Rethinking Disability and Sexuality

Poster Session Presenters: Stephen Gilson, Ph.D. & Elizabeth DePoy, Ph.D., University of Maine Center for Community Inclusion & Disability Studies

Sexuality of individuals with disabilities has become a distinct field of inquiry, theory and clinical practice, based on the assumption that disabled sexuality is different from and outside of the range of typical sexuality. Building on progressive notions of diversity, this poster supports the inclusion of disabled sexuality within the larger discussion of human sexual diversity.

Essential Definitions


  • Erotic desires, practices and identities
  • Personal preference and self-determination
  • Sexual behavior, identity, and orientation (aggregated)


  • Through the lens of Explanatory Legitimacy: A value judgment of categorization and response based on the explanation for “atypicality” (DePoy & Gilson, 2004, 2005)
  • An element of human diversity (DePoy & Gilson, 2006)

Three categories of literature on disability & sexuality

Functional focus

  • Medicalization of sexual function
  • Training and treatment to “normalize” physiological function—erection, orgasm
  • Sex therapy
  • Sexual education—“how to have sex” is the province of professionals
  • Based in nomothetic inquiry

Discrimination focus

  • Disabled people have been denied access to sexual information, education, opportunity, and sexual attention
  • Pejorative stereotypes and attitudes
  • Negative, asexual images related to atypical bodies
  • Exclusionary practices
  • Based in theory (both tested and untested) and mixed methods of inquiry

Sexual Access focus

  • The degree to which disabled people have been able to negotiate both logistical and sociocultural factors in their pursuit of satisfying sexual expression.
  • What resources, policies, and practices should be enacted, for whom, and by whom in order to level the sexual playing field (e.g., sexual surrogate)?
  • Based in ideology

Verifiable claims regarding sexuality & disability

  • Historically, many people with cognitive impairments have experienced profound sexual oppression
  • Attitudes about the sexuality of atypical bodies are often negative and asexual
  • Functional sex education and rehabilitation have been riddled with male gender and heterosexist bias
  • Access to sex education has been limited for populations such as those with mental retardation, people who cannot see, people who cannot hear, and some others

Claims that are not verifiable regarding sexuality & disability

  • All medically disabled people experience sexual oppression
  • All members of the disability community have a unique sexuality, distinct from the sexual diversity of non-disabled counterparts
  • The social/political range of exclusionary and oppressive experiences of disability category members is shared and unique
  • For atypical learners, access to sexual education was more limited than access to other educational domains (P.L. 94-142 was not passed until 1975)
  • Current trends that limit access to sexual education are different for medically disabled students than for all students

Major dilemmas in current thinking on disability & sexuality

  • Conceptual quagmire
    • Disability: discussing the “social model” of disability through embodied definitions of disability
    • Sexuality: the vague meaning of sexuality-gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity
  • Euphemism
    • Disability means atypical bodies and atypical cognition
  • • Unsubstantiated identity politic assumptions that sexuality (regardless of the definitional perspective) is different for people with disabled bodies than for anyone else
  • Fear of diluting disability privilege and attention maintains victimization status
  • Joining the larger human diversity agenda refocuses the conversation and responses away from the disability—specific political agenda
  • Essentialist thinking regarding sexuality and disability:
    • Perpetuates myth that guides desired affirmative and long-term responses
    • Removes discussion, analysis, and promotion of “disability sexuality” from the diversity of sexuality theory and research relevant to all people
    • Creates sexual ghettos for atypical bodies
    • Progressive, substantiated disability theory and research do not inform progressive, local responses
  • Removes discussion, analysis and promotion of “disability sexuality” from the diversity of sexuality relevant to all people
  • Disability sexuality as embodied runs counter to the liberating definition of sexual identity and orientation defined as comfort as a member of a particular gendered group
  • Removes disability sexuality from the 400 different sexual to fit all people
  • Removes discussion, analysis and promotion of “disability sexuality” from the diversity of sexuality theory and research relevant to all people
  • Embodied and vague notions of sexuality mediate against a contemporary understanding of sexual behavior, orientation, and identity as complex sets of social, political, economic, and religious symbols, practices, and mores


  • Temporary affirmative strategies need to be in place but need constant re-examination and revision
  • Locate discussions of and responses to disability sexuality within the larger contemporary rubric of sexual diversity

Selected scholarly support for this presentation

DePoy, E., & Gilson, S. (2007). The Human Experience: Description, Explanation, and Judgment. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.

DePoy, E., & Gilson, S. (2004). Rethinking Disability: Explanatory Legitimacy. Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth.

DePoy, E., & Gitlin, L. (1994, 1998, 2005). Introduction to research-—Epistemic approach, mixed methods. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.

Gilson, S., & DePoy, E. (2006). Moving beyond nomothetic category: Diversity as symmetry. International Journal of the Humanities, 4. Retrieved February 15, 2007 from