DSQ > Winter 2008, Volume 28, No.1

Aware of my scholarly interest in Disability Studies, a graduate student sent an e-mail to inform me that The Museum of Sex in New York City was housing a temporary exhibit called Intimate Encounters: Disability & Sexuality. Although I had never been before, a friend had and complained that the museum was largely filled with Japanese erotica of a disappointingly tame nature. Clearly, this was not the case when I arrived. The museum windows were bubblegum pink, featuring large, block letters in black that spelled K-I-N-K: Geography of the Erotic Imagination. In case the public needed further enlightenment, several examples were listed as HIGH HEELS, ANGORA SWEATERS, LACTATION, GAS MASKS, IMMOBILIZATION, HAZMAT, RUBBER INFLATION, FETISHISTIC TRANSVESTISM, GOB, MUDLARKING, and PIGGY PLAY. Not quite sure what I was getting into, I entered the foyer and stood in a twenty-deep line to pay a $16 entrance fee. Ages of visitors seemingly ranged from late teens to late fifties, with demographics broadly balanced in terms of gender, race, and tourist or resident status. The cashier cheerily informed everyone, "You can take as many photographs as you want!"

What occurred to me at this point was the uneasy coupling of "The Museum" as a cultural institution amalgamating with the cultural taboos of sexuality — be it kink, vanilla, or some vaguely defined middle territory. After all, museums are venerated spaces in which knowledge is sanctified through the staging of grand historical narratives (for example, The War Museum, The American Indian Museum), arrangements of artifacts (pottery, jewelry, inventions) or aesthetic creations (paintings, sculptures, fabrics), and bolstered by literature in the gift store (coffee table books, scholarly research). Museums are also, of course, often the destinations of family outings. I wondered how these museum "norms" would be applied to the subject of sex. I scanned the lobby, spotting a large poster self-advertising: IMPRESSIONISM. CONSTRUCTIVISM. CUBISM. JISM. THE MUSEUM OF SEX. On another wall, similarly designed poster read: PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH, LICK, STROKE, OR MOUNT THE EXHIBITS. All I could think was tongue-in-cheek camp. Could I be entering a museum parody?

Convincing myself to embrace the situation while hoping to not bump into anyone I knew, I entered the Kink exhibition on the first floor to find out that it was very much a "hands on" experience. Patrons were invited to feel the likes of leather, lace, and latex, as well as life-size wax effigies of feet. The crowd then dutifully filed by a glass case containing a six foot animal costume as if it were Tutankhamen's sarcophagus. "Furries," we were informed, belong to an insular community who is sexually attracted to humans dressed as animated animals. Apparently, the movement started at a conference on comic books, and subsequently spread. In fact, it was rumored that several workers in Disney World delighted in having sex-in-costume on their lunch breaks (imagine: "Harder, Mickey, harder!"). I began to find these written tidbits more interesting than the exhibit.

Spotlighting the furries exemplified how different sections introduced (or reminded) viewers about strange and wonderful human variation, focusing on the inexplicable nature of eroticism. The macrophile exhibit explained about folks who fantasize about sex with giants; the mudlarking area displayed men and women frolicking in sludge; and the sploshing section featured images of women's bodies revealed through wet clothing. Obvious cultural references were not too far a stretch in the from of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, mudwrestling, and fashion photography. However, some of the other erotic interests were less visible in mainstream media such as rubber inflation/orgasmic explosions, featuring activities in which men and women blew up balloons to squeeze and pop in very creative ways before and during orgasm. Accompanying literature claimed the practice to be originally inspired by Violet Beauregarde, the accidentally inflated character in Willy Wonka. Moving on… Cannibal Play was subtitled Consumed by Love, showing a woman, apple in mouth, being roasted on a spit (double dipping as Piggy Play?). By now I think you get the picture, so in the interest of space, I will leave Adult Babies, Doctor Play, and Blood for another time.

