Disability and sex: a history of suppression

Show Navigation

By | The Researcher’s View

This is an extract from an article first published in the Wellcome Trust online journal Mosaic: the science of life. It is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

Disabled people’s sexuality has been suppressed, exploited and, at times, destroyed over many centuries. It has been seen as suspect, set apart and different from the sexuality of non-disabled people.

Dr Tom Shakespeare, a disabled academic, wrote The Sexual Politics of Disability nearly 20 years ago. It remains one of the few evidence-based studies in the field: ” I think images of disability and sexuality either tend to be absent – disabled people being presented as asexual – or else perverse and hypersexual”.

The key attitudes identified by Shakespeare appear as threads throughout myth and literature, from classical times onwards. Disabled characters and their sexuality appear relatively frequently in legends and texts but are usually harnessed to powerful negative metaphors.

Vulcan or Hephaestus. Engraving by E. Jeaurat, 1716, after N. Vleughels. Wellcome Images V0035829

Vulcan or Hephaestus. Engraving by E. Jeaurat, 1716, after N. Vleughels. Wellcome Images reference: V0035829.

Consider the myth of Hephaestus, born ‘shriveled of foot’ and cast out from Olympus by his mother. He is married off to the goddess Aphrodite, but she is unfaithful to him because of his impairment, which unmans him in her eyes, and he is cuckolded and scorned. This trope is repeated, much later, in D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where Lady Chatterley satisfies herself with the virile gamekeeper because her husband is a ‘cripple’.

This scenario, where a disabled man is judged to have lost sexual power because of his impairment and his sexual partner has carte blanche to seek solace elsewhere, has become known as the ‘Chatterley Syndrome’.

images of disability and sexuality either tend to be absent – disabled people being presented as asexual – or else perverse and hypersexual

As Shakespeare observes, disabled men (and, to a lesser extent, women), are rendered impotent and sexless by disability, and thus are seen as unattractive and vulnerable to mockery and exploitation. As Cicero wrote: “In deformity and bodily disfigurement, there is good material in making jokes”.

This may explain an assumption often made in the past – that it was better to shield disabled people from reaching out for sexual relationships rather than risk the potential of being rejected. There was an expectation that disabled people’s sexual desires should be set aside and ignored, because they should not – or could not – be satisfied.

The second trope is that disability is a punishment wreaked for committing a sin and, as such, the disabled person is a wholly unsuitable sexual partner because they are evil and, paradoxically, powerful. One of the best examples is in William Shakespeare’s Richard III, who is written as twisted in body and mind or, as he says of himself, “rudely stamped” and rendered impotent by his physical limitations.

Four physiognomies expressing evil characters. Drawing, c. 1792. 1792 after: Johann Caspar Lavater and Thomas HollowayPublished: c. 1792. Wellcome Images reference: V0009196.

Four physiognomies expressing evil characters. Drawing, c. 1792,  after: Johann Caspar Lavater and Thomas Holloway. Wellcome Images reference: V0009196.

Disabled women have also faced this stigma. Many women with mental health conditions – along with older people showing signs of dementia, and people with benign and cancerous growths – were caught up in the European witch-hunts of the 17th century, for example. One observer at the time, Reginald Scot (a justice of the peace in Kent), noted that they were “commonly old, lame, blear-eyed, pale, foul, full of wrinkles…lean and deformed showing melancholy in their faces to the horror of all that see them.”

Disabled people have also been stereotyped as being hypersexual – a claim used against women with learning difficulties in particular. This has led on to persistent abuse of disabled women, particularly in institutions, where they have been routinely raped and abused for centuries. Early 19th-century whistle-blowers gave evidence of such maltreatment – which extended to rape and murder.

The noted French psychiatrist Charcot characterised ‘attitudes passionnelles’ as stages of hysteria amongst his female patients, many of the stages were described in sexual terms such as  ‘extase’ (ecstacy)’. From Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere, published 1874. Wellcome Images reference: V0019694.

Another powerful archetype, Tom Shakespeare says, is the unconscious – and sometimes conscious – attitude surrounding reproductive fitness that suggests having a disabled partner is potentially contaminating as it could pass the ‘problem’ on to the next generation.

Disabled people have challenged this on many levels: for example, sexual relations are not all about procreation, not all impairments are inheritable, and many disabled people accept their impairment and the possibility that it might be passed on. Deaf (with a capital D) people, for example, consider deafness to be a culture, rather than an impairment, and believe it should be embraced and celebrated.

With eugenics – a now-discredited social philosophy – Francis Galton pursued the theory of contamination to its logical end. He argued, along with others who took up his ideas, that people with disabilities (along with the poor and the generally ‘unfit’) should be prevented from breeding.


The eugenics movement, which started in the UK, was taken up with enthusiasm in the USA. By 1914 nearly two-thirds of US states had made it illegal for “feeble-minded” and “insane” people to marry. The so-called ‘Ugly Laws’, first passed in the 1880s, prohibited the “unsightly” from being seen on the street at all. Between 1907 and 1928 thousands of Americans were sterilised.

The legitimisation of eugenic views throughout Europe and America ended in a logical, if horrifying, outcome: the systematic murder of thousands of disabled people in Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933. By the end of World War II, it is estimated that some 200,000 people with disabilities had been murdered.

Asexual, hypersexual, perverse and contaminated: these four damaging tropes from history combine to form a bitter legacy for disabled people.

Author: Katherine Quarmby is a contributing editor at Newsweek Europe.

Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts