Disability and sexual attractiveness

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Disability and Sexual Attractiveness
Conversations with the Mariposa Group

The following remarks by Dr. Ken Tittle are based on his keynote talk at a Mariposa Ministry Conference on Sexual Attractiveness and Physical Disabilities in Calexico, California, October, 1997.

Sexual Attractiveness and Physical Disabilities Ken Tittle, Founder, Mariposa Ministry

In Mariposa peer counseling work, issues of body image, self-esteem, sexual identity, and sexual confidence have been central concerns for many young men and women with disabilities -- concerns that impact their lives and particularly their relationships in vital ways. Listen to what one lovely and distinguished woman has written:

"Most definitely, my disability negatively affected my ability to establish romantic relaionships. To me, this loss is the singularly most profound of the many other losses which are a result of my legacy living with polio.

Oh, yes, I had two husbands and a number of boyfriends over the years but those facts belie the underlying reality of a lifetime of romantic exclusion and even ostracism.

Despite being moderately attractive, I was never invited to my high school prom, never went out on a real date, was never invited to any dance in high school, never had a high school boyfriend. (Well, never one who would be seen in public with me.) This same scenario repeated itself in college and grad school.

So . . . I worked on success in other areas. . . knocked myself out to get great grades, took leadership roles in everything and anything extra-curricular, developed my personality, etc. But the deep pain of feeling undesirable did damage big time and even continues to this day."

Most of us are personally interested in sexual attractiveness, for its importance in our society for making personal contacts, establishing friendships, or even meeting a potential future spouse. Many persons with disabilities have grown up mistakenly feeling they could never be fully desirable to others or truly sexually attractive, being disabled. This has been a painful, insecure area even for many who were tremendously competent and accomplished in many other ways. By the same token, there is tremendous potential here for healing and growth and empowerment. Hopefully this discussion may help some persons with disabilities understand themselves differently and may free them to express their innate sensuality and sexual identity more confidently.

You might say to me, "I don't care about being sexually attractive. I'm not interested in getting married," or "I'm not interested in sex," or "I'm already married," or "I'm too old for that," or whatever. Fine, but sexual attractiveness is not only to "hook" a husband or wife or to seduce a sex partner. The sense of being able to feel good about one's self, and to feel that we create a positive response in other people -- that we are attractive to them -- is often very important to our self-esteem and confidence.

Beyond that, sexual attractiveness is also important for our ability to influence others: to help them, to persuade them, to gain their support and favor, to convince or encourage them. Sexual attractiveness is empowering for most of the things you might want to do. For example, as a doctor, no matter how well I know my medicine, if I am thoroughly unlovely and unattractive to my patients, I am far less able to help them than if they see me as someone who inspires interest and approval and attraction in them. (We may think that things shouldn't be like that, but the truth is that they are.)

The business and commercial world clearly recognizes its importance and invests hundreds of millions of dollars in projecting images of sexual attractiveness. We will say more about that later.

For persons with major physical disabilities, sexual attractiveness is also a powerful means to overcome damaging prejudices and negative reactions in able-bodied persons, as well as one path to better self-acceptance and self-confidence).

Sexual attraction is surely as ancient as Adam and Eve, but in these past few decades, the pervasiveness of mass media has changed the ancient rules of the game (and not probably for the better). Visual images have become so cheap and widely distributed that we are saturated with them. Visual and purely physical aspects of sexual attractiveness have become over-emphasized and heavily stereotyped. We all have "ideal" images of sexual attractiveness bombarding us on every side. We can't escape them. From that comes a tendency to compare ourselves, and to compare others, to the stereotypes. We are grading people according to what they lack in comparison to the stereotypical "ideal." Somewhere out there, we are told, there must be a "10" in sexual attractivenss, and the rest of us all score lower down on the scale.

Viewed in that perspective, many persons with physical disabilities have special problems with the idea of sexual attractiveness because they suppose that they could never truly be considered attractive to others with their limitations and their unconventional bodies. (How many "points" must one subtract for a major disability?).

Over the years with Mariposa we have seen two major problems, especially for people who have grown up with their disabilities:

Often they feel inferior, whether or not they are able to admit it openly. The typical statement perhaps would be, "Why would anyone choose me when there are so many able-bodied persons out there to choose from?" It seems obvious to them that an able-bodied person would always be more desirable, "all other things being equal." Or to put it another way, it seems obvious to them that they would be more desirable, more attractive, if they were not disabled than as they are now. We have learned what a struggle it is to learn -- to accept -- that this "obvious" truth isn't necessarily true.

Secondly, they often feel unlovely. There are many typical statements that reflect this deep-seated feeling: "Who's going to look at me with my disability?" "I can't wear skirts with legs like mine" (or "with braces," etc.). "I could never wear a bathing suit with my body." "Why should I try to dress up and look good? No one will see anything but my disability anyway." "Pretty? Me? From the neck up, maybe."

How does this happen? Who tells us it what it takes to be sexually attractive? Where do we learn that persons with disabilities can't really be sexually attractive (especially because it isn't true)?

Far too often, disabled young people learn to doubt their sexual attractiveness partly from their own families. If the family looks at their disabled child and fears he or she will never be able to be sexually attractive because of the disability, they cannot help but communicate that to the child in myriad ways.

But it's a lie. It is "The Lie" about sexual attractiveness that equates sexual attractiveness with stereotypical and flawless physical "beauty."

Who is lying to us? The Lie is really a massive commercial conceit. We are everywhere presented with images of "sexually attractive." A physically attractive model who embodies the stereotypical characteristics of the current "ideal," is "perfected" with carefully crafted make-up, hair arranged precisely, and posed in the approved ways with careful lighting and props. Of dozens of photos, two or three are selected as closest to the image. Those photos are then computer retouched to finish the process. This "sexual attractiveness" does not exist in the world. Even the super-model is only the raw material for these images. They are lies, to support The Lie.

What is the purpose of The Lie? It has no sexual purpose, or even any personal purpose. The only purpose to make money. We are sold unattainable images of sexual attractiveness to make us feel lacking and needy, and then we are told that we can remedy our deficiency and become more sexually attractive if we buy the right hair spray, soft drink, automobile, designer jeans, etc. etc.

The Lie about what it is to be sexually attractive is successful. It sells products and influences decisions while it wounds people -- many, many people, and not only persons with disabilities. Because people believe it, The Lie enriches businesses while it impoverishes our society. Part of my reason for being here is to call people with disabilities to reject The Lie and live out the deeper truth of every person's unique value and worth, not just for the good of disabled persons, but because the whole society needs it.

It is incredibly dangerous to believe The Lie about sexual attractiveness. Someone who feels incapable of being attractive and desirable for others has grave difficulties trying to achieve healthy intimate relationships with anyone. This is often true for persons with disabilities:

We have seen them jump headfirst into the first relationship that comes along. We have seen them drive potential friends and suitors away by pressing much too hard in their insecurities.

We have seen them stay with unhealthy and even abusive relationships, for fear that no one better would ever want them. They may put up with humiliation and belittling treatment because down inside they share that abased image of themselves. Just as tragically, we have seen people mistrust and reject sincere advances of friendship -- and even run off worthy suitors -- by refusing to believe that anyone could genuinely be sexually attracted to them or romantically interested in them.

We have seen people expose themselves to sexual abuse or fall into superficial, exploitative sexual liaisons because they don't believe there could ever be any more meaningful intimacy for them. We have seen women with disabilities find ways to get pregnant without any commitment because they wanted to experience pregnancy and motherhood but were convinced no one would ever want to marry them.

We have seen disabled persons carry their insecurities with them right into marriage, or stay in free union and reject marriage, convinced down deep inside that they are less desirable or less complete than someone able bodied, always fearing rejection, or unable to feel free and confident and attractive even in their marital bed.

In addition to all of that, there is no counting how many friendships never came to pass because the disabled person didn't do, or didn't know how to do, the little things that might have helped someone overcome the barriers that kept him or her from drawing close. It is terribly destructive to believe the lies that say you can't truly be attractive.

Okay, you may say. What is "sexual attractiveness" then, if it isn't looking like a super-model? Good question. In some regards, sexual attractiveness is a little like my Aunt Emily. I can't exactly describe her to you, but I can recognize her right away when I see her. The same with sexual attractiveness. (With the important difference that my Aunt Emily is always my Aunt Emily, while what is attractive to me, may not necessarily be so attractive to you, and vice versa.)

Still, it is important to try to define sexual attractiveness. (In one sense, "sexual" is redundant and distracting. This is simply about attractiveness. But we are all sexual beings and we all respond to one another to some degree or another as sexual beings, and our sexuality and our attractiveness are intertwined in so many ways that it seems appropriate to use sexual attractiveness as the basis of our discussions.)

I have a few possible definitions, and you may well have better ones, but together they do give some sense of what we are treating:

 

* It is the power to cause a positive, pleased response in others -- to draw favorable attention.

* It is the power to communicate confidence in your identity as a man or a woman, embracing your sexuality as well as the other aspects of your being.

* It is the power to create in others a desire to draw closer to you, to get to know you better, or simply, a desire to become more like you.

* It is the power to communicate your ability to fulfill your side of what is desired and expected in a close personal relationship as a friend or confidant or companion or lover or spouse.

* It is the power to inspire sexual thoughts and desires in others. (This is the part of sexual attractiveness commonly known as being "sexy." It is not by any means the overriding part of sexual attractiveness as we are considering it.)

As you look over the above list, please notice there is nothing at all in the definitions of sexual attractiveness that requires or implies an able body or that disqualifies persons with disabilities.

Still, there are real problems for physically disabled persons, and it is best to be honest about them. "The Lie" would have you believe that you never will be able to be truly sexually attractive. Family and others often assume this unquestioningly, too, and pass it on to you themselves. This is terribly damaging to self-esteem and self-confidence.

Above all, adolescence is often such a painful passage for persons with disabilities, a time when they clearly do not find themselves attractive and desirable in the eyes of their insecure and immature peers. Many carry a heavy burden of low self-esteem and self-rejection away from their adolescence. Their experiences too often seem to confirm their doubts and fears.

Ironically, a healthy self-esteem and self-confidence are immeasurably more important to your attractiveness than any physical characteristics you may or may not have. In other words, believing that your disability makes you unattractive is much more damaging to your attractiveness than your disability could ever be. (You may not believe me, but it's true.)

Able-bodied persons have complex and sometimes difficult emotional reactions to physical disabilities, reactions such as embarrassment, discomfort, awkwardness, anxiety or even fear, sadness, pity, confusion, doubts, curiosity, etc. These reactions may be major barriers, even for the person who finds you attractive and would like to get to know you better.

Many disabilities are obstacles to free participation in social activities where people come to know and interact with one another. Some physically disabled persons are either limited or genuinely uncomfortable with hugs and other physical interactions that help bring people closer to one another.

Some people may see the disabled person as excessively fragile and may be afraid of hurting you, physically, or especially, emotionally if they should enter into a relationship and then later feel the need to pull back. They may simply avoid the relationship if it seems too great a responsibility for them.

Some people believe that the disabled person isn't complete in his or her sexuality, or couldn't fully satisfy in sexual relations, or isn't sexual or can't have sex or doesn't have the same desires. Or they may believe that if he or she were to have children, they would be disabled also. All those false prejudices are still out there and can be major forces against attraction.

Of course, many disabilities do require accommodation and adjustment and do limit activities, and honestly there are persons who simply are not willing to make those adjustments. But none of us is attractive to everyone, anyway, and each of us can be uniquely attractive to someone else. There are those who are potentially willing and even eager and delighted to accomodate your limitations as a small price to pay for the relationship and all the things you bring to it. Some will even see it as a rewarding, interactive part of the relationship -- part of what they can offer in exchange.

SEXUAL ATTRACTIVENESS
AND PHYSICAL DISABILITIES
In the face of all those potential problems, what is the disabled person to do? Well, there are many, many facets to that question, but let me share a few basic conclusions of mine from all these years working in this area -- Dr. Ken's Axioms of Attractiveness. (Remember, you heard them here first.)

 

First, sexual attraction is not a black and white thing, yes or no, something that some have and others don't. You already have your sexual attractiveness. We all do; but we also are all mixtures of things that attract and things that push people away. The challenge is not to make yourself more attractive, nor somehow to get sexual attractiveness. The challenge is to discover your own unique attractiveness in your identity, to learn to let it shine forth, and to understand and reduce the factors that work against your attractiveness.

Secondly, your sexual attractiveness isn't something that can be graded or scored, like an Olympic dive. Your sexual attractiveness is an impact that you have on others, and it is something much more complex than adding up your good points and subtracting your "flaws." As I mentioned, these days we tend to put a lot of importance in certain visual and physical aspects of beauty, but your decisions and your actions -- how you present yourself -- have much to do with the impact you cause in others.

Thirdly, a physical disability is only one factor in the mix. Given the problems we have been discussing, we can understand how some disabled persons feel insecure in this area, but nevertheless, a disability is both attractive AND a barrier to attractiveness -- and often simultaneously. It isn't as many people with disabilities think -- that your disability is the negative factor that will overcome and even cancel out any positive factors you may have. We don't deny the problems, but your disability is, or ought to be, part of your unique sexual attractiveness, also, and possibly a major part.

Fourth, one usually learns inferiority feelings regarding being disabled first of all from one's family. That is partly because the family has so much desire to see you "normal" and non-disabled. Even their efforts to get you "cured" communicate to you that somehow you ought not to be disabled -- that you could only really completely please them by becoming "normal." Beyond your family circles, however, other people will see you more for what you are, without comparisons to what they had hoped you could be. Your sexual attractiveness is for other people, not for your family, and therefore your disability may not be the barrier you always assumed it was from your growing up. It's a struggle to free yourself from those childhood and adolescent prejudices that taught you it was "bad" to disabled, but it is absolutely necessary in order to discover your sexual attractiveness --- your own unique attractiveness.

