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May 022014

Looky–if you must, though I’d rather you didn’t–but please, no touchy!

If I made T-shirts printed with the above sentence, they’d sell like hot-cakes among visibly disabled people.

We’re frequently objects of curiosity in public spaces. If it stopped at curiosity, we’d be doing fine, but that curiosity often translates into intrusiveness.

Every time I leave my house I may experience being seen as less-than, or incapable, because I am visibly disabled. I may be touched, poked or prodded, physically directed, spoken down to, stared at, pursued by people, all in the name of helpfulness and kindness.

Every time I leave my house, I may be touched without my permission, not a handshake of greeting or a tap on the shoulder, but an arm-grab, an arm around the shoulders, hands against my torso propelling me towards where it is thought I need to go, an uninvited hug. My body is used instead of words. I’m touched in these ways in the name of helping me.

Every time I leave my house, I may have people get into my personal space when I want to be left alone—in places and at times when one would expect that I could be left alone—and yes, people do follow me.

Perhaps all this sounds like hyperbole, but I assure you it’s all true, and that when two or more visibly disabled people discuss the experiences they have in public spaces, there are frequent nods of recognition and rueful, sometimes amused, sometimes mirthless, laughter.

Recently, a friend blogged about walking down a street, training her service dog, while a woman—a stranger to my friend–tracked their progress, following them in her car. One imagines that this woman must not have had anything important to do right then; one also knows how incredibly rude and creepy it is to stare at someone, and that it’s considered predatory to follow anyone without their expressed consent.

Another friend adjusts his work schedule (when he can) so as to not ride the bus at peak times, when there are likely to be more people engaging in what he calls “the grabby”–physically grabbing and directing him to an empty seat, or on or off the bus. Sometimes this grabby is accompanied by queries as to whether he needs help, but seldom is his “no acknowledged.

What never seems to arise in these commiseration sessions about our experiences as disabled people in public spaces is exactly what to call this collection of experiences. For lack of a better term, I call it street harassment.

Unlike many forms of street harassment, what people with disabilities experience in public spaces is all but invisible, not because onlookers are accustomed to it, not because they want to pretend it’s not happening, but because most of the actions comprising this harassment are chalked up to kindness, ignorance, concern, helpfulness, good intentions.

How do I know it’s perceived this way? Because people make these excuses for their own and others’ behavior. Frankly, it’s tiring after a while to hear that someone getting into my personal space, or making assumptions about me, or handling my body or my mobility aid without asking is just trying to be kind, or doesn’t know any better, or thought they were being helpful.

As a human being living in North American culture, I have certain expectations of privacy and personal space. Most of us who grew up in this culture grow up expecting that we won’t be touched by random strangers, that there is a hierarchy of touching (where your new acquaintance on the bus doesn’t stroke your arm or put their hand on your back).

As a woman, I have an expectation that people will be conscious of gender in their interactions with me. I’m often startled by the way men touch me, many of whom, I would like to think, would think twice about touching women they don’t know in the ways they touch me. The touching is obvious, out there; there’d be no way to deny it if someone was trying to be sneaky and manipulative with their intrusions.

Perhaps part of the problem here, part of the disconnect, is that I am genderless in these people’s eyes. I’m disabled first, woman second. Indeed, for some, I’m disabled first, negating my womanhood and putting me somewhere in a nebulous space of being childlike but having a woman’s body and doing adult things (like going out and buying my own groceries).

it’s also tiring not having words to describe this experience, this sensation of always being on guard, for there’s no place, time, or way this might or might not happen. it just does…single women, married men, concerned citizens of all genders may think they know exactly where I want to go (without asking me, or if they ask, not waiting for an answer) or draw attention to me I don’t want or need, or blow a need or want I do have into far greater proportion than it needs to be blown into.

Most of what I’m describing here isn’t explicitly violent, though physical and sexualized violence against people with disabilities does happen, in both private and public spaces, at alarming rates.

No, it’s not explicitly violent, but not being aware of it also paves the way, I think, for more violence.

