A Conversation with Bethany Stevens on Disability, Sexuality, and Technology
How has technology changed the sex lives of people with disabilities? We asked Bethany Stevens, a wheelchair-using queer sociologist and doctoral student at Georgia State University. Bethany is also the creator of CripConfessions, a blog that often explores the intersection of disability and sexuality.
How have digital technologies changed the sex lives of people who identify as disabled?
Well, it’s important to start by stating that I cannot speak for all of those who live with disabilities. I am just a wheelchair-using person who has studied this for over a decade and wandered around talking to many disabled people about sexuality and sexual health.
So with that out the way: the internet has opened up so much social space, it’s remarkable. Disabled people have so many robust points of meeting on the web. One wonderful project is the Disability Visibility Project by Alice Wong, which is a fantastic example of how social media has created a source of community building through sharing information and connecting those who have disparate identities. She’s one of the many rockstars I consider friends, largely through our internet interactions. She was featured at the White House through a wheeling telepresence robot—she’s just that badass. I also created a project on Facebook called This is What Disability Looks Like, which shows the myriad permutations of disabled people.
The spread of knowledge about disability news and affirmations of disability identity via social media have produced profound shifts in my life. I wish I had the mental and physical support as a teenager in the 1990s that I have on the web now. I consider so many people my family that I have never met in person but have known for years. I’ve found intellectual stimulation and resources, as well as validation and camaraderie through social media. My chosen family has swelled in the past decade.
Could you give us some examples from your own life?
I would be remiss if i did not tell the story of meeting my wife on Craigslist in 2009. It is so humorous that we met each other on the bathroom wall of the internet. I was seeking intellectual intercourse, and her friend found the ad and made her write me.
Online dating has been really useful for me, as it allows people to meet more than just my body right away. In many social settings, I am not read as a sexual being because I use a wheelchair. It’s a weird sedimented idea that people have around those of us with disabilities. Online dating allows for more chat up front, and it certainly weeds out the jerks who cannot handle disability in the first place. That is a kickass benefit of disability: it’s a good vetting tool.
But do the disabilities themselves still create obstacles to internet access?
This is tricky, as access is still quite uneven on the web. For many folks with sight, hearing, cognitive, and physical disabilities, the web continues to present barriers. It is particularly troubling when federal or state websites do not conform to the law mandating access to the web, which is the Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Often the most flagrant violators are universities and department sites that provide information on rights for people with disabilities.
What tools are available to help people with disabilities explore their sexuality online? Which ones do you like and dislike, and which do you wish existed?
Teledildonics is a whole area that I find fascinating. Allowing people to engage with sex toys at a distance from each other is brilliant and creates the ability to have long- distance relationships while remaining sexually satisfied.
There are all sorts of exciting new sex toys. One of my favorites is the Womanizer and all of its knockoffs. Instead of pure vibration, this little number effectively sucks on the clitoris. It is a thriller, one that can lead to a clitoral orgasm in minutes—plus it is virtually hands free (an access bonus). I am always reading up on the best tools.
To pull back a bit, what even is sex? How do you define it?
To be completely honest and thereby absolutely absurd, I use the Bill Clinton definition of sex in my personal life. But as a sex educator, I teach a much broader, more inclusive version. I am committed to teaching people about the spectrum of genders and sexual expressions that are available for us all to enjoy. One of my favorite pedagogical activities is teaching students what they can learn about their sex lives from disabled people—focusing quite a bit on the importance of communication, negotiation, lubrication, and intentional breathing.
Generally, I teach from Barbara Carrellas’ book Urban Tantra (2007) on specific types of breath, encouraging students to close their eyes and focus on their bodies. Over several years of perverting the minds of youth through sexual health lessons, my favorite experience was when a soon-to-be law graduate said he felt his penis tingling after the exercise. That kind of thing gives me so much joy it could almost go into my teaching definition of sex. It’s so broad, and it touches all aspects of life from the womb to the tomb.
In my personal life, I prefer to think about sex as genital contact with some kind of emphasis on connection. That is all blurry, and reminiscent of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” I recognize that I am ridiculous, and I like it.
How do we define which parts of a body are sexual or capable of sex?
That depends on who the “we” is. It depends on a person’s sitpoint. In feminist theory there is the notion of standpoint—that one’s experience inevitably shapes their view of the world, and that being honest about identity and subjectivity actually strengthens research rather than biasing it.
Sex is so subjective. It has taken me years to stop using the term “asexual” to describe the social stigma around disability and sexuality, in which many of us with visibly apparent disabilities are considered “desexual” or lacking sexual interest. This shift in my understanding has come through knowing and learning from my asexual disabled comrades.
But every body part can be the hot spot. When I teach, I enjoy the practice of doing a pleasure blueprint. In essence, this entails going over the body of a lover and learning the topography of pleasure. Using different types of touch, tools (feathers to floggers), and pressure on the entire body yields wonderful results. So often we get caught up in genital-focused sex and do not realize the pleasure capacity of the entire body. After encouraging students to do this, I’ve discovered that people find the back of the knees or elbows particularly sensual. I really enjoy being bitten on my shoulders.
It’s a beautiful process to consider how the genitals do not need to be the focus of sex, particularly as the body ages and changes in sensate capacity. One of the leaders in my thought in this area is Rafe Biggs of the organization Sexability, who has talked about his sex life after a spinal cord injury. He speaks about how he can achieve an orgasm through the sucking of his thumb alone! I am married and monogamous but damn did I want to suck his thumb! The bodymind—the intersecting and connectedness of the body and mind—is truly powerful if we give ourselves the freedom to explore it.
Can you speak to that freedom a little bit? How do we find it? What are the forces that constrain it?
We are socialized to be sexually silent, yet saturated with sexual expression. There is no real middle ground. There is so much sexual shame in US culture—it’s just sad. It also means that people like me, who dare to speak of sex professionally, are so desperately needed and frequently denigrated for being “perverse”—which truly should be read as a compliment. In my own sexual life, I found that being able to speak to my needs really changed my pleasure intake. Once I had the hutzpah to finally demand what I wanted, I had such better sex.
That is one of the most important lessons I try to teach people: say what you want so you can get it! I encourage folks to talk in the mirror and just start saying whatever they deem “uncomfortable words”—take the shock out of your voice through immersion. Going in deep helps the pleasure be more expansive.
Who gets to be sexual in our society? Whose sexuality is seen, and whose is not?
It’s similar to the idea of human rights. We can ask, who is human enough for human rights?
For the most part, those with disabled bodies or minds tend to be seen as outside the realm of normal or human. We face countless microaggressions, we are subject to violence (including murder) most often from those who “care” for us, and we experience tremendous levels of sexual and other violence. Like on Daria but not a cool way, it’s a sick sad world when it comes to the sexual understanding of disabled people.
Most of us are not seen as socially valuable, fuckable, or lovable. When people partner with us, they are questioned as either being pathological with disability fetishes or as saviors for giving up on their lives to be with us. More common is our lovers being read as caregivers or siblings. It’s a gross process that we have to go through.
Every single body is capable of and worthy of sexual expression and activity. Opening our minds about the confines of sex is the tool to understanding how we all can engage in pleasure giving and receiving. Thinking outside the box can help us get past the cultural garbage dumped all over our bodies and minds.