Sexual Determinism and the Disabled. Pros and Cons  

rm_ArchyNorth 43M
4 posts
7/20/2006 2:40 pm

Last Read:
7/21/2006 7:18 pm

Sexual Determinism and the Disabled. Pros and Cons

Here is the final term paper I wrote for a Human Sexuality course. I was diagnosed with MS in 2003 so this topic touches a little harder now.

Anyway, enjoy and please feel free to comment as I know there is a tonne of information that could be added to this topic.


Risks and Benefits of Sexual Determinism and the Disabled

" Mrs. Jones wants to have a baby -
she says that as a woman its her right -
yes we tried to tell her, I guess that she
forgot -
when she and Mr. Jones were wed -
the doctors tied the knot…"
(Puttin’ up with the Jones, Spirit of the West, 1990)


The rights and freedoms of people with disabilities has been a topic that has caused much debate over the past 100 years. Both historically and to the present day, the lives and freedom of persons with disabilities has been threatened, and in some cases, eliminated by the insensitivity, ignorance, and hostility of those who believe that the lives of persons with disabilities are somehow of less value or quality than those of other people (Budgell, 1993). These negative feelings directed towards people with disabilities have been generated by societies idea of “normalcy” and how people should satisfy an ideal image of a healthy human being.

Within the notion of citizenship, each individual is assumed to possess the characteristics of self-reliance, efficiency and competitiveness (Taylor, 2001). Society tends to equate identity with the body and when someone challenges this notion with a disability, they are seen as abnormal, diseased, deviant, mediocre and of lesser value to society. This “variation” is seen as problematic and undesirable within the construction of normalcy and has been used to rationalize medical attempts to eradicate the difference and render all bodies alike (Taylor, 2001).

Physical and psychological disabilities were considered to be genetically based and were lumped into a category of other socially unacceptable traits. Harry Laughlin’s first major project as the head of the Eugenics Records Office was to draft his Model Eugenical Sterilization Law. The Law encompassed the “socially inadequate” that included: “The feebleminded, Insane, Criminalistic, Epileptic, Inebriated, Diseased, Blind, Deaf, Deformed, Dependent, Orphans, Ne’er-do-wells, Tramps, the Homeless and Paupers”(Lombardo, 2000). The law was passed in 1914 and by 1924 approximately 3,000 people had been involuntary sterilized in America. This sterilization was an attempt to stem the progression of defective genes which were see as a “menace to society” and playing an important part in the transmission of insanity, idiocy, epilepsy and crime…(Lombardo, 2000). Sterilization of people in institutions for the mentally ill and mentally retarded continued through the mid-1970’s, and at one time or another, 33 states had statutes under which more than 60,000 Americans were involuntary sterilized (Lombardo, 2000).

While this figure is disturbing, it pales in comparison to the 350,000 people who were involuntary sterilized by the Nazis in Germany who had adopted Laughlin’s law in 1936 (Lombardo, 2000). With this history of societal attitude towards the disabled, it is easy to see why the debate on the disabled their sexual rights are a difficult, yet very important, discussion for society to be having.


The arguments against sexual determinism fall under 3 main categories: the need to eliminate genetic defects to improve the human race as a whole, the need to reduce the burden on society and the sexual threat that those with disabilities pose.
The ideas that some disabilities are genetic based have been argued in advocating for sterilization and marriage restrictions as “… that each feeble-minded person is a potential source of endless progeny of defect …”(Carey, 2001). These “progeny” will dilute the “purity and potential” of the human race and will perpetuate social and biological phenomena such as illness, disease and deviant behaviour. Many supporters of eugenics, the science used to improve the inherited characteristics, physical and mental, of the human race, believe that a population can “be normed” by selectively eliminating “defectives” (Taylor, 2001). This elimination of the defective genes will make society healthier as a whole.

People with disabilities are seen to be less valuable to society and as a drain to the support systems of society. The disabled are not seen as able to lead “normal” lives and will have to be institutionalized, thereby becoming potential tax burdens and wards of the state (Carey, 2001). “As fewer babies are born with disease and disabilities, the financing and pressure for treatment and research on cures could diminish”(Rocca. N.d.).

Harry Laughlin’s Model Eugenical Law was brought into effect in 1914 around the same time that the U.S. was entering the depression of the 1920’s, and as a result many people were forced into the streets by poverty. The “poor houses” and institutions were filling up and there was a strain put upon the already low state financial resources. Laughlin’s Law was seen as perfect solution to the growing population and was a way for those in power to alleviate the state of the “burden” of care for those they deemed “un-worthy” for society (Taylor, 2000).

“‘Every feeble-minded child is a potential criminal’”(Goddard, 1932:6)(Carey, 2001). This belief is the foundation for the next concern with sexual determinism and the disabled. Intellectually disabled people are sometimes regarded as sexually deviant because they may exhibit socially inappropriate sexual behaviour (Adelaide, 2002).

They have often been denied the rights to pursue social and sexual relationships, and they have often been completely denied sexual education. The idea that those with psychological disabilities are unable to control their sexual desires, have furthered the belief that when a person reaches puberty, they should be put into an institution for their safety and the safety of society (Reinisch, 1990). Health Canada defines normal sexual behaviour as: “sexual behaviour is sexual activity to which participants freely consent, which is carried out within the bounds of ordinary standards of sexual propriety concerning time and place, and which does not exploit or demean any person” (Health Canada, 2000). With the lack of sexual information provided to those with psychological disabilities, many suffer from a lack of limit setting and have poorly developed social skills. This can lead to sexually inappropriate acts, which can constitute a threat to society, and some see the need to “lock-up” them up before the threat is realised (Ticoll, 1997).


