Blog Post

Self-Representation and Sexual Exploration of Disability on Tumblr (some content NSFW)

This post picks up where my last left off: how do we make sense of this idea that even the most well-intentioned forever reblogs, manifest in inspiration porn, might have serious consequences for how we understand and interact with people with disabilities in real life?

Much of the same theory about race and gender can be applied to answer this question. There are, however, startling differences. Take the idea of “glitch racism,” described and challenged most prominently by Lisa Nakamura (1): Glitch racism refers to the inevitability of racism online everywhere. Whether it be in youtube comments or in an article for a reputable news station, someone is bound to say something racially charged and offensive. Unlike glitch racism, which can often be understood as a form of microaggression, glitch ableism usually emerges from well-intentioned sources in, for example, inspiration porn. This view of disability has been adopted by an overwhelming number of people. It is shocking to realize the magnitude of this issue, given the level of dehumanization it necessitates, and how best to get people to question these stereotypes.

So what does this have to do with sex and disability? Let’s start with an example with which many people are familiar:


Image © Disney

Remember that Disney movie about the beautiful woman who fled from her evil stepmother to live in a house in the middle of the woods with seven single men?

Sounds pretty terrifying to..

Oh. But they were dwarves.

(That doesn’t count!)

(Right?)

Disney actually does a decent job of representing the fact that approximately 1 in 6 people in the world has a disability. But that’s pretty much where the accolades end. From lovable Quasimodo to quirky Mama Oldie and terrifying Captain Hook, not a single character with a disability is involved in a romantic relationship (aside unrequited love or symbolically achieving normalcy for love), let alone as characters with any sexuality.

Needless to say, it would be easier to list the group of people Disney “privileges” than all of the people they condemn. Disney is only a corner in the universe of biased representation of acceptable bodies in the media- a topic about which I could write for years (and about which many others have already written). Instead, what I will explore in this post is whether these seeds of impressions of sexual expression among people with disabilities carry over into Tumblr, and thus the consciousness (or subconsciousness) of users, or if that ideology is diverted.

One of the critical roles Tumblr has played in its short history is providing a space for queer sexual expression. Marty Fink and Quinn Miller write that since its inception in 2007, Tumblr has fostered a nontraditional culture of digital self-representation that interrupts an imagined heteronormative, cisgender world (2). On a platform lauded as “. . . a laboratory for sexual experimentation,” where does the sensual disabled body fit in (if at all)? How do users curate eroticism? Does Tumblr offer a vehicle for sexual fulfillment ?

In our physical world, we separate the able-bodied from the disabled through different entrances, buses, classes, seats, etc. The anonymity of Tumblr gives users a unique opportunity: to look, or even, to stare. I have done it, you have done it- endured a fifteen second internal conflict when you see that you are about to pass someone with a physical disability on the street or in a grocery store and you can’t decide if you should look at them and smile or avoid eye contact altogether because you are afraid they’ll think you are staring (but then you catch a glance right as you pass each other). Looking on Tumblr is both a one-way experience of the user looking at images of people with disabilities and a dialogue, in which the user says, ‘this is me and I want you to see.’

And what a better place to start than with Lesbigasm (NSFW). 

20-year-old Jasmine has gathered a following in her two years of tumbling on Lesbigasm. Her blog is not extraordinary; there are plenty of beautiful blogs on tumblr with just the right mix of (following links NSFW) sex, bodies, hair, makeup, fashion, art, tattoos, food, miscellaneous tasteful content, occasional selfies, and rare comical pandas (and other cute animals). But what makes Lesbigasm interesting for this conversation is that Jasmine shares her own body and experiences alongside the ones she reblogs.

Let’s talk about one post in particular:

On February 20th, 2014, Jasmine posted this picture (NSFW), cropped SFW version below:

Under the photo, she wrote:

“I’m more than likely going to get anonymous hate for posting this picture, but before you send please bare in mind the reasons why I adore this photograph.

As many of you know I am disabled, I have a muscle wasting illness called SMA, Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Whenever I look at myself I am presented with my wheelchair; this photograph shows nothing but me. I love my makeup, I love to make myself look sexy, like any female or male.

I love to make myself presentable for my girlfriend and others around me because that is all I have to describe who I am.

My wheelchair doesn’t define me and I am more than certain the people who will see this will say WHAT? SHE’S IN A WHEELCHAIR.. And that is great to hear! I’m not asking for reblogs, all i’m asking for is respect.” 

Jasmine is not on a mission to change perceptions about sexuality and disability, but the fact that it is incredibly rare to see confident, young, sexy people with disabilities representing themselves online means that she is changing perceptions. We now find ourselves in the uncomfortable territory of when it is okay for disability to be inspirational, but stay with me here. The difference is in the fact that the image is of Jasmine representing herself and that its impact is unique from inspiration porn.

We can break down the post's impact in a few ways:

1. Expanding broad boundaries of the sensual body to include disabilities

While we do not know how many people saw the post, we know that a couple thousand people accounted for 4,029 notes (likes+reblogs) to date. We can also be fairly confident that the users who liked or reblogged the image saw the caption (given that to click the like or reblog button using a computer, you have to scroll down past the caption). This was likely one of the first times users considered that a person in a similar image might have a disability. And that’s it- no dramatic change; just a nudge in perception to be more inclusive.