After all, I was really here for the disability exhibit. Up until now the first floor of the awkwardly configured museum had been wheelchair accessible (if only in Manhattan terms, where everything is packed pretty tight). However, there was no elevator next to the stairs. When I asked the guard, he informed me that a separate entrance was available for wheelchairs in the building next door. My heart sank in this supposed bastion of liberalism. I wondered if the mainstream world will ever see the unacceptability of such a compromising gesture? For a split second I imagined a Museum of Accessibility to educate the masses. And then, up the stairs I went expectantly to the second floor…

…Only to find another temporary exhibit titled Sex and the Moving Image. Lights low, screens flickered in all directions. There were "first" kisses, stag films, documentaries on sex, instructional tapes, famous movie scenes (Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster rolling amid crashing surf in From Here to Eternity), "groundbreaking" cinema from Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, to the Emmanuelle franchise, legendary figures from Hollywood (Garbo, Dietrich) and pornography (Long Dong Silver, John Holmes) to contemporary celebrity sexual activities circulating on the internet. It was the latter feature that drew the biggest crowds, although Rob Lowe's motel tryst and Tonya Harding's wedding night paled next to the speedboat antics of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. However, while observing the heiress poster-child of a generation perform fellatio in One Night in Paris, I began to ask myself some unsettling questions: What is the difference between watching the same film in a Times Square movie house versus a museum? What are the rules that allow the former context to be scandalous, and the latter to be socially acceptable? In screening "pornography," instructional tapes, and "eroticism" was the museum being brave by challenging the public imagination — or simply risqué, titillating the masses for a price?

In addition, I could not help but feel the museum was a modern day version of a nineteenth century freak show, filled with images of individuals who exceeded the socially acceptable, safe norms. Museum goers reminded me of the type of customers I imagined viewed Joseph Merrick ("The Elephant Man") and Saarje Baartman ("The Hottentot Venus"), acting like the curious "carnies" filing through the display tents of the cult novel Geek Love. This feeling was particularly reinforced when a patron dressed in his own creative "fetish wear" of leather pants, metal shin pads, and fishnet top moved through the crowds. I noticed people nudged, whispered, made sideways glances to direct the attention of their friends… as if to say "Look, a live freak is in our midst!" realizing that the safety of "us" and "them" had momentarily melted. I could not help wonder what was his perception of the exhibit (accurate? sensationalized? gratifying?) and how he viewed the staring patrons (amusement? power? disdain?). Altogether, it began to feel like a voyeuristic Hall of Mirrors…

Once again, there was no (nearby) elevator to the third floor. When I climbed the stairs I was greeted with Exhibits from our Permanent Collection. Had I been misinformed? Had the disability exhibition moved? Had it ever existed? Then… from the corner of my eye, beyond the sex machines and 1950s magazines explaining body parts in vague terms under the banner of health and hygiene… was a sign that read Intimate Encounters: Disability & Sexuality. Whaddayaknow? It was there… in the last section of the third and final floor.

Consisting of highlights from a larger exhibition by the same name that had traveled throughout Australia and Europe, the ensemble was modest in scope, consisting of fourteen photographs and a movie. Having experienced the undercurrent of "freakshow" in the museum, I approached the exhibit warily. Yet it immediately struck me (please pardon the loaded phrase) as "tasteful" in comparison to everything I had seen until that point, staged as if it were a section of an art museum. A large print panel read:

Intimate encounters debunks the myth that a person with a disability has no sexual identity or desire, an assumption that has lead to the repression of discussion or expression of sexuality. This exhibition provides a forum in which the voices of people with disabilities can be heard; in which expressions of desire, need, love and affection can be seen.

The statement was also in Braille. Information about the photographer read,

For Belinda Mason-Lovering it has been critical that everyone photographed has been a participant in the process. This is a radical departure from the tradition of photography [about] disability in which individuals are reduced to the subjects of the camera; an example of a disability, rather than a person with unique thoughts and experiences. To present one's own voice, to choose how one is represented, is a life-enriching and life changing experience.

This sounded promising.

Another panel served as an interesting aside, a momentary digression from the main images. It told the story or how, from 1970, the Library of Congress translated all publications into Braille until a motion was made to discontinue Playboy. In 1985, as a result of this motion, the U.S. House of Representatives came under attack via a lawsuit filed by multiple plaintiffs including the Council for the Blind, The Blind Veteran's Association, The American Library Association, and Blind Readers of Braille magazines, citing a violation of first amendment rights. The lawsuit was successful.

It was the photographs, however, that dominated the small exhibition; several black and white compositions were exquisite, reminiscent of Robert Mapplethorpe's work in which viewers are directly confronted by unusual and oftentimes taboo images. Like Mapplethorpe's exploration of African-American male nudes and gay male couples, the photographs of Mason-Lovering document people with various disabilities, often naked, posing confidently, in expressions of love and sexual intimacy, challenging the viewer's preconceived notions of sexuality that traditionally position those with disabilities as asexual or freakish. The staging of each "portrait" was co-created with the subject, and a brief biography and personal statement was adjacent to each photograph. Because the exhibition was so small, I believe it both possible and worthwhile to vicariously take readers through each image.

