GAELYNN LEA

Eros and One-Dimensionality: An Application of Critical Theory to the Lives of Women with Physical Disabilities

“People with physical disabilities are stereotyped as asexual, as lacking the same sexual and relationship needs and desires as non-disabled people. Yet people with disabilities are human beings… and thus sexual beings with the same capacity to love and be loved as any other human.” (Chance, September 2002)

INTRODUCTION: The quality of life for citizens with physical disabilities in this nation has improved dramatically over the past century, especially in the realm of social interaction. Much of the advancement is due to the relatively recent intervention of the federal government to assure this minority the same rights as other citizens. In 1935, the Social Security Act was passed, which provided assistance to blind individuals and disabled children. In 1960, the Social Security Amendments allowed disabled workers of any adult age to receive insurance benefits. In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act was passed, which gave the disabled equal access to federally-funded programs. In 1975, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act was passed, which required free and appropriate public education to all handicapped children. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed—this important piece of legislation provided comprehensive civil rights to people with disabilities, including the right to be reasonably accommodated in the workplace and the right to accessible public transportation. (Francis, 2000) Needless to say, one should not overlook the tremendous successes of the Disability Rights movement—a large amount of effort was put forth in this field to achieve significant and lasting results.

This story of increasing government intervention is not, however, the whole story; the minority at hand must continue to deal with oppression of a different kind. People with disabilities are still widely viewed as asexual beings, and the implications of this stereotype are serious and far-reaching. In fact, “many people with disabilities consider sexuality to be the area of greatest oppression.” (Traustadottir, July 1990) But what can be done about this remaining obstacle to a whole and fulfilling life? The government obviously cannot mandate that its able-bodied citizens find their physically-disabled neighbors attractive. Clearly, the solution lies elsewhere.

In the following paper, I will propose that applied critical theory can be used to diagnose and treat the sexual difficulties which face women with physical disabilities in modern society.

Throughout my essay, I am going to focus on physically disabled women. I decided to narrow my analysis to this topic exclusively for several reasons. First, being a woman myself, I am familiar with that gendered experience—the last thing I want to do is misrepresent another minority – such as physically disabled men, or people with developmental or mental health disabilities – groups which already must to work to clear up existing stereotypes. Furthermore, I believe a discussion of physically disabled women will prove to be especially fruitful in light of critical theory. In a one-dimensional society, all women are expected to conform to manufactured standards of beauty, which I will discuss later in my paper—it is only necessary to state here that women are particularly targeted on issues of sexuality in a one-dimensional society.

Concerned readers should comfort themselves in knowing that even though this current discussion will be limited to a specific population, I am confident that its conclusions will ultimately be relevant to a much wider audience. In fact, by demonstrating the application of critical theory to contemporary society in this way, I hope that my paper will spark dialogue and debate, and that a liberation of Eros for all will eventually follow.

I am a woman with a moderate physical disability, so this topic is obviously rather important to me. I know from experience that the liberation of Eros for physically disabled women involves much more than the freedom to have sex. Most likely this is because feelings of sexual inadequacy and low body esteem are drilled into physically disabled girls from the youngest of ages onward in a one-dimensional society. These girls will eventually become women; despite themselves they will no doubt internalize the “appropriateness” of the asexual stereotype. Thus, it is important to remember that sexual experience in and of itself cannot erase a lifetime of psychological conditioning.

That is why a great deal of work will be necessary in order to truly liberate the Eros of physically disabled women. But I honestly believe that critical theory can help these women on their journey to emancipation—perhaps others, too, will realize that this freedom is available to anyone who can see through the fog of one-dimensionality. My greatest hope is that this essay can contribute to the growing discussion and awareness of the often-overlooked needs of women with physical disabilities, and of all human beings.

PART ONE: “It is widely documented that women with disabilities are typically seen as asexual. This is true of society in general as well as of most professionals with whom women with disabilities come into contact… At least part of this stereotyping stems from seeing people with disabilities as eternal children. Others… without disabilities tend to view sex as an acrobatic activity which makes it difficult for them to imagine how people with physical impairments can be sexually active.” (Traustadottir, July 1990) The perception of physically disabled women as asexual certainly has its consequences. For example, “in the contemporary United States, to be perceived as physically attractive is to be socially and sexually desirable. As a result of their invalidated condition, women… with disabilities are constrained in their opportunities to nurture and to be nurtured, to love and be loved, and to become parents if they so desire… Writer Susan Hannaford explains, ‘I discovered on becoming officially defined as disabled that I lost my previous identity as a sexually attractive being.’ …women are four times as likely as men to divorce after developing a disability, and only one-third to one-fourth as likely [as men] to marry.” (Gerschick, 1266)

