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Jennifer J. Paterson


Jennifer is a Master’s student in the Critical Disability Studies program at York University in Toronto. Previously, she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Disability Studies from Toronto’s Ryerson University. She is also currently working as a research assistant at the Centre for Voluntary Studies Sector Studies, on a project on disability and volunteering, and previously was involved as research assistant on the Canadian Disability History Archives Project. Jennifer’s background in disability advocacy and student support includes a term as student representative on the Canadian Disability Studies Association board, and providing employment and life skills information for students through a local employment resource centre.


Reflections on the Sex(y) Disability Studies and the Inclusion of Disability in Sex-Positive Communities

Jennifer J. Paterson, Masters student, Critical Disability Studies, York University

Jennifer Paterson highlighted some literature on sexuality and disability, shared her concerns about how this work is progressing, and discussed her work on BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism) and kink in relation to disability and sexuality.

The social model of disability has looked at sexuality in terms of access, said Paterson. But if sexuality is a private matter, then the issues faced by people with disabilities are not addressed by the social model of disability. To be attentive to all the rights of people with disabilities, said Paterson, one must acknowledge that physical pleasure is a political issue and a public issue.

A range of provocative writing has emerged in area of sexuality and disability, but most of the material focuses on clinical issues. The concept of harm is also a common theme in the literature, because sexuality is seen as “dangerous” or risky for people considered unable to handle emotional and physical intimacy. By neglecting to speak of all realms of sexuality, the concept of pleasure is lost in the wealth of research focusing on harm and abuse prevention, said Paterson.

Some researchers make policy recommendations that people with disabilities should not be allowed to watch sexual movies featuring violence such as sadism. This reflects an authoritative caregiver perspective that reveals a sex-negative attitude and normative attitudes that deny the fact that sex goes beyond traditional notions of sexuality.

Some researchers present the voices of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people with disabilities. This work is important because much of the rest of the field has focused on heterosexual perspectives. “We must resist the temptation to ‘normalize’ sexuality,” said Paterson. Research should embrace all sexual identities, especially those not valued in Western society.

Discussing her research project, Paterson noted that even sex-positive discourses that celebrate sexuality in the queer community tend to ignore people with disabilities. To depart from heterosexual and clinical research norms and push the limits of studies of sex and disability, Paterson strategically chose BDSM or kink as the focal point of her masters research, to demonstrate how sexuality is a public and political issue and how it has been pathologized.

She first demystified BDSM or kink, which is typically conducted according to rules of consent and care. She explained that her research focused on the experiences of people with disabilities in the BDSM or kink communities. Her aim was to determine whether any dialogue existed to address the inclusion of people with disabilities in these communities, whether people with disabilities were included in the discussions, and the extent to which dominant social values such as “compulsory able-bodiedness” are replicated within the BDSM subculture community.

Paterson gathered data from several people with disabilities in a qualitative research project. Participants had varying degrees of experience within the BDSM community and a variety of disabilities. All related both positive and negative encounters in the community. The positive comments focused on the various notions of what is considered beautiful.

Other experiences varied. One participant suggested that age and duration of membership in the community contributed to the openness and welcoming of people with disabilities. Another believed that the attitude and acceptance of people at “play parties” depends on the community or group hosting the event, the type of venue, and the type of play.

One participant noted that it is harder to break into the community because people do not know how they will be perceived. Participants cited attitudinal and physical barriers in addition to economic barriers. (The cost of events is high.)

It seems that the participation of people with disabilities is conditional on their proving themselves as “top” or “dominant” (the one who takes the lead and tells someone else what to do). Four participants reported situations in which they had to prove themselves before being supported, or where they had to initiate interactions with other people. This notion of proving oneself was attributed to safety.

Of course, safety is an important consideration, and certain people at play parties therefore act as party monitors to ensure that the rules are respected. But one respondent believed that people with disabilities were questioned more than others.

In her analysis of the research, Paterson suggested that the notion of proving oneself reflects deeply entrenched notions regarding people with disabilities. The comments regarding the diversity of people and bodies involved in the community indicate some room for acceptance of non-normative bodies. But questions arise about the extent to which people with disabilities are seen as “acceptable.” The findings indicate the positive impact that the community and lifestyle have had on some participants, and yet the notion of safety can be used as a method of gatekeeping. Paterson concluded that future research must look at how all sexual minorities are silenced and must take into consideration the political nature of disability and sexuality.

During the subsequent discussion, Paterson was asked if she had experienced any resistance in the disability community to talking about sex in the context of disability. She commented that she had not experienced explicit resistance, but she added that much resistance has come in the form of silence.

One participant suggested that if the communities are not welcoming to people with disabilities, then those people may choose more risky alternatives, such as meeting people online. Paterson said that, in her limited data, she had not found that situation, but she also said that she had not considered the issue. She agreed with a participant that these communities can be spaces for negotiation of identity—something that can occur in nonverbal ways.

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