On the 3rd of April CDS hosted the event ‘Sexual Politics in Diverse Communities: Conversations about Theory, Methodology, and Practice’ together with CIGS (Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies). The day was organised by CDS-er Dr Julia Bahner (now alumni) to showcase ground-breaking new research in the field of sexual politics, including themes relating to intimate/sexual citizenship, a/sexualities, gender, intersectionality, embodiment, dis/ability, sex work and violence. Here we share Kirsty Liddiard’s talk. There are no subtitles (please note that we are looking into this for the future). But there is a transcript, which is below:
Unpacking Intimate Citizenship: What can we learn from disabled people?
Dr Kirsty Liddiard, Research Fellow, School of Education, The University of Sheffield
How can the concept of intimate citizenship be understood in relation to disability? Based on empirical findings, this paper presents the ways in which ableism compromises disabled people’s rights and access to intimate citizenship. I also explore new ways of thinking at the intersections of disability, sex and gender through DisHuman studies. The DisHuman invokes alternative kinds of citizenship and ways of being in the world; and ultimately, might pave new ways of imagining and advocating for disabled people’s sexual and intimate futures.
Kirsty: Thank you so much for that introduction, and for organising this, my dream day, when it’s such a shame I’ve got to leave so early, I’m so sorry. It’s also lovely to be away from Sheffield for the day, and to be somewhere else. So in my talk today I want to begin by considering how this concept of intimate citizenship. It can be understood in relation to what we have come to know as disability. From the sexual stories co-produced in my own research, I’ll show you how ableism readily compromises disabled people’s access to intimate citizenship, while also acknowledging the ways in which they often claim it in quite difficult and discriminatory contexts. And then, in the latter part of the talk, themed around intimate citizenship. I will explore new ways of thinking at the intersections of disability, sex and gender through post-human disability studies and emerging dis-human studies, which I like to argue, I think, can pave new ways of thinking about disabled people’s intimate and sexual futures.
So it’s quite a theoretical paper this morning, but later in the talk I want to bring in some examples to kind of bring to life some of this theory. So in terms of access, everything on a slide generally is words that I’ll be saying from my script. Where I do use an image I will describe it in full. There are slide copies over here of the talk. There’s also a full script if you want that as well, so help yourself to any of the resources if you need them or want them. OK.
[Julia]: And the stickers?
Kirsty: Oh, and those stickers, as well. [laughter] Everyone’s welcome to a sticker. I’ve also realised that my former PhD student Emma – sorry, former PhD supervisor is in the room, which has made me ten times more nervous than I already was. [laughter] OK, so what is intimate citizenship? So I’d characterise the sexual oppression experienced by disabled people is through the absence of what sociologist Ken Plummer calls intimate citizenship. So for Plummer, intimate citizenship is different from sexual citizenship, which Julia will be talking about later. And because it focuses on claims to rights of public and private intimacies, that extend beyond the erotic and beyond the sexual.
So broadly, intimate citizenship refers to the rights of people to choose how they organise their personal lives and claim sexual and intimate identities. Plummer defines intimate citizenship in this quote at the top of the slide which I’ll read in a minute. And quite typically for a sociologist, he doesn’t mention disability specifically, but for me disability is written within and through this quote. So he says “It’s the control or not over one’s body, feelings, relationships, access or not to representations, relationships and public spaces, and socially grounded choices or not about identities, gender experiences, and erotic experiences”. Or, as I and others have clarified, intimate citizenship concerns our rights and our responsibilities to make personal and private decisions about with whom and how we are in intimate relations. So while Plummer’s primary concern is upon emerging and new forms of intimate rights, and new theories of citizenship that legitimate them, initially in this talk I want to problematise the absence of rights and access to intimate citizenship for disabled people. As such rights are seldom challenged, despite the fact that as disability scholar Tobin Siebers argues, disabled people experience sexual oppression and possess little or no sexual autonomy, and tolerate institutional and legal restrictions on their intimate contact. Whereas Abbie Wilkerson argues many also face restrictions or penalties, coercion, and are denied access to important information, all in relation to their sexuality.
So a few years ago, with some colleagues in Canada, we held two workshops, one in Toronto and one which I think – the Toronto one was a bit more glamorous – working with adults with learning disabilities to think about and talk about intimate citizenship. And this is the definition that we came up with. So intimate citizenship is fragile in the rights – sorry, in the lives of labelled or disabled people, despite the fact that the rights to pursue several spheres of intimate life, as we know, are now enshrined in the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. So those rights matter, because intimate relationship establish the social networks necessary to support employment, educational success, secure housing, family stability, sexual health and well-being. And build resilience against the deleterious effects of structural interpersonal ableism. We actually have produced some easy-read copies of this, and they’re at the front too, so if you do want a couple of those, they are at the front.
