Some Notes on Eugenics

Osagie Obasogie, Professor at the University of California Hastings Law School, says it well in this sweet new 4-min video by the Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) in Berkeley:

“When I speak with colleges, grad students and professional schools, and I ask them about the eugenics movement, oftentimes they’re not aware how much that movement originated in the United States. Having this deeper context to understand this long history of science being used or misused and abused to justify the oppression of other groups is important to understand how what many people consider to be good intentions can often have bad outcomes for certain populations and certain groups.”



In “Race Under the Microscope,” Emily Beitiks with Biopolitical Times asks us:

“How and why do long-discredited biological explanations of socially-defined race maintain a presence within scientific and medical research? How do misguided research practices and policies lay foundations for technologies, discourses and public understandings that foster biological assumptions about race?”

Why I am glad you asked, Emily. Significantly, what is at stake in a given project like eugenics depends upon the conditions of its arrival. So let’s start with the basics: Sir Francis Galton is known as one of the “founding fathers” of eugenics, he’s also Charles Darwin’s cousin–you know, Darwin, (thinking back to high school biology…) evolutionary theorist, known for his work on what he calls “natural selection.”

Galton claims: “Eugenics is the study of all agencies under social control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.”

What were some founding goals of U.S. Eugenics at the turn of the twentieth century?

  • Create a superior Nordic race.
  • Sterilize 14 million in the U.S. and millions worldwide.
  • Eradicate the “lowest tenth” until only Nordics left.

U.S. Organizations and Funders
Organizations:

  • American Breeders Association, 1903.
  • J. H. Kellogg’s Race Betterment Foundation, 1906.
  • Eugenics Record Office, 1910.

Eugenic record office

  • Galton Society, 1918.
  • American Eugenics Society, 1921.

Gilded Age Funding:

  • Harriman family (railroad).
  • Rockefeller (Standard Oil), also funded Nazi program.
  • Carnegies (steel) funded Cold Spring Harbor, NY eugenics laboratory.

Eugenic Leaders

  • Charles Davenport: zoologist and biologist, wrote the book Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911) where he surmises that “all men are created bound by their protoplasmic makeup and unequal in their powers and responsibilities.”
  • Harry Laughlin: publicist, known for his unrelenting advocacy for U.S. eugenic policies of compulsory sterilization legislation. He bethinks, “In the long run, military conquest by a superior people would be highly preferable to a conquest by immigration by peoples with inferior stock endowments.”

Racial Classifications
“Dysgenic”

  • Immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (enacted strictest immigration laws ever).
  • People of color in the U.S. (segregation and miscegenation laws – sterilization).
  • “Feeble-minded,” poor, uneducated, people with disabilities, blind, deaf, “promiscuous” (segregation and sterilization).

Slight detour: linking the past to the present. Disability, deviance, and “feeble-mindedness.”

  • As a historically contingent and contradictory process, the threat of deviance is stereotyped and pathologized as the cause of criminal and immoral behavior, thus in need of discipline and control so that one’s “deviance” may be protected from society and moreover so society be protected from non-normal bodies and minds. For instance, eugenic ideology renders neurological variations as pathological cognitive impairment, or what is currently known as developmental disability, which presumes an inherent inferiority in mindedness.
  • In her essay “Docile Bodies, Docile Minds,” Licia Carlson investigates the ways in which institutions and asylums at the turn of the twentieth century depended upon and perpetuated the contingent nature of contradictions within the category of mental retardation itself. She writes, “The institutions, as protective and productive sites of disciplinary power, perpetuated the view of feeblemindedness as both a helplessly static fate and an improvable, dynamic condition.” Historically it is believed that, as pathology, such non-normalcy is a hereditary “helplessly static fate” and thus reproducible; hence the hyper-regulation and disciplining of non-normal bodies working through sexuality and reproductive capacity (like Harry Laughlin’s proposed legislations around compulsory sterilization). Pervasive reproductive surveillance of cognitively disabled people continues today, portraying people with neurological variation as infantile sub-humans who remain “unfit” to be proper parents.

“Eugenic”

  • Eugenicists believed in an extremely narrow definition of “fitness.” A eugenic family was (according to THEIR definitions!) intelligent, healthy, Nordic (or at least Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon), and prolific breeders.

Social context: Immigration
Massive immigration: fears of disease, many Americans feared labor competition from cheaper immigrant labor, rise of socialism, labor unrest (hmm… sound familiar? U.S./Mexico border, anyone?).

Immigration Laws
1920, Eugenicist Harry Laughlin testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization.