1. Entwined was the first of four black and white photographs. It features Matt Fraser, actor, musician, writer, and a person with shortened limbs due to Thalidomide. His limbs lay entangled with those of his partner Paton Soult. The composition consists of the same image being repeated four times, unfurling like the petals of a giant lily. Fraser's short arms are visible as part of the embrace that conveys the pleasure of intimacy. In his statement he notes that, "Disabled people's sexuality has been denied throughout history, especially in the media imagining our society."

2. Renovating portrays Margherita Coppolino, a woman with Dwarfism. Naked, she stands face forward, confidently and thoughtfully looking the spectator directly in the eye. Positioned in the bottom left hand corner of the frame, her body is contrasted with an enormous building, partly scaffolded. With short arms and legs, and a hirsute lower body, Coppolino is an imposing figure. Her biography reveals a life growing up in children's homes and how this influenced her inability to trust people easily.

3. Friend or Foe? George Taleparos, consultant and academic, is featured twice in this intriguing and perturbing image. Against a backdrop of garbage cans, abandoned cars, and defunct refrigerators, an All American Male with stereotypically perfect physique simultaneously holds a short and twisted Taleparos above his head while crushing another image of Taleparos under his feet. In the accompanying statement he asks, "Is my body the antithesis of the masculine ideal? How do we treat the trash in our visual landscape? Do we toss it into the dump or do we use our greater strength to lift it into the sun and the blue sky above?" Taleparos pursues the dilemma in a Hamletesque way, "To Lift, or to Crush?… that is the question… Would you choose to lift me up and be my wings or will you crush my spirit and leave me in the heap of garbage to rot?" In a brutal self-appraisal, he states "Gordon [the All American Male] looks great and I look like shit."

4. "… and Thomas." Gerry and Louise Hewson, husband and wife, lie naked on their sides, spooning. Louise in visibly pregnant; Gerry has paraplegia, and noticeably thin legs. Beneath them lies a backdrop of dark soil; one green plant sprouts from the earth along with ten basketballs emerging like cabbages. A member of the Paralympic Gold medal winning basketball team, Gerry states simply "Our child is entering the world of ability from a unique perspective."

5. Lil Devil is the first of smaller, colored photographs hanging on the opposite wall. Performance artist, choreographer, and trainer Caroline Bowditch with osteogenesis imperfecta (fragile bones) sits forward in her chair. Set against a bright yellow background, her figure fills the frame, sporting red shoes, red horns, red pitchfork, and red lipstick. Twinkling eyes sit above a saucy smile. Exuding naughty and nice, she states, "I am keen to instill a belief in the wider community that disability is sexy! [the image…] shows off all of my 'assets,' makes the bits of myself that I haven't always liked to pale into insignificance and really shows me to be what I truly am. Not your average horny little devil."

6. A Day at the Beach strangely recalls the From Here to Eternity image seen in the previous gallery. Yet this time, instead of Burt and Deborah, Michael Geddes and Samantha Jenkins (both with quadriplegia) roll in the frothy surf, kissing in a passionate clinch. A wheel from a wheelchair can be seen edging into the frame.

7. Tom Shakespeare, a venerated writer and performer, inside and outside of academia, stands naked with a hard to read smile (coy? swaggering? daring? surprised?) partly in shadow against a white background. Nipple ring, tattoo, playful look… Tom as a cheesecake pinup. Yet the image is also surreal in a Man Ray way — the top of his head sliced off like a hard boiled egg, revealing another set of his eyes staring through, and another set of his hands holding onto the edge of his head. Reminiscent of a stylish album cover, it struck me that the oblique angle taken from above foreshortened Tom's figure and in some ways, obscured his stature. The photograph is sexy, cheeky, suggestive, and transgressive. After all, how many other academics do you know that pose naked? Shakespeare states, "Short people usually use humor to turn the tables, and we often appear very confident and extrovert. I feel very positive about myself and my sexuality… I am happy to be photographed naked. But despite all that I've achieved, there's still a vulnerable person lurking inside, with a tremendous need for love."

8. Indivisible. Alexis Karydis, a man with muscular dystrophy stands naked, holding a plant. Behind him hangs a canvas with words and slogans. In turn, behind the canvas is a shadow of an (ostensibly) able-bodied man with a raised hand — an alter ego? An inner self? A critique of ablebodiedness or disability?