What happens psychologically when society does not allow a physically disabled woman to fulfill her sexual roles? After all, one cannot simply shut off natural desires simply because they are not being satisfied—certainly not without a great deal of effort. Martha Nussbaum states that this trait actually defines humanness: “It is characteristic of human life to prefer… sexual desire and its satisfaction to a life with neither desire or satisfaction.” (Nussbaum, 80)

Not surprisingly, however, the effects of continuous social invalidation of one’s sexuality and the lack of physical and emotional satisfaction that often accompany a physical disability are far from positive. In fact, a study of both the physically disabled and the able-bodied which investigated the association between sexuality and psychological well-being in people with physical disabilities revealed that “sexual esteem, body esteem, and sexual satisfaction were strong predictors of self-esteem and depression among people with physical disabilities, and that this relationship was stronger among people with physical disabilities than the able-bodied participants… The results of the study suggest that researchers and clinicians [and critical theorists!] who are concerned with the psychological health of people with physical disabilities should consider strategies to improve the body esteem and sexual well-being of people with physical disabilities.” (Teleporos, 177)

It hardly needs repeating that sexual repression often has negative effects on women with physical disabilities. However, did critical theorists and their predecessors have anything to say on the matter? Surprisingly, they did indeed. Sigmund Freud, a psychoanalyst who sparked the revolution of critical theory decades later, was aware of the detrimental effects of sexual repression at the turn of the century. “[It] is well known, [that] temptations are merely increased by constant frustration, whereas an occasional satisfaction of them causes them to diminish, at least for the time being.” (Freud, 87)

The writings of Freud on sexual repression are particularly interesting one reads them in the context of physically disabled women. Whereas “sexual freedom” has long since been attained for many groups of people, arguably even the homosexual community, there is still the unspoken consensus that the disabled are taboo in terms of sexuality. Thus one must read Freud’s words with a keen eye, realizing that much of what he had to say about sexual repression almost one hundred years ago still applies to people with physical disabilities today:

“As regards to the sexually mature individual, the choice of an object is restricted to the opposite sex, and most extra-genital satisfactions are forbidden as perversions. The requirement, demonstrated in these prohibitions, that there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone, disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes the source of serious injustice… But heterosexual genital love… is itself restricted by further limitations, in the shape of insistence upon legitimacy and monogamy. Present-day civilization makes it plain that it will only permit sexual relationships on the basis of a solitary, indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, and that it does not like sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right and is only prepared to tolerate it because there is so far no substitute for it as a means of propagating the human race. This, of course, is an extreme picture… But we must not err… and assume that, because [society] does not achieve all its aims [in regards to repressing sexuality], that such an attitude on the part of society is entirely innocuous. The sexual life of civilized man is… severely impaired… One is probably justified in assuming that its importance as a source of feelings of happiness, and therefore in the fulfillment of our aim in life, has sensibly diminished.” (Freud, 60-1)

Despite the fact that our society witnessed the so-called “sexual revolution”, sexual intercourse is generally still focused on the genitals and looks toward the ultimate end of procreation. For a woman with a spinal cord injury, however, genitally focused intercourse may not be particularly enjoyable—in fact, she may not even be able to feel it at all. What’s more, this same woman may not be physically able to give birth to a child or may choose not to procreate for other reasons related to her disability. Does this woman, who cannot participate in sexual intercourse as it is defined and accepted by our society, automatically cease to desire physical and emotional connections simply because of her disability? Certainly not—yet this is indeed the message society conveys today, inadvertently or not, when it handles the subject of sexuality. We can see that Freud certainly had a sharp eye and a great deal of foresight when he wrote about sexual repression and its effects on human beings.

Years later, Herbert Marcuse also dealt with the issues of sexuality and repression in his book, Eros and Civilization, which just happened to be an analysis of Freud’s writings. Marcuse claims that repression now reaches even further heights in contemporary society than it did when Freud was writing. After all, in Freud’s time, “the suppression and control of sexuality was still achieved by means of moral and legalistic prohibitions and by rigidly defining and causing the introjection of the accepted channels of ‘legitimate’ sexuality… The result of such ‘surplus-repression’ was the sublimation of the sexual instincts beyond the capacity for sublimation, and the perpetuation of a particular society with its repressive performance principle at the expense of the health and relative happiness of the individual. For Marcuse… the repression continues today; but it is created and reinforced by the new dynamic of advanced industrial society.” (Ober, 109) This new dynamic, in so many words, is modern capitalism. Beauty, Marcuse argues, is advertised for profit and is consequently standardized in what has become a one-dimensional society. The effects of this capitalistic dynamic are powerful and can be devastating. “The inevitable failure to match the standards set by the commercial sex idols and ideology leads to enormous profits for the cosmetic and other industries; and it also leads to both a variety of sexual malfunctions, such as frustration and increased aggressiveness, in the continual public and private competition with the idols who serve as ego-ideals, and at the same time to passive resignation and shame which leave the individual more susceptible to that which is offered.” (Ober, 125)

