Sex and Disability ed. by Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow
The cover of Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow’s exciting and theoretically rich anthology Sex and Disability deliberately confounds the eye, deftly transforming signifiers of disability into signifiers of sexuality. What at first glance appears to be a pair of thick black glasses turns out, on closer inspection, to be a lacy black bra. Behind its translucent fabric, the red wheels of a wheelchair are easily mistaken for nipples. Like a classic optical illusion, the continual shifts in perception that the image demands stage a playfully paradoxical relationship between “sex” and “disability.” Both complementary and antagonistic, the cover suggests, these are concepts that have spent too long inhabiting the other’s negative space. [End Page 411]
Drawn by Riva Lehrer, a well-known artist and disability activist (as well as one of the volume’s contributors), the image bears out McRuer and Mollow’s suggestion that disability “has the potential to transform sex, creating confusions about what and who is sexy” and “what counts as sex” (32). In their introduction, the editors challenge the pattern of “approach and avoidance” with which queer theorists have stopped short of fully engaging with questions of ableism. Meanwhile, they suggest, disability scholars’ commitment to identity politics has, at times, foreclosed important discussions about psychiatric impairment, invisible disabilities and deviant sexualities. Claiming the disabled body as a site of pleasure and eroticism, the collection therefore extends an essential dialogue between disciplines that have, for various reasons, been reluctant to borrow from one another’s insights. Though McRuer and Mollow acknowledge that they are not the first to bridge these fields, what they do here, and quite impressively, is to harness the energies of this emerging discourse into a single volume at a defining moment in disability studies and disability culture.
In the opening section, titled “Access,” essays by Tobin Siebers, Russell Shuttleworth, and Michel Desjardins provocatively redefine accessibility by considering the barriers, both physical and ideological, that have resulted in the “imposition of asexuality” onto disabled lives. In the following section, titled “Histories,” Michelle Jarman contributes a thought-provoking piece on the historical interrelationship between “white-on-black lynching and the eugenic castration of cognitively disabled men” (90). The essays in this section initiate a subtle movement away from identity and toward the complicated intersectionalities of race, gender, and nation through which disabled bodies and sexualities have been discursively constructed.
Such constructions, of course, are not without their material consequences, a point that is borne out powerfully in the following section on “Spaces.” In a particularly compelling essay on HIV and cultural responsibility, the late Chris Bell draws upon the work of Samuel R. Delany to critique the cultural panics regarding “intentional” transmission of the virus. Incorporating, alongside of this critical analysis, a set of personal vignettes that recall Bell’s own experiences of paid sexual encounters in various spaces and across diverse geographies, the essay does crucial work for disability in its departure from traditional models of empowerment, representation, and pride.
Indeed, one of the anthology’s most exciting elements is the complicated interplay its essays stage between body theory and embodied experience. The following section, titled “Lives,” extends this commitment, featuring autobiographical essays by disabled artists and performers, including Riva Lehrer and Lezlie Frye. “Your fingers,” Lehrer writes of an encounter with a lover, “snag on my pale hidden skin, startled at the basket weave of scar tissue. Your hands trace the palimpsest forty-three surgeons’ signatures and the imprint of three hundred hospital bracelets” (250). Lehrer’s and Frye’s beautifully unfolding narratives add texture and shading to the collection’s theoretical outlines. [End Page 412]
Because the anthology is committed to resisting the widespread asexualization of disabled subjects, however, it does miss an opportunity to theorize and affirm asexual identities and practices. In the chapter that concludes the “Lives” section, Rachael Groner comes closest to such a discussion in her examination of autism memoirs. Although Temple Grandin “disavows sexuality,” Groner argues, “she nonetheless embraces a form of sexual or sensual expression” that is “disconnected from heteronormative narratives of love and sex” and is therefore “strikingly queer” (275). While Groner’s conclusions about the “queerness” of these narratives is compelling, her tendency to sexualize her subjects’ “disavowal of sexuality,” along with her argument that “people with ASD are neither asexual nor asensual,” (273) seems to exist in tension with the insights of asexuality studies. After all, many people with ASD do identify as asexual, and a small but growing body of scholarship (including the work of Karli Cerankowski, Megan Milks, and Eunjung Kim) has explored the queer and crip contours of such identifications.
The concluding section, titled “Desires,” contains some of the anthology’s most provocative essays. Alison Kafer’s analysis of devotee discourse beautifully balances a discomfort with the rhetoric of devoteeism with a contradictory desire to affirm the sexual desirability of female amputees. In another chapter, Anna Mollow provides an innovative revision of Lee Edelman’s widely debated No Future (2004) that reinterprets “reproductive futurism” as “rehabilitative futurism.” Paired with Lennard J. Davis’s exploration of the diagnostic criteria of sex addiction, the essays in this section work both with and against the grain of disability identity, affirming the category while complicating and questioning its boundaries. In so doing, they powerfully take up McRuer and Mollow’s call for disability studies scholars to allow the “addicts, crazies, compulsives, and sick people” that populate queer narratives to play starring roles in disability studies paradigms. Though only a small handful of contributors engage directly with queer theory—and indeed, the word “queer” is used sparingly throughout—this landmark collection constitutes an important queer intervention in disability studies that will prove useful to scholars of queer theory and sexuality studies alike.