We can see examples of this in the things users added when reblogging the image:

This is beautiful

I liked this picture before I read the caption and now I like it even more :)

Hell yeah.

YOU GO GIRL

You are beautiful. I like your hair heh

so much passion and beauty

Jas is awesome

2. Enabling a sense of solidarity among people with disabilities

The photograph, paired with the caption, did not just affect peoples’ beliefs on an internally- it also spurred dialogue. 

In this terrific reblog, the user writes:

“This!

This is what disability is about: we’re human!

We don’t want pity.

Because pity is taking away all of the things, we are too: beautiful, clever, funny, living, breathing human beings!

We’re silly and go wild sometimes.

And sometimes we’re sad and so tired, we can’t be bothered to open our eyes.

If you are saying: “But me too!” now:

EXACTLY.

Just because we do not wallow in our misery all the time, doesn’t make us less disabled.

Just because we have a bad day, doesn’t mean, we’re only thinking about being sick or missing something or not being able to do something.

There are days, we need to talk about our problems and days, we want go crazy with you.

Just like you. Only with less limbs, less mobility, less sight, hearing or more pain.

But heck, basically we’re nothing but human.

Just like you.”

This post clearly opens the gateway to conversation, which is essential to understanding the images shared.

3. Inspiring other people with disabilities to embrace and share the sensuality of their own bodies

First, a user “came out” as having a disability on Tumblr by reblogging Jasmine’s post. While this puts aside the sensual aspect, it speaks to the opportunity Jasmine’s post created in a space that only barely carries voices of people with disabilities. 

Then there is this lovely addition to a reblog: “Beautiful. I love to see other people’s disabled bodies shown with such self-love. Now I want to show myself off. And love the tats. Rock on, crip sister.” We are in a vicious cycle in which the sexuality of people with disabilities is stigmatized, so we do not learn about it- often not as someone with a disability, nor as someone able-bodied whose future partner may have a disability. Since none of these people are educated and empowered on sex and disability, there is little self-representation, and the cycle continues. Posts like Jasmine’s are critical in breaking this cycle.

This fits beautifully into the ‘love your body’ movement, which encompasses all bodies that are not typically considered sexy. Disability is just a small part of it.

So why is self-representation so important?

Rather than try to answer this alone, I will use the eloquent words of someone who speaks to the subject much better than I could; Geoff, of livingnotexisting.org, writes the following in this killer article entitled Selfies of the Marginalized Body: Acts of Resistance, Disruptions of the Expected:

“Beauty, gendered and sexualized norms are re-imagined through the visibility of selfies. Selfies are a tool for self-representation that challenges the limited definitions of beauty, sexiness, gender and sexuality. Taking selfies is an art but you do not have to be an artist to take selfies. Selfies involve risks. Define your own beauty and take sexy back. Fuck the haters.”

(Now go one over and read the full post)

And now one final question to think about, in preparation for my next post: When does representation and circulation of erotic images of people with disabilities cross the line into fetishization?

 

Notes

1. Nakamura, Lisa. "Glitch Racism: Networks as Actors within Vernacular Internet Theory." Culture Digitally. National Science Foundation, 10 Dec. 2013.

2. Fink, Marty, and Quinn Miller. "Trans Media Moments: Tumblr, 2011−2013." Television & New Media (2013): Sage, 23 Oct. 2013.

 

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2 comments

Hey Meg! 
First off I really enjoyed reading your post. We do so much talk about race and gender in this course and I like how your blog series focuses on another form of human difference, disabilites. Your example about how Disney has handled disabilites was something I had never thought much of before until you have brought it to my attention. Jasmines naked selfie raises some questions for me. She first off assumes that she is going to get anonymous hate for this picture, I am guessing she is expecting slut shaming. But then she goes on to say that before they send her hate, they should consider how she is in a wheel chair and because of this, she is then told she is beautiful rather than being bashed from posting a naked photo. Does disability act as a sheild from anonymous hate? This post seems to  argue that people with disabilites should be treated as human. But all humans are susceptible to anon hate, so why should her disability protect her from this equal treatment? It seems a little contradicting. Maybe this is something you will answer in your next post. I look forward to reading it!

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Hi Meg, thanks for another really thorough and thought-provoking post.

Your last question is definitely something I was thinking about as I read your post. I've seen people on Tumblr post photos of themselves as acts of reclamation or defiance of certain standards, only to be co-opted by, for example, another Tumblr user who reblogs that image onto their porn blog. Is this an inherent contradiction or limitation of platforms that enable and are defined by sharing, dialogue and community? Would it even be desirable to have a platform on which others couldn't respond to my content? 

I'm guessing you've seen this photography project. While I think it is radical and crucial work for bodies that have been desexualized by society to reclaim a right to sexuality and sexual expression, I sometimes wonder about what it means to define personhood through sexuality, that sex (sexual attractivness, agency, expression) is the field that marginalized identities often start with in campaigns for broader recognition and rights. Why is sexual attraction/attractiveness the litmus test for being recognized as 'human'?

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