Plus, it truly does unsettle me that disabled people’s space is invaded every day.; that this invasion leads to people feeling worn out, so demeaned, so reduced—and yes, so threatened by actions which onlookers see as considerate. It’s alarming that a disabled woman was surprised when her friend apologized for having to physically hustle her through an airport security line in response to TSA agents’ curtly given directions to hurry up (after all, that physical manipulation to follow the rules is seen as something that just has to be done, and we aren’t supposed to have feelings about it).

I’m sometimes alarmed by the strength of relief expressed by disabled people (including me) when a trip out in public is positive, with people talking to us like adults, respectfully assisting us only when asked and giving us loads of personal space.

Mar 212014

Last weekend I was at Catalyst Con. A lot happened in my heart and mind; now that my body is recovering, I can write about some of it. This might take a few posts.

For now, in no particular order, a collection of snippets, both playful and serious, from my weekend.

  • My weekend started on Friday afternoon with Sex writing 101, a workshop on everything from writing craft to publishing know-how given by Rachel Kramer Bussel. This was a fabulous workshop—three hours of information, encouragement, creativity, companionship and a few laughs. To think I almost didn’t sign up for this! Rachel’s feedback was warm, inspiring, but also clear and targeted,. I felt safe and welcome in this writing space, and even built some confidence to keep working to put my writing and ideas out there.
  • There aren’t words to describe how deeply moved I was by the Living with An STI panel. Adrial of Herpes Life,
    Ashley Manta,
    kate McCombs and Raul Q created a friendly, accepting, and educational space to talk about the stigma around sexually transmitted infections. Among the many important messages shared in this space: STI prevention strategies are important for public and individual health, but never at the expense of anyone’s humanity and dignity. In other words, treat people like people, not like case numbers, not like robots that can be programmed to do exactly what we want them to do. Harm-reduction is meeting people where they are and giving them information that will help keep them safer, based on what their lives actually look like, not on what public health professionals and others in helping fields think their lives should look like. You can read more about the philosophy and practice of harm-reduction here.

    I think it was Adrial who shared this thought: When we talk openly, we can heal the wounds of stigma and feel more connected. kate, Ashley, Raul and Adrial modelled this beautifully and I hope everyone in that room passes that compassion and helpfulness on to others.

  • Seeing Crista of Dildology and her rainbow bustle made me smile. I’m guessing that bustle was a good luck charm, as I actually got to share many hugs and short conversations with Crista; usually we wind up missing each other completely at conferences. it didn’t hurt that my playful femme side perked up in appreciation after it encountered the bustle–rainbows and fluffy things for the win!
  • Del Tashlin’s talk on sacred sexuality reaffirmed for me that our sexual selves aren’t just about what we think and what we experience in our bodies, but include our connectedness with any sexual partners we have and with the world around us. In talking about how we transmit, perceive and talk about energy Del moved beyond the visual—so many introductions to sacred sexuality and connecting energetically with one’s sexual partner stop at eye contact—to encompass a whole range of sensations and perceptions (smell, touch, kinetic awareness, perceived temperature, etc). As someone who can’t see, I was grateful that Del’s introductory talk includes such a broad range of sensory experiences.
    Heightened sexual awareness can also connect us with other types of awareness. Del encouraged all of us to pay attention next time we experience a sexual release, to ask whether there is anything important we need to know, and be open to any answers that come to us.
  • Problem-Solving Sex with Disability inspired me to keep talking about this topic, not to back down or be afraid. Mara Levy is personable, dynamic, compassionate, and a brilliant presenter. I’ll write more about mara’s presentation in another post, but I just had to mention it here as a highlight of my weekend. Mara’s model for problem-solving sex and disability includes figuring out whether an impairment or set of impairments can be fixed, compensated for, or actually featured in the sexual encounter or experience. Plus, I was excited to discover that mara is local to the DC area. There are so few voices talking specifically about sex and disability that it’s marvelous to have another one in this part of the globe.
  • Hanging out at the Tantus display table gave me ample time to catch up with and be inspired by Ducky DooLittle and to handle many of Tantus’s aesthetically pleasing and sexy wares.
  • Last (for now), but very much not least, thinking about everyone who attended my Nuts and Bolts of Acccessibility presentation still fills me with joy. Thank you to everyone who attended for engaging so deeply with the topic, sharing of yourselves and making this early-morning presentation such a positive presenting experience. Thanks also to folks who live tweeted the presentation!
Dec 112013

Porn for blind people. Does it exist?