And finally, The Lie is a lie. Looking like a super-model or the Marlboro man has very little to do with sexual attractiveness in the real world. (You don't look like the super-models? Not to worry. Neither do they.) It's a struggle to reject The Lie that says you couldn't truly be attractive, after believing it for so long, but it is absolutely necessary to reject it in order to discover your own individual and unique beauty and esthetic. When you do that, people will find you attractive. That may surprise them and it may confuse them sometimes if they aren't used to thinking of people with disabilities as sexually attractive, but you shouldn't doubt it.

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Having passed along my little "gems" for you to consider, let me return to more difficult territory. I said a moment ago that "your disability is, or ought to be, part of your unique sexual attractiveness, too, and possibly a major part." Perhaps some of you didn't even hear me when I said that, or if you heard me, you didn't really take it in. Why? Possibly because you have always "known," as if it were obviously true, that if anyone were really to accept you, let alone love you or desire you, it would have to be despite your disability.

Many disabled persons find it hard to believe or accept that their disabilities can in many ways enhance their attractiveness. Some even angrily reject the idea. However, despite what some of you may have always "known," and without denying the problems and challenges, there are many ways that your disability can be an advantage -- one of your attractive attributes.

 

When you present a positive image, even the negative stereotypes of people with disabilities can be to your advantage, making you look that much more special and outstanding by simple contrast with the stereotype.

By being disabled you are unique, unconventional. You will draw attention and be remembered. You are somewhat exotic, inspiring mystery, questions and curiosity, all aspects of attractiveness.

You likely have developed character, understanding, patience, astuteness and wisdom in dealing with your physical limitations and challenges. Your disability has made you an interesting person, a person of more depth and complexity. All that is part of attractiveness, also.

Using your body to do the things you do with your disability can often be very sensual, sometimes even like a form of dance or gymnastics.

There is the attractiveness of perceived vulnerability and the attractiveness of a challenge. We all fear rejection, and a disabled person may be more attractive because he or she is seen as less threatening, less likely to reject. We also all want to feel we matter to someone else, and the disabled person may be attractive also for the desire and opportunity to help, to support, to facilitate.

A disability may provide opportunities and excuses for physical contact. Women particularly can play off of the prejudice that you aren't very sexual by dressing and acting more sexy and enjoying the confusion the mixed messages create.

You may often inspire respect and admiration for how you manage yourself and your life despite your limitations. Projection can work to your advantage, as people project what it would be like to live with your limitations and are humbled by a sense that you surely are handling things better than they can imagine themselves doing.

And lastly, although I don't pretend to understand the complexities of it all, there seems something inherently erotic in physical defects, deformities, scars, paralysis, etc. and for some people those supposedly negative aspects may themselves add greatly to your attractiveness and your "sexiness."
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So, then, how will you consider your physical limitations and disabilities? Will you view them (and present them to others) as deficiencies and defects to be overlooked or overcome, or will you view them as an integral part of you, or even as assets ("value added")?

Knowing that your disabilities and physical differences are going to draw attention in any case, will you try to hide them, or will you intentionally present them in the most favorable and understandable light possible?

Will you communicate to people that you like yourself as you are, or that you are ashamed or embarrassed by your disability?

Are you going to show embarrassment at not being able to move or do things like common ordinary people do, or are you going to communicate pleasure and pride in how you do what you need to do with the limitations you have?

Are you going to insist on doing things for yourself and reject assistance? Will you avoid trying the hard things that perhaps you won't be able to do? Or will you involve your companions with you in meeting and overcoming challenges with cooperation and creativity, in an interactive spirit of adventure and good will?

Show the able-bodied people around you how to respond to your disability. Help them in their conflicted emotions and their doubts and prejudices. Communicate to them, "What a special, exceptional, interesting, sensual person I am! How sorry I am today for people who are common and ordinary!" (Post it on your mirror.) Of course the hard part is that you have to surrender your own deep-rooted desires to be "just like everyone else" in order to be able to appreciate yourself as you are.

In whatever you do, commit yourself to doing it well. Of course that's sound advice for anyone, but beyond that, your competence and abilities in what you do help overcome the prejudices that regard the disabled person as weak or over-dependent or "invalid." Be bold to portray a "sexy" image in order to declare your confidence in yourself as fully a man or as fully a woman, overturning prejudices that the disabled person is somehow lacking or incomplete sexually.

Seek emotional healing and health. Confront your complexes and traumas and insecurities. Open up, dare, grow, learn to forgive. Live your faith in God in order to grow in your faith. Emotional health is attractive -- the true core of attractiveness -- and emotional health in a physically disabled person is very attractive indeed.

Give yourself permission to be more limited sometimes with other people. Accept or ask for help that you may not, strictly speaking, require. Overcome your natural desire always to want to prove to everyone that you can do it yourself, and let people make things easier for you sometimes. Leave your wheelchair to sit with someone if you can. Go without your braces or your prosthesis at times if you can.

Let people see your limitations and don't always try to cover up the unconventional aspects of your body, so they can understand you better and lose their anxieties and doubts about how to treat you. Dress and act as if your limitations and deformities actually enhance your attractiveness, and probably they will. Dress and act as if they are major negatives and generally you lose.

When you fly in the face of The Lie, which would make sexual attractiveness a physical thing and equate it with physical flawlessness, you discover and develop your own sexual attractiveness as a powerful asset in accomplishing your goals. At the same time, you are sapping the strength out of demeaning and limiting stereotypes about persons with disabilities and also making a powerful statement to able-bodied people who are also in their own ways victims of The Lie. I wish you all the best.


Comments

SEXUAL ATTRACTIVENESS
AND PHYSICAL DISABILITIES

I can hardly see what I am typing because my eyes are so blurred from weeping. I just finished reading Ascension.* What an amazing work!

Every emotion expressed in that poem, I have felt at one time or another. I have always praised God (Yes, I am a Christian!) for giving me this disability because I see the good it does for myself and others. I daily learn how to rely on God for my every need; who else can help me as He does? Others who have misfortunes see me and believe that they too can overcome, that God's strength shines through in our weaknesses. What the world views as our limitations, often become our spiritual abilities.

Yet,sexuality has definitely been one area where it has been hard for me to see the hand of God. I completely understood the shame and embarrassment of the woman in Ascension who felt like a woman only from the waist up, and not wanting to burden a man for the rest of his life.

Thank you for encouraging me to rise up, to feel proud, and to tell my story. Discovering the truth of God's love for me has made an outstanding difference in my life.

 

(*Ed: Ascension is a poetic response to a collection of vignettes from mobility impaired women discussing the impact of their disabilities on their sexual identities and their self esteem. To request access to Ascension, [e-mail me] at ken_tittle@bigfoot.com)


I don't understand this business of "burdening someone for the rest of life." When we enter into a close personal relationship, whether including sexuality or not, we are not burdening someone else for the rest of life. We, and the other person, need to create together a mutually supportive and enriching relationship. We may not, nor do most folks, make that one perfect choice the first time. (The guy or gal who walks around is probably not perfect either -- and we, of course, need to think about a relationship whose focus seems to be on weaknesses rather than strengths.)

Having and giving good feelings and supportive closeness needs to come well before the "could we make babies together" issue. And that is true as well for the AB "hunk" and "chick".

 


I think growing up disabled will naturally tend to cause a child to overrate the importance of walking, among all the other gifts, talents, attributes and qualities that we possess (or don't possess). Many young people we work with instinctively doubt that they could be, or could be seen as, equal partners in a relationship if they are seriously physically limited, and they struggle to accept that, in the give-and-take of a committed relationship, physical limitations can be really unimportant on the scale, and that the giving and taking involved with disabilities can have major positive sides as well. KT

 


As one who grew up with the "walking is everything" mantra foisted on me by doctors, I must say I agree [with those who say walking ISN'T everything]. Fortunately, my mother was a smart woman and tended to let her observations and mine be her guide.

As person with a form of muscular dystrophy, I have protested loudly that walking is not always the solution. I wore long leg braces that kept my legs straight when I "walked". so I lurched from one leg to the other, swinging the free leg forward, while I leaned way over on the other leg to free the one that had to move. I couldn't walk any distance. I was much freer in my wheelchair. Also, standing I could fall easily, which was embarrassing.

So . . . I didn't miss my kidhood. my rather tomboy-ish state caused a lot of leg injuries that, thankfully, kept me out of braces through periods of recuperation. I had abandoned them altogether by age 12, one of the best things to happen.

I knew another young woman who wore similar braces through grade school. She, too, had the same lurching gait, and could only walk a few feet. She quit wearing them before she started high school because she feared the jeering and the isolation.

This beautiful woman was quite popular in high school, which she attributes to the confidence she felt because she didn't' have to walk and wear ugly braces.

 


"There is a certain gracefulness to having a disability. While many do not comment on the countless times we run into yet another curb or drop something and stare at it helplessly, there are always those who notice our strength and patience and feel inspired to carry on despite the trials they are experiencing." (author unknown)

 

 


KT wrote the following about being "inspiring": I think two factors determining what kind of inspiring will be inspired in TAB's are (1) the attitude of the PWD him/herself -- not how "brave and etc" but how at ease with one's self; and (2) opportunities to interact and chances for sharing and breaking down barriers. People who get inspired by looking at you are probably in the how-brave-you-are! category of inspiring.

Agreed! People who look at you and only see the wheelchair, the braces, the guide-dog -- the obvious signs of disability -- are the ones most likely to suppose you to be the most unfortunate of beings and to be inspired by your presumed bravery and nobility. Those who get the chance to know you as a person often find there's something much more complex and interesting going on, hopefully something more attractive and life-affirming and ... well, Human-with-a-capital-H than bravery and nobility. (Not that I have anything against bravery and nobility, but they can be awfully off-putting).

 


Question: has your disability negatively or positively affected your ability to establish a romantic relationship?

Oh Boy.

I could get really long winded on this one, guys. But I will just take a few baby steps to, hopefully, kick off some discussion.

Most definitely, my disability negatively affected my ability to establish romantic relaionships. To me, this loss is the single most profound of the many losses which are part of my legacy living with polio.

Oh, yes, I have had two husbands and a number of boyfriends over the years but those facts belie the underlying reality of a lifetime of romantic exclusion and even ostracism.

Despite being moderately attractive, I was never invited to my high school prom, never went out on a real date, was never invited to any dance in high school, never had a high school boyfriend. (Well, never one who would be seen in public with me.)

This same scenario repeated itself in college and grad school. Two dear gay guys paid attention to me back then, and one even charitably escorted me to the big Spring Dance. I knew it was charity. I knew there was no chance of real romance with either of them.

So . . . I worked on success in other areas. . . knocked myself out to get great grades, took leadership roles in everything and anything extra-curricular, developed my personality, etc. But the deep pain of feeling undesirable did damage big time and even continues to this day.

Let's talk more about this. LD

 


These days I rarely have time to read the Chrysalis, but when I saw this one, I had to put my two cents in. I felt the same isolation and exclusion you did as a teenager with a disability. I had lots of friends, boys as well as girls, but I guess in those boys' minds I was just not "dating material" because of my disability. That hurt me in a way I can't really describe, but I know it affects me to this day, in spite of the fact that I am now 21 and very happily married.

Love and God's blessings to everyone,

 


LD, I know you are speaking for many disabled women's experiences ...

What most leaps out at me is when you say, "Most definitely, my disability negatively affected my ability to establish romantic relaionships. To me, this loss is the single most profound of the many losses which are a part of my legacy living with polio.

Many people have shared their stories with Mariposa, but I don't know that I have ever heard anyone so clearly and eloquently and openly say that. Yet as I think back on all our Mariposa experience, and farther back to women with disabilities I knew and sometimes dated, intuitively I think this is true for many young women with disabilities, a wound that goes deep to the core of one's being and one's life, as you imply.

I don't know so much about the guys, but I imagine many must have similar experiences and feelings.

In those school days, how did you explain your disability's crippling your romantic possibilities? (If it was that way, why was it that way?) And now, from your current perspective, how do you understand it? Yours ... KT

 



You asked me how I perceived my rejection as a young woman and I would like to try to answer. My self-talk went something like this:

I am different from the other girls
different is bad
my legs and feet and walking movements are a turn-off to guys
boys want to be popular
being seen with me (as anything deeper than a friend), would negaively impact their popularity, their machismo
they would be seen as losers who could not get a normal girl
I am an embarrassment
I am undesirable
Now, thanks in good part to being able to share with a group like this, I have a vasrly different interpretation. My current self-talk goes something like this:

the boys back then were good guys who simply did not have the emotional security to take the risk of dating a disabled girl
Even now in middle-age, I must search longer and harder than the average woman for a romantic connection
but it is entirely possible to find a good man who treats me with neither hero worship nor pity.
(And, in fact, I am currently in the midst of an exciting romance with such a man!!)

 


Thanks for some discerning examples of the way you looked at things. (And how wonderful that things don't always have to stay the same. Isn't there some song that goes, "That was long ago, and I'm so much younger now"? If there isn't, there should be.)

I monitor another disability list, where this Valentine's Day "romantic" theme came up, and the following letter was there today. It says a lot about the whole topic -- including about how these internalized projections and assumptions can be very damaging when real possibilities come along:

I am a perfect example that disabled persons have a harder time finding romance. My identical, but non-disabled, twin sister turns heads. Me? Well, let's just say I've never even had a boyfriend, and I am 21.

Right now school is my number one priority. But, there is this guy who has flirted with me for some time now, and lately it has occurred more often. Last time I saw him, he said he would take me to see Star Wars -- his favorite. (I had told him I haven't seen it yet.) Well, I was elated, but now ... I am frightened. Not of him. Not of a possible relationship. ...Of me?

