While vast swathes of the internet are embracing a significant milestone in disabled representation, others are alleging concern for Sofía Jirau’s welfare
Semana Anterior, Sofía Jirau made history as the first model with Down’s syndrome to pose for Victoria’s Secret. The images are stunning, yet the shoot’s launch set off ableists everywhere.
Critics have denounced her history-making achievement as objectifying, arguing that it is wrong to sexualise a person with Down’s syndrome. While vast swathes of the internet are embracing a significant milestone in disabled representation, others are alleging concern for her welfare.
Jirau is 24 years old and perfectly capable of making an informed decision about her inclusion in a campaign that she described as a “dream come true”. Apesar disso, some believe that her independence is a mask of deception and that the campaign manipulates her “special needs”.
Putting aside the incredibly outdated and patronising language, these reactions are a classic response to disabled sexuality that can be traced throughout history. Disabled people have been portrayed as unsexual beings since history began, most notably in the form of the god of fire Hephaestus in Ancient Greek mythology.
Cast from Olympus by his own mother for having a incapacidade, Hephaestus became a joke to those who sympathised with his wife Aphrodite’s serial cheating – because who wants to be married to a “cripple”, direito?
The stereotype of incapacitated disabled sexuality was later cemented in modern media by D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which birthed the “Chatterley Syndrome” trope into an already ableist world. It applies when a disabled person is considered to have lost all sexual power due to physical impairment and their partner must seek sexual gratification from an able-bodied person.
This desexualisation of disabled lives still thrives today. Disabled sexuality is deemed “gross”, fetishised by people who see those with disabled bodies as kinks, not human beings, and sidelined in sex education. There are countless roots stemming from this toxic tree, which all contribute to stripping disabled people of agency, but one of the central players is infantilization.
Non-disabled frequently treat disabled people as children without power or authority by deferring to carers or family members. They see sexualising us as equivalent to sexualising a child. But we are not children. We are adults with sexual desires and sensuality that should be celebrated.
The effects of desexualisation on disabled lives are too numerous to count. It becomes more difficult to develop healthy self-esteem because we are counted out as “undateables”, excluded from sex education that does not consider our needs, and prevented from developing healthy consent practices through the over-medicalisation of our bodies.
Because people assume a lack of sexual capacity or interest in young disabled people, they are often excluded from sex education by inaccessibility or by being neglected entirely. This particularly hurts people with intellectual disabilities who face the brunt of disabled desexualisation. Ill-informed parents and carers may consider this exclusion to be beneficial to the wellbeing of young disabled people, but it causes far more harm than good.
Disabled people are at higher risk of experiencing sexual violence and are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. This could be improved by the provision of accessible sex education that accommodates disabled people’s needs.
We are sexual beings, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes non-disabled people. We are not objects of humour to be mocked on TV shows or fetishes to tick off your bucket list. We have sensuality, sexual interest, kinks, turn-offs, and thrive in sexual situations – as long as we are equipped to do so.
While some fret over whether a picture of a woman with Down’s syndrome in lingerie is going to threaten her wellbeing, disabled people are thrilled to see our bodies sexualised in a safe way. We all deserve to engage in our sexuality freely without judgement from people camouflaging ableist attitudes with patronising concern.
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An array of things, especially society’s deeply ingrained ableism and inadequate standards of sex education, need to be fixed before disabled sexuality is protected and celebrated. But these images from Victoria’s Secret are a crucial step on the long journey we still have ahead of us.
Our community needs the opportunity to be sexualised in safe, consensual and respectful environments – so give us the opportunities. I want to see disabled people strut on catwalks in lingerie, lounge in sexy sets on social media, engage in healthy relationships on TV, and glow on billboards 50 feet high.
Ignorance is feeding the assumption that displaying disabled sexuality is inherently wrong and an abuse of power but trust me, we do not need to stop sexualising disabled people. Na verdade, we need more of it.
In time, we can squash society’s attempts at removing our agency and empower all disabled people with the choice to engage with our sexuality, if we choose to. All I want is for our whole community to be able to scream at the world: we are disabled and sexual.