  • “Immigrant women are more prolific than our American women.”
  • Immigrant “blood” threatened to “weaken the stock” of Americans.

Immigration Restriction Act of 1924

  • Halt the immigration of supposedly “dysgenic” Italians and eastern European Jews.
  • Number of immigrants from each country in proportion to their % of the U.S. population 1890 census (northern and western Europeans).
  • Quota of southern and eastern Europeans reduced from 45% to 15%.
  • Repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Eugenics Popularization: Church, EDUCATION, Fairs, Films, Conferences, Books.

Prestigious U.S. universities like Stanford, Yale, Harvard, The University of Chicago, and Princeton were pioneers in eugenic “scientific” knowledge production, and many eugenic practices continue today in genetic testing.

Eugenics and disciplinary knowledge production

Fitter Families Contests, from eugenicsarchive.org:

  • When one considers the strong contribution of agricultural breeding to the eugenics movement, it is not difficult to see why eugenicists used state fairs as a venue for popular education. A majority of Americans were still living in rural areas during the first several decades of the 20th century, and fairs were major cultural events. Farmers brought their products of selective breeding — fat pigs, speedy horses, and large pumpkins — to the fair to be judged. Why not judge “human stock” to select the most eugenically fit family?
  • This was exactly the concept behind Fitter Families for Future Firesides — known simply as Fitter Families Contests. The contests were founded by Mary T. Watts and Florence Brown Sherbon — two pioneers of the Baby Health Examination movement, which sprang from a “Better Baby” contest at the 1911 Iowa State Fair and spread to 40 states before World War I. The first Fitter Family Contest was held at the Kansas State Free Fair in 1920. With support from the American Eugenics Society’s Committee on Popular Education, the contests were held at numerous fairs throughout the United States during the 1920s.

Texas State Fair, large family winner of the Fitter Families Contest, 1925

  • At most contests, competitors submitted an “Abridged Record of Family Traits,” and a team of medical doctors performed psychological and physical exams on family members. Each family member was given an overall letter grade of eugenic health, and the family with the highest grade average was awarded a silver trophy. Trophies were typically awarded in three family categories: small (1 child), medium (2-4 children), and large (5 or more children).
  • All contestants with a B+ or better received bronze medals bearing the inscription, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.” Childless couples were eligible for prizes in contests held in some states. As expected, the Fitter Families Contest mirrored the eugenics movement itself; winners were invariably White with western and northern European heritage.

Let’s conclude with some Edwin Black:

Hitler and his henchmen victimized an entire continent and exterminated millions in his quest for a co-called “Master Race.”
But the concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race didn’t originate with Hitler. The idea was created in the United States, and cultivated in California, decades before Hitler came to power. California eugenicists played an important, although little known, role in the American eugenics movement’s campaign for ethnic cleansing.

An Open Letter of Inquiry to the Craftspeople of Thomas Fetterman Incorporated on Behalf of The Alisha Maria Vasquez Crutch-Queen Chip-In Fund

Hello Thomas Fetterman Inc.,

My name is Brooke Willock and I am writing on behalf of my best friend Alisha Maria Vasquez in regards to your handmade custom design crutches.  Alisha has been disabled since birth.  She was born with a short left leg, and had about twenty surgeries between the ages 5 and 15 in her life to lengthen her leg six inches, to be only 3 inches shorter than her right leg (had she not had the surgeries, it was predicted that her left leg would be 12 inches smaller than her right).  Alisha has been on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) since childhood to help pay for health insurance.  For most her life she’s used hospital-grade run of the mill crutches whose tips always break and are so squeaky I always know when she’s coming home from school I can hear her three city blocks away it seems.  She’s starting to hunch over more and is in chronic neck/back/hips/knee pain nearly everyday, and she’s had callouses forming on her palms for years and year.  She jokes that she has callouses forming on her callouses.  We learned about your company in an advertisement in New Mobility: Life on Wheels magazine, and to be honest did not expect to find such beautiful, durable, and serious crutches.  I truly believe that Alisha deserves a pair of crutches just like the ones you all craft.  If she needs these adaptive devices on a daily basis–it’s like a part of her embodiment–shouldn’t she have some of the best kind out there?  She just turned 27 in November 2011 and has a long life ahead of her.  I think these crutches would be great for her.

All that said, I would like to inquire about two things in particular regarding this investment.  If the crutches are custom-made and non-adjustable, then what happens when she wants to wear some high heals and she’s suddenly grown 3-4 inches?  We’re also concerned about any insurance package in the possible instance of such lusty crutches being stolen, like when Alisha goes out dancing and leaves her crutches leaning against the wall near the corner unattended.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration, it is greatly appreciated.  We look forward to hearing form you.

