Sexual Invisibility and Disability

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Sexual Invisibility: the feeling that one is no longer a sexual being or that others do not perceive of one as a sexual being.

But actually, now that I think about it, Sexual Invisibility may not just be for the aged. How about disabled people or people that are just not physically attractive or mentally challenged, things like that? People usually don't think of those people in a sexual fashion at all. So you could say that those people are sexually invisible. (1)

These musings from a participant in my research study on Sexual Invisibility and midlife or older adults were eye opening. The suggestion that Sexual Invisibility (SI) may affect other populations had simply not occurred to me and with it a whole new slew of questions; just how many populations might be affected by SI? Older, younger, disabled, racially, ethnically? Were there similarities, differences... correlative or even causal relationships of SI's affect and effect upon these different groups?

For example, where the underpinnings of Sexual Invisibility as regards aging may be largely environmentally formed, that is, learned, modeled, and propagated through family, friends, and media, SI and disability may be a different story.

the sight of a physically-disabled individual rekindles the anxiety associated with death by reminding the non-disabled of his inevitable death... the result is a psychological, social, and physical rejection of disabled persons for their roles in triggering such a course of events. (2)

This quote from Dr. Hanoch Livneh's research may speak to a more biological process. He suggests that we are repelled by a fear of death that we somehow link to physical impairment in others, resulting in a rejection of that person either in part or in whole.

But whether these attitudes, these feelings, are biological or culturally induced does not lessen their impact on ourselves or those we are in relationship with. They are part of a larger psychological process of implicit bias that plays out on a daily basis. Sometimes we become of aware of these subconscious dogmas, but often we use other defense mechanisms to keep them hidden. In this light or dark, Sexual Invisibility may become more of a coping strategy, allowing one to avoid dealing with something they are not ready to address

The Cripples
the sexual problems of the disabled are aggravated by a widespread view that they are either malignantly sexual, like libidinous dwarfs, or more commonly, completely asexual, an attribute frequently applied to the elderly as well... Robert Frances Murphy (3)

Long ago and not so far away I was in the music business and in a recording act called The Cripples... so long ago that the word cripple was still somewhat PC, at least enough to launch a band built on the boast of positive rock and empowerment. The leader of that group was a smart, handsome and powerfully built young man who, as a result of Cerebral Palsy, walked with the assistance of crutches. Of course, as is the case with most folks with CP or other motor challenges, he was 100 percent sexually active and operational. And although he had sex on his mind a lot (and who of us didn't), he was not perverse or libidinous, neither in thought nor deed.

This entree into the world of physical impairment, disability or whatever title we may or may not agree on according to time, space, and temperament was potent songwriter and psychologist fodder. Maybe that is why I was so drawn to it. Why was it OK for folks to just walk up to my friend la dee da and ask him how he got that way without the slightest recognition of, or introduction to, the man before the disability? Why did the waitress in the restaurant always address me first? Did she think I should or would order for both of us? And why did she speak slower and louder to him? Why would some folks treat me like an attendant, assuming I was shuttling my friend around in some sort of caretaker mode (like this guy needed taking care of... he could have wiped out a whole crew of bad guys on his own with those damned crutches and, in fact, he saved me several times from an untimely pounding).

The list goes on, and although it all seemed insulting to my noviced eye, it may have been innocent enough nuisance for an old pro in disability like my friend. After all, he'd spent a lifetime dealing with it and may have regarded these behaviors as petty indulgences to be brushed off like lint on his coat while getting on with the work of the day.

This is where it may get complicated... what a surprise!

First a disclaimer... there were many women, over the years, drawn to my friend's manhood, his sense of humor, wit, charm, and compassion, as well as his less attractive qualities.

However, there were occasions around a woman we shared an interest in when it became obvious that not only did she not regard my friend as an attractive mate, but that she could not or would not even attribute sexuality to him. Admittedly, I didn't spend much time thinking about these un-natural moments... I may have even taken advantage of them. Like I said, we were young sexed up guys and it can be nice to end up with the girl no matter how you got there.

We never spoke of these moments and even now I can only speculate on these assaults on his soul... ones that may not be so easily brushed off.

And for my last number...

Still on some level I got it, and one blustery evening in my tiny Venice crib all those years ago I penned a tune, too small, folksy and personal for a big rock act like The Cripples. I smiled, stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it. I kept thinking about that song while working on this piece; so much so that in a Blues Brothers "I'm putting the band back together" moment I contacted all the players from those wild times, including my manager who arranged for me to go into a studio the very next day and record it... Enjoy!


(1) Robert Lusson, 2013. Invisible: Sexual Invisibility and Baby Boomers

(2) Hanoch Livneh, 1983. Death Anxieties and Attitudes towards Disabled Persons Psychological Reports Vol. 53 (2), pp. 359-63.

(3) Robert Francis Murphy, 2001. The Body Silent. W. W. Norton & Company

Dr. Robert Lusson is a Clinical Psychologist currently living and working in Los Angeles, Ca. He may be reached at