Gluppit the prawling strangles, there (elettaria) wrote,

No means no. Even when you're disabled. Especially when you're disabled.

Louise Mensch turns out to be quite the interesting read. In her recent Guardian article trashing intersectionality, she thoughtfully provided a link to her series on What Men Want. As expected, I found many of her viewpoints highly problematic. Much of it was about how women should mould themselves to men's desires. Now, I've seen this approach before. It's just enough out of favour these days to give the impression of being new. When the "Surrendered Wife" movement sprang up around a decade ago, I coined the term Nouveau Doormat to describe it. Suffice it to say that I've never had a high opinion of this way of doing things. I think it's harmful to women and insulting to men.

Then I read her article What Men Want: Relationships. I'd suggest that you read the whole article and especially the comments, because there is a lot to consider. The article reviews a book which suggests that men and women need to meet one another's needs, and lists the top five needs for each. Mensch admits that the list for women doesn't match her at all, but then goes on to discuss exactly how we should obey the list for men. I grant that it's interesting to know what some men prioritise, but that hardly means that we should do everything a man wants us to in order to produce a healthy relationship, nor that this is how all men think. Here are the lists.

Women’s Top Five Needs are:

1. Affection
2. Conversation
3. Trust/Honesty
4. Financial support/a provider
5. Good father/ family commitment.

Men’s top 5 needs are

1. Sexual fulfillment
2. Recreational companionship/ playmate (non Playboy sense) – doing activities together
3. An attractive or well groomed spouse
4. Peace and quiet /domestic support/ tranquil home
5. Admiration.


Note that sex is top of the list for men, and doesn't appear at all for women. Mensch's comment on this stopped me dead in my tracks.

A man who is sexually rejected or deprived will feel rejected *as a man* and *as a person* and not merely sexually. There is no division. Before you all start screaming, of course, if the woman is disabled, depressed or traumatised there are exceptions, but without these serious reasons, men want to be desired and not merely to desire others themselves.

It might be a bit uncomfortable, but I think there is an awful lot to be said for this list.


A bit uncomfortable? Yes, you could say that. Following the suggestion to its logical end, unwanted sex is "a bit uncomfortable" as well. I really hoped that she didn't mean this, so I asked her some questions in the comments. I asked her what she would suggest if the woman is disabled, going on to explain that I am a disabled woman myself. Mensch made it absolutely clear that yes, women owe sex to men.

Of course no woman must feel obligated to have sex with her man on any given night – but she is obligated to not only have sex with him regularly, but to actively desire to do so, over the course of the relationship, unless there are significant emotional or physical blockages.

This is a very serious statement when it comes to sexual consent. I am struggling to find any way of reading this that does not conclude that women do not have an absolute right to say no to sex. "Blockages" isn't the happiest of terms either. When used about physical matters, the first example that comes to mind is a sewage problem. Some people do refer to their genito-urinary tract as "plumbing", so perhaps this is what she had in mind. My sexual self is not a clogged pipe. In addition, there are people of all genders who are asexual, or who have a relatively low interest in sex.

Then I asked, And if a woman can’t have sex regularly for one or more of those reasons, what are they meant to do about the relationship? Should she refrain from relationships if she can’t provide regular sex?

Mensch replied,

She should let the guy know upfront; but it is going to be a very unusual man, probably with issues of his own, who will be willing to enter into a relationship where he is regularly sexually rejected.

She should ask herself if it’s fair to the man to be placed in that situation. But anything between two fully consenting adults is OK, as long as there is full, informed consent.

Even with the disclaimer about "full, informed consent", this makes me very uneasy indeed. Disabled women are being told that they are lucky to find a man who will put up with their "sexual rejection", and "a very unusual man, probably with issues of his own" sounds suspiciously like, "No normal man would want a woman like this." It is also making the assumption that in a relationship where the woman (I'd say "one partner", but Mensch's entire discourse assumes heterosexuality, with a man desiring of sex and a woman who may not be) has sexual difficulties of some nature, there will be a pattern of constant rejection. That it is normal for the man to hassle the woman for sex even if she doesn't want it at that point. There is no suggestion that couples should negotiate different levels of desire or ability for sex, that this should be dealt with before it becomes an issue of regular sexual rejection.

I don't think it's normal for a man to be constantly pushing his partner to provide sex when she doesn't want it. I don't think it's a "very unusual man" who can take no for an answer, and I certainly don't think that being able to respect a woman's consent or lack of consent means that the man "probably [has] issues of his own". I think that these attitudes are far too common, yes, but then rape culture is common. That's the whole bloody problem. As for the disability angle, we have the right to a happy and fulfilling relationship as much as anyone else does.

I then posited a situation where a woman would have difficulty with sex on two nights, on one because she had the physical energy but wasn't in the mood, and on the other because she was in the mood but was too fatigued. My own answers to this would be that it's something the couple needs to negotiate in order to find what works for both of them, and that this can include the man meeting the woman's needs without exhausting her in the process. There are all sorts of ways to make love, and there are lots of ways to share intimacy without necessarily either or both partners getting off. These could include sex toys, massage, cuddling, masturbation. The non-disabled partner may need to make a special effort not to cause the disabled partner pain or fatigue. Again, that kind of effort should be normal in any healthy relationship. And even relationships where neither partner is disabled or "traumatised" (surely there are more respectful phrases than that?) can hit sexual difficulties for a variety of reasons. It's something couples work on together. It is not just about getting the man off and making sure his fantasies are fulfilled.

For some reason, Mensch chose to focus only on the first scenario. I don't think the woman's sexual needs struck her as important. I'm not sure they struck her at all. Her entire reply appalled me, but this was far and away the worst statement.