In gratitude,

Brooke Willock

Above:

Custom Wooden Underarm Crutches by Ed Openshaw

Wood underarm crutches are steam bent and locked in the forms for several weeks to keep the elegant shape.  Ed Openshaw then uses a drawknife to hand form the taper of the crutch.

These crutches come complete with your choice of my Slim-Line or Rubber Underarm Pads.  Be sure to state your choice when ordering.

Poron Crutch Hand Grips have a tough PVC vinyl shell covering a shock absorbing polyurethane closed cell sponge center giving you a comfortable hand grip that is easy to clean and prevents skin sheer.  Your choice of my patented Tornado and Performance gel tips have Absorbalite™ gel polymer inside. Absorbalite™ gel has the ability to eat shock by transforming it into heat energy instead of transmitting it up the crutch shaft into our upper bodies.  Reducing these negative ground impact forces will help mitigate overuse syndrome keeping us vertical into the future.

Ed crafts this classic style wood crutch from hand selected Rosewood, Oak or Rock Maple.”

Above:

Aluminum Underarm Crutches

LiteStix Aluminum custom Underarm crutches are shock-absorbing, durable, silent and strong.

This handsome underarm crutch is made by TiSport and will provide you with state of the art comfort, function and good looks. It is custom made to fit the measurements you supply. Like all our custom crutches they never make a sound because there are no adjustment holes to egg-out and rattle. They are built-to-last and to make you last. The underarm piece is hand fashioned from 1″ aluminum tubing.

Even the handles are welded. They are a generous 4-1/2” wide rather than the standard 4″. The handgrips are my new durable Saddle Grips made with black natural cowhide leather wrapped over a shock-absorbing cellular urethane pad.

My patented Tornado GT or Performance GT gel tips have Absorbalite™ gel polymer inside. Absorbalite™ gel has the ability to “eat shock” by transforming it into heat energy instead of transmitting it up the crutch shaft into our upper bodies. Reducing these negative ground impact forces will help mitigate overuse syndrome keeping us vertical into the future. LiteStix Aluminum Underarm Crutches come complete with your choice of my new Slim-Line or Rubber Underarm Pads.”

Theory in the Flesh: Mixed-Ability Organizing, Access Needs, and Internalized Ableism

“A theory in the flesh means one where the physical realities of our lives—our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings—all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity.”

This Bridge Called My Back

Last week at Sins Invalid we had our second mixed-ability conversation.  Sins is a San Francisco/Bay Area based performance project that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists as members of communities who have been historically marginalized.  Our performance work explores the themes of sexuality, embodiment and the disabled body.  Conceived and led by disabled people of color, we develop and present cutting-edge work where normative paradigms of “normal” and “sexy” are challenged, offering instead a vision of beauty and sexuality inclusive of all individuals and communities.

Our first mixed-ability conversation was about five to six months ago in the fall.  These conversations are internal to the organization, and are co-facilitated by two incredible organizers in the Bay Area: Malachi and Stacey.  Malachi is down for fun shit like justice and ‘is active in organizations serving low-income queer and transgender formally or currently incarcerated people, sits on a few boards, does free consulting for community organizations who are broke but are changing the world and believe that no one should be tossed away’ (from the Burns Institute site).  Stacey aka cripchick is a disability justice activist and organizer for the National Youth Leadership Network, an organization that builds power among people with disabilities between the ages of 16-28 years old in order to support young people in their role as the next generation of leadership in the Disability Rights Movement.  Last fall I collaborated with Stacey in developing a Sins workshop about new media, disability justice organizing, and accessibility.  She facilitated the workshop and I planned and promoted it.

It might be an obvious claim to say that Sins Invalid, as an organization, takes disability justice seriously.  What may not be so obvious is the deliberate labor that must be built in to the praxis of such theoretical frameworks.  This is what our mixed-ability conversations are for: collaboratively building an approach towards increasing accessibility, towards making a space where we can co-exist as uniquely embodied subjects as we work to maximize our own skills—as they are—and develop them as such.  Developing our skillsets as they are in relation to our embodied selves: in a way that is sustainable, accountable, responsible, and interconnected.  This is enormously challenging and ambitious.  I think our intentional inclusion of the co-facilitators shows the ways in which Sins takes seriously that which is otherwise too often irritably dismissed by the larger social justice culture of the Bay Area, and the U.S. more broadly: what it means to do mixed/cross-ability organizing, how, and why.  That said, this is what I have been thinking about: what does it mean to develop our skillsets as they are in relation to our complexly embodied selves—in a way that is sustainable, accountable, responsible, and interconnected—in the context of access needs and internalized ableism?