9. The Little Mermaid. Denise Beckworth, a Paralympian swimmer with cerebral palsy, sits fishtailed on a rock, like the famous statue in Copenhagen harbor. In the distance, another blurred figure, possibly a merman, climbs on a rock. The accompanying narrative is as compelling as the image, with Beckwoth sharing her thoughts on love, fear, intimacy, and disability. She asserts, "In my eyes, I am not disabled… my disability is a label given by me to society though invisible to myself."

10. No Wheelchairs in China. Diana Quan was born in China with paraplegia and scoliosis. Moving to Australia as a child, she obtained a wheelchair, a device considered rare and luxurious in China. Quan is the central image, with Sydney Harbor Bridge prominently featured in the background. She reclines in her chair, wheels partly submerged in the ground. Quan sits unsmiling, wearing a bright red dress, eyes averted from the camera, surrounded by wheels in the landscape, planted in the soil.

11. Plunge features David Rolfe, his leg amputated above the knee. Set under the sea, his shape is submerged in shadows, dark and beautiful, deep and green. He states "Eli, my son (8), has no memory of me with two legs, but what he does know is that the word 'disability' does not mean limit or boundaries; they exist only where you create them. Life is there to be embraced and enjoyed in all its facets."

12. United we Sit. Filling the frame, Dominic Davies, who has scoliosis, embraces Lee Adams. Shot in black and white, the activist, editor, and author tightly entwines with his partner, a wedding band prominently displayed on his hand.

13. Under the Sheets. Noel Joseph Cahill, with "proximal femoral focal deficiency and severe shortening of left leg," is coordinator of 'Differently Abled' in South Australia. Under bleached white sheets, he sits naked facing the camera with his arms raised, white on white. Another person's feet lie in the corner of the picture. In the accompanying text, Cahill ruminates on being gay and disabled, "As a gay person with a disability, my journey has been one of struggle — both from within and without."

14. Embracing Life. Kath Duncan sits naked in three-quarter view against an undulating red cliff. Caught in the setting sun, her body looks like part of the landscape, merging in shape and form, with one arm stretched out to catch the sun's rays. A freelance journalist in radio, print, and TV, Duncan describes herself as "A blatant self-promoter and party chick," continuing, "My dream is to see all us cripples, no matter our age, body shape, sexual preferences or nationality, show our sexuality and our pride as our ability to love and be free, and shout it out loud."

* * *

How did the museum goers respond to this section? By and large, with the same intrigue and curiosity exhibited elsewhere. However, there was one noticeable difference. A "serious" demeanor overcame most people, as if the unexpected intersection of disability and sex required them to readjust their amused smiles raised by the nearby sex machines. The atmosphere was almost reverential, as if something sacred were on display. Could this have been due to ableist assumptions that disability is always a serious matter and, and sexuality is not? Did the ancient taboo of disability and sexuality jar the hitherto playful nature of the museum? The exhibit appeared to challenge the sensibilities of many viewers, requiring them to observe and contemplate the sexuality of people with disabilities — a phenomenon generally obscured in society.

Of course, not everyone was enraptured by the exhibit. It was, after all, the last in the museum. Some folks walked through indifferently, tired and unmoved. Occasionally someone's response made me cringe when they acted as if at a freak show ("Hey, look at this one with one arm!"). But overall, most people studied the photographs thoughtfully and stood in degrees of reverie, as museum patrons often do.

Having come to the end of the photographs, I noticed that the documentary film appeared to attract a steady crowd. It told the story of Ellen Stohl the first woman who uses a wheelchair to appear in Playboy. Ellen narrated how her spinal cord was crushed in a car crash when she was eighteen years old. In many ways the All-American Girl, Ellen describes herself as blonde, blue eyed, 36-24-36, and having "big boobs." She recalls asking in the emergency room, "Will I live? Will I have sex?" (the latter she claims to be the second most asked question in her situation). Having survived the crash, she felt herself to be an attractive, sexual being, yet noted how people "…. don't see that I am a woman — they see me as a wheelchair." In response to this phenomenon, she sent a letter to Hugh Hefner, editor of Playboy, introducing herself as a model/actress. After initial reservations, he consented to a photospread, Meet Ellen Stohl, where she posed in her wheelchair. In the documentary, Ellen remembers how she wanted to blow apart Playboy's preoccupation with perfection and the ideal body. The Playboy feature ultimately gained her recognition as a pioneer in fishnets and high heels, leading to other photo features including disability related literature such as New Mobility.