I am very confused. I'd be happier if I didn't have any feelings for him. As I said, my degree is more important, so maybe I should just ignore this. Tomorrow night, I am going to a party and he will be there. I don't even know what I'm asking you guys, but I just need an ear. Thanks!

What could one say to this young lady?

 


This is a topic that touches on the real nerve centers, doesn't it! (All those parents of children with disabilities who read this AMC list will find these threads interesting!)

I had a real rough time of it. Most of my close friends were girls. Platonic was the word that was often heard!

Things got better when I first saw my wife-to-be at a dance. I told my friend, "Who is that? I'm going to marry her!"

Eighteen months later we were married. That was almost 22 years ago. My wife is unaffected with AMC or any other impairment except for questionable judgement for finally agreeing to marry me!

 


I think most people respond to overall images of other people that are much more complex, intuitive, and sub-conscious than some cumulative score (i.e. face 9.7, upper body 7.3, legs 2.4, clothes 8.4, etc.). It is my contention that a person with major disabilities and deformities can readily present himself or herself as attractive. When someone sees an attractive person (is attracted to a person) whose body is unconventional with major "defects" from the ideal stereotype, there is created a potent and complicated dynamic (confusion, intrigue, and much more). .

I remember a poster years ago that showed a young woman semi-reclined on a sofa, in a blouse and long black skirt down to her feet. Her wheelchair was folded against the wall in the far background with little visual relationship to her, but as the only indication that she was disabled. The caption said "Let's be more than friends," in reference to the frustration of "Platonic friendships."

The trouble was, from her manner of dress, expression, etc. one didn't really feel the model even believed it. The effect was much more plaintiff than seductive. Way back then, twenty years ago, I decided I would some day like to do a replacement poster that more truly depicted the sexual attractiveness I had experienced in a couple of disabled young women I had known and dated in school. (The Mariposa website is a partial step in that direction: Without trying for any "sexy" poses, I think Lola and Viri and Pita and Santiago and Gylda and others project a sexual wholeness and attractiveness that far surpasses that old wannabe sexy poster.)

Times are changing. I believe that, but the young people need help and support and role models (or "roll models") fast before they too have their adolescence and young adulthood unnecessarily blighted by the old ways of looking at things and the ever present commercial stereotypes.

 


My best friends were often guys. And Platonic. At age 24 I was the oldest virgin I knew -- and lost it to an ex-MIT man, probably in his 40's, with whom I lived forthree or four weeks. Had many relationships -- intense emotional hangups, friendships, one-night stands, a few affairs. Tons of "nights out with the girls." Heard stuff like, "You're beautiful but on the other hand..." "You're the first girl/woman I didn't want to just screw. I like having a FRIEND." "With all you've got, how come you're not married?" "I'd like to spend the night with you, but my mother wouldn't let me." (and I thought I had problems!) "You know people can't stand to look at you, but you keep trying anyway." Learned more about men as they are, I think, than some of my friends who married young.

At age 46, after a few years of happy singlehood, I put an ad in a singles magazine and started dating again. Believe me, I screened responses!!!! Had a date to meet a guy at a Denny's for coffee who never showed, so I started talking to the man next to me at the counter. 4 mos. later we got married.

Late marriage, after a lifetime of independent habits, is NOT easy! Nonetheless, there's a lot to be said for stability and continuity and long-term mutual support. My husband is a truly good and generous person--but STUBBORN!! and rigid.

 


The comment that I absolutely hate, and have gotten so many times, is, "You're so pretty! What a shame you're in a wheelchair."

 




I kind of wish you hadn't brought up that Valentine Day thing. I wasn't feeling all that depressed about it until now! I've been reliving my teen years and early adult years and the years since my divorce and examining the paucity of romantic/emotional/sexual relationships in my life and relating it to my disability. Despite what I consider to be real and satisfying accomplishments in the years since the divorce, plus a fuller life (even more than all the scholastic accomplishments of my early years), the thick, dry and bitter taste of loneliness continues to linger in my mouth.

Pardon the melodramatics--and, don't worry, I'm not going to dump all over you. But, it's hard, it's very hard. Sometimes I wish I hated men or were a lesbian. (How's that for mature thinking?) I was even hoping that since I've become non-hormonal, it wouldn't bother me so much. But no such luck.

What would I say to that young lady with the Star Wars invitation? What I would say is, "Go for it!" If there was anything that kept me from taking advantage of opportunities that presented themselves to me in spite of, or because of, my disability, it was my shyness, my lack of self-confidence, and my fear of being rejected.

I can't tell her if it will turn into a wonderful relationship, a disasterous relationship, or no relationship at all. But she'll never know if she doesn't take the risk. A life without taking risks is a life full of regrets. (Hey, I can be aphoristic too!) There's a cartoon by Ashley Brilliant of two eyes peering out of the darkness of a cave and a caption which reads: "Don't do anything and nothing good or bad will ever happen to you."

 




Ken,

I noticed [in your discussion of sexual attractiveness], you think that sexual attractiveness helps in all aspects of your life, not just for getting a partner. Now I remind you that I'm not young and I'm partially sighted, not physically disabled. This may make a difference. My generation was taught that we had to choose between credibility and sexuality. If you want a man, you better learn to be suggestive, open, flirty, and let him win. If you want to be taken seriously, don't show too much skin, don't giggle, and, most of all, don't be emotional, hysterical, irrational, or aggressive. So if you want to be a hausfrau, be feminine. If you want anything else, develop your intellect, assertiveness skills, or any other skills you have.

I also think you are loading the question by studying only sexual attractiveness in women. Don't these issues apply to men? To me, sexual attractiveness in men involves much more than a cute butt. And are protectiveness, success, and intelligence in men as sexy as intuitiveness, receptiveness, and compassion are in women? (This time of year, we do get some of the answer. There has never been a man who won a scholarship by parading in front of judges in a bathing suit, smiling, and saying, "I believe in peace and love".)

 


I first drafted this commentary on disability and sexual attractiveness a few years ago because it has been a core issue in Mariposa Ministry over the years. Since the discussions were with women peer counselors and a primarily female group, the analysis was definitely slanted toward questions of feminine sexual attractiveness. The guys have had similar concerns, but it has proven much harder to get them to sit together to discuss (and it may not be as big a problem -- male perks from a sexist society, and all that). (Plus I myelf am very heterosexual and know little about sexual attractiveness in guys), (Ed: Eventually the draft was modified somewhat to make it less gender specific for the [conference presentation]

As for having to choose between being feminine and attractive or being taken seriously at other endeavors, I think this is probably a false dichotomy, especially now, as opposed to our generation's youth experiences.

It is one of the pop culture lies that you can't be "credible" as a woman and still be sexually attractive. No one is sexually attractive to everyone, and you do perhaps narrow the field a little [by being "credible"]. However, I believe that one should be intentional about who or what one wants to attract, and what you might attract by dumbing down your act and padding it with fluff may often not be worth attracting.

I don't consider myself very sexist, but one sexist thing I would say is that we screw up our male children pretty good, so there aren't enough good men to go around, and women pay a price for that in multiple ways. That is one reason I think the proper context for discussing sexual attractiveness much, much broader than getting dates, getting sex, or getting married. Our sexuality and our sexual attractivenss are operative in most interpersonal relationships, in one way or another and whether or not we think that's desirable. KT

 


I've been in groups of disabled women where we tried to deal with this subject. The discussions invariably seemed to turn to the problems of getting a date -- any kind of a date. People want to talk about how hard it is to be taken seriously as a candidate for dating and relationships. Being attractive doesn't get you much farther. I'd like us to work on ways to know that we are attractive, with or without a partner.

I'd also be very much interested to know if the larger society feels the same way as this special, limited group of women about to the emphasis placed on youth and beauty.

 


Regarding the emphasis on youth and beauty, the primary assumed audience for the Mariposa discussions of sexual attractiveness were the young people, in that stage of differentiating from family, leaving the daughter role, etc., individuating, and exploring meaningful relationships outside the family circle, with their questions of committed relationships, acceptability to men as a woman with a disability etc.

However, in the discussions, I tried to take pains to specify my own understanding of sexual attractiveness as something that is largely age independent (or has its age appropriate expressions at each age) and something more far-reaching than attracting a date. I will be interested to know what you think as you follow the threads of the discussion. KT

 



Dear Friends, If you can, check out the August issue of New Mobility. In it is a full-page, full-color reproduction of Lady With Scoliosis by Melina Fatsiou-Cowan, a copy of which, sent to me by the artist [an e-mail acquaintance], is proudly displayed on the wall of my bedroom. Talk about the esthetic qualities of the 'non-conventional' body!

The paintings with the New Mobility article express a great deal of emotion and evoked strong feelings in me. Of course I can't speak for the artist, but "Lady With Scoliosis" is particularly revealing (no pun intended) of feelings and emotions. Or am I projecting my own reactions?

 


I think that is the nature of most artistic perception--to project your own reactions while at the same time discerning the artist's feelings and emotions -- everything interacting. What were your 'strong emotions' and what 'feelings and emotions' did you see revealed in Lady with Scoliosis? I see in it a strong unashamed female sexuality in the sinuous curves of the torso, and also (in conjunction with the other images) references to fertility, Eve, the Garden of Eden, the tree of life (no, not the tree of knowledge around which all the brouhaha started), and the serpent. Whether or not the artist intended all that, I don't know, I must ask her someday! All I know is I love the look of it and how it made me re-think the way I experience my own scoliosis.

 


Here are my reactions to Lady with Scoliosis: I see a lady holding her head high with pride (and perhaps some defiance) in her sexuality and the graceful curves of her body. Having this, she perceives her potential for giving a sense of belonging (rooted like the tree) to others like her. I did have a fleeting thought of the Garden of Eden, but then thought I was probably wrong. If you ever ask the artist, would you let me know?

 


I'm an 18-year-old college student with mild to moderate (depending on the day) cerebral palsy. I use a scooter for long distances & outdoors, but walk indoors. I also have a boyfriend. I met him at a conference last summer. He also has CP.

We're doing the long distance relationship thing, but before we left the conference, he got a picture of us. I, being the flake that I am, didn't. When I mentioned this to him the other day, he became slightly upset. He said "Why does it matter what I look like? Bodies don't matter." I said that they didn't, not really, but that I just wanted a picture of him because I loved him.

I'm not quite sure what the point of that was... maybe just that men face the same sort of crap that women face with regard to looks. They're just less vocal about it. Men,what do you think?

 


[As a disabled man,] I think you're right: Men with disabilities have a hard time building a relationship with the opposite sex. I have had two relationships turn around and bite me because our disabilities were dissimilar (they were both able bodied). I have only known of two successful marriages in which the male had a disability and the female was able bodied. The first was with my high school science teacher, and the second is my friend here in Richmond. Building a relationship takes time, and nowadays no one wants to take the time to build one with a pwd except another pwd.

 


My personal opinion: men don't face the same crap that women face with regard to looks, although sometimes we think we do. The issues are other, but when we don't find ourselves as attractive to women as we want to be (or more commonly, with that certain woman who attracts us), we may want to blame it on "looks." (And go out for some body building nutritional supplement or whatever. Or in my age range, for Grecian formula or hair transplants.)

Of course, in the paper on disability and sexual attractiveness, I'm arguing that even the women don't face quite the crap with regards to looks that they often think, which is good news for women with obvious disabilities or "unconventional bodies." (That is, I believe that stereotypical "good looks" are not nearly so strong a determinant of attraction, success, etc. as the popular culture tries to tell us.)

I would love to comment on "Bodies don't matter," but I don't even begin to have the time to get into it. Anyone else? KT

 




I had resolved not to partake in any Chrysalis discussions during this month because I'm getting my newsletter together and don't have the time or energy for extracurricular activities. But golly gee neds, here comes Ken with his treatise on Sexual Attractiveness and Disability laying landmines all over the place, and I feel like I have to say something or burst.

Susie's boyfriend says "bodies don't matter." Puh-leeze. If bodies didn't matter, I doubt we'd be here in this discussion group. Until and unless the time comes when we are nothing more than disembodied spirits wafting around in heaven or whatever, bodies do matter -- what they look like, how they work [or don't], and what to do with them.

I am rather glad that I have a body, even if it is somewhat weird in some respects, and I'm glad that other people have bodies, especially certain other people whose smiles I can see, whose voices I can hear, whose skin I can touch. No, the life of the mind is not my only joy, and I don't think it should be just because I'm disabled.

Men don't get as much crap as women do about their looks. But maybe they should, because some of them are pretty slobbish and overweight and unkempt and don't care because some woman somewhere will want them anyway because we are taught that outward appearance is unimportant. However, I think disabled men probably have more of a problem with how they look. I suspect that Susie's boyfriend may be self-conscious about his body and that's why he doesn't want to send her a picture.

I'm not sure that it's so wrong for a man to define what is attractive in a woman, and I think we have as much right to define what we find attractive in a man. Of course what men find attractive may be culturally conditioned. Of course it may vary from man to man. Of course it may include attributes which are superficial and transitory. But unless you are a woman who denies that being attractive to other people, least of all to men, is of any importance (and I'm don't think being married and/or of mature years should automatically put you in this category) or are a woman who thinks you are either born irresistible or you're not, and if you're not, forget it, I think you want to know what's going on with men. Then, where it's totally stupid, you resolve to raise your sons differently, and where it's not totally stupid, you find out the best way to take advantage of it.