Four-hour time blocks have been scheduled for each facilitated conversation.  Six people total are involved in this collective dialogue: Patty and Leroy—the fabulous co/founders of Sins, Nomy Lamm, the facilitators, and myself.  Nomy is a queercrip fat Jewish cultural activist.  S/he’s a Sins Invalid performer, and a Creative Writing MFA student at SFSU.  Her fantastical queercrip world-making creativity permeates all that she does as a cultural activist: s/he writes, performs, sings, is a musician, and directs SinsArtist in Residence program.  We meet at ‘Sins Central,’ with homemade goodies in tow.  Patty makes the best chili for us with diced onion and bell pepper, chopped chard stems and carrots, mustard and maple marinated tempeh, pinto beans, tomatoes, oregano from her yard, cumin and a ton of garlic served with sauerkraut, chives, and homemade cornbread.  Theory in the flesh requires that we nourish our flesh, indeed.

I juxtapose access needs with internalized ableism because in the context of disability justice praxis, the two are so bound up with each other in complicated, nuanced ways that to think we can talk about one without the other is simply a mistake—an oversight.  From the disability rights movement of the 70s and 80s, access needs typically fall into a liberal reformist framework, delimiting the radical potential of such a concept.  Certainly this is not to dismiss the hard work, lessons learned, and legislative milestones such as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  What I’m interested in thinking about are the ways in which the state works to keep the idea of ‘access needs’ in a single-issue political framework, whereby our imaginations become restricted to thinking about access solely in terms of curb-cuts, ramps and handicap parking.  Clustered together in our meeting space at Sins, Patty makes this crucial point:

“In capitalism, the fact that you have a ‘need’ is like an overall net drain, as though we’re somehow not going to be worthwhile.”

Patty’s analysis politicizes the idea of ‘access needs’ by calling into question the very systems that produce ‘needs’ as net-drain in the first place: capitalist political economy and its construction of disability.  In other words, the normalization of society’s inaccessibility posits ‘access needs’ as an individual problem to be overcome.  Generally speaking, the disability rights movement prides itself on this overcoming through its precarious integration into an ADA-compliant ableist society.

Policymaking and development around societal issues of accessibility and universal design only go so far if we do not ask at least two things: why are people with disabilities systematically marginalized to begin with, and secondly what effects has systematic marginalization had on the subject formations of such a heterogeneous constituency?  Patty’s politicization shows how capitalism not only stigmatizes accessibility in terms of cost benefit analysis but also how through such stigmatization, the bodies associated with access needs become devalued in terms of capitalist ideas of production and worthwhile-ness.  Meaning, neoliberal capitalism renders disabled people second-class citizens, essentially sub-human status.  It is this connection to internalized ableism that I have been thinking about: what does it mean to articulate ‘access needs’ from the standpoint/sitpoint of people with disabilities who have otherwise been subjected to ableist violences that demean the notion of access, and how does this impact mixed-ability organizing?  From here, Patty makes another critical point:

“Internalized ableism is a way to police bodies through shaming.  And then, intersections of race, gender, and class might exacerbate the shaming of internalized ableism.”

This particular moment in the discussion is where my own thoughts are still wading—or, more like treading—in deep ocean water far from the shore with strong currents pushing salt water into my mouth and up my nose as I struggle to keep my head above the tide.

In her recent blogpost “More on radical love- the gift of interdependency,” Wheelie Catholic (Ruth) beautifully illustrates what it means to do mixed-ability praxis.  She writes, “I recall years ago when a friend sent her teenage son over to volunteer to help me with some physical tasks.  He lacked confidence because he was dealing with a learning disability in school.”  Ruth situates her story in the context of access and internalized ableism.  Disability shame is at work here: this young man lacks confidence—feels badly about himself—as though there’s something about him that’s not good enough (according to dominant, colonialist pedagogies).  There’s nothing inherently not good enough about him, he’s only not good enough according to capitalist standards: in order for capitalism to continuously reproduce itself, it needs docile bodies and minds to fill the cogs in its machine.  This shame works to stigmatize his disability so that the violences of ableist subjection and rehabilitative discourses seem justified in the name of for-profit productivity and so-called ‘freedom.’  Ruth explains:

“I told him to concentrate on what he could do well rather than dwelling on what he could not.  Although it’s fine to encourage someone to work on skills, it’s really important to emphasize what they are good at.”

