Michael Gill. Already Doing It: Intellectual Disability and Sexual Agency. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 288 pp. $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8166-8298-0.
Reviewed by Alisa Grigorovich (Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, University Health Network)
Published on H-Citizenship (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Sean H. Wang (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Syracuse University)
Towards an Alternative Narrative of Sexual Agency
Historically, persons living with intellectual disabilities have been labeled as asexual, or as perversely sexual, and as such they have been subjected to coercive practices and professional surveillance efforts aimed at regulating their “risky” sexualities. Building on the work of other critical disability scholars (such as Tom Shakespeare, Alison Kafer, Robert McRuer and Margaret Shildrick), Michael Gill argues in Already Doing It for the urgent need to redress this sexual oppression to more fully support the sexual agency of persons living with intellectual disability. To achieve this, Gill advocates a shifting away from medico-legal perspectives on sexuality that insist on the need to first ensure capacity to be sexual, to recognizing that persons with intellectual disability are already (and have always been) sexual (hence the book's title). In doing so, he makes a powerful call for the necessity of supporting sexual citizenship for persons with disability through liberatory action efforts that challenge sexual ableism. Specifically, Gill argues that sexual citizenship must include the right to sexual pleasure and the right to reproductive justice for everyone, including persons with intellectual disabilities.
Already Doing It focuses primarily on the regulation of the sexuality of persons with intellectual disability in the United States and features a discursive analytical approach informed by feminist, critical sexuality, and critical race scholarship. Examining professional discourse, historical and contemporary practices, and cultural representations, Gill argues that only in this “interstitial” space between these literatures can we come to understand how the sexuality of persons with intellectual disability is imagined and regulated (p. 15). Gill articulates this interrelationship between imagination and regulation using the concept of “sexual ableism,” which he defines as a system of sexual regulation “that operates through the suturing of notions of appropriateness and fitness that are in turn informed by assumptions based on identity categories” (p. 4). This system of sexual regulation includes practices such as forced sterilization and birth control, gender-segregated living arrangements and lack of private spaces, and the dominance of negative representations of intellectual disability and sexuality in media, television, and film. Topics covered include consent and abuse, sexual education, masturbation training, reproductive rights, parenting, and popular culture representations (e.g., photography, film, media) of the sexuality of person with intellectual disabilty. Gill’s analysis insightfully demonstrates that there is a dialectical relationship between how sexuality is represented in cultural texts and how it is regulated through social policies and practices.
Gill’s analysis is ambitious in engaging historical and contemporary literatures across diverse disciplines, but the breadth he achieves is sometimes at the cost of depth. As one example, Gill does not define what he means by “intellectual disability,” which is problematic given how very differently it is conceptualized across the literatures that he is engaging. Gill could have strengthened his argument about the need to integrate the literatures that he covers by further tracing some of the commonalities and differences between the definitions of disability across disciplines. It would have also been helpful to consider how the sexuality of individuals with different types of disabilities has been historically conceptualized and regulated depending on the context (e.g., discipline or population) and type of disability. As another example, there are some methodological details missing, such as a rationale for the texts chosen for analysis. This lack of rationale makes it difficult to evaluate the application of his analysis, as one cannot determine whether the chosen texts are indicative of common examples, or unusual ones across the literatures explored. Finally, in the introduction, Gill argues that his analysis of sexual agency could be extended to consider the experiences of persons with brain injuries or Alzheimer’s disease. However, given his focus on the sexual lives of young individuals who have lived since birth (or early childhood) with a disability and reside in community-based settings, the possibility for such extension is unclear. In particular, attention to the sexual agency of older adults is lacking in his analysis; it is instructive that the only theoretical case study that Gill presents of an older adult’s sexuality is that of a sixty-five-year-old woman living in long-term care who is sexually assaulted by a staff member. In neglecting to consider aging, Gill misses an opportunity for further strengthening coalitional politics between disability rights and elder rights activism.
Notwithstanding these issues, Already Doing It offers a critical and much-needed contribution to citizenship studies by redressing the limited attention given to disability by the sexual citizenship literature. Gill’s interdisciplinary theoretical approach would be useful for any scholars of citizenship in considering how sexuality and disability can productively expand the category of citizen. It does more than fill a gap in citizenship studies, however; it also contributes to critical disability studies by foregrounding the agency of persons with “non-physical” disabilities and considering their reproductive and sexual self-determination rights. To this end, Gill makes it possible to imagine how we can create alternative narratives of disabled sexuality that produce “less ableist futures” (p. 193).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-citizenship.
Alisa Grigorovich. Review of Gill, Michael, Already Doing It: Intellectual Disability and Sexual Agency.
H-Citizenship, H-Net Reviews.
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