With the rich variety of erotic materials available to everyone who wants to access them (and knows where to find them), is specially-developed content necessary?

Erotic material comes in a variety of formats–film, audio, and written word to name a few–and is marketed in myriad ways. I suppose then that it’s no surprise to find erotic material marketed as being “for the blind,” though it’s a bit of a misnomer as plenty of people with visual impairments do consume and appreciate some visual materials.

What I have seen of “porn for the blind” has shown me that visual forms of erotic material do not translate well. In other words, it makes much more sense to focus on the development of written and oral erotic content if one wants to make sure that blind people have access than to try to make visual material accessible.

What I’ve seen of these attempts has either resulted in a substandard product or in a product that is interesting, but not overly erotic.

Perhaps the most well-publicized “porn for the blind” is the book of tactile erotic pictures, Tactile Mind.

I got to see this book a couple of years ago, when I visited Come As You Are in toronto. This book of photographs turned into tactile graphics, complete with Braille descriptions, got a fair bit of news coverage when it first came out. Unsurprisingly, the appelation “porn for the blind” came from this media coverage.

I confess when I first learned of this book I was dubious. I have been blind since early childhood, and have never gotten much more from raised drawings than a sense of shape and placement. Raised graphics were what I used to learn about Venn diagrams and geometric shapes, not about sexuality. No, we didn’t have raised anatomy charts in sex ed class though we probably should have—particularly if they had been rendered with the attention to detail found in this book.

These were by far the most detailed raised images I’ve ever seen.

I was also suspicious of the porn label. Pornafter all, is meant to arouse the senses. I had my doubts that raised images could have the same erotic impact as pictures do on many people who can see them. Turning two-dimensional images, with shape, line, angle, colour, lighting, et cetera, into raised line drawings means losing most of those characteristics, the colour, shading, et cetera, that make the picture more than just a picture in the first place.

I doubted these tactile pictures would have any erotic impact at all.

Since I had unexpected access to the book at Come As You are, though, and time to peruse it, I was able to take a good look. It is, incidentally, a really freeing experience to be able to sit in a store’s reading corner and read a book. That’s not an experience I get very often at all.

I scrutinized this one from cover to cover.

Tactile Mind is a spiral bound book of 17 tactile images with Braille descriptions of each one. Also included is a print copy of each image. Artist Lisa Murphy selected seventeen of her photographs—one of which is a self-portrait–and reproduced them in raised form.

The most important difference between the way a blind person processes an image and the way a sighted person processes is the amount of information that can be taken in at one time. I can only touch one part at a time—two if I use both hands. The amount of detail in these photos made creating a mental picture really difficult. My fingers flitted back and forth between the description and the image, trying to make sense of each individual part, trying to understand what I was feeling.

Did I find these images erotic? Some of them. The simpler the photograph, the more I could appreciate the spare symmetry of lines and curves, or the grace or erotic potential in body position. The masks and props are part of an artistic world I cannot share in; when translated into tactile form, they detract from the picture rather than enhancing it.

Though the photos were taken specifically for this book, they were not appropriate photos for this project. Murphy’s desires, to make her models feel comfortable with being photographed nude by decking them out in silly costumes, and creating a book of tactile pictures that can be appreciated by blind people, don’t match. The more detail put into a tactile drawing, the less most people reading that drawing with their fingers are going to get from it.

