Sexuality conference in Krakow

[Photo description: The conference image depicting two white women in black bathing suits, laughing and holding hands as they run on a sandy beach, with water in the background]

Last week I attended the Midterm Conference of the European Sociological Association’s (ESA) Sexuality Network on the theme ‘Sociological explorations of sexuality in Europe: bodies, practices, and resistance in troubled times‘. It was my first time at a sociology conference so I was very excited – and a bit frightened! Coming from social work, I often felt a bit inferior to the more theoretically aligned sociology, a more ‘scientific’ discipline. But the conference was such a nice community of activist-researchers just like myself, and my theoretical arguments were well-aligned with what was discussed in general. Although disability perspectives were not very common, and not sexual practice that much either, my impression was that people were interested.

[Photo description: Me talking in front of my power point presentation, the slide showing the ‘Continuum of facilitated sex’ as developed by Earle 1999 and Mona 2001. Photo by Ráhel Katalin Turai.]

Compared to the International Academy of Sex Research (IASR) conferences, this conference was also much more focused on sexuality as identity, rather than as practice. In other words, issues around LGBT communities, activism and sexual politics were common. Coming also from a sexological background, these different conceptualisations of the concept ‘sexuality’ is interesting to me. I must say I felt more at home in this more sociological context than the more ‘sexual behaviours’-focused one, which tends to be more interested in physiological and psychological perspectives, using other types of methods than qualitative, which were definitely in majority here.

My presentation focused for the first time in my project on the theoretical side of things: ‘Sexual citizenship and disability: developing theory to better understand practice’:

Disabled people’s sexual rights are not high on the agenda of the disability movement, or in social policy in most European countries. Likewise, inclusion and (re)theorization of sexuality to incorporate disabled people’s sexual practices is lacking in academic work. Disabled people are often de-sexualized and rendered invisible in sexual cultures and imagery. While concepts around sexual citizenship are often based on the LGBT communities’ rights claims, surrounded by a discourse of rejection of non-heteronormative sexual practices, disabled people’s sexual lives are largely unimagined.

This paper addresses these gaps, drawing on two research projects. The first project looked at personal assistance services in Sweden, and more specifically the discourses and practices around sexual facilitation for people with mobility impairments (physical support by staff to facilitate disabled service users’ sexual practices). The second project was a comparative study between England, the Netherlands and New South Wales (Australia) exploring the disability movements’ advocacy of policies around sexual support and sexual rights.

The results highlight a need to reframe concepts around sexual citizenship to better incorporate disabled people’s needs, both in terms of identities and support practices. Rather than fighting against laws that prohibit non-heteronormative sexualities, disabled people struggle for recognition as sexual beings. Their sexual invisibility has led to a lack of training for staff as well as a lack of policies that encourage sexual expression and provide frameworks for sexual support practices and services. Sexual citizenship theory is queer, which disabled sexualities are also often, but needs further intersectional development to incorporate disabled lived experiences.

I also had the pleasure to meet a former Marie Curie-colleague, Giulia Garofalo Geymonat, from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, who researched similar issues but in other countries during. She presented a freshly published paper ‘Disability Rights Meet Sex Workers’ Rights: the Making of Sexual Assistance in Europe‘, which is based on her fieldwork of a sexual assistance organisation in Switzerland. We had a lot to discuss! It’s so interesting how different policy contexts in combination with very particular social movements result in diverse ways of organising sexual support to disabled people. Hopefully we can work together in the future!

There was also a social event for conference delegates that took place at Cooperative “Ogniwo”, a really nice and friendly social space for various social movements and activities. Two activist groups presented their work this night: Strefa Wenus z Milo, an activist group of and for disabled women and their allies that fights for disability rights from a feminist and queer perspective. They read their manifesto for inclusion, participation and equal rights in society, against segregation and discrimination, for independent living, for inclusion and acknowledgment in LGBT communities.

[Photo description: Taken from the side of the stage, where three members of Strefa Wenus z Milo sit in a red sofa, one of them speaking in a microphone, presenting the manifesto. Behind them the manifesto i projected, the slide showing: ‘Down with infantilization! Down with objectification! Down with treating us like children, down with speaking out for us without our consent. The subject of our sexualities is invariably a taboo in the society. We’ve had enough of sweeping our sexual needs under the rug.’]

Another great thing during the conference was that I met new Hungarian colleagues, Ráhel Katalin Turai and Rita Béres-Deák, this time not from disability studies but sociology, gender and queer studies. Overall, it was great to hear about research from Eastern Europe, which is not often in a majority at international conferences, in my experience. So I’m glad to have found this community for that reason as well.

To sum up, it was a lovely conference and I hope I will be able to participate in the future as well!