Erasing Agency: Entitlement, Disability, and the American Church

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[content note: ableism, sexual assault] 

I am an able-bodied person. I have no issues with moving around in public spaces and I process complex and abstract thoughts in ways that are accepted by society as intelligent. Though I suffer from anxiety and depression, low doses of medication have been successful in taking the edge off and helping me to function as I did before these disorders became a problem.

My older brother has Down Syndrome. He can read and write and do basic math, but often cannot process more abstract thought. Down’s also carries with it a number of physical and psychological issues – he has heart problems, and obsessive compulsive disorder. He lives on his own, decides what groceries to buy, cooks for himself, and does housework (when he wants to). He has a paying job, rides the bus by himself, and is able to problem-solve when his routine changes. He is a capable adult.

My mother has a disability as the result of illness. She walks with a cane and loses energy quickly. Sometimes she suffers from dizzy spells that make it hard for her to see – as a result, she hasn’t driven in over a year. She has good days and bad, and is on 13 different medications to stem the progressive tide of this illness. It’s a hard journey.

You could say that disability has had a deep impact on my life. From a young age, I learned that “politically incorrect” was an excuse jerks used so they could call my brother a "retard" in public. I volunteered with Special Olympics and met people from across the disability spectrum.

Despite these experiences, I don't speak about disability very often. Why? Because people with disabilities are human beings, with agency, autonomy, and the right to express themselves, and I don't want to stand in their way. Even though my life experience and my closeness to the topic of disability would be a credential to many people, I’ve been witness to far too much dehumanization to want to speak when their voices are better positioned than I. When I do speak, I try to approach it from a perspective where my privilege as an able-bodied person is acknowledged and understood.

Perhaps Ashley Moore of the CT Women’s Blog Her.menutics could do to learn the same lesson. Indeed, in discussing the concept of sexual surrogates for people with disabilities, Moore seems utterly unfamiliar with the world of disability. She erases the agency and autonomy of people with disabilities, ignores their words, denies their experiences, and pretends their needs can and should be tempered because JESUS.

Moore's article is prompted by a recent film The Sessions, which tells the story of a relationship between a sexual surrogate and a man with disabilities. In thinking on this topic, Moore comes to the conclusion that this kind of sex is outside of "God's plan" (because, as she writes, "sex is made for bonding (and babies)."). Therefore, people with disabilities, faced with their sexual needs and the prospect (as Moore casts it, a seeming inevitability) of a life of never marrying, should simply remain celibate. She writes in her conclusion:

Those who are facing a life without marriage and sex, for whatever the reason, are just like the rest of us. And that's why there's no catch-all, pat answer. But I do know this: love isn't a therapy you pay for. We weren't created to be surrogates; stand-ins for love. Christ paid dearly so that love could be free.

While I doubt this is what she meant, Moore's underlying implication is that people who are disabled are probably never going to marry - it casts disability as a trait that somehow naturally leads to lifelong singleness. This is a cruel, dehumanizing conclusion to draw, made even worse by the fact that Moore felt qualified to write on the subject at all. 

There’s a strain of entitlement that is virulent in American Christianity, and it never comes out more clearly than when able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual Christians feel the call to pontificate on matters of disability. Sex that was a marital requirement the week before suddenly becomes an unnecessary distraction, because Jesus didn’t have sex!* Sexual desires suddenly become less powerful (and less necessary) when a less-than-desirable person experiences them. It is, essentially, the “OMG EW” response.

Entitlement is the only way to describe why we get an article about the practice of sexual surrogacy for some people with disabilities that contains the paragraph:

I know—it's easy for me to say. I'm only in my mid-20s, and my odds of living a celibate life are pretty low. It's an odd, uncomfortable thing to point out the "rules" in God's word for people in a situation I will probably never find myself in. Telling anyone that celibacy seems like the best Biblical model makes me feel uncomfortable, and a teensy bit nauseous. I feel like the pastor from the tiny town in Footloose, before Kevin Bacon comes to town.

Why, then, is she even opening her word processor? At what point did American Christians become so entitled that we actively and knowingly speak on topics to which we are fundamentally unqualified to discuss? Have we taken “Jesus as the answer” so far that we offer responses to experiences we will probably never have, and have no business lecturing people on?

Don’t answer that. Of course we have. That's why we have straight, cis Christians telling non-hetero folk to “just be celibate!”

These sorts of essays and articles, wherein a member of a privileged group lectures people of an oppressed group on how to live life, are less about the oppressed group and more about assuaging the discomfort of the privileged. Particularly on the topic of sexuality and persons with disabilities, the privileged person doesn’t like to think of that wheelchair-using woman or that mentally handicapped man as having the capacity to make a decision to have sex, to understand their bodies, and to find ways to satisfy that need. This is the foul compost pile from which rotten entitlement springs – a desire to soothe one’s own discomfort with people’s lived differences and experiences.

The privileged become so entrapped by their own discomfort and entitlement that they end up dehumanizing the very people they are supposedly trying to guide. Moore bases her piece and her conclusions off a fictionalized movie and a New York Times interview. She appears not to have spoken to any persons with disabilities directly, and instead used a vague conclusion from one interview to map God’s rules onto an entire populace. Not only is this poor logic, it’s poor treatment of actual human beings.

So, how can the privileged talk about disability and sex? By talking about the 80% of persons with disabilities who will experience sexual assault at some point in their lifetime. By advocating for victim services to address the issues of assault within the disabled community and provide adequate resources that address their specific needs. By realizing that consent is a thing people with disabilities are capable of and not revoking their right to it simply on the basis of their disability. By realizing that sexuality and sexual experiences are complex and that this fact is not negated by the presence of a disability.

By, essentially, treating people with disabilities as the human beings they are.

Pieces like Moore’s contribute to a culture in which people with disabilities are viewed as sexless, androgynous beings without autonomy or agency. They contribute to a rape culture in which denying oneself replaces an ethical, healthy approach to sexuality. They contribute to a dehumanizing attitude in which people with disabilities are viewed as so undesireable that their only choices are prostitutes or celibacy. They contribute to a world in which people with disabilities are silenced, ignored, and erased. And that’s downright dangerous.

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*Never mind that there are several years of his life unaccounted for.