Another comment: I believe sexual attractiveness is at the root biogenetically conditioned rather than culturally conditioned. Human beings, male and female, are generally attracted to average-looking, healthy people with no obvious physical or mental defects not because of some cultural ideal but because these are the most likely to survive long and well enough to reproduce their genes and to be able to nuture [female] and to provide the necessities of life [male] until the next generation can pass on their genes. Thus we who are obviously disabled or bear some flaw or defect from the 'norm' are not only battling cultural stereotypes of youth and beauty but also genetic programming. Which is why we can make ourselves into something as winsome and adorable as all get out and still not get a date.

But don't give up, people. The history of civilization consists of our transforming our primeval, biological nature into something more moral and rational and nicer. We still have a long way to go. The problem is deciding if the journey is worth it. JD

 


So here's another thought to throw into the fray: If sexual attractiveness, as you suggest, is biologically "hardwired" so we'll get together, form nuclear families, and keep the species going, then we have another pseudoscientific argument for traditional family values.

It isn't too hard to make a case that the nuclear family has failed. It won't be too long before we will all acknowledge this and work towards cultural support of different kinds of "family" groups. A family group might not have to include two people sexually attracted to each other and their sexual offspring. It could include what are now called single people.

No one would be forced to raise a child, just because he or she is the biological parent. Such an assumption would be considered genetic chauvanism. With "alternative" types of family groups, we no longer would have to be sexually attractive in order to have families, intimacy, or avoid lonliness. Of course we could still cultivate our own sexual attractiveness and pursue sexual, romantic, monogamous relationships if we chose. It's just that sexual attractiveness would be optional, not mandatory, as it is today.


 

As far as abolishing the nuclear family, I wonder if the change is as close and as sure as your post implies. More than that, I wonder if the change will be going on to some new form and discarding monogamy, or will it be some kind of pendulum swing back, recognizing that the nuclear family of the mid-twentieth century was only a blip on the human time line, as we dreamed that with affluence, the nuclear family would be enough and we would no longer need all the extended family, community, clans, etc. that had existed in the past.

The nuclear family is not enough, even for those who more or less attain it, and it's terribly restrictive and exclusive, as you suggest. I fear that many U. S. Christians' vision of the ideal church is a collection of self-standing, self-sufficient nuclear families who come together on Sunday and do the right things and make one another feel good. PWD's in the church can potentially be potent forces for resurrecting our notions of community in Christ. (Write for details on how to participate ":-{)

However, I don't think that even abolishing the nuclear family would abolish the prominence of sexual attraction and attractiveness in interactions. In fact there is an interesting sense in which the nuclear family offers a positive refuge from a world of interactions awash in the effects of sexual attraction and attractiveness. I don't think sexual attractiveness could ever be either mandatory or optional. It just is, in dynamic balance with forces against approach and closeness -- personal, moral and social. KT


Ken, I a question for you at this point: Why do you think disabled women should want, or need, to hear what you have to say on this particular topic? I don't ask this because you're a man or a doctor or non-disabled; I would ask this of anyone who approaches such a sensitive topic, and would want to know if they understood why it was such a sensitive topic in the first place, especially for those who are disabled.

In the early parts of this draft, you seem to be more or less encapsulating every bit of advice women have ever received over the past fifty years from psychologists, advice columns, and women's magazines about attracting a man and keeping him in a committed relationship. (Well, that's what it was known as in my day; it's questionable how many young women nowadays are actively looking for a 'committed relationship,' either because it's uncool or sexist to do so). Most of it is quite familiar to me. I'm looking forward with interest to see how you tie this in with disability, but I think perhaps your rationale and your purpose for exploring this particular topic should be set out in your preliminary remarks so we can see where you're coming from and why.

 


I'm sure I should have my head examined, but I don't have time right now. I have read the various comments and there is a lot of "good stuff" in them that would be fun to debate if we had all day together in some nice cozy conference center, but by e-mail ...? I don't know.

There are, of course ideological issues involved her, especially for feminists. I didn't want to, and wouldn't try to get into an ideological debate. In response to your question: I don't necessarily think anyone should be interested in what I have to say about the topic, either, unless of course they were interested in the topic, in which case they might be interested in what I had to say until they decided that I didn't know what I was talking about or had nothing new to say, in which case they wouldn't be interested any more. No problem.

What I have wanted to do is not ideology (questions of values and what we wish existed) so much as sociology, trying to understand better what does exists. That includes understanding what is real in the stereotypes, also, because after all, they do work, to the tune of billions of dollars, and with women at least as much as with men. My analysis may be right some places, wrong in others, but in those opening sections I don't think I have even gotten around yet to giving advice. (That will surely really drive you up the walls when I do.) (Unless I chicken out, and don't.)

Among the reasons this is such a mine field are:

(a) that we buy into commercially propagated assumptions about sexual attractiveness without realizing we have accepted them, and then argue from those false assumptions. (Parenthetically, some of us may want to argue that sexual attractiveness is not important, but the consumerism industry obviously knows otherwise. Sexual attraction is real, is powerful, is ingrained, can be manipulated and can manipulate us.)
It is also a minefield (b) because as an ideological issue in the feminist movement it as an excellent surrogate for the issues of male-defined values in the society. Unfortunately for our discussions, I think these arguments generally assume the commercial stereotypes, in order to blast them. (For example, to asssume that the commercialized stereotypical images are potent forces by which men define female sexual attractiveness to be whatever they want, subject to change at whim.) It may be hard for people to hear me when I argue that the stereotypes are NOT potent to decide attractiveness unless we think they are -- unless we believe them -- and that they must be disregarded in order to explore what sexual attractiveness is really. In ideological terms, the idea of a guy discussing feminine sexual attraction is a red flag. (Like, for example, for some able-bodied MD to talk about disability issues. As I said, if I had time, I should get my head examined.) My own ideological bias is, just because a man says it's so, doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong.
This also a mine field (c) because it is an area of great wounding, for males and females, able-bodied and physically disabled, and the wounds go deep into our psyches and damage our relationships and even our capacities for relationships. Therein lies my interest in the whole area. Areas of great wounding are areas for great healing. However, where there is great hurt, there is anger and there are defenses that demand defending, and there is fear. It's a minefield, but this is a worthy area to explore, and for the good of people who need healing and liberation, perhaps I need to be willing to have a few things blow up in my face in the process, in the hopes that some of us will come out the other side with something to offer to people who need it.
The preliminary remarks which I have so far sent along are, I think, more than some kind of compendium of Redbook, etc. advice columns (does Redbook even still exist?). I should probably feel well-praised if in a few short pages I have managed to "encapsulate every bit of advice women have ever received over the past fifty years from psychologists, advice columns, and women's magazines about attracting a man and keeping him in a committed relationship" and quit while I'm ahead(?) However, there are some crucial points I am arguing, premises for anything to follow. Let me specify some of them as a sort of summary to this point:

SA (sexual attractiveness) is not a black white issue -- something you either have or don't have. Everyone participates in a dynamic interaction between forces that attract and forces that repel, forces toward approach and involvement and forces against approach and involvement.
SA is complex, with many defineable facets, most of which are not determined by one's physical abilities or body form, and therefore, also not determined by one's lack of abilities or one's deformities.
The cultural stereotypes of SA are not to be believed, and sexual attractiveness exists independently of the stereotypes. (The stereotypes DON'T define sexual attractiveness, in other words. They only define what people assume to be sexual attractiveness, and therefore one shouldn't be surprised to be attractive to others while flying in the face of the stereotypes.)
This is not to be a manual on obtaining dates. Enhancing the positive, attractive forces one generates and diminishing the negative forces is very much to our advantage in the game of life if you want your compliments and encouragement to mean more, your power to influence to be greater, your counsel to be more credible, etc. (This includes sometimes playing the culturally defined games or exploiting the stereotypes to accomplish what you need to accomplish, as long as you understand "the way things really are.")
And (still to come in the discussions, if I recall correctly), people with disabilities have to deal with a double set of stereotypes -- ones about sexual attractiveness and counter ones about people with disabilities. Standing those stereotypes on their ear and over against one another can be one very effective way to diminish the impact of one's physical limitations on one's life and (dare I say it?) to reap some positives from being disabled. There is no law against that.
Preparing for this conference has forced me to reread this material on sexual attractiveness and disability after some years lapse, and I still think there's value in it (whether or not I can convince you all). Not only that, but I find that much of what I said is probably quite similar for men as well. However, those who feel this is a TAB guy trying to set up hoops for disabled women to jump through in order to be considered "attractive" please feel free to use the delete key. I won't be offended. KT

 


Dear Ken,

I certainly didn't intend to imply that I was questioning you out of some rigidly feminist ideological stance. I tried to make it clear that the fact you were male, non-disabled, etc. had nothing to do with my question. And I certainly didn't mean to imply that you wouId have nothing to say that was particularly interesting or enlightening for me. I could not, and would not, on the basis of my past experience reading your work dismiss you so lightly. I just wasn't sure about your stance, what assumptions you were making, and where you intended to go and why. You have answered that; in fact just your use of the word 'sociological' cleared up a lot of things for me. (I don't know, maybe I'm going through one of my dense phases right now.) I do think you ought to incorporate some of your descriptions of 'landmines' and your premises in an introduction to your presentation for people like me.

As for giving advice...well, when you say things like...
One very direct way you can seek self-acceptance is to act on faith rather than feeling. Groom and dress and conduct yourself as if you were full of self-acceptance and confidence. Even though you may feel as if you are only acting a role, what other people see will be almost as attractive as real self-acceptance and confidence. Then, as they respond to you with approval and attraction, you actually begin to realize you are acceptable and attractive.
...it's awfully hard not to see this as advice from you to your audience, whom you address directly as 'you', rather than as some sociological statement ABOUT advice we often receive as women [and, yes, men] in this society.

 


As for giving advice: One very direct way you can seek self-acceptance is to act on faith rather than feeling. Groom and dress and conduct yourself as if you were full of self-acceptance and confidence. . . . etc.

Ah, that! I guess I look at that as such a counseling truism, I didn't even recognize it as giving advice. It's just reinforcing useful information, like saying, "When you're intoxicated, your judgment and coordination are impaired." That's information. When I tell a patient, "Because of your drinking problem, you should take Antabuse and find new friends," now that's advice!

 


Sexual attractiveness IS sociological. (That is, defined by the society.) It isn't an inherent set of factors that can be once and for all defined. It depends on who defines it. For example, as a teenager, I was told that my eyebrows were too big, and that I must correct them with painful electrolysis. I did. Well, Brook Shield's eyebrows are bigger than mine ever were.

[The paper on attractiveness and disability] implies is that the road from adolescence to adulthood is in developing your sexual attractiveness so you can find a man and get married. I would be happier if you added a part that said sexual attractiveness is about what makes you feel good as a woman, as well as what might attract some men.

Also, a lot of what attracts, or doesn't attract, men and women to each other, has nothing to do with sexual attractiveness. My point is that men define sexual attractiveness, and for purposes other than the personal empowerment of women.

Feminists think the idea of sexual attractiveness is divisive is because it is divisive. And even if women do put much of their energy into attracting a partner, what should they do? Wear loads of bright red lipstick and rouge, wear a beehive, let their hair grow long and do nothing else except wash it,..wear short skirts,..wear long flowing dresses, let the man come to them, call the man and say they want to go out? Just about all the ideas of what's attractive are dictated by men and subject to change without notice.

 


[The question of acceptable eyebrows] is a good example of false definitions of what being attractive requires. As you point out, Brook Shields proved that. And what if the supposed "defects" in your attractiveness are things like paralyzed legs or an awkward walk or facial abnormailities or other things that have no electrolysis equivalent?

You write, "Also, a lot of what attracts, or doesn't attract, men and women to each other, has nothing to do with sexual attractiveness."

I would certainly agree if "sexual attraction" is defined in limited terms only as an erotic desire for sexual intimacy. (I believe it is much broader and more fundamental than that, however -- encompassing whatever attracts men and women to each other, at least in so far as those attractions are modified by gender considerations, as most are.)

I don't know where I implied that "the road from adolescence to adulthood is in developing your sexual attractiveness so you can find a man and get married," but I would be very willing to rewrite it if I did.

Your criticism concerned me, especially given my own sense that there aren't enough good men to go around in this world, and that some of my implied audience may never go on to get married, even if they wished to. (It also surprises me, since your own first comment on the discussions began, "I noticed you think that sexual attractiveness helps in all aspects of your life, not just for getting a partner.") Therefore I have carefully reread the parts of the draft that I have sent, and I am at a loss.

I do obviously assume a heterosexual female audience, and I do mention, almost in passing, things they could choose to do if they wished to invite the specific attraction of a certain guy, and I do at times speak to their very widely held concern (which the society conveys to them) that they might as well forget about attracting a good man with interest in marriage because of their disabilities.

But nowhere do find where I am implying that "the road from adolescence to adulthood is in developing your sexual attractiveness so you can find a man and get married." Am I missing something?

What I said, I think, was that sexual attractiveness is more or less an inherent part of each person, and that there are advantages and empowerment in understanding and enhancing the attractiveness, as well as in understanding and dealing with some of the negatives. And that sexual attractiveness is an asset in a wide variety of human interactions apart from the date and mate game. And I said that there is a particular advantage for women with disabilities to accept and enhance their sexual attractiveness as a way of overturning and even exploiting demeaning and isolating stereotypes many people have of PWD's. KT


If you don't get it, then someone else will have to explain it to you. I give up.

(Ed. As given on the website, the [presentation on Disability and Sexual Attractiveness] is not exactly the paper this writer was discussing, but it's close.)

 


Regarding Wheelchair Barbie, who, separated from her wheelchair, presents the same stereotypical and white bread image of "sexual attractiveness" as any other Barbie and has nothing to indicate a disability:

When I was growing up my parents wouldn't allow me to have Barbies for that very reason [of its stereotyped concept of what a girl should look like]. Another very popular doll that has a wheelchair as an accessory is the 1990's American Girls doll. Ever since the topic came up I have been asking myself would I have chosen a doll in a wheelchair when I was young and why or why not. It kind of reminds me of the experiment with the "colored" dolls that were used as evidence in the Supreme Court when segregation in the schools was outlawed.
[Ed. As I recall, a study showing black girls to have such low self-esteem that they preferred white to black dolls was used in evidence for the damaging impact of "separate but equal."]