Having said that, the level of tactile detail in these images is impressive. Textural differences bring more life to images, though not necessarily more eroticism. Beards and pubic hair were textured much as hair would be. Some skin was smooth while other pictures showed the dimples of cellulite.

Overall, though, with a few exceptions, these images were interesting to me, not erotic.
For me, any eroticism in this book came from the suggestion rendered by reading descriptions. There was just so much going on in the images, that the words were more comprehensible, more evocative of mental pictures than the photos themselves.

So, do we need to render visual forms of erotic material to be accessible to blind people?

I don’t think so. I just don’t think they translate. The kinds of tactile detail put in this book still don’t mirror the kinds of tactile detail one would associate with interacting sexually with someone else, or with oneself. There’s a closer connection between pictures and everyday erotic interactions for people who can see the pictures; there’s not as much translation that needs to happen.

Does this mean that what all blind people find erotic is the same or that there is no benefit to making erotic images tactile? Certainly not!

To Be Continued…

Nov 292013

It seems that people lose all perspective on the nature of human interactions when visible disabilities are at play.

Last week, I read this blog post about just such a loss of perspective.

Apparently, a newspaper decided that two college football players sitting with a visibly disabled fellow student in their school cafeteria was newsworthy.

karin of claiming Crip gives a brilliant analysis here. She offers the clearest, most concise, most down-to-earth deconstruction of ableist thinking I’ve seen in a while–the most honest, most no-holds-barred explanation of exactly why it’s unacceptable–and inaccurate–to view disabled people, and the nondisabled people who associate with us, as inspiring.

It’s pretty apparent that, in this story, the perspective of the student these football players sat with wasn’t terribly important. There are quotes about him, but not from him.

It’s further apparent, to me, anyway, that this reporting is also a reflection of the cultural view of college athletes.

College athletes are often held in hero status in general, lauded at a level and for things far beyond their age and degree of life experience. Lauded in a way that actually negates their humanity. Here, praising them for–even reporting on the fact that they did–choose to sit with a visibly disabled fellow student in the cafeteria is ridiculous, and sends a larger message. Sitting with, spending time with, disabled people is inspirational.

Between the elevated status of college atheletes, and the reduced status of people with disabilities, there’s a real lac of balance in the way this was reported, never mind that it wasn’t worth reporting at all.

Having what is usually a visible disability–blindness–and having had numerous people sit with me while I ate alone in my university’s cafeteria, I certainly hope no one ever saw them as inspiring.

Yes, I even had a college hhockey player join me a few times. We had really pleasant, down-to-earth conversations, and he’d even say “hi” to me if he saw me other places on campus. Did this make him inspiring? I sure as hell hope not! He was a pleasant, well-spoken, intelligent guy. Lauding him for being friendly to me would just have degraded him, on top of what it would have said about my equality as a human being.

This inspiration credo is incredibly dehumanizing to disabled people (and to the people who genuinely care for or love us). It’s dehumanizing on an individual level, yes, but also in collective cultural consciousness.

One or two isolated incidents of being out in public with an able-bodied person and hearing that person’s actions praised can make one start to doubt oneself. One may look to others, ask about their experiences, start observing interactions in which they are not involved; one will see and hear the same story. That pervasiveness leads to the message that we are less than human, or that we’re superhuman for drawing friends to us who will be patient and caring for us, in spite of our subhuman disabilities. It also negates any caring or kind actions or feelings on our parts, making relationships with us appear to be one-way.

Sometimes, it doesn’t even take experiences to send this message; it’s built into the underlying consciousness: you are object, to be feared, admired, inspired by, but not equal in your humanity.

When I was getting ready to leave home for university, I was told by many well-meaning adults that people at college might be afraid of or put off by my blindness, that they might not know how to interact with me. I was told that I might have to go the extra mile to make friends, to be willing to meet people beyond halfway.

I believed this! Ironically, this belief trampled my confidence and led me to be more afraid, more timid, less friendly with folks. It led me to behave in ways that were probably seen as weird, rather than just settling into my shy, slightly nerdy,, but ultimately sweet and friendly self. It led me to question everyone’s interactions with me, to hold them at arm’s length rather than to welcome.

