Sexual politics in diverse communities

Written by Dr Sarah Marusek

On 3 April 2019, SSP hosted a thought-provoking one day symposium on ‘Sexual Politics in Diverse Communities: Conversations about Theory, Methodology and Practice.’ Bringing together a diverse array of scholars and activists, the speakers addressed important developments in theory, methodology and practice relating to intimate/sexual citizenship, gender, intersectionality, embodiment, dis/ability, sex work and violence.

The concept of sexual politics was first proposed by feminist Kate Millet in her eponymous book, published in 1969. In it, she argued that politics is ‘essentially sexual’ because it is grounded in concepts of the self and citizenship that are based on patriarchal ways of knowing and being. For example, women are traditionally conceptualised as overly emotional bodies, mostly limited to the private sphere, whereas men embody rationality and reason, the defining traits of the public sphere. Meanwhile, LGTBQ+ communities are portrayed as hypersexualised, simply because they have been denied equal rights and so they are forced to demand recognition publicly, giving sexual politics a visible manifestation.

In the era of #MeToo and rising transphobia, one of the goals of the symposium was to identify common grounds for solidarity and collaboration. And there were many, from the failure to recognise non-normative rights to the difficulties vulnerable communities face when trying to establish social networks to reflecting upon the challenges of participatory research paradigms. Another common theme is the importance of thinking about intersectionality when designing and implementing policy options for disabled people.

The symposium marks the end of a two-year Marie Sklodowska Curie Research Fellow Fellowship for Dr. Julia Bahner at SSP. An experienced social worker, Bahner’s innovative project on ‘Sexual Citizenship and Disability: Implications for Theory, Practice and Policy’ looks at how sexuality is conceptualised, and then qualitatively assesses how sexual facilitation to people with impaired mobility is organised, if at all, in the contexts of England, Netherlands and Australia. Prior to this project, Bahner worked closely with disability service providers in Sweden (as well as disability rights organisations) to further their knowledge on sexuality and sexual facilitation, both in theory and practice, in order to aid them in developing their service provision towards a more inclusive and rights-based approach.

We asked Dr. Bahner to tell us a little bit more about the conference and her research.

What were your goals in organising the conference?

Often in academia as well as in civil society we are often divided along ‘identity groups’ even though we often share similar experiences of oppression, othering/misrecognition from mainstream culture, and theorise this in similar ways. I wanted to bring together colleagues within a broader field of sexual politics, who share the will to not only put marginalised voices on the agenda and show that their concerns matter beyond the confines of that particular community, but who also work actively politically and/or with practice. I hoped that this would be a ‘safe space’ to discuss challenges and share experiences that we could learn from and support each other, as well as give an understanding to the audience of the need to move beyond separatism and see that we in fact share much common ground in our endeavours.

What inspired you to make a comparative study?

During my PhD, which was about Sweden, I saw a few examples of ongoing work in Denmark, England, the Netherlands and New South Wales, Australia, that woke my interest. I realised that although Denmark is a neighbouring country to Sweden, the socio-political context for disability and sexuality is very different. I wanted to know more about how different contexts influence disabled people’s opportunities for being supported in their sexual expression, and also how the disabled people’s movement respond to it differently. Centre for Disability Studies (CDS) in Leeds is famous in the international disability studies community so when they were looking for potential research fellows I jumped on the opportunity, not least because of the international profile of the Centre, including many comparative projects where there has been collaboration with disability organisations and aims to develop policy.

What kind of impact has your work had thus far?

In England, I managed to bring together all the disabled people’s organisations that work with sexuality and physical disability issues for a workshop. It was the first time that they were all gathered in one room. Although I’m not certain that there will be a continued collaboration among them, at least not among all of them, at least they now know of, and where to find, each other. In the Netherlands, similarly I’ve gathered different groups working on these issues and there are plans to work towards policy makers to include sexual rights in the ongoing implementation of a new national disability policy. It’s been extremely rewarding to see how my research, and especially the comparative elements, have been found as useful and inspirational by these groups in terms of learning about ways to work with these issues and not having to invent the wheel again.

What is your advice to policy makers?

To not shy away from talking about sexuality and sexual support – although they are private and sensitive issues, staying silent is not helpful, in fact it achieves the opposite. We can only learn and progress to develop better and more ethical and professional practices by discussing difficulties, fears and worries – and possibilities!

What are your future research plans?

I’ve been awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship by the Swedish research council Forte. I will continue my research on sexuality and disability but am branching out a bit in terms of both the subject and the target group. The project is called Sexuality – An Access Issue and seeks to explore disabled people’s lived experiences of barriers to achieving sexual health and wellbeing. It departs from a social understanding of access needs rather than focusing on certain impairment categories, which is often the case in disability research. I aim to also develop our understandings of intersectionality by exploring the diversity within the disability category. This knowledge will be used for the development of an empirically-based theoretical framework for sexual access, which can facilitate implementation of the sexual rights of people with varying access needs, in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). I will use my experience from the Leeds project to develop ways with relevant stakeholders to connect policy aims to lived experiences and to explore how they can be measured, as is often required in implementation.

You can follow Dr Bahner’s work on her Twitter account, @JuliaBahner.