I recently wrote about loving someone who’s chronically ill, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t really written a more in-depth piece about desirability. It’s a really important topic — especially so able-bodied folks can check their ableism regarding what they find un/attractive.
From a young age, it was made very clear to me that I was undesirable because of my disability. I believe I was in the first or second grade when the bullying began. Being a wheelchair user since I was in daycare, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was always too ugly, too small, too disabled. As I grew up, the trauma and bullying only intensified.
When I was young, anyone I was romantically interested in never reciprocated my feelings. I was always the “best friend.” The boys I fell for when I was in middle school made it very clear to me that they never wanted to date me. Those who did “date” me told me later that they only did so because they felt sorry for me. Boys would even “date” me as a practical joke.
I learned that I wasn’t lovable. I was always their secret — or their fetish. They only wanted to sleep with me because they were that desperate. They would only give me the time of day out of pity. Even now, folks rarely find me desirable, usually because they see my wheelchair first and think of everything involved in being with someone who has a disability. We aren’t viewed in the same light that able-bodied folks are. We’re either seen as disgusting or unattractive — and people try to pass it off as a “preference” as if it isn’t rooted in ableism.
Pity is such a prominent experience for people with disabilities. Able-bodied people pity us because they think we’re helpless. Folks see us and think that we lead awful, sad lives. Pitying us definitely plays into desirability and dating. Able-bodied people often date us because they feel sorry for us. Even younger, high-school-aged folks will ask a disabled person to a dance or prom out of pity. But when you pity us and make us into a sad story, you almost don’t even see us as a person; you just see our disability. It’s dehumanizing.
I’ve often been fetishized and sexualized because of my disability. Even in mainstream porn, you’ll see people with disabilities objectified and fetishized as if that’s all we’re good for. And when we aren’t being objectified, we’re seen as completely sexless. In reality, we can be sexy and we can have sex — but on our terms! Too often, we’re stripped of agency over our bodies.
I’m tired of being reduced to a fetish or pitied. I wish people would see us for who we are: people. People who live happy, fulfilling lives in our own way.
Admit it, able-bodied people: We make you uncomfortable. We scare you. You don’t know what to say or what’s inappropriate. You have internalized a lot of toxic ableism and you don’t know how to act around us. You don’t see us as desirable because we don’t live up to your Eurocentric standards of beauty, attractiveness or desirability. Nor do we meet your standards of what’s considered “normal.”
We are people. We deserve the same dignity and respect as able-bodied people. We are so much more than our disabilities. We have personalities, hobbies, loves, desires, hopes, etc. Disabled people exist in every community, everywhere. We make up the largest marginalized community in the world. With that comes varying levels of intersecting oppression. This makes desirability politics even more complex and multi-dimensional.
But we can be sexy, on our own terms. We are beautiful, whole, valid people with rich, meaningful lives. We deserve love and patience and compassion. We deserve love that is raw and unconditional. We should be loved with our disabilities — not despite them.