Remember that hockey player? I never asked if we could co-ordinate to meet at the cafeteria some time, or if we could hang out somewhere else. perhaps if I’d had more confidence, rather than feeling like I had to apologize for myself and avoid any awkwardness, perhaps if I hadn’t felt like I was a bother to people, I would have felt more comfortable making connections when they presented themselves.

I could have become friends with many people, or at least gotten to know them better if I had known how to step beyond my appreciation and gratitude that he had gone the extra mile, had met me more than halfway, by choosing to sit with me.

These messages elevating the actions of able-bodied people to hero status can leave their mark on we disabled people.

The idea of nondisabled people being brave, stepping outside themselves, even inconveniencing themselves to be nice to a disabled person is harmful in the extreme, both to the self-esteem of many disabled people and to how valid relationships (of any kind) are seen between disabled and able-bodied people.

I know of one situation where a lesbian couple- comprised of a Blac woman in her forties and a blind white woman– in her twenties had a lot of problems because of how they were perceived in public. The older partner felt that she was always seen as the caregiver of her younger partner, not as her equal, let alone as her partner. Given the history we have in this country (and others) of women of colour being in caregiving roles related to white children, elderly people, or sick people I can certainly see how this perception could have really hurt, on so many levels. Ultimately, from what I understand, it was one major factor that damaged the relationship beyond repair.

With all of these meanderings, the one thing I keep coming back to is humanity. the humanity of people in a romantic relationship. The humanity of people just headed off to college. The humanity of college students eating lunch in the cafeteria.

I don’t want to say we’re all the same, because we’re not–and that’s a good thing. I’m not saying that there aren’t really special, generous people out there–because there are.

They’re just not generous and special in who they choose to eat lunch with in a public space with multi-person tables and general seating.

May 102011

Sex talk and comedy have a longterm, permanent relationship.

WE have all heard the jokes about sex. I don’t need to repeat them here. Some of them are genuinely funny. Most of the ones I’ve heard are degrading, derogatory to women, and often based on misinformation. If someone were basing their entire sex education on the jokes told and the “funny” things people say, they’d have a pretty skewed perception of how to have safe, happy sex.

Enter educators like Maria Falzone.

Maria Falzone has been a comedian for years. About fifteen years ago she was encouraged to bring her razor-sharp wit and impeccable sense of timing to the world of sex education. She presents her “Sex Rules” show, filled with her personal experience and spot-on advice, to students at colleges and universities and to the rest of us at community events and comedy clubs.

I’ve seen Maria present twice now, once at Momentum and once at a local comedy club, and would see her again in a heartbeat. She’s smart and funny, and speaks my language—sexual empowerment and release of sexual shame for all.

The Momentum Conference was like school for me (only more fun than any school I’ve ever been to) and I took copious notes. Here’s what I said after hearing Maria speak: “I laughed until I cried, and I adore her. Such a fabulous message. I’m feeling giddy to be in such a sex-positive space. The most beautiful moment: watching this entire roomful of people burst into applause and cheers as Maria tells us that we need to educate our young people about sex.”

The show at the Comedy club was just as fun and inspiring. My friends and I sat in the front row of a room packed full of women—this show was women-only, but not all of her shows are. (I definitely suggest going to Maria’s shows with friends so you can share the laughter and joy.) Maria soonhad us laughing, first a little nervously, then gustily,when she told us that she says clitoris (emphasis on the second syllable) because it makes it sound so much more powerful and bad-ass. Though usually shy of speaking in such a situation, the toy maven in me just had to speak up when Maria shared with the audience that she loves vibrators and owns five of them. “Did you say you have five vibrators,” I asked, a little timidly, fearing to upstage her.

“Well, yes. How many do you have?”

“Oh…I (soft laugh) I couldn’t even begin to count.”

“I love you,” was her sincere response, and my evening was made.

