st Century so I did what most human beings do, I Googled ‘Disability’, I got back the following: ‘Brothels for disabled people’.[1] My reaction was physical and one of revulsion. When and begin to think about why I felt such revulsion, my initial thoughts was that there was something a little condescending about the entire enterprise, with phrases like ‘’You cannot stop a disabled person from having a normal life or having the same opportunities of an able-bodied person – it’s discrimination.’[2], or the title of the article ‘Disabled people have sexual needs too’ there was something of ‘Does he take sugar?’ about the tone of the interview.  I should like to make it clear that I no longer think the interview actually was condescending towards disabled people, and whilst I believe that I myself would never use the services of Para-doxies, I generally consider myself a supporter of the project.[3]

The memory of my initial reaction, scared me though and still does, and it raised two questions:  Firstly, as someone with cerebral palsy, had I become so defensive about ‘help from non-disabled allies’ (to the best of my knowledge Becky Adams is non-disabled) that I simply didn’t trust her intervention?  The second question was even more worrying, had a ‘nothing about without us’ attitude, (which I generally see as a positive move within Disability Studies) become so entrenched, this it was now impossible to have a single thought about disability which was not simply about fighting oppression from the ‘non-disabled world’?  It is the second question that this blog shall be dedicated to answering.  How can we talk about disability in positive terms, tell stories about our lives without those lives being reduced in those stories to a fight against oppression and nothing more.


[1] Many articles appeared at this time, as Becky Adams a former ‘Madam’ was doing interviews about setting up a ‘brothel for disabled people’, a not for profit organization called ‘Para-doxies’,  the purpose of which was to enable disabled people to have sex.  A good example of this is Sarah Ismail in The Independent   ‘Brothels for disabled people: Guess what? We like sex too’ http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/brothels-for-disabled-people-guess-what-we-like-sex-too-8461537.html

[2]‘Disabled people have sexual needs too’: UK madam to open first brothel for those with mental and physical disabilities, including boys with autism and injured soldiers

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2260701/Madam-Becky-Buckinghamshire-open-British-brothel-mental-physical-disabilities-including-boys-autism-injured-soldiers.html#ixzz2Iu1lUg1l

[3] How the author came to alter his mind and for his comprehensive view on Para-doxies is a subject for another article, one the author may indeed write.  His Twitter stream @Peckitt reveals some illumination on the subject.