The amazing thing which one must remember is that these critical theorists weren’t even writing to or about a physically-disabled population. However, their writings can easily be applied to this group of citizens. Just think, how can women with deformed limbs, for example, ever hope to even remotely resemble their able-bodied “role models” on the covers of Cosmopolitan magazines? It seems to be a worthless pursuit, does it not? Thus, one begins to wonder if physically disabled women must simply relinquish their wishes of being sexually appealing to anyone in order to achieve some sort of emotional protection in this profit-driven, materialistic society.

At least this much is clear so far—our society is trapped by the controlling power of capitalism and one-dimensionality. Furthermore, this imprisonment has negative effects on many of its citizens, physically-disabled women included. Is there any way out?

PART TWO: It seems we have dug ourselves into a rut in the previous section, so we shall leave it be for a bit and switch to another topic—Utopia. After all, as every famed and aspiring critical theorist alike is bound to do, Marcuse wrote about his version utopia—a society in which Eros is truly liberated. What is most interesting to us about his description, however, is how it is quite easy to imagine how physically disabled women would fit into this scheme. Martha Nussbaum would thus certainly approve of Marcuse’s social model, as do I: “A commitment to bringing all human beings across a certain threshold of capability to choose represents a certain sort of commitment to equality: for the view treats all persons as equal bearers of human claims, no matter where they are starting from in terms of circumstances.” (Nussbaum, 86)

In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse discusses the possibility of living in a rationally-organized, fully developed industrial society after the conquest of scarcity:

“Instinctual development would be non-repressive in the sense that at least the surplus-repression necessitated by the interests of domination would not be imposed upon the instincts. The quality would reflect the prevalent satisfaction of the basic human needs… sexual as well as social: food, housing, clothing, leisure. This satisfaction would be… without toil—that is, without the rule of alienated labor over the human existence… Under the ‘ideal’ conditions of mature industrial civilization, alienation would be completed by general automatization of labor, the reduction of labor time to a bare minimum, and exchangeability of functions…the reduction of the working day to a point where the mere quantum of labor time no longer arrests human development is the first prerequisite to freedom…Beyond the rule of this [performance] principle, the level of living would be measured by other criteria [besides material goods]: the universal gratification of the basic human needs, and the freedom from guilt and fear—internal as well as external, instinctual as well as ‘rational’…this is the definition of progress beyond the rule of the performance principle.” (Marcuse, 152-3)

What exactly does Marcuse’s liberated society look like for physically disabled women? First of all, it involves the absence of scarcity. This means that blind women would be able to obtain seeing-eye dogs, paraplegics could have access to functioning wheelchairs, and those with diabetes would be able to receive the appropriate medications at a reasonable cost. In short, everyone’s physical needs would be met.

Furthermore, there would be a noticeable de-emphasis on work; and whatever work was still necessary would be easier and take less time to complete, as it would be automated. Marcuse believes that this shift in priorities is essential because then there could be more time for the expenditure of Eros, which consists primarily of creative and libidinal energy. It should be noted that the release of Eros is not simply the participation in sexual acts—although this is of course a part of it; rather, Marcuse believed that “emancipation from surplus-repression requires far more than the unhampered release of private desires and hostilities in private and public.” (Ober, 114) Therefore, only the liberation of Eros in its completeness would truly lead to a happier and healthier society.

This shift in societal priorities from work to automated labor and increased time for leisure would also be ideal for physically disabled women. After all, currently only 24% of women with disabilities participate in the workforce. (Traustadottir, July 1990) This means that over three-fourths of disabled women cannot relate to what is a large part of life for many of their able-bodied counterparts; this in itself is a source of isolation. Furthermore, many disabled women lack physical strength, stamina, and mobility; such deprivations automatically limit their job options. If work was easier and took less time (again, automated), then perhaps more physically disabled women could fill this social role with greater success. Finally, if there was indeed more leisure time due to a de-emphasis of work, physically disabled women would be more sustained in their creative pursuits—there would surely be an abundance of socially-endorsed and publicly-supported creative and intellectual opportunities through which they could explore their otherwise untapped libidinal energy.