Ruth speaks to the importance of meeting folks where they’re at in terms of maximizing our own skills as they are.  This is a politic born out of necessity.  Feels-like-drowning but then we nourish the pained flesh and catch our collective breath.

Allies Not Excuses

Allies Not Excuses

Disabling the “Choice Paradigm” in the Abortion Debate and Enabling Complexity

Okay, so I am trying to contain my excitement.  But who am I kidding?!  Enerfly, a new social networking and social movement site for disability, just released my first e-publication outside of my sweet WordPress blog.  HOLLA!

Here’s the awesomeness, re-posted for your reading pleasure and for the sake of my own little e-archive:

The Pro-Life Action League made their annual appearance at my campus this week.  As they were obstructing my path to class, I held up a folder against my face in protest while I quickly walked passed.

Pro-life versus pro-choice.  Reproductive rights versus reproductive justice.  What’s the difference?

Native sovereignty activist and scholar Andrea Smith argues that “a reproductive justice agenda must make the dismantling of capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism [and ableism!] central to its agenda…We must reject single-issue, pro-choice politics of the mainstream reproductive rights movement as an agenda that not only does not serve women of color [and women with disabilities] but actually promotes the structures of oppression which keep women of color [and women with disabilities] from having real choices or healthy lives.”[i]

Native sovereignty issues are also disability justice issues.  The potential for radical coalitional work here is profound.  But, more on that later.

When it comes to disability, the mainstream reproductive rights movement simply isn’t enough.  Not only is it not enough, but as Andrea Smith points out, it actually promotes the structures of oppression by not confronting the systemic root causes of disabled women’s health and wellness.

Can disabled women be mothers?  Can nondisabled women, or disabled women, knowingly carry to term a fetus with “defective genes”?

With the historical legacy of eugenics, and interlocking systems of oppression, these are difficult questions that the reformist binary of pro-life vs. pro-choice cannot “answer.”

Caroline, a wheelchair-user, reflects on her experiences with doctors regarding reproductive issues: “To acknowledge what I feel I have been denied is almost too painful to think about.  It’s safer to tell myself that I don’t want to have children anyway.”[ii]  Among the friends, family, and physicians of disabled women who were surveyed in a research study, three fourths “believe that maternal disability is cause enough to restrict childbearing.”[iii]

The struggle with reproductive issues has been a significant aspect of disability justice projects since the 1970s disability rights movement.  Ujima, disabled at the age of twelve, testifies in her early forties, that “there are people out there who think that they have the right to tell you that you shouldn’t [have a baby] simply because you’re disabled.  Many years ago I had an abortion that I didn’t really want because everyone I told…all said that it would be wrong for me to go ahead with it.  At the time I remember my doctor telling me that I should consider being sterilised so that I wouldn’t make the mistake of having another unwanted pregnancy, but the fact is that I did want it and have been wanting to have another baby ever since.”[iv]

Many disabled women have spoken out against the forced sterilization and abortions they have experienced, and against the nonconsensual use of Depo-Provera, a birth control hormone injected every three months, by both doctors and personal assistants.  Yvonne Duffy, a self-identified  “severely disabled” wheelchair user who contracted polio at age two, “was particularly disappointed” when she learned that a “prominent advocate of sex education for the [cognitively disabled] suggested injections of Depo-Provera as birth control for those of us who cannot manage it [sexual intercourse, menstruation and changing pads/tampons regularly] for ourselves.”[v]

The elusive history of U.S. eugenics underlies much medical research and actions towards disability and reproduction, and permeates in genetic research today.  On selective abortion and disability, feminist biologist Ruth Hubbard notably begs the question, “Who should and should not inhabit the world?”  Hubbard examines current situations surrounding selective abortion where pregnant women are required to sign either “yes” or “no” to prenatal testing which tests women’s fetuses for various “disabilities.”[vi]  If a woman “chooses” to test, and her tests are “positive” (Hubbard discusses the major discrepancies and unreliability of many of these tests in terms of their results), then the woman is left to “decide” whether or not to “burden” society with a child with a supposed disability.  Hubbard discusses the underlying eugenic ideologies at length and how today’s rhetoric “of the concern for the quality of life” in genetic testing and research, and in many other public sectors as well, is like the “arguments about lives not worth living.”[vii]  Ever heard the horrible ableist statement, “I’d rather die than be disabled”?  Such sentiments are directly reflective of the root causes that reproductive justice campaigns need to tackle.