 


I hadn't thought about the ethnicity point. (And of course all of Barbie's friends are anorexic). And then, "smile" seems to be her first name -- such an odd first name, I prefer to call her Becky. But are GWDs (girls with disabilities) supposed to smile more than an average amount? (Why would that be? This is a RHETORICAL question only, folks).

I was past 50 when I got a Cabbage Patch style doll with a brace. They came from the distributor to the agency I direct, to be used as a fund raiser for us and of course, a promo for the doll, and my husband bought one for me. I loved her, and she still sits on the couch in my living room. A middle aged professional man I know who uses a chair bought himself a boy doll in a chair when he went to a toy store to get a gift for a kid family member.

Maybe the best idea IS for chairs, braces, etc. to be available as "accessories" for dolls. In fact, when we sold those Cabbage Patch-style dolls we did customize on request, for example, an African American doll with a brace, hearing aid, whatever for the kid getting it. Well, onward and upward with the dialogue.

 


Aw come on guys, did you get the name for this doll? ``Share a Smile Becky''. Another happy-go-lucky crip.

The only comment I've seen so far was from a female amputee friend, who said: "The first thing the little girl that was playing with the doll did was remove her from the wheelchair, then all I saw again was a doll complete with legs, arms. fingers, toes, and eyes, no braces, etc.. So is she really a disabled companion for Barbie or is she a doll with another fancy accessory?"

I suspect many non-disabled people would have a hard time understanding why I'm less than overjoyed with this new addition to the world of toys, and more than a little concerned about how disabled children will feel towards it. LJ

 




I think the Wheelchair Barbie is just wonderful. Mattel did a terrific thing to bring a disabled Barbie into the mainstream of toys little girls love to play with.

Shocking pink wheelchair? I love it. Why would someone as "cool" as Barbie be in anything but a bright, fun color?

Yeah, I know all the arguments from feminists denegrating Barbie's voluptuous figure, et al, but I still think the Mattel Corporation should be applauded for this marketing decision.

I'd write more but I'm on my way out to Toys-R-Us to buy a Wheelchair Barbie to place on my office desk. LD

 


I agree with your comments about the new wheelchair Barbie. Thinking WAY back to when I was a kid, I would have loved a doll like that. I remembered how, when I was a patient in Shriner's Hospital, we used to make leg braces out of card board for our dolls, and I know we would have all enjoyed having a doll-sized wheelchair to play with....

 


Is this a great group or what? Who else could get so much out of a little piece of plastic. I agree with everyone on this one and I appreciate the clarity with which LJ put some perspective on what I feel is basically a positive development.

Several years ago Mattel very cautiously decided to risk declaring that their stereotyped glamour babe didn't have to be white (and tap the huge non-white market), and Barbie continued to prosper. Now they are trying the waters -- maybe she can even be disabled even though there is not a big obvious market. I gotta see that as progress (toward the day sometime in the next millenium when she can even be chubby -- another huge market).

Also agree that for lots of girls with disabilities this could be a real taste of affirmation in the desert of alienation they are often experiencing. And I like the idea of a wheelchair (or crutches or a folding white mobility cane) as "accessories" for the doll -- puts those things in a better perspective, and that is encouraging from a purveyor of pop culture.

This is scarcely a bold move by usually conservative big business, though. Mattel made only a few thousand dolls (remember, it's not a huge market segment), which as LJ points out, are basically their standard issue knobby pieces of plastic plus knees that bend. For that, they have gotten the equivalent of a 100 million dollar publicity blast, with Associated Press apparently so impressed by the goodness of their move that they slavishly swallowed the Mattel press release whole and regurgitated it across the country -- made our local paper here word for word. But wait. There's more!

Turns out, there was NO risk for Mattel anyway, because this was done as an exclusive for Toys R Us, as was ruefully explained to me by the FAO Schwartz Barbie Store person in Horton Plaza (San Diego), who was obviously a little weary of answering the same question. That says to me that Walmart and FAOS and all the rest are learning that dolls with disabilities are not such a bad a idea. Good.

Well, my hat's off to Toys R Us, whose catalogs year after year do a great job of showing kids with disabilities enjoying the heck out of their toys, and that includes kids with unconventional bodies. Too bad they didn't have the courage of their convictions to role it out in the pre-Christms toy push, and really too bad that, having gone to the trouble of making the knees jointed, they didn't take the small extra step of loosening the hips and knees enough so she can't stand without, say, braces. KT

 


What's wrong with Becky being able to function without her wheelchair? There are GWDs like that who need a chair for longer distances but can walk the shorter ones (OK, OK. Maybe I'm it.). Did I forget to mention that the only braces I've ever worn while I was walking were for my teeth? As far as hot pink goes as a color choice, Bruno makes a kids' scooter in "Barbie pink". Why not? Cheers to Mattel for realizing that there are disabled little girls out there! The name could use a bit of work, though. Why not just "Becky"?

 


My last comment on Barbie or Becky or whoever. I have seen dolls marketed with braces, hearing aids, etc. We have four "sweet" Precious Moments Easter Seals Commemorative pieces, one of a girl on crutches, one of a boy on crutches, one of a boy with forearm canes, and one of a boy in a wheelchair. Lupita has a less stylized little figurine of a very happy black girl in a w/c. It strikes me that W/C Barbie may be significant (a little?) in that it approaches an adult with a disability, whereas the bias has always been to show "crippled children." (the telethon syndrome) FWIW. KT


I believe that inside of every woman, disabled or not, there is the sense that she is born to be attractive, sexually and otherwise. However, billions of dollars are spent each year to convince us that we're not attractive. That is, unless we buy the soaps, feminine hygiene spray, clothes, soft drinks, barbie dolls, ... or take the weight reduction pills, go to the expensive gymns, buy the clothes, and act in a way that gives men control over us.

If Marilyn Monroe were to apply for a job today as an actress, no one would give her a chance. She's too fat. I get particulary angry this time of year because of the Miss America thing. This says to all of us, once you're over twenty five, forget it it. Your sexually attractive days are over.

 


You are so right! It has something to do with your sense of self and a lot to do with your culture and just a little to do with your disability. We are all sexual. But we are sexual in relationship to our individuality!


I couldn't agree more. Thank God, though, you don't have to look like a Barbie doll (with or without wheelchair) or spend a fortune to be sexually attractive, even though they want you to think that way and buy. Bye. Ken

 


Ken--

With all due respect, I don't think it is appropriate for you, as a non-disabled male to speak about this subject [of sexual attractiveness and the mobility impaired female]. Would you speak about the same subject regarding black women or lesbians, disabled or not? There are lots of WWD's who can address this.

Ken, we really must speak for ourselves. For too long, we have been spoken to, about and around, and it just perpetuates the idea that we are incapable of presenting our own issues.

Like the civil rights movement in the '60's, supportive whites involved themselves in the cause, of course, but leadership and spokespeople came from the community, as it should have.

I know you mean well, and I do appreciate your desire to get the topic discussed, but this really is not your area. The only point of view you can legitimately assume, IMHO, is what makes WWD's attractive to you. You said you have 25 years of dating experience to pull from, including WWD's.

Please, Ken, don't overstep your interest. You can't speak about this on my behalf (as a WWD) because you don't know. No matter how much I tell you about it, the best you can do is empathize, unless you have a sex-change and acquire a disability real quick!

Most sincerely,

 


Well, you were much more direct than I would have been, but that's exactly how I feel. I'm partially sighted and in my fifties. I've been deluged with propaganda, commercials, well-meaning, and not-so-well meaning advice on how to be "attractive." It's everywhere, in womens' magazines, TV commercials, womens' organizations, movies, you name it. There are a few men who found me sexually attractive. The reason the relationships weren't forever had nothing to do with that.

I'd like to see a seminar for older women on how and why do you feel good as a woman. How can you keep motivated to keep yourself attractive and feminine when there's no man in your life? And how is sexual attractiveness different for lesbian women. What priority do you give being attractive to a man when you are past the child bearing years? I have no preconceived notion of what "feminine", "attractiveness", or similar terms mean. I just think it would be fun for older disabled women to talk about it.

 


I have been out of the loop for a while...But I thought that Ken was disabled (recovering/recovered from cancer of the bladder with all the pain, humiliations, mortality aand immortality issues that such a disease can generate)

Ken has his opinions re:sexuality. Granted he is male (MALE) and has not been disabled all his life. But somewhere in all his life experiences he must have had to face those awful insecurities of adolescence, dating, and self esteem issues tied to his personal body image. And because he was/is a physician he probably had to deal with his own ego issues of omnipotense and godliness that culture has tagged to doctors (remember MArcus Welby)

I may have spoken out of line. I have not read all the discussions. But I think the discussions are healthy as long as we don't gang up on someone because he dares to offer an opinion.

None of us is expert on anyone else's concept of sexuality or sex-i-ness. We seem to spend a lot of time as a culture worrying about whar other people think about us as sexual beings.

 


Dear friends,
Some of the criticisms of Ken's recent messages are in my opinion way too harsh. Of course Ken is not a woman and he does not have a disability. But he does have many years of experience working with PWDs in a medical and counseling role, so I think he is qualified to have his say and be taken seriously. Even though I am happily married to the most wonderful man on earth, I still struggle with the notion of physical attractiveness. I welcome Ken's insight and look forward to more of it.

In a more general sense I have a problem with the notion that only the members of a particular group have a right to speak about that group. Yes, I am a woman and I am disabled, but I also happen to be Asian American. Can a disabled woman who happens to be Caucasian or African American speak about my feelings or situation? Where does it stop? If some of you don't agree with Ken's writings, then why not write something yourself? Don't just criticize him because he isn't "one of us."

And please remember, this is only my opinion, my two cents worth. Don't anyone take it personally, I love all of you.

 


I feel I must respond this whole Attractiveness and Disability business, and during an "intermission" is the perfect time. I appreciate all the installments I have read; they are very timely for me personally because of where I am in my life right now.

I believe many of the words in opposition to Ken's writings are more aimed at society than at Ken himself. Granted, society sucks, big time. Why should anyone be told that because they don't look like this, or because they can't swing their hips like that, he or she is not sexually attractive?

I'm sure we all agree that this should NOT happen. But the ugly reality still remains: we live in society. I was NEVER directly told that I was not good enough, that I didn't measure up to some unattainable standard, but yet I grew to believe that I was faulty. Little comments, gestures, media, friends, high school, bars, you name it; these all contribute to social stereotypes.

I have only just begun to discover that I can use my positive attributes to my advantages, that I am sexually, emotionally, and spiritually desirable to the opposite sex. I think I always have been but I didn't think I was. You see, what I'm getting from Ken's words is that I am my worst enemy. The biggest problem is not that the world's telling me how awful I am, it's that I choose to believe what it's saying.

Only I have the power to reject these messages, to love myself, and to project that self-love to others through any means possible. Only I can invite others in to discover the real me; but I must first believe in what I'm tring to sell. In a way, this is comparable to reality therapy. We know how much crap we have lived in. It's up to us if we want to stay in the manure pit or lie in the field of flowers. (My relatives are dairy farmers!!-- hope that explains my allegory.) Anyway, that's my take on things so far.

 




You write:
"I have only just begun to discover that I can use my positive attributes to my advantages, that I am sexually, emotionally, and spiritually desirable to the opposite sex. I think I always have been but I didn't think I was."

You know, in a way I think that sums up how I got myself into this predicklement. I have so often worked with young women with disabilities who thought it was self-evident that they weren't sexually attractive because they were disabled, when in fact the major thing that detracted was that they didn't believe they were or could be sexually attractive. (And there weren't any WWD's out there to tell them the truth. If that is changing now, well, I for one will be as delighted as anyone, but I fear the need still far outdistances the supply [of WWD's sharing the message].

Thus, here I am getting myself skewered on the internet. ":-{) I figure I have as much right to tell people the truth as anyone, and as much duty. Some WWD's may hear it better from an ABM and some may hear it better from another WWD. I suspect you can't hear it too often.

I am sure that I will come out the other side of these debates with a better understanding of the "truth," as you all add to what others have taught me over the years. Ideally we all learn from one another. In fact, that's the way we have gone. Peace, KT

 


My point in questioning what Ken is doing is not that because is is male, a doctor, able bodied, and middle aged, that he is therefore unqualified to speak about sexual attractiveness issues for young disabled women. My point is that people in Ken's position have the microphone all the time.

I feel deluged with messages about sexual attractiveness and advice about how to get it. Most, if not all, of these messages come from commercials, movies, TV. Very few come from older, or even young, women with disabilities. Suppose that disabled women got together with all the tools we needed to come up with some ideas about sexual attractiveness, what it is, how to use it, do we want it, etc. Would we come up with the same ideas Ken did from his background as a professional? Maybe, maybe not. I think it makes a great deal of difference who is saying it. [Ed: Go for it!]

 


These [articles on disability and attractiveness] remind me of a time I was given a good dose of reality by a young man when he asked me if I realized that I never allowed people to help me. I had always been very intentional about being self-reliant and not needing people. The plan was pretty successful, but the splendid independence also created barriers and led to life being a tad on the lonely side.

Question for Ken: Where, how, or even do you, draw the line between encouraging the young ladies to express their femininity and sexuality and teaching them (if only by implication) to practice game playing and adopting superficial values? Seems as if this might make the concept of sincerity and honesty in relationships a little questionable.

