Sunday, June 25, 2006

Disability Porn: the Observer

Sunday's Observer has a piece about disability and porn.

The newest star is Encarna Conde: "Her first film, Breaking Barriers, is, however, already the subject of debate on internet chatboards and has even had entire pages dedicated to it in the Spanish press. The reason for the fuss is that Encarna is a wheelchair user who has a muscle control disorder called ataxia. She is also president of the Association of Andalucian Ataxia Groups."

The tone of the piece is one of bemused congratulation. Another barrier broken. Another thing those crazy disabled people do -- remember the coverage about the criticism of the Danish govt, because it pays for PWD to have sex with professional sex workers?

I'm conflicted.

On the one hand, I think it is important for PWD to be recognised as fully sexual beings. Ellen Stohl accomplished some of this work when she appeared in Playboy in 1987. And wasn't there a fuss! From the disability community -- everything from exploitation to not enough wheelchair -- and from those who oppose porn on principle. On the other hand, while I usually maintain a fairly sex positive attitude and I can understand, even sympathize with the arguments that interpret sex work as a positive choice for some women, I know that sex work is not always positive, that the viewer cannot tell from looking at the image, and that in every day life not every sex worker's rights are protected. This limits my ability to go for porn without many, many reservations.

The disability perspective is what bugs me: journalism like this and perhaps even the film itself provides fodder for a rather large community of wheelchair pretenders and wheelchair fetishizers. Yes: run this Google search; you will soon see what I mean. And, yes, I know that there are distinctions between wannabees, pretenders, fetishizers, and devotees. For now, however, I am linking them as a group of people to whom disability porn might be relevant.


OK. More disclaimers. I think it is Ian Hacking who once argued that psychiatric diagnoses are self-fulfilling loops -- there is no illness until there is a diagnosis (probably in his the Social Construction of What? -- and given what I know about the history of things like Alzheimer's Disease and schizophrenia, I am partial to some of these points). Nonetheless, I do believe in the possibility of BIID (bodily integrity identity disorder). I am not a scholar on these topics; I recommend reading the work of disabled (amputee) and feminist scholar, Alison Kafer:
http://www.overground.be/features.php?page=OUT&lan=en, http://www.disabilityworld.org/June-July2000/Women/SDS.htm

More prosaic studies of some of the issues are Carl Elliott's piece in The Atlantic (subscription required) and Robin Marantz Henig's piece in the NYT (also subscription).

I am worried about the effect on those of us who are PWDs.

We are not there for your sexual pleasure; I have a friend who removed all reference to herself (in so far as is possible) from the Net because she kept getting creepy email from devotees.

My chair is not a sexual object. I want to be seen for myself. Not my disability.

I am angry that these people parasite off the civil rights that were so hard earned because disability, for them, is a choice. An ideal lifestyle... For example, I caught one pretender asking how a "wheeler" could manage a certain journey on the NY subway. This just got my goat. The subway is so f***ing inaccessible; the times I have been caught when an elevator is broken, when I have risked my health to drag myself upstairs, had to ask for help to carry my chair, when I have gone deliberately out of my way because I have caught the wrong train and the next 12 stations are inaccessible and I cannot even consider walking that day. All this? And this person is expecting one of us to respond so she can fake being part of our world? (I googled her and found her at a pretender site). She doesn't live the daily struggle of trying to get a taxi, of things being out of reach, inaccessible and if she does experience them, they are a pleasurable part of her world. Something she can interpret as authentic disability experience. Sh*t.

I hate wheelchair pretender fiction: the pleasure the pretender derives from passivity, the arousal from an imagined state of helplessness, the pleasure in the sympathetic and pitying responses of people on the street, the eroticism located in the passivity and helplessness imagined in a bowel program. Yes, I have read lots of it --and I am annoyed by the fact that almost every writer works from a negative understanding of disabled life, that they revivify old, tired stereotypes, that they have no active, positive understanding of disability culture. I'm POed that almost every piece I have read imagines social relations, sexual relations, professional relations from a position of passivity and self-denying long sufferingness. GET A LIFE.

And for every woman who is a pretender, there are a number of women who are told by their medical professionals that it's all in their heads. As I read the bulletin boards (and in my own experience), far too many women are still subject to "hysterical diagnosis." Pretending is not a cause, but as public awareness goes up on the topic, it certainly won't help.

In that pretenders exploit people's goodwill (even goodwill born of bad stereotypes), pretending is a breach of the social trust that we have in one another. It's dinner time. Wizard is smiling gently. We have planned to walk into downtown and eat at a restaurant there. I wonder whether anyone will look at us and wonder whether I am a pretender or if he is a devotee.

Bitterly.

2 comments:

  1. When I hosted Blogging Against Disablism Day, I had a conversation with a chap who runs a site called Transabled. Initially I rejected his request to be listed as part as BADD, but then included him anyway on the strength of what he wrote.

    Thing is, that I instinctively have the same sort of feelings as you. But after my exchange with this chap, I thought that (a) these folks have a mental health impairment, and so are disabled in one (fairly profound) sense and (b) someone who lives, for example, as if they were paraplegic, is coming across many of the same problems as non-voluntary wheelchair-users.

    Okay, all the practical problems are ultimately avoidable, and it does seem ludicrous to you or I that folks would take on these unnecessary limitations. But from the little I read, some of these folks take this very seriously; it is sometimes a mental health condition far beyond a sexual fetish.

    I'm not trying to argue that this makes it all fine and dandy, but it I thought it was a perspective worth mentioning.

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  2. Goldfish, thank you for your comments. I much appreciate them. I understand you may not agree entirely with me, or what I am, but at least you are willing to consider.

    WCD, I'm open to discuss this, feel free to contact me :) Very briefly though, I'd like to point out that BIID is NOT a sexual fetish, and while some BIID sufferers are also devotees, assuming that all BIID folks are in it for a turn on is a bit like assuming that all people with disabilities are wheelchair users.

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