Importantly, disability reproductive justice campaigns and activists need to be vigilant about co-optation by nation-state and pro-life interests.  Just on September 2, 2011, The Pro-Life Action League published an article praising a mother for “choosing” life for her conjoined twins.  This is a stark example of pro-life co-optation of disability reproductive justice issues.  The rhetoric of “choice” is individualist language that functions to mask underlying structural oppressions which greatly impact reproductive issues for disabled women, women of color, and nondisabled women with “disabled” fetuses.  Native sovereignty activist Andrea Smith argues that the

“consequence of the “choice” paradigm is that its advocates often take positions that are oppressive to women from marginalized communities.  For instance, this paradigm often makes it difficult to develop nuanced positions on the use of abortion when the fetus is determined to have abnormalities.  Focusing solely on the woman’s choice to have or not have this child does not address the larger context of a society that sees children with disabilities as having lives not worth living and that provides inadequate resources to women who may otherwise want to have them.”[viii]

It is not simply a matter of “choice” for abortion or for life; several critical factors come into play such as the historical context of eugenics, structural issues such as healthcare, educational opportunity, community support and accountability, which, although the woman “chose” to have her conjoined twins, by staying within the paradigm of choice The Pro-Life Action League does not take into account root causes that shape reproductive issues especially surrounding disability.

Image featured in my Enerfly article


[i] Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005, 104-105.

[ii] Shakespeare, Tom, Kath Gillespie-Sells, and Dominic Davies. The Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires. London and New York: Cassell, 1996, 15.

[iii] Waxman, Barbara Faye. “Commentary on Sexuality and Reproductive Health.” Women with Physical Disabilities: Achieving and Maintaining Health and Well-Being. Eds. Danuta M. Krotoski, Margaret A. Nosek, and Margaret A. Turk, eds Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1996, 182.

[iv] Gillespie-Sells, Kath, Mildrette Hill, and Bree Robbins. She Dances to Different Drums: Research into Disabled Women’s Sexuality. London: King’s Fund Publishing, 1998, 12.

[v] Duffy, Yvonne. All Things Are Possible. Ann Arbor, MI: A.J. Garvin and Associates, 1981, 24.

[vi] Hubbard, Ruth. “Abortion and Disability: Who Should and Should Not Inhabit the World?” The Disability Studies Reader, Third Ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York and London: Routledge, 1997, 114-18.

[vii] Hubbard, 117.

[viii] Smith, 100.

“Phantom Orgasms”: Cripping the “Evolutionary Mystery” of Female Sexuality

This post was also published on Feministing‘s Community Blog. =)

Cripping: like the analytic of “queering,” cripping centralizes disability in analyses that otherwise often remained “normed.”  Importantly, through its critical deconstruction and analytical awesomeness, cripping also tries to make new meaning, or rather, help us understand meanings in other ways that do justice to marginalized experiences.

How do we understand female orgasm?  It is easy for us to resort to science when such a paradox comes to mind–and, of course, it is easy for us to picture the normalized white, nondisabled young female when we try to imagine the possibilities of female sexual pleasure.

Wired magazine is an award-winning site about technology and culture that reaches masses and masses of online users, in the U.S. and globally.  According to Alexa.com, a web information company, Wired is ranked #650 in the world, and #326 in the U.S.  The time spent in a typical visit to the site is about three minutes, with 76 seconds spent on each pageview.

With so much user traffic, what is Wired writing about that’s so captivating?  *Drumroll please* …announcing, the world’s greatest mystery to science: female orgasm.

Female Orgasm Remains an Evolutionary Mystery” – pronounced in big, bold letters as one of today’s main headlines on Wired’s homepage, next to another featured techy article titled, “Amazon’s Future is So Much Bigger Than A Tablet.”  In about 500 words, Wired writer Brandon Keim reports on how the “female orgasm has resisted yet another attempt to explain its elusive evolutionary origins.”  Nearly 100 comments have been posted following the article in the 6 hours since the piece was published.

Look, feminist writing on this topic is old news.  Old news.  We know that “orgasm,” or female sexual pleasure, cannot be explained by science, evolution, and pathology alone.  For science to deduce female sexual pleasure to evolutionary reasoning is in and of itself a hetero-patriarchal move.  But Wired apparently doesn’t realize that (maybe because they’re hetero-patriarchal?).  Plus, the site needs viewers/readers, so it can make more money, I get it, so they pull out an old topic for debate that people love to joke about, yadda yadda, I get it.  There’s “new scientific findings,” etc and etc.