I want to regale you with Maria stories. I want to share her hilarious tales about her Italian-born parents (her mother’s warnings about what would happen if Maria had sex, and the time Maria’s father found her vibrator still make me chuckle), or the funny-but-sad tale of her first sexual experience, or the inspiring things that have happened in her lectures to college students, or her sassy, women-positive one-liners. Maria’s speaking has a panache, though, that this blog doesn’t have, and I really want you to see the show if you can, so I won’t spill all her secrets.

Instead of spilling all, I’ll leave you with a few gems:

  • The only reason to have sex is because you want to and because you like it. When you can have sex with the sheets off and the lights on, you can have shame-free sex. (Though I’ll add that turning the lights off or keeping the blankets up can add unique fun and challenge for established lovers.)
  • We empower our young people by teaching them about sex. Children are never too young for us to start teaching them empowerment over their bodies. By not teaching them, we give the power to sexual predators, who capitalize on children’s shame and lack of knowledge.
  • We have so much shame around sex in our society.
    Straight people get the message that sex is wrong, bad, shameful.
    Queer people get the message that they are wrong, bad, shameful.
    No one is wrong, bad, or shameful for any consensual choices they make about sex.
Apr 262011

I bought my first sex toy at the sex shop in my college town. Appropriately located next to a bridal shop, Cynthia’s sported shelves and shelves of colourful boxes. Cynthia herself was a coifed, perfumed, French-tipped shop-owner who seemed to specialize in rushing me out of her store. One windy day, I walked in and timidly asked about g-spot vibrators. I was handed a slim plastic toy with a curved end that looked as if it was designed to go fishing and catch my g-spot, not massage and stimulate it. My query about whether this hard, pointy presence would indeed feel good was waved off, and my purchase totaled. Not feeling as if I could ask more questions, I payed the thirty-some-odd dollars and left.

The toy was indeed too hard and pointy. I used it externally until the motor started overheating. When it became so hot after short periods of use that it threatened to burn me, I prepared to send it to the great sex-toy graveyard in the sky. My boyfriend (now husband) encouraged me to keep it for posterity. I have that toy still, stuck in the back of a drawer.

How did this happen? How did I walk out of a store without feeling comfortable that I got what I wanted?

IN the midst of our hurried discussion, Cynthia had let it slip that she’d just spent an hour with a man, helping him choose a toy for his wife. Why didn’t she spend that time with me? This was almost ten years ago, when there were fewer toys on the market, but surely there was more than one toy in that store marketted for G-spot play.

I imagine that Cynthia saw a young, blind college student, clad in jeans and a sweat shirt with fatigue circles under her eyes and wild windswept hair. I imagine that Cynthia saw this girl and reasoned that she probably didn’t have a lot of money. I imagine that Cynthia got snagged on my blindness–no, I know she did, because she spent more time worrying out loud about how I would manage to put the batteries in my toy. Yes, showing me how this was done was helpful, worrying about it and ignoring my question about pleasure was not.

What would I have liked my experience to have been? I would like to have been welcomed into the store. I would have liked to have my request for G-spot toys responded to with at least two options, laid out side by side so I could explore their merits and differences. I would have liked it to have been the kind of store where toys were laid out, ready to be handled and explained. I would like to have not felt like an interloper, to have felt instead that subtle shift that let me know I was accepted.

I left that city behind a long time ago, and no longer have a sex shop within walking distance of my home. That slightly uncomfortable, lackluster encounter is the only in-person sex toy shopping experience I’ve ever had. I’m hoping to one day soon be able to shop in person with some of the excellent online retailers I’ve used—
Babeland and Good Vibrations are both on my list.

We all deserve a positive toy shopping experience. If you are lucky enough to have a friendly toy store near you, go support them. Buy something you love and tell the store employees how wonderful their store is. If you need something different from what they’re offering you in terms of products or services, tell them; the way they respond will tell you a lot about the ethics of their store.

I love hearing different people’s experiences. What was your first toy-buying experience like? What was your favourite toy-shopping experience?