Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Disabled Sexuality, Incorporated: The Compulsions of Popular Romance

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Disabled Sexuality, Incorporated: The Compulsions of Popular Romance

Article excerpt

In light of the recent proliferation of disabled characters in popular romance novels, this article examines the implications for disabled sexuality of increased visibility within the popular romance genre. Focusing on a subset of novels with cognitively disabled characters allows us to see how these narratives move to contain and discipline disability, both by literally and figuratively incorporating it into able-bodiedness, and by rehabilitating it via the transformative power of heterosexual romance. In so doing, these narratives make plain the ideological conjunction between heterosexuality and able-bodiedness; moreover, they demonstrate how visibility within such a popular medium functions largely as an adaptive strategy to contain the threat that disabled sexuality represents, and to impose on disabled people the intertwined ideological demands of compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness. Despite the limitations imposed by these ideologies, both disabled and nondisabled readers often express pleasure at seeing disability represented "realistically" in popular romance; their responses demonstrate how realism can be ideologically coercive, but also suggest a hunger for difference from which disability studies may benefit.

Sexual oppression, Judith Butler observes, "works not merely through acts of overt prohibition, but covertly, through the constitution of viable subjects and through the corollary constitution of a domain of unviable (un)subjects- abjects, we might call them" (312). The sexuality of people with disabilities has historically been controlled through similar overt and covert measures: involuntary sterilization and institutional confinement aimed to eradicate its threat entirely, while relegation to marginal sites like freak shows, fetishistic films, and questionable web sites worked to deny disabled people viable sexual subjectivity.1 Assigned the status of sexual abjects, people with disabilities have often struggled to be recognized as sexual beings.2 Judging from recent trends in popular romance fiction, however, people with disabilities would appear no longer to be "unviable (un)subjects" of romance. Instead, disabled characters abound to the point where All About Romance, an online community of romance readers, can compile a list of 200+ novels featuring "less than perfect" main characters. AAR's list reads like a taxonomy of physical and cognitive impairment: there are blind characters, deaf characters, "simple" characters, "crippled" characters, "deformed" characters, characters with Down Syndrome, Asperger's syndrome, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, club foot, stuttering, arthritis, limping, scarring, paralysis, missing limbs, cancer, neuromuscular disorder, chronic pain, stroke, harelip, prosthetics, and injuries of all kinds. As a departure from historical attitudes toward disabled sexuality, the romance genre's growing obsession with disability poses significant questions. How do these depictions of disabled sexuality revise or channel oppressive attitudes? How are these novels creating and contributing to cultural understandings of disabled sexuality? And, given their burgeoning popularity, what value do disabled and nondisabled readers find in them?

In response to pornographic depictions of disabled women, Barbara Waxman Fiduccia wonders whether disabled women must "retrace the steps nondisabled women before them have taken in order to come full circle into their own sexual entitlement" (277). Waxman Fiduccia's question might be reframed vis-à-vis the situation of disabled people of both sexes: is any representation of disabled sexuality, even representation perpetrated by oppressive institutions, basically a step in the right direction toward "sexual entitlement"? Many romance authors and readers would likely agree, citing such positive side effects as inclusion and increased visibility for disabled people. Without denigrating the benevolent intentions of authors or the very real enjoyment and sense of inclusion some romance readers have expressed, I question the benefits of visibility within such a medium. …

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