So importantly in this article, we also draw attention to the fact that sadly and quite obviously, our knowledge rarely includes labelled or disabled people as competent commentators on their own life conditions. So we know little about the spaces that people may easily access and claim intimate citizenship, and how these may shape intimate subjectivities, relations and practice. And more do we know what newer ableisms, the exclusions, disadvantages and silencing of people with impairments, or other barriers encountered within the exercising or accessing of intimate rights. So a lot of [unclear 05:32] my own work focuses on the critical absences around intimate and sexual rights and citizenship. So for many disabled people, we know their intimate citizenship is institutionalised through multiple forms of incarceration, still, as particular individualised regimes of care and of discipline and therapeutic surveillance disrupt quite normative expressions of pleasure and intimacy. Through similar paternalistic processes, more embodied forms of love, life and self, we demarcate our intimate citizenship, so our access to our own bodies and our own pleasures are also co-opted and pathologised through the interventions of education, medical and social care professionals. So things like masturbation training, chemical castration and over-medicating are routinely used to assuage assumed animalistic hypersexuality, particularly intellectually disabled and queer disabled people, and mad people, primarily men. Or intimate citizenship is denied through lack of access to sexual and reproductive health care, perhaps not surprisingly it’s also mitigated through material deprivation and poverty. It also occurs through normative exposure to multiple forms of violence, most notably sexual violence for disabled people, and also in the marked criminalisation of disabled people’s non-normative sexual activities such as sex work, and I’ll come onto that later on.
And then there are the emotional or psychic, and the affective politics of intimate citizenship, which includes things like the absence of crip sexuality and pleasure in the cultural sphere, so absence from film and TV media, the endemic shaming of disabled people’s sexual expression through oppressive care practices, as I’ve said, and psycho-emotional disablism. So what the brilliant Carol Thomas calls “the socially engendered undermining of emotional well-being”, which can exacerbate the existing demands of an erotic or intimate self. And if that isn’t enough, there is internalised ableism, the insidious process of learning to hate ourselves. And crip sexologist Bethany Stevens describes this as “not being able to muster the capacity to see love from our body”.
But despite such routine and persistent disqualification of intimate citizenship, sexual intimate selves in contexts of disability exist, persist, survive and thrive. So to give my recently published book a bit of a cheeky plug, this is a book that I’ve felt as a disabled woman had to be written. Essentially it details the ways in which disabled people are routinely assumed to lack the capabilities and the capacities to embody and experience sexuality and desire, as well as the agency to love and be loved by others and build their own families if they so choose. So proudly in the book is a collection of sexual stories told by disabled people, on their own terms and in their own ways, stories that shed light on areas of disability, life and love that are quite typically overlooked and ignored. These are stories of intimacy, affection, care, eroticism, desire and love, as well as stories of pain, oppression, exclusion, denial, abjection and rejection. And in its call for disabled people’s sexual intimate citizenship, stories are drawn upon as the means to create social change and [a few words unclear 09:10] want to think of is that particularly inclusive sexual cultures. It is also coming out in paperback in a couple of weeks, so don’t buy it now. [laughter] Ridiculously expensive.
So to to me [unclear 09:27] liberals notions of citizenship then, which rest upon what I think have got ableist and individualist ideas of personhood. In the conclusion to the book, I use Goodley, Runswick-Cole and Rebecca Lawthom’s generative tool of the dis-human to explore what I’ve come to label as the dis-sexual. So the dis-human is a political and a theoretical understanding of disability as a valuable tool for disruption. So through the dis-human, it becomes possible to recognise the moral, the pragmatic and the political value of claiming the norm, while always seeking to disrupt and contest it. So it also rests upon and acknowledges its desire for normative citizenship – to be included, to be human, to be loved and be wanted. So the dis-human at once acknowledges the desire to be human and a citizen, and at the same time challenging very narrow boundaries. So as Goodley and Runswick-Cole suggest, a dis-human analysis allows us to claim normative citizenship, associated with choice, a sense of autonomy, and being part of a loving family, the chance to neighbour, love and consume, while simultaneously drawing on disability to trouble, to reshape, to refashion liberal citizenship; ultimately then to try and invoke new ways of being in the world.
So similarly, for me, building on this idea the dis-sexual positions disability as productive disruption to idealised forms of human sexuality, in which we know disabled people are routinely excluded, but also recognises that many disabled people, particularly those in my own research, hold a desire to be included. So for me the dis-sexual offers a space for which disabled people might claim their humanness and their intimate citizenship through conventional modes of sex and gender, if they so choose, yet simultaneously defying and exceeding those qualifiers. And I want to give a few everyday dis-human exacerbate from my own research that embody [transformative ? 11:30] life. Sorry if this is kind of [dis-theory? 11:33].