The last difference between contemporary reality and Marcuse’s vision of liberation that concerns us in this paper is that sexual needs could and would be met in the absence of domination. What does this entail for the physically disabled woman? First, it means that sex would not be dictated in any way by capitalist advertisements—gone would be “sex tips” from Cosmo and various talk shows espousing advice on how to give better orgasms. People would be free to figure these things out for themselves. Eventually, this absence of domination in sexuality would lead to the decrease of that previously-recognized distinction between “normal” and “perverse” human sexual behavior. This would indeed be an extremely liberating change for the physically disabled woman—she would finally be free to partake in sexual intercourse in any way that worked for her and it would no longer be viewed as “abnormal”. Extra-genital acts and sex without ever intending to procreate would both be completely accepted.

Because sexual intercourse is currently widely depicted, categorized, and normalized by our one-dimensional society, there are many unnecessarily-held notions about sex which discourage people from including physically disabled women in their schema of sexuality. As mentioned earlier, “stereotyping stems from seeing people with disabilities as eternal children. Others… without disabilities tend to view sex as an acrobatic activity which makes it difficult for them to imagine how people with physical impairments can be sexually active.” (Traustadottir, July 1990) Both of these conceptions are false and would likely not even be an issue in Marcuse’s liberated society.

Although it is probably not possible that contemporary society as we know it could successfully make the great leap to liberation in the very near future, it is nonetheless important to at least be aware of the possibilities that do indeed exist for women with disabilities in regard to sexuality specifically and Eros in general.

PART THREE: The third and final portion of this paper is dedicated to bridging the gap that exists between my first two sections—to discovering the ways in which our current society can utilize Marcuse’s vision of liberation in order to begin breaking the bonds of one-dimensionality. Stated differently, is critical theory good for something if you’re a sexually-frustrated, physically disabled woman? I would answer that it is indeed. Furthermore, I would say that the lessons that can be learned from critical theory by physically disabled women could just as easily be applied to any other group of people in a modern society. It is simply because the relevance of critical theory is less obvious in many other cases that I foresee that physically disabled women will be the first group of citizens who will have the chance to use Marcuse’s ideas in order to free themselves.

The first lesson to be learned from critical theory, though not necessarily the most important, is that Eros does indeed need an outlet. Since the impulse toward destruction is due to the repression of Eros, working outside of the home (or inside the home, if need be), may be an effective outlet for Eros. After all, Marcuse himself once wrote that “work in civilization is itself to a great extent social utilization of aggressive impulses and is thus work in the service of Eros.”(Marcuse, 84) Not surprisingly, there is sociological evidence to support Marcuse’s claim—the women “most at risk of having mental health problems are non-white, non-married, non-employed women, and women who live in social isolation with limited social roles. This suggests that women with disabilities may be at greater risk than most other women of having mental health problems as a result of their social isolation and the limited social roles available to them, including their limited access to labor force participation.” (Traustadottir, July 1990)

At first, this advice for physically disabled women to work may be counterintuitive when one considers Marcuse’s vision of a liberated society, but upon closer examination it is not. Fair enough, working is not the ideal way to expend one’s Eros, but until libidinal repression is no longer required of physically disabled women, it may be an important and healthy method of coping and compensation. For even though only 24% of physically disabled women are currently employed, it is recorded that 42% of physically disabled men have jobs. (Traustadottir, July 1990) This statistic leads one to believe that women with disabilities could indeed be more involved in the workforce, despite their disadvantage.

It very well may be that other factors led to this statistical disparity between disabled women and men. After all, one should certainly remember that “evidence links female wage-earning outside the home strongly to female healthcare and life expectancy. We can imagine that many women would not fight for participation in the workplace; nor would they be aware of the high correlation between work outside the home and other advantages… they may have fully internalized the ideas behind the traditional system of discrimination, and may view their deprivation as ‘natural’… we [as humans in an un-free society] most often… support the status quo and oppose radical change.” (Nussbaum, 90-1) If a physically disabled woman truly cannot hold a job in or outside the home, she should at least remember that expending creative and libidinal energies of any form helps prevent her from turning her aggression inwards; therefore she should attempt to utilize such energy whenever and however possible.