In the documentary, footage from the Playboy phase in her life is contrasted with recent footage two decades later in which Ellen prepares to give birth to daughter Zoe. In addition, she is subject of a contemporary photoshoot in which her now (in many ways) 'typical' middle aged body is covered in mud (calling to mind the thin or even imaginary line between mudplay and high art). Ellen states, "I am still a woman and that is what's most beautiful about me… This is the way I am… let's learn to love to do what we can with what we have… that just makes life more comfortable, more easier, and more realistic."


What is the viewer to make of this exhibition? As a group of photographs and a short video, what do these provocative images say about disability? Ability? Human variation? Our reactions toward it? Life in general? In comparison to the previous exhibits, not only was this section of the museum the most powerful, it was the most aesthetically pleasing. The images themselves could equally be hung in a "highbrow" fine arts gallery on 57th street or trendy Chelsea. Each work was a collaboration between photographer and subject, both disabled people. Every photograph was thoughtfully titled, helping to convey an intended meaning. The accompanying texts were personal and political in nature, revealing unfamiliar 'truths' to the readers. Images ran across the spectrum of sexuality, were profoundly respectful, and even though some shots were humorous (such as Lil Devil and Tom Shakespeare), all were quite, quite serious.

As the statement on the webpage reads:

This is a radical departure from the tradition of photographing disability in which individuals are reduced to the subjects of the camera; an example of a disability, rather than a person with unique thoughts and experiences. To present one's own voice, to choose how one is represented, is a life enriching and life changing experience.

The photographer, Mason-Lovering describes how she traveled around Australia for several years collecting images that convey the personal emotional journey of people with disabilities by choosing to photograph something intangible — emotion. She states:

The participants gave me such precious stories and trusted me to translate these thoughts and feelings carefully and tenderly onto images… They exposed not only their bodies but also their souls by expressing their most intimate of emotions and thoughts. Our own reaction to the images exposes us to ourselves and our ability to listen when someone lays their naked soul in our path.

And yet, as is the case with exhibitions that push accepted boundaries, there exist ambivalent feelings, paradoxes and contradictions, and questions to raise. What were all of the symbols meant to represent? The staging? The lighting? What statements were being made, and which understood? All of the folks featured had distinguished themselves in some ways. Did that mean, to some degree, that they had 'overcome the odds' and become supercrips? Does their status as disabled 'overcomers' lend humanity to their nakedness so that the able-bodied can view them? In what ways do the participants represent or misrepresent the diversity and complexity of disability and sexuality? How might an exhibition of unknown people with disabilities have been different? What might be a feminist and disability studies "reading" of Ellen Stohl — liberator, reinscriber of oppression, or both? Would she have received the same response from Playboy if she were African-American or not 36-24-36? Or what would be the response of Playgirl if a male wheelchair user submitted his request? The photographs were, as I said, "tasteful" in that they could adorn living room walls or be the open page in a coffee table oversize book.

But what about "distasteful" or edgier representations, such as those featured in Kink and Sex and the Movies? Why had there been no representation of disability in this museum until I reached the last corner, where disability was deservedly foregrounded, yet in a more art-house way than the rest of the exhibits? Was it case of an "institutionalizing" mentality that placed people with disabilities in the furthest of places such as the attic (or the cellar)? Would a section on Devotees (people sexually attracted to the disabled part of another's body, usually an amputation) be appropriately featured in Kink? What happens when disability is 'exploited' for sexual pleasure by both the disabled and non-disabled? What does it mean to people when, as Lil Devil asserts, disability is sexy?

In a strange way, the exhibition of Disability & Sexuality seemed to say "look how normal we are," while at the same time, Kink celebrated the titillating nature of the non-disabled sexual "abnormality." To be disabled and kinky was not on the agenda.

Finally, I pondered, who was the exhibition for? Was it for non-disabled people to become educated, or people with disabilities as a cause for celebration, or both?

These things questioned, Disability & Sexuality beautifully rendered the varied bodies of individuals, along with their thoughts, feelings, and emotions — naked for the world to see. In this manner, the simple statement of sexuality as being integral to the life experience of every individual was made with dignity. This was the message that I carried away with me, along with those haunting images.

Additional Information

Address: 233 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016.
The exhibition closed in September 2007.

The museum is wheelchair accessible, although the second and third floors are accessed via a separate entrance.

More information on the exhibition, including selected images, can be found at:

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Copyright (c) 2008 David J. Connor

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)