Embracing a Human Right – Sexual Health and Disabilities

The following is the Expert Update article from the Spring 2013 Making a Difference.

Embracing a Human Right – Sexual Health and Disabilities
By Bethany Stevens

Sexual health is a human right. This statement may sound strange to some, yet it is grounded in international human rights and the large governing bodies of public health. The problem with this frame of sexual health as a human right for people with disabilities is that we are often not thought of us as "human enough" for human rights. We face several significant barriers – including those driven by policy and social assumptions about what our sexuality entails, and consequently, what our likely prospects may be for romance, love and marriage.

For many with disabilities, we are either assumed to be de-sexual or hypersexual. De-sexualization is a belief that a group is not sexual or asexual. This stereotype is most often affiliated with people with physical or sensory disabilities (disabilities that have visible markers of difference – a wheelchair, white cane, etc.). Hypersexuality is the belief that sexuality is out of one's control and is often associated with people with intellectual or mental health disabilities. Regardless of which assumption is imposed on us, we are culturally conceived to be sexually problematic and in need of control. There is a general fear of discussing sexuality in a healthy way in our culture, which is compounded by these dominant notions of disability and sexuality.

Sadly, stereotypical assumptions are not our only problem when it comes to sexual health. Many of us (about two million right now) are locked away in institutions or nursing homes where our sexuality is taken from us; in these spaces sexual activity is generally not permissible, and if it is, only heterosexual activity between married partners is considered acceptable. Additionally, sexual violence in institutions is a rampant health problem for people with disabilities that many activists and researchers are calling attention to.

It's also imperative to note the financial issues associated with sexual health as people with disabilities pursue their full rights of expression. Many people with disabilities receive SSI or SSDI benefits. Under these funding systems that include much needed health insurance, people with disabilities may lose their benefits if they marry because their partner's income will be judged as their own assets. This can mean that marrying someone living at or just above the poverty line can trigger loss of benefits – and loss of survivability. This puts some folks in a precarious situation because they want to marry – and not live in sin – but can't. It is really disturbing to think about all of the people who are denied sexual expression because of this discriminatory policy.

These are only a few of the salient burdens placed on people with disabilities regarding our sexuality that are difficult to navigate. When wading through these difficult social issues, I encourage you to remember people with disabilities are human; we do deserve the right to choose if we want to marry, reproduce and to say 'yes' just as much as we have the right to say 'no' to sexual activity. Please consider embracing sexuality and disability by having a conversation about this with your family members or friends. Communication about these problems is a remarkable tool to push against these troubling forces.

Bethany Stevens Bio:

Bethany Stevens is a faculty member and a policy analyst with the Center for Leadership in Disability within the Institute of the Public Health at Georgia State University. As a sexologist with a disability, for nearly a decade, Stevens has studied, taught and written about disability and sexuality including writing "Politicizing Sexual Pleasure, Oppression and Disability: Recognizing and Undoing the Impacts of Ableism on Sexual and Reproductive Health" in May 2012. Contact her for more information at @disaBethany or .