Disabled sexuality is more than what’s on our screens

Improper representations of disability such as desexualization and infantilization plague entertainment media

Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is one of few proper representations of disability in the media. Screenshot courtesy of Freeform

by Alex Masse, Staff Writer

It’s an understatement to say that disabled people and sex have a long, complicated history. In the past, we were victims of eugenics and sterilized against our will. In the present, we’re subjects of ridicule, pity, infantilization, and desexualization, particularly in media. I grimace every time I think about Sia’s new film Music and the “purity” she claims to see in disabled people, and cringe at the idea of yet another film where we’re infantilized by people who don’t care. 

While there’s no single way to be disabled, and not all of us are interested in sex, plenty of us are. Despite what the media portrays, disabled sexuality is a real, tangible reality that can look any number of ways, just like those of us who express it.

For example, I’m autistic. Believe it or not, I’ve been in multiple relationships. I experience sexual desire, and people have sexually desired me. Partially because they don’t know I’m disabled when we first meet, though that just proves my point: we don’t all look a certain way and we can be desirable to abled people. That said, as a neurodivergent person, I’ve faced loads of ableism, especially in the dating scene. I’ve had people outright reject me when I opened up about my mental health, despite us getting along just fine up until that moment. A lot of this distaste has to do with the portrayal of disabled people many grow up seeing on screen, as entertainment media has the power to affect people’s perception of the world. 

In particular, when it comes to how autistic sexuality is portrayed in entertainment media, there’s very little positive representation. The Good Doctor was celebrated for having its titular autistic surgeon admit to watching pornography — we’re so used to being desexualized that this was a big deal. There’s also the other extreme such as in Atypical where the autistic protagonist is shown accidentally hitting a woman during sex. This representation of a man who, through not knowing what he’s doing, harms the woman he’s intimate with isn’t exactly how we want to be seen. 

Honestly, the only times I’ve seen autistic romance and sexuality handled even somewhat maturely are when autistic individuals were involved in the process. For example, the TV show Everything’s Gonna Be Okay features an autistic character played by an autistic actress, and features an entire conversation about autistic people and consent. The character then eventually gets a girlfriend, which as an autistic lesbian made me tear up a bit, especially because of how many of us identify as queer

Even somewhat older shows like Community do a better job of portraying autistic sexuality than some of today’s media. The character of Abed Nadir was allowed to date and have girlfriends, and his story helped Dan Harmon, the show’s creator, realize he was autistic. It wasn’t a perfect show, but it definitely was a huge win for autistic representation. 

Whether people like it or not, disabled folks don’t always look or act how they expect, especially not in the world of sexuality. Anyone can be attracted to a disabled person, whether they were a previous partner, some charming stranger on the bus, or maybe even a celebrity. Daydreaming or falling in love with a disabled person shouldn’t be scary, taboo, or made foreign through the media, the possibility should be a simple fact of life. We’re everywhere, and we’re hot as fuck.