As we head toward the Oscars on Sunday, there's one little-noted trend: sex and disability was hot at the movies last year to an unprecedented degree. And not just in degree but in kind. Three major releases prominently featured sexually active disabled people. The narratives range from light to dark, but are all decidedly what one New York Times reviewer called "sex positive." The explicit erotic scenes offered this year between nondisabled and disabled people mark a welcome step forward in how disability and sexuality are portrayed in popular culture
The Sessions is unusual in that sexuality itself is the theme of the film. Mark O'Brien, the protagonist, is a disability rights activist who arranges sessions with a comely sex surrogate (Helen Hunt in an Oscar-nominated performance) so he can initiate a good sex life despite his need to use an iron lung most of the day. Hyde Park on Hudson presents us with a randy and decidedly disabled FDR courting a new mistress and more in his specially outfitted 1935 Ford convertible. Finally the gritty French drama Rust and Bone begins as disability tragedy and moves to a life-affirming love story between a gorgeous double amputee woman and a disaffected but decent bare-knuckle fighter, whose muscled body she grips with her stumps as if she will never let go in the raw and affecting sex scenes.
All three of these films differ from earlier films with disabled characters in that the sex scenes are absolutely explicit -- nudity, orgasms, as well as the unusual and often exotic positions and practices disabilities require. This is a very different picture from the historic view of the disabled as noble but largely asexual. These are not the first films to explicitly look at these issues -- the change began, slowly, in the 1970's with Vietnam War films such as Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July that explicitly confronted the sexual challenges that newly paralyzed war veterans faced. Twenty years later, Forrest Gump and I Am Sam showed us a subtler and more dignified picture of sexuality of people with developmental disabilities.
Even so, the sexuality of the disabled has historically been hidden or nonexiststen in pop culture images. "Sexuality is the hardest thing for disabledm to hold on to," wrote Ellen Stohl, the first disabled centerfold in Playboy Magazine in her letter to Hugh Hefner in 1985. Does having famous nondisabled actors ranging from Tom Cruise and Sean Penn to Marion Cotillard play the sexy disabled in all these films help disabled people hold on to their sexuality? As a disability studies scholar and a person with a disability myself, I think so. By merging celebrity sex and disabledsex, these films help move forward the sexual emancipation of people with disabilities by giving us the kinds of images that popular films have long provided the nondisabled.
Political activism from national grassroots organization such as ADAPT, disability rights leaders such as Judith Heumann and Justin Dart, legal scholars such as Harvard's Michael Stein, pressure from disabled activists and advocates on every social institution from education, transportation, law, medicine, to business and ultimately the efforts in Congress from lawmakers such as Tom Harkin led to antidiscrimination laws, greater inclusion, and new attitudes. Before desegregation legislation such as the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, most people with disabilities were shut out of the public world where we exercise the rights and obligations of citizenship. What's changed since the 1950s is not just attitudes toward sex and disability, but that disabled people are out now -- out on the street, in schools, at work, in bars, everywhere nondisabled people go. Just as most straight people didn't think they knew any gay or lesbian people before the coming-out movement and the push for gay rights, disabled people were in the closet, sometimes quite literally,. For the most part, prior to the 1970's disabled people were at hidden at home with their families, in hospitals, or asylums. With fuller access to the same institutions and as places nondisabled people, people with disabilities are acting on a broader spectrum of rights. Just as many straight people first saw positive gay sex in Brokeback Mountain in 2005, they saw positive disability sex this year for the first time in award winning major films. Just as the gay and lesbian rights movements made possible such progressive stories, so has the disability rights movement and with it the integration of people with disabilities laid the groundwork for this year's sex positive disability films.
Social justice and full equal rights for people with disabilities is still a work in progress. Many disabled Americans still do not have equal access to economic resources and social institutions. and face distinctive challenges in the struggle to be recognized as full citizens. Disability rights leader Judith Heumann affirms that, "Disabled people are no different from any other group around the world. With appropriate opportunities and supports, we are able to contribute to the economic and social well-being of [our] communities." It's good news that three films this year register that recognition of equality and the accompanying entry of disabled people into the mainstream world. Taking down the architectural barriers that kept disabled people out of the public world was the early work of the disability rights movement. Changing attitudes and challenging stereotypes are our current challenges. The image of people with disabilities having hot sex for people with disabilities is a small contribution to this larger goal. An even bigger breakthrough will be when the disabled are more often portrayed by disabled actors -- having sex, having lunch, having lives like everyone else. That day will be even further cause for celebration.