This article examines the barriers to sexuality facing mothers with disabilities. Recommendations are presented based on the experiences of disabled mothers. Introduction "Hot sexy mama" are three words that disabled mothers will never hear strung together except perhaps from their lovers. Both the literal and figurative components of that phrase are culturally precluded from mothers with disabilities.
While nondisabled women may hear this phrase directed to them, whether it is desired or offensive to them, disabled women never hear it. As Judy Heumann, disability rights leader and Assistant Secretary of Education under President Clinton, said in , "I don't know if I am offended by sexist comments or not as they have never been directed at me.
First is a review of the literature to create a data profile of disabled women and disabled mothers. As part of this, I examine the statistics, lack of research literature on this topic, cultural assumptions about sexuality, motherhood and disability, and the challenges faced by disabled mothers in their quest to be sexual beings.
I then discuss issues for disabled mothers, including scarcity of information and of resources, and the barriers disabled women face to having a sex life and how to solve them.
Specific issues for single mothers are also examined. I outline issues related to raising sexually healthy children and access to sexuality for disabled mother's children. Finally, I outline suggestions to increase access to sexuality for disabled women including areas for further research and discussion.
This paper operates within conflicting contexts. First, that a great many women with disabilities2 are successfully parenting. Second, that the knowledge that they have gained through parenting is useful in discussions of parenting, disability, gender, and sexuality.
Third, that disabled mothers are creating sexual lives for themselves. Fourth, that neither disability research, sexuality research nor parenting research has included mothers with disabilities. Fifth, that this paper, and the related resources, are an important beginning in a dialogue among many stakeholders. Wates , a disabled parent researcher in the United Kingdom, articulates a common challenge to beginning a new dialogue: These "exclusions are unconscious; all the same they convey to disabled people that their presence is not expected in the domain of pregnancy, birth and parenthood.
When I told people I was researching the subject of disabled parents I noticed that people often thought I was talking about parents of disabled children" p. The review of the literature shows that disabled mothers are overlooked in research and statistics on both disability and motherhood.
A similar examination was done in the United Kingdom and published in various publications by Michele Wates ; ; It is argued that the lack of research interest in this topic is deeply embedded in cultural assumptions about sexuality, motherhood and disability. Block in press and others Llewellyn argue that the focus on controlling the reproduction of and parenting by women with intellectual disabilities is really just a wedge into controlling the reproduction of women whom society deems unacceptable for any reason.
The review also includes accounts by women with disabilities on how they challenge these assumptions and often related negative public policies. Disabled mothers face many issues that can inhibit or prevent them from effective parenting. Some of these include the overwhelming scarcity of information and resources on mothers with disabilities. With the availability of the internet, a number of disabled mothers have created websites and listserves that allow disabled parents to exchange information and resources.
While disabled mothers encounter numerous barriers to parenthood, they also find effective solutions that are identified. This section also includes a discussion of issues that are particular for disabled mothers who are not currently partnered. This paper is constrained by the lack of research on disabled mothers, the lack of research on the intersections of disabled mothers and sexuality, and the lack of comparative data between mothers with physical disabilities and either mothers with non-physical disabilities or nondisabled mothers.
While individual stories of having a culturally recognized sexual identity abound in first-person accounts, the cultural image of a disabled woman is one of asexuality. She is often compared to a nondisabled norm. While many researchers have challenged the representativeness of this norm, disabled women are definitely measured against it.
As Fine and Asch wrote in their landmark book Women with disabilities have not been "trapped" by many of the social expectations feminists have challenged. They have not been forced to get married or to subordinate paid work to childbearing or housekeeping. Instead, they have been warned by parents that men only "take advantage"; they have been sterilized by force or "choice," rejected by disabled and non-disabled heterosexual or lesbian partners, abandoned by spouses after onset of disability, and thwarted when they seek to mother p.
Whether mainstream culture recognizes that they exist or not in the United States alone over 6 million disabled mothers are raising children. Looking towards the cultural images of disabled women for a base of positive sexual imagery is confining. In nearly all images, disabled women are presented as asexual beings.
When cultural images of disabled women are presented, it is as a singular, indistinguishable mass. Differences between women the color of their skin, types of disability, partner relationships, geographic context, parenting context, socio-economic context are obscured. They assumed to be the same no differentiations are presented or explored.
Their individuality is masked both in research and culture. Although occasional specific sexual images of disabled women occur, these are rare. In discussing the particular experiences of disabled lesbian mothers, O'Toole and D'aoust faced a similar research problem: The experience of disabled lesbian mothers are as diverse of the wider populations.