 


Oooh, good question! At the first take, I really don't consider "dressing for success" with one's intended audience to be game playing. There's nothing false or deceptive about wanting to have the most positive effect and the least negative effect possible on people you would like to influence. The game playing comes in when you do it because "they" demand it of you rather than because you want to do it, when you do it for fear of rejection rather than for your own positive ends, or when you try to make yourself out to be someone or something you are not.

At the same time, I have often said to counselors and counselees that there may be a greater need for PWD's to be concerned about some appearance and presentation issues because there are so many prevailing prejudices and assumptions, and just plain and simple, so many gut reactions to disabilities, that are negative and harmful. I consider that grossly unfair and unjust, but it is the reality of things.

For example, for the woman with disabilities not to be looked at with condescencion or "pity," or to be considered sexually attractive by prospective companions, etc. she probably has less liberty to go around in "comfortable clothes," and more to gain by striving to communicate her feminine identity and her sexuality.

Barbie goes out in a bulky sweatshirt and sweat pants and the assumptions of those who see her are quite different than they tend to be if a paraplegic woman dresses that way -- is she covering up? is that an expression of her low self-esteem? obviously she dresses that way becasue the poor thing can't really be pretty, etc. You almost have to wear a placard that says, "I'm dressed this way because I'm in a hurry and I want to be comfortable; but wait 'til you see me dressed for my date tonight." (Like the other sign: "The sad expression on my face right now has nothing to do with the fact that I am disabled, and in other circumstances I am perfectly capable of being happy from my wheelchair even if you have a hard time believing that.")

Again, I'm far from saying that's how things ought to be, but it is often a reality with obvious physical disabilities.

Each PWD has to decide for her or himself how much energy they want to exert to counter that burden in any given situation, but I think it is easier and feels less false when you really feel good about yourself and can sort of enjoy teaching people to see you in the same, positive way.

Obviously I run on about this topic, but there is one more thing I want to add: The real game playing and dishonesty that I am more concerned with is when a PWD tries to "pass" as not disabled or less disabled than they really are, or to cover up things, in order to be more acceptable in people's eyes. The problem there is that it doesn't really work too well. Plus how confident and self-accepting can you be when you are trying to relate on that basis? And worst of all, any success you have is like another wound to your heart because you are just a little more convinced that "if he/she really knew limited I am, or if they saw me in such and such situation, or if they saw my legs uncovered, or if I hadn't been hiding things, I wouldn't be as acceptable."

I don't know if that makes sense. I'm generally not too lucid late at night in a hurry, but maybe you can see what I mean.
Peace, KT

 


You write:
"Oooh, good question! At the first take, I really don't consider "dressing for success" with one's intended audience to be game playing. There's nothing false or deceptive about wanting to have the most positive effect and the least negative effect possible on people you would like to influence."

This thought makes me feel so good!! Love, LD

 


Quotable quotes from the new AAPD magazine "enable," from an article on Cheryl Marie Wade, 48 year-old actress, comic, and writer. Ms. Wade has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and uses a power chair. (One of her poems is titled: "I Ain't a Reason to Die.")

She says, "Always I'm telling my stories to a lonely 15-year-old cripple sitting in front of a mirror trying to tell herself she's not a freak, not an other. If I'm not communicating with that girl, then my art is incomplete because she is my most precious audience."

Also: "I have a disability cultural identity that tells me I am whole and valuable. An identity that teaches me that my difficult life is worth the struggle, that being alive even in a very painful limited edition body is worth it."

 




Some History of the Attractiveness and Disability draft:
I wrote this many years ago to try to clarify and analyze this very important part of our ministry. Now, at Lupita's urging I have pulled it out and dusted it off, and sent parts along to you. I have made a few editorial changes but I have tried not to change its substance, at least until some WWD's have had more of a shot at it than heretofore.

At the time I wrote it, I had had experiences dating a couple of disabled women in my youth, lots of counseling experiences, and several years with an extraordinarily attractive group of young women with disabilities in Mariposa. (A young bachelor pastor asked me back then, only half-jokingly, if women had to pass some sort of beauty test to get into Mariposa. Actually though, he was testifying to the transformation we had seen in many women with disabilities as their self-images and self-presentations had changed.)

Since setting these concepts forth "analytically" and arguing them with myself, I have of course been even more aware of them over the past few years. I find I haven't changed my ideas that much. Also, since then Lupita and Lola, both seriously disabled since childhood, have come to these concepts at the thirty-something juncture of their lives and were extraordinarily quick to embrace them and prove them in practice, with dramatic results.

Since then also, I have heard many more comments from people, men and women, about how attractive they find the members of the Mariposa group (both the men and the women). And the Mariposa members themselves appreciate one another, and enjoy looking good and feeling good about themselves. (Please note, these are not twenty-year-olds for the most part, nor Barbie Dolls nor persons blessed with money for expensive clothes, etc.)

I am more convinced than ever that disabilities and deformities are not major obstacles to sexual attractiveness. Also that in their healthy sexual attractiveness the Mariposa participants help liberate everyone, TAB or PWD, from the mass-marketed stereotypes that some of you (and I) have been decrying.

Historically I should also note that when I wrote the paper, I had never heard of "devotees" -- people, mostly men, who feel strong sexual attraction for persons with disabilities per se -- and in some cases are clearly fixated on some certain disability aspect. Some of what I said in the initial draft needs to be looked at a little differently in the light of the devotee phenomenon. KT

 


This post on the history of the outline is, I think, very helpful. In recent years women with disabilities who are professionals in sex education and related issues have been working on these issues Certainly Barbara Waxman, for one, is among the most attractively "presented" women with a major physical disability that I have met, as well as a strong feminist advocate.

It is clear that the perceptions of both men and women about their attractiveness to one another are very important, but in a day of changing perceptions and behaviors with regard to gender interaction, that each has to be able to live in her/his own body and psyche as well as calculating how much energy to put into planning interactions with the other in a specifically sexual context.


Dear Friends,
Several days ago I got an e-mail inquiry wondering if Viri or Lola or other women from Mariposa would be interesting in modeling for a photo and video project. The following exchange ensued (and I share it for feedback because it seems it may be as intriguing as the Barby doll debate):

Dr. Tittle,
I wonder if you got my earlier email regarding congratulations on your webpage and your outlook, and the question regarding the possibility of doing a video with some of your prettier women as subjects. We have a small grant to do an Activities for Daily Living feature with a heavy accent on the non-sexuality [sic] of disabled women -- we want to show them in the most feminine light possible. This seems to concur with your point of view. Any interest? Please get in touch with me.

[I am sure that raises some red flags with the feminists out there. I replied:]

Dear Sir,
I did in fact get your e-mail, but I am very poor at responding by snail mail. It is all I can do to keep a tenuous grip on my e-mail. I am glad you saw in the images what we had hoped to convey: strong, positive, dynamic, self-accepting and sexually whole persons with disabilities. Viri and Lola were amused, and I assume, pleased to hear that someone had expressed interest in their "modeling."

As to whether they are possible subjects for your project, that is not so easy to answer. We are geographically very far from you, and in Viri's case at least, in another country. Many of our members are inherently quite shy and find videos even more challenging than still photos. We are all, I think, a little cautious about signing onto a project like this we don't know -- not wanting to get involved in a devotee-type venture. And not least, we are not not totally behind the idea of the "prettier" women: We are more interested in the attitude which says, "I am disabled, and I'm okay," in the face of the stereotyped cultural norms of what it takes to be attractive ("prettiness").

Don't know if that provides a basis for correspondence or not. Yours, Ken Tittle

Dear Ken,
I'm glad the women were "amused." I hope flattered. I know it's not fashionable to think in terms of "pretty," but they are. And they do project those characteristics you listed: strong, positive, dynamic, self-accepting and sexually whole persons with disabilities. It is these very things that caught my eye in your presentation on your web page(s).

I know there are potential problems, but I trust they could more than likely be overcome if the need and/or opportunity arises.

I guess what I see is that people will be judged for their attractiveness relative to any group of people they happen to be in or around, and what I would like to see, is that people be "judged" (I hate that word--it sounds so ominous) for who they are, and for how they are perceived. This includes the physical side of things.

My ideal situation would be that the disability NOT be the FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT part of that judgment.

So the secondary focus of this project is that we present disabled women as women first, with all that entails, and (hopefully) the fact of the disability will trail a long way behind. Then there exists an acceptance of disability. The rest of "appearance" issues, I think are separate, and must be dealt with separately. It would be nice if society would look ONLY inside, but so far they seem to have no interest in doing that. One thing at a time, I guesss....

I understand the shyness. This is one of the reasons we haven't located someone closer. Not many are willing to be photographed. I had hoped that the positive self-image your people have would allow them more confidence in this respect. Of course, each person would have to decide for herself. So, if you, or any of your charges, are interested, please get back in touch. I would like to do this project.

 


Methinks this man is a "devotee" big time... and not even man enough to be honest about it.

He is never clear about the purpose and goal of his photo spread. He never says how this "work" will educate or enlighten. The big tip off for me leaps off the page in one single word: this is his inclusion of the adjective "prettier." This objective to select only the "prettiest" of the Mariposa women is a slap in the face of the disability movement and the feminist movement all at once.

 




As a young woman with a disability, this certainly got my attention! I don't think I could ever find the courage to "model" for a video but I would applaud and support any disabled woman who would do so. Girls growing up with disabilities need any support they can get.

As a teenager it was difficult for me to believe I could ever be "feminine" or attractive. Even now at 21 (and happily married!) I still struggle with these feelings to some degree. Maybe a film showing disabled women in an attractive and feminine light could help (even in a small way) some of us see ourselves in a more positive way.

And by the way, this inspired me to finally take a look at the Mariposa web site. To say the least I was impressed. It is a beautiful piece of work. Thank you, Ken.

 


I am so glad you liked the website. (Although I wish people would tack on a few little words: I really liked the website because ... But no one does. Interesting.)

Thanks for your response to the video project. I hope others will comment. You have expressed very well the only reason I even responded at all to this gentleman: videos potentially can be very powerful and helpful. There is a Mariposa discussion about doing videos, seeing oneself in a video, etc. I wonder if you or others would be interested in reading it. If it is only you, I could snail mail it to you, or if there are several, I could distribute it e-mail. (Or you can wait for it to make its appearance on the website.) Our best to you and your husband, and happy to hear from you, even if it's only once and a while. KT

 


He writes: My ideal situation would be that the disability NOT be the FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT part of that judgment.

Right, but who will be accepted? Demi Moore in a wheelchair? Or some male schtick with C.P. who cas not speak clearly, but who has the brainpower of an Einstein?

I guess I'm beginning to see society's division of personhood here. Female persons with disabilities are models as long as they are attractive. But let some female pwd come in who is not attractive, and people won't accept her. I would not trust this guy, at least not until he put in the photo-video project some pwd's who aren't "PRETTY" females, and got some institutional support to validiate his project.

 


I found more to be concerned about in this man's remarks than to be amused by. Modeling scams are some the oldest and most exploitive ploys used against women. I'm told the The Boston Strangler became acquainted with his female victims by telling them he was a fashion photographer in search of models. Pre-disability I has approached by a gentleman with a similiar line only to learn that his true intention was to sexually exploit me. My concern escalated when I learned of several other women he attempted to lure with the same "photographer in search of pretty model " pitch. If I were you I would politely draw the correspondence to a close.
[ED: which we did.]

 


Thank you for reminding me of the dark side potential of some of these things. I think we are a little spoiled down here in the laid back and small-town atmosphere, and I am much more likely to assume cluelessness than malevolence. (I don't know if that is because of living down here or the reason why I live down here.)

Incidentally, I was just introduced to Ani di Franco (by my college student son) and there is a great line in a song about a lap dancer. It speaks to objectifying women, to the Barbie doll stereotypes, and to the fact that there are problems to being considered one of the "prettier women" just as there are problems with not meeting the "pretty" stereotypes: "I want you to pay for my beauty. I think it's only right. I have been paying for it all of my life."

Actually, there are many great lines, as maybe everyone but me already knows. One was about being a survivor after the end of an exploitative relationship: "You've left me with nothing, but I've worked with less before."

 


Ken, I want to let you know that I do appreciate that you are taking on a very difficult and controversial topic.

As for "devotees", there are examples of cultures that considered what we now call deformed as attractive. The recent five centuries of Mexican, including pre-Columbian, art had examples of this. There was a statue of a hunchback that was considered erotic. Of course we don't know how "erotic" people were treated then.

Paul Longmore has some other examples. I think it was he who pointed out that all the fairy tales were cleaned up for modern consumption. Snow White wasn't living with all those down-to-earth dwarves because they were helpless and cute. (I don't think Disney will give us that one.)

 


The post on "devotees" reminded me of women with bound feet in China. Is it true that the smell of women's feet was thought erotic.

 


Would you believe, I know something about that? And from the New England Journal of Medicine, no less.

Upper class girls had their feet bound in such a way that the heel and the ball of the foot were drawn together as the foot developed, a very crippling condition that totally changed the configuration of the foot, causing the main part of the foot to appear as a bulge above the heel and forefoot, with a deep groove between the heel and the ball of the foot that required special hygiene.

This apparently was somewhat ritualistic because after a certain age I believe it was necessary always to continue binding the foot because it would be too painful to bear weight on it without the support of the bindings. So there was an unwrapping, a cleaning process, and a rewrapping that was considered highly intimate and erotically charged. The resulting disability and gait limitations and deformities were all considered to enhance the woman's sexual attractiveness as well as to serve as a sign of her "privileged" status. KT

 



More historical background:
In the dim, dark past of Club Alma days (c.1974-5), good friends of mine were members of the Disabled in Action militant group protesting for disability rights in NYC. They sent me a questionnaire that another DIA member had written for her masters. I had some social sciences background, enough to know that the questionnaire was terrible, without even the most minimal steps to guard against question bias, etc.

