Note from Timaree: this is a classic column from 2011. Everything in it is still true!
Cory Silverberg, the sex genius at About.com, wrote that Ableism is
“Ableism is a form of oppression that focuses on bodies, and relies on the idea that there are good bodies and bad bodies, natural bodies and unnatural bodies. In some ways ableism is like other systemic forms of oppression (for example racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia) in that it incorporates a series of stereotypes and beliefs about “people” in general, and also, when you start to take it apart your realize it’s both intentional and arbitrary.”
He includes greater details about the definition of ableism and provides a number of great links to articles about how ableism is related to all other issues of social justice such as racism, feminism, LGBT rights…. really anything else where we’re trying to knock down arbitrary heirarchies.
Ableism doesn’t necessarily have to mean you’re discriminatory against people who are in wheelchairs or that you think less of someone because of a speech impediment. Ableism is even bigger than that: it’s about deciding that there are right bodies and wrong bodies and only certain ones are appropriate to find sexy and only people with certain bodies are allowed to feel sexy.
Silverberg says about sexuality and ableism:
“In the context of sexuality ableism is part of the very definition of what is sexual and sexy in most cultures and societies. The dominant construction of sexy as something that is young, thin, white, heterosexual, which denies that anyone who doesn’t fit those categories can be sexy, and sometimes should even have the right to have sex, is essentially ableist. As is the notion that what makes someone not an attractive partner is individual and biological, as opposed to heavily constructed by society. Ableism results in the isolation of particular groups of people, and because it is so easy to internalize ablest ideas, the isolation can be self-fulfilling.”
Ableism is a perspective that tells us very few people are really sexy. And aside from being a real jerkoff of a perspective, it’s also patently untrue. Because for every ableist idea that tells us artificial limbs aren’t sexy, there’s also plenty of people who see bravery and strength and beauty. And for every ableist comment that older women aren’t sexy, there are plenty of us who find self confidence and knowledge of what you want to be damn hot.
Silverberg goes on to saythat ableism isn’t going to go away.
“There isn’t a class you can take that will teach you how to “love your body” enough, there is no book you can read that will tell you which words to use and not to use. Like capitalism, ableism is all around us, and we could no more easily dismantle it than we could shift the U.S. to a non-monetary economy based on consensus decision making and puppies.”
But, as with all isms: being aware of its existence is the first step. We can begin to learn more about it, so we can recognize it when we see it, hear it and say it ourselves. And soon, as we become more aware, we can become more active at changing our thoughts, words and actions. We can be more receptive to a wider idea of sexy, we can encourage others to find beauty and sensuality in new places and maybe even find the courage to accept our own bodies.