The problem, then, is that these diverse issues have not been examined in ways which respect the natural multiplicity of conditions. Usually the add on or layered effects of oppression is discussed without considering the reciprocity and interaction among factors p In reviewing the very limited literature on disability, motherhood and sexuality, it must be noted that the excellent Mother To Be: Who are disabled mothers?
Although there are many studies on children with disabilities, the lives of these children as they grow up, partner, and become parents are less examined. The literature on disability focuses on interactions between specific disabilities, disability-related medications and sexual performance. As Wates points out it is sometimes the lack of questioning that is the genesis of the research gap: Of this number, there are more disabled mothers than disabled fathers.
A rough extrapolation from the data indicates that approximately 4. Disabled mothers of color are far more likely to be single parents than white disabled mothers. According to a landmark study of disabled parents commissioned by Through the Looking Glass, an information and support organization for parents with disabilities and their families as well as professionals, the following is true: Also more likely to have a partner or spouse who is disabled.
Disabled mothers who are the most successful at building and maintaining a sexual life are those who are able to extrapolate what they need to know from a wide variety of sources Berman-Bieler They might look at general information on sexuality and disability for suggestions of positions or alternative techniques.
Resources on the impact of parenting on the sexual lives of nondisabled women may give them assurance of their universality of their own experiences. Access to specific communities of support, such as lesbian, disability-specific, neighborhood, may provide important outlets to discuss pressing issues and gain new information. Myths and assumptions There are numerous myths about sexuality and motherhood including four articulated for all mothers by Semens and Winks Sex is for procreation; moms are not sex objects; dads are sexy, moms are not; all parents are Ozzie and Harriet.
In addition to these, there are numerous myths that address and attempt to culturally enforce the sexuality and reproduction of disabled women. When was the last time that you saw a mother, any mother, presented in a positive sexual light? These images are rare. Sexuality for mothers is presumed to be in one of three contexts: In other words, mothers are presumed to only have sex with their permanent, male partner and only for procreative or recreative for him purposes.
All other expressions of sexuality by mothers are seen as suspect. In the first myth, sex is for procreation, the basic presumption of any sexual union is to create new life. Yet numerous historical and research studies demonstrate that most couplings are designed for satisfaction not procreation.
This myth also presumes that all couplings are heterosexually oriented between partners who are capable of procreating. Any number of partners belie this myth either because of lack of procreative capability or same-ex couplings. The second myth, that mothers are not sexual objects, often moves nondisabled women into a realm that is all-too-often frequented by women with disabilities, that of not being perceived as a sexual being.
The third myth, dads are sexy but moms are not, feeds into a continuous cultural reinforcement of men's need for sexuality but not women's.
When nondisabled mothers refuse to stay within this confinement, they are seen as unfit. But it is also true that while a disabled woman may be seen as irresponsible for creating a biological child, a disabled man sees an increase in his sexual status.
The fourth myth, all parents are Ozzie and Harriet, imposes a strong cultural image on nondisabled parents regardless of their actual lifestyle or partnership s. The same assumption is rarely made about a visibly disabled woman doing the same job. Disabled women are asexual Disabled moms are having sex lives, but most people would never realize it Wates The nearly total invisibility of the sexual lives of disabled mothers creates the misimpression that disabled mothers do not have sexual lives, that sexuality is not on the radar of disabled mothers and that sexuality is not an appropriate topic of discussion for disabled mothers.
A fundamental challenge for disabled mothers is that nondisabled mothers are held as a norm and disabled women are measured against it. But as Michele Wates reminds us: An intrinsic part of the problem is that disabled people, whether they are mothers or not, are presumed to be asexual. Widely documented and strongly societally reinforced, this belief creates numerous myths about disability, sexuality and especially mothering.
The training for asexuality begins early: Growing up with cerebral palsy, my sexuality was rarely acknowledged or, if it was, it was often invalidated. I learned not to asked questions about sex or talk about boys I liked because I would get teased by adults or older children my questions or comments about sex were "silly" and my "crushes" were "cute. Needless to say, it was enormously damaging to my self esteem J They are using their resourcefulness to create openings for their own sexual expression.
They are finding opportunities for sexual expression with themselves and with partners. They are refusing to allow denial of access to sexual information to stop their sexual expression. No one wants to partner with a disabled woman. If you think about it, it is amazing that disabled women have sexual partners at all. The cultural pressure against partnering with disabled people, whether you are disabled or not, is very strong.