Reviewed by Kath Duncan

The Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires
By Tom Shakespeare, Kath Gillespie-Sells & Dominic Davies
Cassell Academic (Paperback)
218 pp.


It's a first! As the editors say— "the first book to look at the sexual politics of disability from a disability rights perspective." And it's a big powerful read, full of the voices we don't usually hear from—gays, lesbians and bisexuals with disabilities.

Interestingly the editors note that when they advertised in the UK disability press to find people willing to talk about their sex lives, heterosexual respondents were "more reticent … and less prepared to talk about intimate issues ….and their ideas were less coherent and developed" than lesbians, gays and bisexuals who came forward. The editors figured these groups "have had a double battle to assert their sexual selves, …(having) a stronger sense of their own sexuality".

As a result the book is one of those fabulous miracles where the majority of voices are queer—24 out of 38—yep, I counted! It's a bit tricky to be objective about a book that celebrates my own existence, but I'm going to try…. And in any case it's not all good news. If you didn't already know it, sexuality and sexual rights are one struggle that have been considered low on the agenda for disability activists in general and with any luck this book should put a bomb under 'em. And make the rest of the queer community realise that what's at stake are human rights for their disabled brothers and sisters.

The book points out that for a long time now the prevailing mind-set has been that "disability and sexuality are incompatible", a myth the book sets about to destroy forever. We meet a cast of passionate men and women who contribute to the evil myth's demolition, among them Dafydd who says: My impairment itself doesn't restrict my sexual activity, what restricts my sex life now is other people's perceptions about my impairment, very definitely!

We're taken on a bold and eye-opening tour of the barriers to disabled peoples' sexual experience—starting with the physical barriers—next time you trip out to a queer dance or social event, just start adding up the physical hazards to someone with a sensory or physical disability and you'll get the picture—through to the biggest and hardest to solve problems of attitude. It seems as though at least some people have given up on getting their queer sisters and brothers to make room for them—this from Nigel, a gay man with a learning disability: I feel more comfortable with disabled people than within the gay community. Although I belong to both communities I don't really fit in either. I feel I can't moan about anything, if I want to be accepted. We get such mixed messages, as people with learning difficulties we are meant to be meek and mild and child-like but as men we are supposed to be masterful or angry but when men with learning difficulties take on those attributes, we are seen as monsters. My first loyalty is to other people with learning difficulties because we are not wanted or included.

Negative attitudes are one thing, but think of the joys! You can go through the fun of coming out again and again . Zorah is a London-based lesbian: I seem to have come out several times—as a dyke, as a Jew, as physically disabled, and now as someone with mental health issues. There were several points at which I came out as a crip—as I moved from being someone with a sudden mysterious medical condition to being someone with a long-term impairment. The first time I used a walking stick at a party given by disabled dykes was very scary I thought they'd think I was faking. However they ended up being glad and accepted me into the community.

When it came to the situation of women I was surprised to read that from a survey prepared by the UK-based disabled women's sexuality research project, "Sexual Health and Equality" (SHE) that while women with disabilities were prepared to talk to the researchers about sex and sexuality, they expressed great reluctance to talk to each other. The survey also found that disabled women felt they were treated differently from their non-disabled siblings, with nearly 40% saying they felt their parents and teachers did not expect them to have sexual lives as adults.

You'll be pleased to hear though that the women in this book seem to be dealing with that problem and while they talk of the difficulties they face in being accepted as fully-realised sexual beings, they're out there fighting for the right to fuck alongside their able-bodied brothers and sisters.

Those of us with disabilities can see ourselves as belonging to the club no-one wants to join and much of the book is pre-occupied with why that it so, but the editors stress that the pain of disability is not the physical or intellectual differences themselves, but rather the way disabilities as a whole are not understood or catered for in society in general. Sara is a paraplegic after an accident and a lesbian: I feel that becoming disabled suddenly meant I didn't know about general stereotyped ableist attitudes so everything was a shock. Being able-bodied and then disabled highlighted how differently people reacted to me now compared to before….I feel the same, but I know others don't… people now see me as a non-sexual being with no gender or sexuality sometimes, but to me I'm who I always was, no different.

But, don't despair! For many queers with disabilities being big enough to take on and adore all that makes us unique is part of a life-long process with great rewards. Daniel is a thirty-something gay man with a congenital mobility disability who worked out the big picture: …this was not just about me, but something bigger, something out there, because other people were experiencing the same thing…I became involved with disabled people, and I wouldn't say that I love being impaired, but… I still go through times when I feel wrong, but I also feel times when I feel very right!

The broader experience is shown to be the ability to embrace difference and call it sexy, something many people in the book are happily doing, but you may feel some disquiet at how widespread misconceptions are about disability among our able-bodied mates. Luckily some people know how to take the piss out of the pig-ignorant, as part of Paula's story reveals: This head waiter that I knew well, I could speak Italian and we got on reasonably well, and he came up to me and said 'You can't, can you…?' I said 'Can't what?'…I knew what he meant, I thought, I'll drag this out a bit, and he said 'Well, you can't have sex, can you?' and I said 'Why ever not?' and he said 'Well, you can't walk….', and I said 'You walk while you're having sex? I haven't seen that in the Kama Sutra!

If you're into text that's the magic combo of polemic/social history/academic and confrontational-attitude-changer then The Sexual Politics of Disability will get your head whirring and you'll have plenty of dinner-table-agent-provocateur clout to last a coupla months.

I'm sure the editors wouldn't want the book to be just one for the cripples, but rather hope that everyone can manage some minority identification, enough to give it a skim at the bookshop anyway. My suggestion—read it and walk out with your mind opened to how us other half lives.

*The title for this review is borrowed from a Channel 4 documentary about sexuality and disability, featuring The Sexual Politics of Disability editor Kath Gillespie-Sells and activist David Ruebain.

©Kath Duncan 2000


KATH DUNCAN ( is a 39-year-old bisexual double congenital amputee journalist and writer who lives in subtropical Australia with her gorgeous girlfriend Jill.

This piece was first published in Screaming Hyena.
Kath has generously agreed to let us reprint it here on the conditon that we send you directly to the beast itself: