SHADA meeting in London: from masturbation to sexual citizenship

This past monday was the spring meeting with the Sexual Health and Disability Alliance (SHADA). I’ve attended the meetings twice before and it’s always very inspiring to listen to and discuss with others working in the field of sexuality and disability.

Els Payne and Tuppy Owens from the SHADA board recounted how some members in the Outsiders dating club for disabled people are not able to make the social lunches because they can’t afford the transport. This reminded me of Russell Shuttleworth’s notion of ‘sexual access’, how sex/uality is not an isolated issue but ties into societal inaccessibility and dis/ableism in general. It also shows how current conceptualisation of ‘sexual citizenship’ need to be developed from a disability and accessibility perspective to better capture disabled people’s lived experiences and potential support needs.

Claire de Than, SHADA chair and professor, lawyer and brilliant expert on human rights law and sexuality, reported on a new project that she is involved with together with SHADA member Dr Sarah Earle and the OU Sexuality Alliance, called ‘Talking about…sex: Young people speak out’ supporting young people with shortened lives. This builds upon their previous work with the amazing Guidance and Standards.

Next, Tuppy and Helen Dunman, PSHE and sex and relationships education teacher, talked about masturbation. Tuppy read a section from her book with emphasis on how masturbaton can be understood from a broader view than genital-and-orgasm-focused. Via the Sex and Disability Helpline that she runs she has supported disabled people with advice on how to explore their bodies and sex.

Helen talked about how she teaches her young disabled students about masturbation, many of whom have a combination of learning difficulties, physical impairments and double incontinence. To contextualise their situation further, they often receive around-the-clock support, including with intimate care, giving privacy a different meaning than for many non-disabled people. They can’t always move about on their own, have few opportunities to see themselves naked and to explore their bodies. Helen therefore advocates allocation for every young person time naked, ‘out of the pad’, alone, with mirrors.

Another important strategy is to make sure that the young people have the words and/or symbols for communicating about their bodies and sexualities. For this, staff and parents need to be trained, their support being crucial for assuring privacy and support. For autistic youth putting ‘private time’ in their daily schedule/care plan calms them down, knowing when and how they can masturbate (especially if there’s been problems with over-masturbation).

Finally, I presented the results from my soon-to-be-completed project, which led to great discussions about the policy situation in the UK, how to work through it, and what inspirations there are from other countries.

I’m a bit sad to realise that it’ll not be as easy for me to come to the meetings in the future, as I’ll be going back to Sweden. Maybe online techniques can facilitate attendance somehow – at least I hope so!