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).

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5 thoughts on “Disability, Normalcy, Sex and the Vanilla People: Beyond a conventional position

  1. Unreal! Wow! We need to talk Mate, happy for you to email me on the address supplied. That was so interesting. I’m definitely not Vanilla in any way shape or form, you only have to read my tweets after a play date with my Sex Mistress, my Beautiful Transgender Woman Girlfriend Alexis, to know that. Would really like to discuss this blog post & other areas of interest between the the of us. Cheers Kathy xxx 😉

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  2. I periodically check in with the cerebral palsy blogs here on wordpress. I’m really excited to have found you here. I’m a mom to a little boy with cerebral palsy and I’m very interested in disability studies, but also totally new to it. I’m looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

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    • Dear Rachel,

      Hello there, thank you for comment. I just started writing about disability again for a long time, so I was quite nervous about. the kind of things I want to say were certainly not popular a few years ago, so the support has been quite overwhelming.

      If you are interested in disability studies, check out this site. Its a little UK-centric but interesting. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/index.htm

      I looked at your blog. Like your son, I have spastic cerebral palsy – in my instance effecting my left side. I have left-sided hemiplegic spastic cerebral palsy.

      All the best,

      Michael

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      • I’ll check that out. Thank you.:) Reese has quadriplegia spastic cerebral palsy which effects his left side a little less than his right. Understanding the difference between the terms impairment and disability has actually spurred me to be more enabling with Reese. It might sound a little corny, but this is an incredible time for disability theory, and voices like yours are hungered for. I’m grateful my son will grow up with that guidance.

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  3. Thank you for your words, its not corny at all. It is a very interesting time. Although I feel it only fair to point out that some social modelist actually disagree with what I have to say. Not that I necessarily disagree with the social model – but as these two blog posts hint it, the social model whilst it delivers better welfare – and that is paramount, cannot answer the question ‘how do conceive of a positive disability identity. Some perceive article that doesn’t mention the social model as a threat.

    Ten years ago, I stopped writing about disability as I was denounced by the movement as a traitor for saying similar things to this blog. I hope things have changed now.

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