Social models of disability and sexual distress

Barker, Meg John and Iantaffi, Alex (2015). Social models of disability and sexual distress. In: Spandler, Helen; Anderson, Jill and Sapey, Bob eds. Madness, Distress And The Politics Of Disablement. Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 139–152.



In this chapter we suggest that there is much to be gained from bringing social models of disability into dialogue with current understandings of sexual distress. First, sexologists and sexual health practitioners could benefit hugely from applying the shift from medical to social thinking about disability to the arenas of sexual ‘disorders’ or ‘dysfunctions’. Secondly, it is fruitful for those studying and working with disability to extend social models to include considerations of sex and sexuality, as in some of the more recent, intersectional revisions of these models.

In order to explore the potential of such a dialogue we devote the first half of this chapter to examining how prevailing norms of sex and sexuality position many of us as mentally disordered or dysfunctional, and could therefore be said to actively disorder or disable people in a manner akin to the way in which certain material features and social norms disable certain bodies and sensory and cognitive experiences. We consider how features of the shift from medical to social models of disability can be applied in this area, to the benefit of those who are struggling with sexual distress and in ways which enhance understandings of sex and sexuality more widely. By ‘sexual distress’ we mean mental distress which occurs specifically around sex, for example feeling anxious about sexual situations or ashamed of sexual desires.

Following this, in the second half of the chapter, we examine the ways in which medicalised understandings of both sex and disability constrain and restrict the sexual experience and expression of disabled people. We draw out the potential benefits of applying social models of disability to this area, building particularly on recent intersectional work to enable a fuller understanding of the ways in which sexuality, disability, and other aspects of identity and experience combine.

In the concluding section of the chapter we weave these strands together to suggest how social, critical and intersectional understandings of sexuality and disability could inform thinking and practice around both these areas.

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