Perhaps the most pertinent lesson to be learned from critical theory in this essay is that Eros need not be repressed. Physically disabled women must first be aware of the fact that Eros is only repressed now because one-dimensional society has usurped sexuality as an area of human life to be normalized, managed, and sold to the highest bidder. Then, instead of feeling despair that they are not capable of conforming to society’s advertised standards of beauty and sexiness, these women can learn to rejoice.
First of all, sexuality as portrayed by the media is nothing more than a specific representation. There is no one right way to look beautiful or act sexually—there are as many ways to express Eros as there are people. The sooner physically disabled women truly internalize this fact, the sooner they can begin telling others. Furthermore, these stereotypes of sexuality actually tend to limit the citizens of modern societies by establishing rigid gender roles. Perhaps intelligent women with physical disabilities can help to dissolve the notion that a woman can’t be sexy and good at math simultaneously. For in an unexpected way, women with disabilities are currently freer than most to explore gender roles because of the stereotype that they are asexual—“Ironically, women with disabilities [may be] less likely than their able-bodied counterparts to be limited by many of the gendered expectations and roles that feminists have challenged.” (Gerschick, 1266)

Indeed, there is an important loophole in the theory of one-dimensionality—women with physical disabilities. Truly, society has not included physically disabled women it its scheme of “normative” sexuality; thus, there is currently an utter lack of expectations for the sexual lives of this minority. Although this may seem unnerving, the sexuality of these women is also, at present, an area of personal expression which is essentially free of domination. Until the appearance of Cosmo for Cripples, physically disabled women have the unique opportunity to develop their sense of Eros without interference. Furthermore, if they can use their experience of exclusion as a means to get others to realize their unnecessary bondage to one-dimensionality. After all, physically disabled women are not the only members of society whose Eros is repressed by one-dimensionality. “The degree to which one’s body [and sexuality] is compromised is… affected by [many] social characteristics, including race and ethnicity, social class, age, and sexual orientation.” (Gerschick, 1264) To this list I would also add the characteristics pertaining to physical appearance that are beyond the realm of physical disabilities, such as height, weight, and even the condition of one’s skin and hair.

CONCLUSION: Throughout my research for this paper it has become increasingly clear to me that every day that passes during which women and men of all kinds feel unattractive, undeserving, or useless is a needless extension of the era of one-dimensional repression. I believe that, armed with heightened consciousness and a critical eye, women with physical disabilities indeed have the capacity to familiarize contemporary modern society with the ideas that could eventually release Eros for each and every individual.

Hopefully, this essay was able encourage women with physical disabilities to realize their potential as worthwhile, desirable, and sexual human beings who deserve to be viewed as such. Let these women live with courage and conviction in their full personhood; in doing so let them set an example for the rest of society.

Martha Nussbaum once wrote, when forming our views on sexuality and other human characteristics, we must “begin with the human being: with the capabilities and needs that join all humans, across barriers of gender and class and race and nation [and physical ability]. This advice… instructs us to focus on what all human beings share, rather than on the privileges and achievements of a dominant group, and on needs and basic functions, rather than power or status.” (Nussbaum, 61) We all share the need to love and be loved, to feel desirable and also to desire others, to create our own works of art and to inspire the work of those around us—it has long been time for our society to prioritize, restructure, and function in a way that acknowledges this fact.

Comprehensive Works Cited:

Chance, Randi. To Love and Be Loved: Sexuality and People with Physical Disabilities.
Journal of Psychology and Theology. September 2002.

Francis, L.P. and A. Silvers, Eds. Americans with Disabilities: Exploring Implications of _ the Law for Individuals and Institutions. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Freud, Sigmund. Strachey, James, ed. Civilization and Its Discontents. Standard ed.
New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989.

Gerschick, Thomas. Toward a Theory of Disability and Gender. Signs: Feminisms at a _ Millennium. v25, i4 (Summer, 2002): p. 1263-1268.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization. 3rd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1974.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings.” Women, Culture, _ and Development: A Study of Human Capabilities. Ed. Martha Nussbaum, and Jonathan Glover. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. p. 1-105.

Ober, John David. “On Sexuality and Politics in the Work of Herbert Marcuse.” Critical _ Interruptions: New Left Perspectives on Herbert Marcuse. Ed. Paul Breines.
New York: Herder and Herder, 1970. p. 101-135.

Taleporos, G., and M.P. McCabe. The Impact of Sexual Esteem, Body Esteem, and Sexual Satisfaction on Psychological Well-Being in People with a Physical Disability. Sexuality and Disability. v20, i3 (2002): p. 177-183.

Traustadottir, Rannveig. Obstacles to Equality: The Double Discrimination of
Women with Disabilities. Center on Human Policy. July 1990.

Author: violinscratches

Gaelynn Lea is a musician and public speaker from Duluth, MN. She is passionate about disability advocacy, personal growth, and authentic living. She was the winner of NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest in March 2016.

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