So, in light of all the serious, rigorous research and analyses out there by feminist scholars, activists, and writers (do the research yourself, even though unfortunately Brandon Keim can’t hone his skills to properly research issues he writes about, which is why I am here in attempts to hold him accountable), I am going to take a slightly different spin on my feminist analysis on this age-old mystery of female sexuality.  I am going to crip it.

Science and medicine has a pervasive history of pathologizing deviant bodies (like Black men and women, like women in general, like people with disabilities) and its technologies pursue today.  A classic example of this is doctors trying to use the authority of science/medicine to examine Sarah Baartman’s “oversized clitoris” and attributing her features to pathological Black female hypersexuality.  This pathologization not only masks the root causes of violence against women (and women of color in particular), but justifies it (“she was asking for it”).  Again, lots of radical feminist analysis on this issue of dominant science and female sexuality.  In a similar yet seemingly subtle manner, the article on Wired perpetuates longstanding ideological assumptions of hetero-patriarchy in understandings of sexuality and orgasm.  Brandon writes, “Also perplexing is that many women require clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm, not penetrative action.  If female orgasms were meant to encourage sex, the opposite ought to be true.”  The opposite ought to be true?  For whom and for what purpose?  Let’s think about definitions.  Who defines what “sex” even means?  What actually constitutes a female orgasm?  How can these definitions be used against us, while be advantageous for others?  And they’re not just definitions.  There’s material effects.

Let me reiterate: lots of feminist work has been done surrounding this issue.  Please do the extra research about this at your expense.  I am going to crip this analysis for two reasons: 1) centralizing disabled women is important and political, and 2) co-thinking sex and disability helps us to re-think dominant notions about sex.

Mainstream hospitals, doctors’ offices, and relations with professional health care workers (such as personal assistants), are some of the most notorious institutionalized spaces of oppression against disabled people.  Moreover, underlying patriarchal ideology in the mainstream medical paradigm (see previous blog post and scroll down to “The Authority of Medicine”) make access to adequate healthcare for disabled women a particularly challenging and oftentimes degrading process.  For example, “Ann explains how, after she became paralysed, she could find no information about sex that was of any use to her; what was available was for paralysed men” (Gillespie-Sells et al 52).  Ann’s experience reflects the hetero-patriarchy embedded throughout medical practices and research: research like that presented by Brandon Keim.  Several studies point to similar conclusions.  For instance, Whipple et al report that the “overall quality [of their postinjury sexuality education by health professionals] was considered poor.  Generally included with information on bowel and bladder functioning, the materials that were distributed were of poor quality, outdated, and usually targeted for men.  The focus of female sexuality education was on giving, rather than receiving, sexual pleasure” (79).  Furthermore, scientist Margaret Nosek reports that many women have “relayed encounters with physicians who either said they did not know how their disabilities affected sexual functioning, said nothing at all, or provided inaccurate information” (25).

There is a general and urgent consensus by women with disabilities that information and resources must be made accessible and available.  However, “lack of information is not the only problem here,” feminist bioethics philosopher Abby Wilkerson argues, “providers’ assumptions may prevent them from understanding the situation” (20).  While adequate and accessible healthcare is paramount, underlying assumptions in the medical model must be simultaneously transformed.  Or else The Female Orgasm will forever remain an evolutionary mystery, and the subjugation of female sexuality will consequently live on.

In the mainstream medical paradigm, the “most common view [of sex] is goal directed” (Whipple et al 69), which, likened to hetero-normative sex, involves vagina/penis contact, intercourse, and the climactic genital orgasm.  Simiarly, Brandon in Wired writes that “the male orgasm is, in evolutionary and practical terms, a fairly straightforward thing — it makes men want to have sex more often, thus continuing their lineage, and is achieved with ease.”  We can see how Brandon assumes that sex is automatically hetero-normative, or, goal directed.  Premised upon goal directed sex, the medicalization of sex and disability requires corrective technologies to perform at best according to such standards.  “Within this framework, [disabled] men…seek penile implants to restore their erections, and women with hip contractures who cannot have conventional intercourse have hip surgery to have intercourse in socially prescribed positions” (Waxman 184).  Failure to rehabilitate “normal” sexual performance renders people with disabilities as asexual beings.

The elusive history of U.S. eugenics underlies much medical research and actions towards disability and reproduction, and permeates in genetic and evolutionary research today.  On selective abortion and disability, feminist biologist Ruth Hubbard notably begs the question, “Who should and should not inhabit the world?” (108).  In a capitalist for-profit economy that valorizes docile able-bodiedness and de-values “disability,” the who should and should not inhabit the world? question seems to prod at the crux of ableist assumptions and oppression.  On the ideology of ability and sex, disability theorist Tobin Siebers argues that “sex may be the privileged domain of ability.  Sex is the action by which most people believe that ability is reproduced, by which humanity supposedly asserts its future, and ability remains the category by which sexual reproduction as such is evaluated.  As a result, sex and human ability are both ideologically and inextricably linked” (139-40).  Thus it is an analytical imperative to unravel and de-link sex and ability so that sexual identity and disability may be reconceived—and so sexuality in general may be understood more complexly.