If I can explain it briefly, it was a questionnaire designed to be given to able-bodied college men, and it all but shouted, "I know you look at women with disabilities as a bunch of crippled freaks and don't want anything to do with us, but I dare you to say that honestly on this questionnaire." (Although she was maybe not quite that subtle.":-{)

I was intrigued, and wrote my own questionnaire, designed to test assumptions and perceptions more objectively and also to be suitable for males and females, able-bodied and disabled. We have never used it very widely, so I can't give you "valid" results, but the trends were so strong in the limited number of times we used it later in Mariposa that I believe they are probably reproduceable.

I haven't found a copy of the questions to pass along, but respondents were asked to "agree strongly, agreee somewhat, disagree somewhat, or disagree strongly" with statements like:

"A major physical disability may often enhance a woman's sexual attractiveness." (and same question for a man)
"Although she might have attractive qualities, a woman with a major physical disability could never be truly considered 'attractive.'" (and same question for a man)
"A woman with a major physical disability usually would not be able to satisfy a sexual partner as well as an able-bodied person." (and same question for a man)
"If a woman with a major phsyical disability marries, she would best marry another disabled person." (and same question for a man) Etc
Two things stand out:
(1) Young disabled women without much Mariposa experience answered the questions MUCH more negatively than those in the Mariposa group, and the Mariposa veterans were openly startled to realize how much their answers had changed from what they would have answered "pre-Mariposa." (There weren't enough guys with disabilities who took the test to make any inferences.)

(2) A small trial group of single young adult and high school guys in Calexico who took the test answered the questions MUCH more positively than did the women with disabilities (pre-Mariposa) -- and almost uniformly so. In other words, at least conceptually they showed no serious problems with physical disabilities in this area of sexuality and attractiveness, and a very high percentage of them agreed at least somewhat with the proposition that a major physical disability could contribute to a woman's sexual attractiveness (8 of 12 did, I think). (These were almost all guys with very little contact with disabled young people.)

Interesting, don't you think? KT

 


Yes, this is very interesting. In a way, it is hard for me to believe that teenage boys could consider dating a WWD, since it was not my experience. I could not get a date in high school.

Throughout my life the men attracted to me have generally had major insecurities. So we arrived at an unstated, but implicitly understood, trade off. They would look past my disability and discover my attractiveness if I built up the weaker areas of their psyches. I accomplished my end of the bargain through personal warmth, empathy, sense of humor, kindness, meticulous grooming, careful listening, and revealing my vulnerability.

If most TAB men felt as Ken does about the inherent sensuality of WWD's, I might have had a much more exciting youth!!

 


Actually, I think there are always reasons you want to ask a girl on a date in high school (or do they still do that these days?) and reasons why not. There is much ground to cover between holding the position that a disability does not make a girl unattractive per se and may conceivably enhance her attractiveness -- a position which our questionnaire and experience suggest many young men hold (despite what young WWD's often believe) -- and taking the action, "I'm going to ask her out." (Actually there's quite a distance between, "She's pretty," and "I'm going to ask her out," even with able-bodied girls.)

Here is a little personal TAB confession that may be relevant:
I was a "good kid" in high school, and although I was well-enough liked, I always felt a little socially awkward in party and dance situations, didn't date a lot, and tended more to develop "good friendships" with girls who attracted me, rather than to push for romantic involvement.

As some of you know, a girl cane to our high school with a very special "limited edition" body, quadriplegic from polio in infancy, and she made me look at my values more closely. She was severely deformed and awkward and limited, with thick, black-rimmed glasses. She waddled down the hall lurching from side to side with her legs flopping limply and her arms swinging from her paralyzed shoulders. She fell easily and couldn't get up by herself -- and I said to myself, "I am above being influenced by superficial things like good looks, etc. I only care about the person."

However, it seemed it wasn't true. If I was honest with myself, the only girls I was reallly attracted to were, if not beauty queens, at least very "pretty" girls. That continued on into college, and it was something I didn't like about myself.

Then in college I had the chance to study for six months in Germany, and I made an unexpected discovery: I found a number of German students very attractive, even though there was no way I would have considered them "pretty" in any photographic sense.

That was the beginning of my feminist sympathies, as I realized that what attracted me were certain qualities of self-confidence and self-acceptance and certain personality traits, not the "good looks." In Germany, unlike the U. S., those qualities didn't seem to be limited only to the "pretty girls." In the U. S. "plainer" and "chubbier" and "pimplier," girls, etc. (and girls with disabilities, to be sure) had often had their self-confidence and self-acceptance destroyed by Barbie dolls and Miss America and who knows what else (except I think that was before Barbie -- make that Gidget).

Interestingly, that is more true with white Americans than with black Americans (IMHO, I know), and when I later worked a summer across the south I met a LOT of very attractive black girls with their little edge of "attitude" who also weren't "pretty" in the stereotypical sense. (In fact, in 1966, the stereotypes didn't even stretch to include black.) I believe that is because they had not yet been so bombarded by stereotyped images of black beauty -- no black Miss Americas yet.

Probably it's as you have said, there is something within most women that wants to feel good about themselves and to be attractive in their own eyes and for others, and they can only do that if they reject the mass media stereotypes that try to define and then sell you sexual attractiveness. KT

 


I really appreciate thinking about your experiences in Germany, Ken. Wow, this thread has really struck a nerve, huh? To evoke this many thoughts and feelings, we know we're dealing with a mega significant concept.

 



LD wrote "If most TAB men felt as Ken does about the inherent sensuality of WWD's, I might have had a much more exciting youth!!" I have been thinking a lot that, as well as anotherr comment she made recently about my being "weirdly empathetic" to WWD's.

My concern here is that this whole topic not come to be seen as some idiosyncratic thing of Ken's and "too bad other TAB's don't feel the same way." If that were so, there is really no point in our discussing the topic as we have.

I want to say that I am not weirdly empathetic with WWD's. I am a respecter of persons and probably empathetic by nature as well, but I am empathetic with kids, teenagers, old folks, men, women -- all sorts and classes, even the addicts and the alcoholics I took care of in jail.

What seems "weird" to Lindy is simply that I know more about WWD's and their experiences, know personally and well more WWD's, and have spent much more time considering these issues than any TAB male she has ever met (and possibly more than any PWD, male or female, she has met). Just thinking quickly back, there have been at least six post-polio disabled girls/women who have lived in our household for periods from a few weeks to two years, in addition to Mariposa and my medical practice, etc. and I have counseled in depth with several PWD's, majority women.

Living in a world where many of the TAB's around you don't have a clue, it may certainly seem a little unnerving to encounter a TAB male who knows things about your disability experiences that maybe you've never shared with anyone or sometimes didn't even know other PWD's experienced. However, I wouldn't like to think there is anything weird about it.

Next, (moving right along here...) I'm not sure I have argued (here at least) for the "inherent sensuality" of WWD's, although I may have, and I suspect there is probably some truth there for many disabilities. I would argue more for the inherent sensuality of people in interaction, I would certainly say that not only do PWD's not forfeit that inherent sensuality, in many cases their disabilities may enhance it. Some of that enhancement may be "inherent" and some may be quite intentional to counteract negative stereotypes and distancing reactions TAB's have about PWD's. When I gather up my courage to continue with the installments, you will see some suggestions I have made to WWD's about being intentional. However, I first need to address LD's perceptions that these ideas may be something uniquely (weirdly) Ken. (And she's not the only one has suggested that.)

Thirdly I want to comment on the perception that the social isolation and dating drought many WWD's experience in high school and beyond is directly related to not being sexually attractive because of one's physical disability. It's not true.

WWD's who have had social success at that age (and I have known a few) have had multiple partners and would-be partners (in succession and in competition). There was not "just one weird guy" etc. (Like the "beautiful girl" someone mentioned earlier who was very popular in high school, partly because of how much freer and more confident she felt when she stopped using her braces and went to the wheelchair.)

So much of high school social life is narcissistic: "I like you, and want to be in relationship with you, because you make me feel good about myself." Suppose that some cool, but slightly insecure, slightly shy teenage guy thinks a disabled girl in his class is really pretty, very attractive. Will he therefore ask her out? There are probably a half dozen or more reasons why perhaps not, even if he wants to.

For example, he might want to ask her out, but she can't (he assumes) dance, can't rollerblade, can't go walking on the beach, and maybe can't, or he fears might not, feel comfortable doing other things that he might ordinarily ask a girl to do. He's not sure how to handle the topic of the disability should it come up, or whether he needs to try to keep it from coming up. He's dubious about what his peers will think of him if he dates a disabled girl. If she's more seriously limited he may not be sure about transportation or even how to take her to a movie. He may be afraid she will need help and he won't know how. He may be afraid she's fragile and he might hurt her. He may worry about her feeling embarrassed about people looking at them, or worried that he will feel embarrassed by it. He may feel uncomfortable about publicly helping someone he hardly knows with personal things. Etc.

If, then, in addition the girl is self-conscious, insecure, embarrassed by her limitations or deformities, doesn't believe he could really be interested in her or find her attractive, tries not draw attention to herself, dresses in baggy, unattractive cover-up clothing, and wants everyone to pretend they don't notice she's disabled, refuses help, and makes excuses to not participate in any activity where she feels her disability might be a problem or be very evident ...

Well, maybe you can see that the fact that he thinks she is pretty and he is attracted to her may not automatically lead to an invitation to a party or the prom. And many potentially very attractive WWD's won't let themselves present themselves as attractive, and keep others from seeing them as attractive.

However, then if the invitations don't come, they often (in my experience) feel that "obviously" it's because a girl with a major disability can't really be attractive. The tragedy there, of course, is that she assumes that the one thing she absolutely can't do anything about is the one thing that keeps her on the shelf, and often it is quite the contrary. The truth is that her physical limitations may be in some ways assets to her attractiveness and there is much she can do to address the other things -- to maximize the attraction and minimize the opposing factors.

The one that drives me up the wall is when some really good guy is truly attracted to a WWD, and is showing that in all sorts of ways, and she refuses to believe it, and therefore refuses to give him a break or a chance or any encouragement. That's where I really empathize (with him)!

Those were among the issues the paper was trying to analyze. If you reread what I have sent out, I don't think you'll find a lot of questions of Ken's weird tastes or esthetics. KT


I look forward to further Attractiveness and Disability installments. Do continue sending articles. I expect that your "implied audience" [of young Latino women with disabilities] finds the subject particularly relevant to their lives.

In my experience, adolescence was a very painful time. It is for most AB's to some degree, but those of us with "unconventional" bodies get a double whammy. The series can also be a tool which leads others to understand better.

 


It sems to me that our discussion of Sexual Attractiveness and Disability is only chipping away around the edges, rather than really exploring the core issues: [i.e.] can a disabled woman be considered sexually attractive in this society? should a disabled woman want to be sexually attractive? why or why not? what are the norms of sexual attractiveness and how do they play against disabled women? how can disabled women conform to and at the same time run counter to these norms in developing their own attractiveness? how in fact can they use their disability in developing their attractiveness? is what the paper has to say on these issues right? true? meaningful? bogus? out-of-date? total BS? does it conform to my experience? does it make sense? what?--

I think we are letting Ken's unfortunate tendency [sic] to be a male TAB doctor get in the way of our perception of what he is saying, and as intelligent, supposedly unprejudiced people, I don't think we necessarily have to do this. I just wonder if he had submitted the paper under some anonymous/pseudonymous cover, if he would be getting the same reaction.

I would like to add that I would be most interested in seeing these issues taken up, articulated, and analyzed by disabled women, as I'm sure they have been. Nothing quite replaces the perspective of those immediately involved in the issues. But to say that only people exactly like myself can speak to the issues in my life or in the lives of others like me is a kind of censorship and cuts me off from what may be truly insightful stuff. (Sort of like telling Flaubert that since he wasn't a repressed woman in the French provinces, he had no right to write "Emma Bovary", or Barbara Tuchman (I think that's her name) that since she wasn't a male soldier or some historical personage in WWI, she had no right to write "The Guns of August", or Senators Boxer and Feinstein that since they aren't men or gay or disabled or Latino or whatever they aren't, they are therefore morally and intellectually incapable of representing any other interests and should only 'speak out' on middle-aged married women with children issues.) Love, JD

 


I'd be more than happy to discuss my opiinions on sexual attractiveness and disability. I don't, however, consider myself the authority on the subject. I speak for myself and hope there is a commonality. if an Asian-American woman finds it relevant, cool. if an African-American senior citizen male relates, cool.

As for separating the person from the message. we haven't even gotten to the message yet. I will subsequently. but how can one not consider the messenger? The best thoughts in the universe fall on deaf ears if the messenger isn't accepted. Personally, Ken may be the perfect messenger for the audience he is speaking to, but if he presented this to me, even when I was 20, I would have blown it off. And I know I'm not alone.

For now, understand this: nothing I said is a direct attack on Ken. I have never met Ken and only know him through this group. I have nothing against Ken. These words could be delivered by Bill Clinton, Billy Graham or Ghandi and I'd feel the same.

The whole point of the Independent Living Movement was for us to get away from these other folks speaking for and about us. Thirty years later, it still happens and it is still accepted. Not by me.

 


One WWD writes:
I'd like to see a seminar for older women on how and why do you feel good as a woman. How can you keep motivated to keep yourself attractive and feminine when there's no man in your life? And how is sexual attractiveness different for lesbian women. What priority do you give being attractive to a man when you are past the child bearing years? I have no preconceived notion of what "feminine," "attractiveness," or similar terms mean. I just think it would be fun for older disabled women to talk about it.

Another writes:
Ken, we really must speak for ourselves. For too long, we have been spoken to, about and around, and it just perpetuates the idea that we are incapable of presenting our own issues.