“Not in the mood”, you see, I think confers on her an obligation to sleep with him because in a true relationship both partners regularly have to sacrifice their wants and wishes for that of the other.

I'm struggling to read that as anything other than a statement that disabled women do not have the right to say no to sex, and I am very deeply disturbed. I don't think she's deliberately advocating rape, but I'm not sure she actually understands how rape fits in here, and how the position she's taking contributes to the culture surrounding rape. Yes, relationships are about compromise, including sexual compromise, but this compromise needs to be reasonable, to happen on both sides, and to respect both partners' integritry and right to make decisions about their own body. "Obligation" is going beyond that.

The last part of Mensch's response was saying that disabled women should dress themselves up for men and saw no reason why this shouldn't be problematic. I could spend a while explaining why it is not in fact that easy, and why it may not actually be at the top of any woman's priority list, but I think my readers can work it out for themselves. Quite apart from physical difficulties, I think the main person you should make yourself look nice for is yourself. The key phrase I noticed was,

Her man has already accepted this by BEING in the relationship

Again, it is heavily implied that disabled women are lucky to find anyone who will take them on and accept them. Mensch also talks about men asking out women in a way that makes it sound as if women would never ask men out, it only goes one way. Not in my experience, I must say. Shyness I can understand, not everyone feels up to asking someone else out, but I have never approved of the notion that men are the ones who get to do the choosing, while women have to sit back, make themselves into whatever they think a man will want instead of expressing their true selves, and put up with whoever picks them.

My main problem with this entire approach is that it encourages rape culture, and that people with disabilities (not just women) are particularly vulnerable in this respect. Let's look at some facts.

* Rape is very, very common. Most rapists are known to their victims, and are frequently in some sort of romantic relationship with them. The politics of consent between sexual partners are extremely important.

* The idea that men deserve sex whenever they want it, and that a woman's job is to meet a man's sexual desires whether she wants it or not, is part of rape culture. It helps rapists justify their actions, and makes victims feel that they should put up with being raped.

* People with disabilities suffer rape and sexual assault at far higher rates than people without disabilities. The figure that is coming up repeatedly is that 40% of disabled women will be raped or sexually assaulted during their lifetime.

40%. Please stop and think about that. That's nearly half. That is accepting sexual violence towards people with disabilities as normal.

* Disability and illness can make it harder to be able to provide full consent to sex at any one point. This can be through pain, fatigue, mental illness, cognitive dysfunction, side-effects from medication, or the sheer level of stress that disability and illness can cause. This makes it all the more important that "yes" is not seen as a default position.

Partner rape is hard for anyone to deal with. It comes from power inequalities, it messes with people's heads, it's very hard to speak up about, it's devastating to the victim. People with disabilities are more vulnerable to rape for a number of reasons. The power imbalance is greater, for starters. It's harder to fight back or run away, and merely knowing that will also increase the power imbalance. Support services are harder to access. People with disabilities are routinely treated with scorn and disbelief when they try to discuss, well, anything, let alone getting their needs met, let alone being at risk of violence.

Telling people with disabilities (Mensch is only talking about women, but these problems affect people of all genders) that they are lucky to have a partner, that they have to provide sex regularly even when sex may be exhausting or painful, that the fact that they can provide sex less often overrides their right to say no merely based on whether they want sex or not, that their sexual needs don't even rate a mention, and that they should go out of their way to make themselves pretty for their partner even when doing so may be painful, exhausting or just plain impossible - that is extremely harmful.

I've been on a few disability forums in my time. I have encountered a horrifying number of disabled women in abusive relationships on them. (There are disabled men in abusive relationships out there as well, and they will be under even more pressure not to speak up about it, but if nothing else, these particular forums were mostly inhabited by women, so it's the women I heard from.) What was truly frightening was that this was seen as normal, the best you can expect when you're disabled. Many people with disabilities need some level of care from another person. It is very, very hard to get sufficient, if any, care needs met by social services. Family tend not to be a good solution all that often: for every family treating their disabled relative with care and respect, there are probably two who are yelling at them to stop faking and wasting everyone's time. So a lot of people end up relying on their partners. Once you are reliant on your partner to provide essential care, it is a lot harder to say no to them, and it damages the power balance. Sufficient guilt-tripping from society about having to meet your partner's sexual needs, and lowered self-esteem caused by widespread prejudice and even hatred of people with disabilities, makes it more more likely that the disabled partner will put up with any abuse that is handed out.

One woman in Australia posted to say that she wanted to stop having sex with her boyfriend, but that he wouldn't let her. Or rather, he told her that if she stopped having sex with him, he would stop driving her to the doctor's. She had no other means of accessing essential medical care, so she gave in. She was fully aware that she had lost all desire for him and hated it. Then there were several women who were experiencing constant severe pelvic pain, who would ask one another, "Is your husband OK about letting you say no to sex occasionally?" These are women who were in too much pain to handle sex at any point, but who had been made to feel that they had no right to refuse something which not only they didn't desire, but which would cause extreme pain. What I would really like to know is what in hell their husbands were thinking, because who puts a loved one through something like that? Then there was the long discussion about "do you 'settle' just so that you'll have a relationship of some sort?" which was full of people saying they didn't think they deserved much from their partner, because they were disabled.

To end on a less depressing note, I'd like to remember that while all of this is distressingly common, it's not universal. There are many people with disabilities out there who are having thoroughly mutually enjoyable and happy sex lives, or intimacy without sex, or indeed whatever they want. There are many people who have found creative and exciting ways to explore their sexuality, sometimes all the more so because they've faced limitations. Sexual difficulties are not the be-all and end-all for relationships. Some men, and not just men, are abusive, yes, but most aren't. I recently discovered the charming Ladygarden Project, and can recommend it happily as a resource on female sexuality.
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