The arguments put forth by those who see the benefits of sexual determinism for the disabled tend to be counter arguments to those who wish to deny the disabled their rights. The strongest argument put forth though is from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It states:

Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (Social Development Canada, 2004)
This charter makes everyone who lives under its jurisdiction equal in the eyes of the law and the state. People with disabilities have the same power as every other citizen of Canada to exercise their rights to sexual determinism.

Individuals with developmental delay are often viewed as either sexually impulsive or child-like and asexual, but research on their sexual development and behaviour has shown that people with disabilities are similar to the non-handicapped (Reinisch, 1990). The belief that the mentally handicapped have no control over their sexuality or have higher sex drives is based on false information and myth (Reinisch, 1990).

Sexually inappropriate behaviour may result from environmental restrictions and the lack of proper sexual education. Because society has strong, mostly negative, convictions on the disabled and sexuality, many developmentally disabled are taught that any for of sexual act is wrong. When all sexual behaviour is classified as wrong, individuals with developmental disabilities are not taught to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour (Health Canada, 2000).

It has been shown that those with disabilities are far more likely to be the target of, rather than, the perpetrators of sexual abuse. A study done shows that 39% to 68% of girls with intellectual disabilities will be the subject to sexual abuse before the age of 18 and 16% to 30% of boys will be abused before the age of 18. Though disabled children do need special attention in getting sexual information, those who support the right for sexual determinism believe that educating the developmentally delayed in proper sexual behaviour can solve most sexually inappropriate behaviour (Tiroll, 1997).

In trying to develop the “ideal” body, those who practice eugenics were working to produce a body that would fit into society’s ideals, but was unattainable by human beings as the “ideal” body is a social construct and would be was forever changing (Taylor, 2001). Research has also shown that many disabilities are not hereditary in nature and cannot be eliminated by selective sterilizations and marriage restrictions.

With modern genetic testing, it is possible to test infants and in some cases foetuses for the genetic signatures for disabilities. These tests allow the parents to find out if their child is born with a disability, then they can decide to terminate the life. Even though genetics scientist Francis Crick stated: “No newborn infant should be declared human until it has passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment and that if it fails these tests it forfeits the right to live”(Wolbring, 2001), this fact can be very dangerous for those with disabilities and for society in general. To terminate a life on the possibility of a difficult life for the child or the parents diminishes the value of that life and denies the Childs basic rights to life. It is also easy to see how such test could screen for race, sex, colour, hair type, foot size and any other attribute that is undesirable to society at the time.

When people with disabilities are empowered and educated they can become valuable members of society and will not be a drain on society. With over 600 million persons, constituting about 10% of the world’s total population, suffering from some type of disability (HCHR, 2001), society would be lose a great resource if they ignored or shunned those with disabilities.

My Thoughts

As someone with a disability and with strong convictions as to what is right and wrong about societies views and attitudes towards those with disabilities, I had a difficult time being objective about the topic. After writing this paper though, I’m finding my convictions to be a little weaker as the arguments on both sides of the topic had compelling issues.

The disabled should be allowed to express their rights to sexual self-determination after they have had full education on sexual behaviour. This should be the same rights for the “able” bodied as well as sexual education is the single most important tool available to society when combating inappropriate sexual behaviour. The education should be holistic because if sex and disability are discussed, it is in the terms of capacity, technique, and fertility … with no reference to sexual feelings. This approach ignores other aspects of sexuality, such as touching, affection and emotions (Adelaide Hospital, 2002). By looking beyond the physiological aspects to sex, you are able to prepare people better for the task of being a good sexual partner.

Having a disability should not always be an excuse for inappropriate sexual behaviour, but it is also not an excuse to automatically incarcerate a person in an institution. Because of the society’s difficulty in accepting the disabled and their sexuality, proper programs of sexual education have not been formed and this lack of education is seen by many to be the main problem behind inappropriate behaviour (Ticoll, 1997). Disabled children may not get the opportunities others do to learn and practice the social skills involved in meeting and dating potential partners (Reinisch, (1990) but if given proper sexual education and chances to socialize with peers, there is no reason why someone with a disability cannot lead a full sexual life.

An argument has been raised that people with disabilities cannot make effective parents. If someone with a disability has the proper education and support from family, peers or professionals they can effectively raise children, and with more than 8 million families in the U.S. that has at least one parent with a disability (Parents, n.d.), people are showing that everyday.
The social model of disability sees disability mainly as a socially created problem as a matter of full integration of individuals with different biological realities and abilities into society. Disability is not seen as an attribute or defect of an individual, but as caused by the reaction of society towards the biological reality of the individual (Wolbring, 2001). This is an excellent goal for society to work towards and one of the most important things society can do meet this goal is provide broad education on disabilities to the general populace. This way the myths and misinformation can be dispelled and those with disabilities can become full, active and participating members of society.

"… Mr. Jones is not like you or me -
lock him up tight -
cause if he had the chance he might -
show us that we're wrong -
and that's the one thing we can't be …"
(Puttin’ Up with the Jones, Spirit of the West, 1990)

angelofmercy5 59F
17881 posts
7/20/2006 9:17 pm

Welcome to the blogs! I have mixed feelings about this one. You presented it all very well. Hey! Come on over and register for the last moments of CAMP APHRODISIAC...........Get Excited!!!!

rm_ArchyNorth 43M

7/20/2006 9:53 pm

Thanks for the comment angelofmercy5,

I still have mixed feelings about this as well. Even though I am fully "able-bodied", I still have a disability and this topic cuts a little deeper now.

I wish I had more time to research this paper as I know there is a lot more information available on this topic. I was given a decent mark for this paper, so the "professional" though I did a good job as well.

Thanks again for your comment and invite.


rm_AnOddGirl 57F
3469 posts
7/20/2006 10:34 pm

My bestest friend in the whole world just got diagnosed with MS, dayum it...


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