Now JD writes:
... most of the Chrysalis discussion of Sexual Attractiveness and Disability is, as you say, "chipping away around the edges" rather than really exploring the core issues:

can a disabled woman be considered sexually attractive in this society?
should a disabled woman want to be sexually attractive? why or why not?
what are the norms of sexual attractiveness and how do they play against disabled women?
how can disabled women conform to and at the same time run counter to these norms in developing their own attractiveness?
how in fact can they use their disability in developing their attractiveness?
is what the paper has to say on these issues right? true? meaningful? bogus? out-of-date? total BS? does it conform to my experience? does it make sense?"
These are absolutely great issues to frame the discussion. Now we're getting somewhere! Does this mean I get to sit back and learn from you all, or will I be disinvited because I can't pass the physical? (Hey, it's okay, just so long as someone makes the transcripts available for the rest of the world. ":-{)

It would be fun (and possibly incredibly valuable) to watch the discussion play out on this list except that some people seem to be angry enough (about TAB males or Barbie dolls or MD's or me or ...) such that not only are the issues not being discussed too well by people who undoubtedly would have outstanding things to say, but we may be in danger of tearing the delicate fabric of trust and mutual respect that has been important in Chrysalis for lo these many months.

As I read the posts, it seems I am accused by some of trying to speak for women with disabilities, or worse, to be defining sexual attractiveness for them and/or telling them what they should do in order to be acceptable to a sexist society.

Actually, I am speaking WITH women (and men) with disabililties and speaking FOR myself; and in this area, at least, I am usually acutely aware that what I am saying is at odds with what many have always heard and believed about themselves and sexual attractiveness -- a counter cultural message. So there have always been interesting debates and those who "blow me off" because I so clearly don't know what I'm talking about, and those who want to believe, but think maybe I'm just weird and no one else looks at women with disabilities as I do. You always have problems when you go against what "everyone knows is true." (And you always have to consider the possiblity, too, that maybe "everyone else" is right ...? Nah.)

I would love to have WWD's get together and reach out to those "lonely 15-year-old cripples," as Wade says, with some really solid, helpful, hopeful, edifying counsel and guidance about sexual attractiveness and disability in this society of commercialized sexual stereotypes. Just do it!

We have Mariposa women doing just that down here, within our limited resources. In fact, Lupita can confirm that far from my instigating this upcoming conference and signing myself up to speak, I have come along reluctantly as she and Lola and Santiago and others have put it together.

It is very important for woman with disabilities to speak healing and liberation and empowerment to each other on this issue. However, when we started out with Club ALMA and Mariposa, we couldn't have gotten two good words together on the topic from a whole roomful of WWD's, because it was an area of defeat and resignation for all of them. (I was there.)

Living as they were in a world where most of their male contacts were ABM's, it was possibly more important for them that one ABM was challenging the conventional wisdom than that a WWD would have told them the same thing. However, it doesn't really work just because some TAB says it does, until they have tried to live according to different assumptions and it works for them, and until they see some other WWD's who are obviously comfortable with their own bodies and being damn attractive in the process. It takes a village.

Peace, KT

 



My point is that there is nothing inherently sexually unattractive about people with disabilities. The problem is that there are, in our society today, two kinds of stereotypes. First, the picture of the ideal woman is one that very few women, disabled or not, can achieve. We see and hear these messages everywhere, movies TV, ads, conversations with other women, everywhere. It's not that you're weird, Ken. You're redundant. Why would any woman need to go on a weekend seminar to hear about how to be sexually attractive? I'd like one where I can get away from those messages.

The second set of stereotypes is where I believe you can be most helpful. I'm talking about the notion that disabled women can't be sexual, can't be mothers, can't go on dates. Or if they do, they can't make their partners look good. This is a big problem for blind women. Of all the disabilities one can get, blindness is certainly not the top of anyone's list. Even if you wear the right clothes, makeup, be playful, etc., this is a tough one to get past. Many of our friends and family assume that no one would have us. It's very hard not to buy into this. We can't go to movies or watch TV and see ourselves with dates, husbands, kids, or even trying to get a date.

I have had my share of relationships. I am willing to make myself attractive on someone else's terms if it's a mutually satisfying relationship and I can ask the same kinds of things of him. Mostly, though, my sexuality is for me. I try to be playful, spontaneous, sensual by looking inside myself and calling up those parts of me. I use humor, movement, writing, music, whatever appropriate way I can, to express my feminine self. If I succeed, I will be attractive to at least some other people.

 


Ken writes:
"The one that drives me up the wall is when some really good guy is really attracted to a WWD, and is showing her that in all sorts of ways, and she refuses to believe it, and therefore refuses to give him a break or a chance or any encouragement."

I almost missed meeting my husband because of that! I just knew he was going into the seminary and needed a subject for a thesis...What i would have missed! Prior to him, I'd gotten that attraction bit from too many weirdos to not be cautious. Some nice guys, too, if they were persistent enough to give me time to trust them.

Without getting into the sexual atrractiveness thing too deeply, being a mid-boomer, i had the luxury of being swept along with the sexual revolution. By that time, parties were no longer boys on one side and girls on the other. Every friend I had was a TAB, except my brother and some of his friends. We all ran together and experienced a lot of stuff most PWDs my age didn't. Since they were my "family," we didn't date each other. But I still had the exposure to the male mind, without the sexual tension. None of the women or the men in our very large circle were attracted to each other that way, all mind stuff. We had so much fun together, and spent so much time together, it was difficult to bring in an "outsider." Once in a while, someone would date, but it didn't last too long.

Since all the women were on the same level in the group, I didn't think then about whether or not I was sexually attractive. Didn't matter while I was in that circle. I still wore the make up and the "look" of the '70's politico, so I reckon I figured I was ok. The insecurity came later. Maybe it's situational.

 


I believe we need to look within ourselves, with the support of one another, to find our attractiveness.

 


This is a great thought! I totally agree. We need to support and encourage each other and see the beauty in each other. We should be first to recognize our attractiveness and the TABs will learn from us.

 


Hi, I am from Latin America, a Christian who was married with a woman who had polio and have no use of her legs. I was subscribed to this list some time ago but I couldn't read the posts until about a week ago. I found all the posts about the Sexual Attractiveness and Disability and found fascinating that it is exactly the way I felt about my wife regarding the physical attractiveness of her and finding her really beautiful WITH (and not DESPITE) her disability.

I am not longer with her but, sincerely, I would like to meet another beautiful, christian, sincere and pure (in the spiritual sense) woman with a disability so that we can share love and I can help the woman grow as herself with all her attributes, spiritual and mental, for the benefit of herself, her family and the community.

Why a woman with a disability? I found, if there are women with disabilities reading this, that you are deeper, more adapted to life, you can see the world with a filter, a very potent filter that keeps you separated from those that only see physical beauty as the standard. We, in this time and age, have lost contact with the spiritual insight of people and are first looking at the outside before entering to meet the person inside. The filter that a disabled woman (or man, but that is not for me, of course) has is powerful indeed and if you can find a man who can look beyond that from the beginning and, in addition, can also LIKE you as you are, I think its the most beautiful thing that can happen to a woman.

This, of course is not easy to accomplish since you must overcome an obstacle which is your own insecurities, also, you must believe in the sincerity of the person, like me, who is willing to know you, without any other intention than to develop a sincere relationship. If that develops into love and then marriage, that's OK, but, first, you must trust that there are people who can find you beautiful. Once you overcome that, you can become a real woman and be loved completely. You can give love, knowing that you are not being loved with but's attached. that you are loved and desired, honestly and sincerely.

In a way, I think that God created us, people who can look beyond a physical disability as a compensation. It couldn't be fair that you, the disabled woman (or man, again, that's not for me) stayed forgotten, looked up as an oddity or undesirable as a sexual being. Sex, by the way, if its used as a creative force is positive and nothing to be ashamed of. Of course if Sex is used only as an animal instinct is useful but not consequential to God's creative power in the universe.

 


Just a note from a woman with a disability. I am blissfully married to a man without disabilities. This is my first and last marriage. Prior to this, I was happily unattached, working and living in an apartment in Chicago. I was content in the knowledge that I gave and received love in its various manifestations, throughout my life. I'd long since decided that my life did not rotate around whether anyone thought me sexually attractive. In fact, I am so repulsed by the meat market that is pawned off as beauty that it offends me when I am viewed that way. In fact, it makes me suspicious.

My husband tells me and a few close others, that his life has entirely changed for the positive because of our meeting. He credits me, and the Lord, for helping him get direction in his life and setting him on the path of growth he has flourished in over the seven years of our togethering. Imagine that, a woman with a disability helping a non-crip overcome his stuff. Ain't life amazin' ? Of course, he had to be willing.

The fact is that I am not beautiful in the physical sense. But I DON'T CARE!!! I am, as we all are, quite stunning within, and this is what others find appealing. Of course I wear some make-up, dress in a way that I (and, fortunately my husband) like and all of that mundane outward stuff all people do as people (even non-human animals groom). I do it for me -- for us. If someone else notices and finds it appealing...good for them.

Most of us, I hope, are not waiting for someone to guide us into blossoms. Most of us, I assume, find/would find the company of an appropriate significant other a bonus in an already fulfilling life. But I can't imagine anyone of us here feeling that only the love of a man -- disabled or not -- will make us discover our own sexual sense. I think here we're all quite sensible.

Although you pay us a great compliment with your notion that somehow our disabilities grant us a special take on life, with all due respect, that is a very broad, and very unjustified generalization. Since i've always had my disability, I'd like to think that my view on life was colored by my upbringing, my relationships and life experiences and friends with and without disabilities. Until recently, I've had close relationships with only three other wwd's -- basically because we would have been friends were we not disabled. Not everyone with a disability thinks the same. Oddly, these three women were very different from each other. Two had my disability and one was a quad at age 13. She was the one i was closest to, yet she was not suddenly endowed with a new look at life at the moment her neck broke. She was who she was and she took it from there.

I hope you find what you are looking for. There are wonderful non-disabled women out there, too, who need what you have to offer.

 


Thank you for your response, very sincere. I relate to it and understand all of your thoughts. I am very glad that you find yourself extremely beautiful inside. That's where real beauty exists. I don't deny that and, believe me, that's where I want to find beauty. Remember that physical beauty is indeed perishable. The only beauty that remains is the one inside. I know that there a lots of able bodied woman, nice and beautiful inside also, and I am not reverse prejudiced on this neither. I just wanted to give you, the disabled women, something to feel good about.

 


Wow, what an eloquent, insightful response to our Latin American friend!! There is no way you could have said that better. I felt we should respond but did not know where to begin.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

 


I too was fascinated by the post, with its passion and gallantry as befits his Latino roots, and by your gracious reply, very eloquent and insightful, and there are several comments that are jostling for uppermost in my head.

One regards a concern I have in the whole "Female Sexual Attractiveness and Disability," discussion. There is a point that I haven't yet successfully made, or maybe it just keeps getting overwhelmed in the "meat market" mentality -- the commercialization of sexual attractiveness -- which conditions all our responses.

Who was it who said, "Maybe beauty is only skin deep, but who wants a beautiful liver anyway?" However, at the heart of what I am trying to say is that the dichotomy between inner beauty and outer beauty is part of The Lie. It is the merchandisers who lead us to believe in the primacy of "outer beauty" and flawlessness in determining attractiveness. After all, how do you market "inner beauty?"

At the heart of the Sexual Attractiveness paper are several basic premises(?). (I can't spell "corrollaries," so I'll go with premises.) Maybe the key one is that sexual attractiveness actually has little to do with "superficial" and stereotypical physical beauty. What I think confuses people somewhat as they read that stuff is the attention I give to physical things such as appearance, grooming, dress, etc. because they are nevertheless important non-verbal communication.

Because major disabilities are their own potent (albeit inadvertent) non-verbal communication ("body language"), I am arguing there that PWD's are well-served to pay attention to the vertent (or is it "advertent") things they can do to communicate their positive messages and "sell themselves" to those they would influence.

This doesn't apply to all, but as I look around the community at large, I see too many people with disabilities whose look and dress and demeanor seem to communicate, "I know I'm unattractive and disabled, but down inside maybe I would be worth getting to know." Or women made-up to the hilt but wearing dark blue sweat suits, communicating, "Please look at my face, which is okay, and not at my body, which isn't." Or PWD's in so many ways trying to be inconspicuous and staying on the margins or in the corners, communicating, "Please don't look at me at all, because I'm not what I want to be."

For every Chrysalite or Mariposa out there (in community) who says, "Don't offend me by telling me you 'don't even think of me as disabled,' and thereby discounting a central part of my identity and experience," there are dozens out there (in isolation) whose fervent plea is, "Don't consider my disability. I just want you to look at me as no different from anyone else, because I feel that being disabled is less worthy and unattractive and undesireable. I want to be completely identified only with you able-bodied people."

There's a lot of pain out there (and a lot of unnecessary unattractiveness) because people believe that sexual attractiveness is a meat market or a beauty pageant and a physical disability disqualifies you.

Our friend's gallant desire "to give you, the disabled women, something to feel good about," is a much more offensive statement than he might guess from his personal experiences with disabled women in Latin America, and without experiences with WWD's in communities like Mariposa or the Resourceful Women of Chicago or even Chrysalis. However, I know where he is coming from because I can still remember my own feelings when my adolescent friend couldn't comprehend or accept how beautiful I knew she was, and how much more, rather than less, worthy and interesting and complex she was compared to most of our peers. You really want to say, "It isn't like that. You really should feel good about yourself. You're beautiful," and if you care about the person, you would love to do something to help them believe it.

Enough for now (and hopefully not too much). Yours, KT

 


 

 

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