April 02, 2019

INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES: Structural Barriers to Sexual Autonomy for Disabled People

Bethany Stevens

Disabled people face structural and attitudinal barriers when seeking sexual and reproductive autonomy; paying for pleasure is the consequence of punitive medical and legal systems in the United States. This article focuses on five structural barriers to sexual health, each of which demonstrates how medicalization, policy, and law work in concert to perpetuate a system of social power that simultaneously exalts and enforces normalcy while excluding and devaluing disabled people.

Social residue of anti-sodomy statutes. Until the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas, 13 states had laws that criminalized the majority of sexual activities by permitting only heterosexual coitus or penis-vagina penetrative sex (PV sex). It is important to note the majority of people targeted by anti-sodomy laws were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), and queer people, but disabled people were also targeted. Criminalizing sodomy negatively impacted disabled people because many, especially those with mobility impairments, chronic fatigue, and pain, cannot engage in traditional PV sex and therefore did not fall into the narrow category of legal sexual activity. Making certain sexual activity illegal stigmatizes and marks as criminal those who are associated with that activity.

Though the legal status of sodomy has changed, much of the cultural residue of conflation of sexual identity and criminality remains today. Certainly, the demonization and violence against LGBT and queer people speaks to the continued animus toward them, but there is more to this nexus to unpack. The criminalization of sodomy points to the need to deconstruct what “real sex” entails. All too often, people concede to the culturally produced narrative that sexual activity should be performed by particular bodies in certain ways (i.e., heterosexual, nondisabled, white, young, fit, etc., bodies moving in normative heterosexual coitus modes).

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