Que(e)rying Sex, Disability, and Feminism


Feminist Disability Studies

Edited by Kim Q. Hall

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011, 323 pp.; $28.00, paperback


Sex and Disability

Edited by Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012; 417 pp.; $26.95, paperback


Reviewed by Lauri Umansky


When a book vows, on its cover, to queer “disability studies while also expanding the purview of queer and sexuality studies” (Sex and Disability) and another claims to be “situated at the intersection of feminist theory and disability studies” (Feminist Disability Studies), do you expect them to be pleasurable reads?

Or do you figure you’ll need full-bore concentration and a pot of strong coffee to approach the material?

Well, are you ready for the delight of discovering writing that glides effortlessly between theory and narrative, cultural critique and personal reflection?

And can we just come right out and praise Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s lead essay in Kim Q. Hall’s anthology Feminist Disability Studies for its systematic, adaptable scaffolding of feminist disability theory as a means to analyze the domains of “representation, the body, identity, and activism”? Have you noticed that sometimes one plus one equals more than two, and that feminist theory in dialogue with disability theory expands both in the best—read, queerest—ways?

Are you willing, meanwhile, to concede that there are no givens in this project?

What does it mean, after all, to have a body, to live in a particular body?

What if that body is “disabled”?

What if disability has very little to do with bodily impairment, as gender identity has little to do with a body’s sex? Could it be that the physically manifest bears no meaning except in context, reaction, or interaction—in other words, that disability is socially constructed?

What would happen if feminist body theorists, from Judith Butler to the many she has inspired, were to “include and account for the disabled body in [their] work, not as a metaphor or a sign for gender but in all its real complexity,” as Hall suggests?

What is feminism?

What counts as a disability, by the way, and who is policing the definitional perimeters?

Can Fat bespeak a politicized identity, a positive declaration of belonging to a community and culture, as Deaf does (versus “fat” or “deaf,” which demark labels based on notions of pathological deviation from “normal” bodies)? Can Fat women, in particular, resist being medicalized and stigmatized by situating themselves at the conjoined corners of feminism and disability?

How about Chris Bell, an HIV-positive gay man seeking bodily pleasure through casual sex in settings around the globe?  Should his right to perform sexual desire with partners of his choosing be limited by law or ethics? Does an insistence on disclosure of HIV status to potential partners reflect in some ways, as Bell suggests, an excess of societal control, a disabling of desire in a body that challenges the status quo? 

What is sex?

Or Riva Lehrer, for whom disclosure of her body’s disability, let alone pursuit of pleasure, resembles a plank walk into unfathomably murky waters, where shark-like expectations of the “normal” lurk, and the shoals of delight in each body sui generis can be tough to locate? On the street, in her mother’s home, in her lovers’ beds: when and where can her revelation of flesh and longing rest easy with her corporeal presence in the world?

When and how does plenty of sex become too much sex—an addiction, an illness?  What social, historical, and medical processes coalesce, in Lennard Davis’s words, to “produce a therapeutic community around addiction” and thus define the behavior that constitutes that addiction as an illness? Is sex addiction an impairment? A disability? Does what Davis calls the “old impairment and disability gap” fold in on itself “when we begin to consider these complex forces at work in the creation, deployment, consumption, and proliferation of disease entities and cure rationales”?

What do you make of the sexual devotees (mostly heterosexual men) of amputee women and the women who relate to them? How is it that these men, whom Alison Kafer discusses in “Desire and Disgust: My Ambivalent Adventures in Devoteeism,” can “portray themselves as members of a sexual minority whose desires have been pathologized,” yet still manage to contribute to the “pervasive cultural desexualization of disabled women’s bodies”? Could it be, as Kafer suggests, that the devotees’ very identity as members of a sexual minority rests implicitly on the belief that those outside this minority would necessarily find amputees’ bodies disgusting or undesirable? Does the amputee who legitimizes the desires of the devotee, or welcomes those desires, buy in, unwittingly, to a widespread societal belief that disability renders women undesirable and undesiring, a belief that stems from a “‘desire/disgust binary,’ according to which the presence of an amputation makes a woman either desirable (to devotees) or disgusting (to everyone else)”?

Is the disability umbrella capacious enough to cover deaf pretenders and hearing-aid fetishists? Who will not find Kristen Harmon’s analysis of a Deaf-Wannabee Yahoo Group (“a special meeting place for people who have a deep felt desire to wear hearing aids for pleasure, even though not deaf, and for those who find that hearing aids and deafness have erotic and fetish qualities. It is also a place to discuss the more radical topic of being a deaf wannabee, and a meeting place for those who have decided at some time in their life to ‘cross the bridge’ and choose to become deaf by impairing their hearing”) provocative? Who knew? Does the act of self-deafening somehow dilute or make illegitimate the ensuing deaf or disabled identity of the self-impaired individual? Or does the deliberate, or “unnatural,” or “illegitimate” provenance of this deafness catapult its creator into the territory of the “unhealthy, unstable, oversexed, sick”—but also fertile, stimulating, questioning—where queerness and disability meet? And does this leave us to grapple, as Harmon does, with the instability of an “illegitimate” (queer) identity claimed through “illegitimate” means? Is there no rest for the weary questioner?

Why do McRuer and Mollow highlight the likes of “(p)regnant men, compulsive masturbators, solicitors of public sex in exchange for cash, gender benders, boys who like cunnilingus, and girls who like to be on top”?  Could it be that these figures—like those who invoke the “conjunction of sex and disability as sites of violence…or exclusion (the fear and disgust directed at men with cerebral palsy, female amputees, or women whose bodies are ‘more Z-shaped than S-curved’) are… engaged in imagining disability in ways that exceed or violate norms of propriety and respectability”?   That’s a queer way of looking at sex and disability, is it not?

Because I live in buckle-of-the-Bible-Belt, Arkansas, may I take a second crack at the basic questions? What is sex? What is disability? What is feminism? What is desire? What is legitimacy? What is illegitimacy? Who decides? Who cares?

Do you want some answers already?

Surely you don’t think I have any?

But let us read these books!

Lauri Umansky is professor of History and dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Arkansas State University.

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