The rendering of sexual agency within self-representations and medical research by and for women with disabilities re-conceptualizes and re-imagines the possibilities of sex.  Whipple et al explain that “the alternative view [of sex] is pleasure directed, which can be conceptualized as a circle, with each expression on the circle considered an end in itself” (69).  As advocates of this alternative view, Whipple et al produced a study that was “designed to validate the reported experiences of women.”  They “documented in the laboratory that women could achieve orgasm from fantasy alone, without touching their bodies” (70).  Okay, I know this might seem strange at first glance.  Documented women cuming in the lab?  But, at a closer look, I think this lab documentation of hot crip pleasure has potential to disrupt dominant understandings of goal directed sex.  Whipple et al use the tools of dominant discourse to authorize the re-signifying stroke of what it means to orgasm.  Their research findings reflect an emphasis on diffuse sexuality, whereby “pleasure may be heightened by concomitant stimulation of an erogenous zone either above or at the level of injury” (72).  For instance, “Some of us who have no sensation in our vaginas or clitorises find that we can experience equivalent orgasms through sensations in other parts of our bodies” (Morris 89).  Disability rights activist Tessa explains that “[my partner and I] get far more enjoyment from sex than we ever thought possible.  We use mouth and nose and facial stroking a great deal, with back tickling as well…I am very ticklish in certain places and I can get an orgasm from being stroked there (for example, under my arms)” (Morris 89).  Tessa’s orgasm testimony disrupts and challenges dominant notions of goal directed sex, such as that deliberated in Wired.

Whipple et al are clearly implicated within that which they oppose; however they turn dominant concepts of the evolutionary nature of female sexuality against itself by debunking such scientific assertions: “Although it is claimed that women with complete SCI cannot achieve orgasm or that their orgasms are labeled as “phantom” orgasms, subjective reports of women do not support these contentions” (72).  Not only do they re-conceptualize orgasm, but they talk back to the mainstream medical paradigm’s fictitious notion of “phantom” orgasms that has been used against disabled women to delegitimize their sexuality.  Researchers Kaufman et al similarly denounce the use of “phantom orgasms.”  They candidly write that an “excellent example of the way information gets twisted is the term ‘phantom orgasm.’  This was a term that researchers came up with to describe something their subjects reported…The ‘expert’ explanation was that these people were merely experiencing a body memory they knew before their injury” (136).  They finish by turning the tables on the “expert” researchers as the ones who are ill-equipped to explain variations in sexual experiences: “Of course this kind of definition is more about narrow-mindedness of the researchers than what was actually happening” (136).  The mysteries of sex will not be found in genetic coding alone, or evolutionary science studies, that’s for certain.

Works cited

Gillespie-Sells, Kath, Mildrette Hill, and Bree Robbins. She Dances to Different Drums: Research into Disabled Women’s Sexuality. London: King’s Fund Publishing, 1998.

Hubbard, Ruth. “Abortion and Disability: Who Should and Should Not Inhabit the World?” The Disability Studies Reader, Third Ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. 107-119.

Kaufman, Miriam, Cory Silverberg, and Fran Odette. The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain and Illness. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press Inc., 2003.

Morris, Jenny, ed. Able Lives: Women’s Experience of Paralysis. London: The Women’s Press, 1989.

Nosek, Margaret A. “Sexual Abuse of Women with Physical Disabilities,” 153-173. “Wellness Among Women with Physical Disabilities,” 17-33. Women with Physical Disabilities: Achieving and Maintaining Health and Well-Being. Eds. Danuta M. Krotoski, Margaret A. Nosek, and Margaret A. Turk, eds Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1996.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Whipple, Beverly, Eleanor Richards, Mitchell Tepper, and Barry R. Komisaruk. “Sexual Response in Women with Complete Spinal Cord Injury.” Women with Physical Disabilities: Achieving and Maintaining Health and Well-Being. Eds. Danuta M. Krotoski, Margaret A. Nosek, and Margaret A. Turk, eds Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1996. 69-80.

Wilkerson, Abby L. Diagnosis: Difference: The Moral Authority of Medicine. New York: Cornell University Press, 1998.