So in this first example, the dis-sexual might mean welcoming non-normative and queer pleasures and practices that some impaired bodies often demand, into heterosexual, otherwise normative modes of sex. So on this slide is a verbal exchange from a couple that I interviewed for my research, and in the quote they’re discussing the wondrousness of the displaced erogenous zone which is a product of Sean’s impaired body, and the ways in which this re-inscribes the heterosexual sex with new meanings for them. So Sean said “I have very sensitive areas on my shoulders, because that’s where I was injured, so that’s a kind of natural thing, so it’s just nice for the touching side of things really”. And Hannah said “I remember the first time, because I didn’t know that about spinal injury, I went straight for his shoulder, he was like ‘wow’, and I was like ‘what?’, I think I must have stroked it for an hour”. Sean then quipped “She gets bored after a couple of minutes now”, and Hannah said “So that was an eye-opener, but now that we can get to the stage of having an orgasm from touching just above the injury, which is amazing really”. So the ability to orgasm through one’s shoulder undoubtedly queers the sexual body norms of the conventional erotic body, that dictates that orgasms are, rather boringly, bound only to genitals. But what makes this quintessentially dis-sexual for me is this desire for orgasm. So Hannah and Sean actually laboured extensively to ensure that Sean experienced orgasm, reinforcing the primacy of orgasm within sexual closure as kind of an only option for successful sex. So it was considered too abnormal by the couple at that point to embrace sexuality without orgasm. So the dis-sexual recognises this desire for the norm, orgasm as integral to sexual practice, at the same time as contesting and disrupting the very entrenched notions of the conventional [charted 13:31] orgasm, and the multiple event – sorry, the embodied ways in which this is typically materialised.
Does anybody – has anybody heard of the Intimate Rider? So – Emily has, that doesn’t surprise me. [laughter] So on this slide is a collection of images, marketing the product really, based along this tool called the sexual – sorry, the Intimate Rider. So in this example, the dis-sexual means privileging normative modes of phallocentric sexuality via non-normative practices, either with or without genitals, or with our without the support of popular technologies and enhancements. So the Intimate Rider was actually designed to enable largely only cis men with paralysis, to enhance their mobility during intercourse. Much of its marketing, as you can see from this slide, is aimed at regaining the physicality synonymous with the masculine sex role. The product emphasises a reclamation discourse, based on kind of natural or normal awareness of doing importantly only hetero sex. So from a dis-sexual perspective the Intimate Rider at once extends and restores the naturalised male body to its expected patterns, and at the same time is queering and technologising that same sexual body as hybridised, you can also argue a mix of flesh and machine, thus constituting some form of sexual cyborg, if you like.
So in this third example, dis-sexual can also mean having intimate and loving encounters through paid-for sexual activities. So in this example on the slide, above, a participant of mine is describing an intimate encounter with a sex worker, to whom he lost his virginity. So on the slide is a small excerpt of a very long and quite [challenged? 15:23] email exchange that he shared with the sex worker before he met her and afterwards, that he generously shared with me. “It was the most incredible privilege for me to be intimate with a human being as beautiful and as sexual”, and she said “I was a bit nervous I wouldn’t live up to your expectations, and I truly wanted it to be wonderful and a comfortable experience”. She said “it was a privilege to be the lady that you chose to experience sexuality with for the first time. It’s an honour that will stay with me for my whole life”. So the intimacy here between Abram and a sex worker challenges prevailing discursive and legal constructions of sex work only as sexual deviancy or anti-social behaviour, and disabled men’s sexualities inevitably only as vulnerable, passive and innocent. So in terms of the dis-sexual, disability emerges as an extraordinary vector through which devotion, affection and tenderness can materialise within commercial transactions or interactions, and it seems quite often in caring, commercial caring relationships too. So disability can re-inscribe the commodified. saleable and typically alienable labour with reciprocity, affect and affinity.
So in this last example I just want to draw on my current research, funded by the ESRC, called ‘Life, death, disability and the human: Living life to the fullest’. And in this project with disabled children and young people, living with what are known as life-limiting or life-threatening impairments alongside of our co-researchers, using an arts-informed and narrative networks to explore their lives, hopes, desires and contributions in the context of lives deemed short or shorter. So as an example, 3 of the 5 disabled men who attended our first arts retreat in October 2017 centred fatherhood in their artistic makings. Creative explorations of reproductive futures typically disallowed to disabled people, particularly in the context of short lives, so such creative expressions of disability life, self and future then [unclear 17:37] undoubtedly invokes the dis-sexual. Future imaginings of parenthood typically disavow that some [unclear 17:43] enabled and invoked with access to the arts.
So to try to draw – to come to some kind of conclusion, disability by its very nature offers possibilities for opening up new ontologies of pleasure and alternative economies of desire, even within the very confining ableist boundaries of human sexuality and intimate citizenship. And I’m really cautious not to over-conclude, but I would say that each of the examples that I’ve offered taken from disabled people’s own sexual stories aspires to a disablist human sexual normalcy and citizenship, and normative modes of pleasure, while inherently being non-normative and in part non-human. Each claims the normative sexualised self as the marker of humanity, yet revises human sexuality as we know it. Each strives for the natural through technologies, through enhancements and through extensive labours. So in sum, the disabled sexualities that unfolded through my book, while striving for normalcy and the safe confines of intimate citizenship, also show this to be unquestionably non-normative, to be queered, cripped and at points interdependent and radically relational. And also, sometimes literally engaged with multiple technologies, bodies, services and power structures that lead to the disavowal of disabled people’s lives. Therefore rather than abject, aberrant or non-sexual, as informants’ own story-telling allowed me [unclear 19:15] in the project, which quite understandable psycho-emotional consequences as the strict qualifiers of the human, and then by extension human sexuality. And it also makes space to consider and pave new ways of imagining and advocating for more radically inclusive sexual, intimate futures.
Thank you [applause]