Monica and David, (Alexandra Codina 2010), Girlfriend (Justin Lerner 2010), and Me Too [Yo también] (Antonio Naharro and Álvaro Pastor, 2009) are recent films that explore the need for companionship, intimacy, and sexual expression among people with intellectual disabilities. They break ground in showing people with intellectual disabilities as capable of sexual agency as well as sustaining committed, mutually satisfying relationships. However they also consider the meaning of sex in the context of dependency. More challenging still, they probe the taboo of "discegenation," sex in which only one partner is disabled. In doing so, they raise complicated questions about consent, desire, and privacy in all sexual encounters.
"Can you believe I'm twenty-one years old and never been laid?" asks Teddy Dobbs, one of seven narrators in Susan Nussbaum's novel Good Kings, Bad Kings (39). His inexperience is not due to an absence of desire. "I've been having a boner nonstop since I was ten," he reports. "Ask anyone and they'll tell you" (39-40). The reasons for his persistent virginity are environmental. Teddy, who uses a wheelchair and is intellectually disabled, is a client of the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC), an institution that discourages intimacy by denying its teenage clients privacy, sex education, and care for their sexual health. "Anyone" can report on Teddy's erections because his body is routinely touched by staff who clean and dress him, treating his arousal as an embarrassing inconvenience rather than a need that requires attention or care. Despite his current level of frustration, Teddy recognizes an even grimmer future when he ages out of ILLC: "the day I turn twenty-two they want to ship me off to an old people's home. They're gonna stick me with the grandmas and grandpas" (40). In the absence of meaningful work or family support, Teddy is bound for a nursing facility, where his prospects for satisfying, age-appropriate life activities are slim. Although the trend has been toward phasing out institutions like ILLC in favor of smaller, community based living arrangements, the sexual frustration and abuse Nussbaum describes are still pervasive, especially for people with intellectual disabilities and limited financial means (Shakespeare).
Given that people with disabilities may not have the autonomy and access to privacy that would allow them to cordon off a "sex life" as discrete from other aspects of lived experience, Tobin Siebers argues that "sexual culture" is a more appropriate term to describe the embedding of intimacy and erotic activity within broader contexts of dependency. As Good Kings, Bad Kings makes clear, the need for a sexual culture is particularly glaring for people with intellectual disabilities, who often live with parents or in sex-segregated group homes where opportunities to develop or participate in sexual activity are limited, and where constraints on sexual agency may be tied to the foreclosing of other basic rights guaranteed to the able-bodied and minded.
Three recent films—Girlfriend (Justin Lerner, 2010); Monica and David (Alexandra Codina, 2010); and Me Too [Yo También] (Antonio Naharro and Alvaro Pastor, 2009)—make the sexuality of people with intellectual disabilities visible, connecting it to fundamental needs for companionship, intimacy, and the right to self-determination. They also draw attention to the social barriers that leave those needs unfulfilled. In what follows, I focus on two central themes. The first is the way these films interrogate the meaning of sex within relations of dependency. Their intellectually disabled protagonists struggle to find mature sexual expression while living in settings that preclude the autonomy and privacy associated with heteronormative sex. The second is the problem of what I'll call "discegenation," consensual erotic relations in which one partner is intellectually disabled. Acts of discegenation violate taboos as powerful as those that once surrounded miscegenation and homosexuality. They raise concerns about the exploitation of a partner who may not fully understand the meaning or implications of his or her actions. They also elicit ableist disgust at the capacity of people with intellectual disabilities to feel, act on, and become the subjects of erotic desire. At the level of narrative content, these films are highly sympathetic to the needs and desires of their intellectually disabled protagonists, however at the level of form the camera struggles with how to represent their sexual agency. At crucial moments, it may adopt an able-bodied gaze (Thomson) that is reluctant to envision the person with an intellectual disability as sexual actors.
Finally, it is worth noting that each film focuses on people with Down syndrome, an immediately legible signifier of disabled mind and body. The most visually recognizable and deeply stigmatized of all intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome brings questions about consent, sexual rights, and ableist disgust sharply into focus. Down syndrome on film also draws attention to the relationship between life and art, inviting an awareness of the possibilities and limitations of performance to broach taboos that remain firmly entrenched in the world offscreen. Because of the distinctive physical features of Down syndrome, it is virtually impossible for a non-disabled actor to play the part of a person with the condition. In the fictional films Girlfriend and Me Too, what you see is what you get: there is no able-bodied John Hawkes, Daniel Day-Lewis, Claire Danes, or Sean Penn to offer up an Oscar-worthy performance of disability, nor is there a Marlee Matlin or Peter Dinklage to reassure viewers that people with disabilities are attractive and capable. Instead, these films confront the viewer with real people with Down syndrome who might really take their clothes off to play the part of desiring people with Down syndrome. Scenes of erotic contact between disabled and typical characters, in particular, raise questions about whether the lines dividing life from art are equally understood by all involved. Ultimately, each film addresses the complex nexus of rights and commitments that enable sexual agency, the unacknowledged prohibitions that impede the sexual expression of certain minority groups, and the necessity of access to safe, consensual sex. Before turning to an analysis of how they do so, I will offer a fuller account of the context in which these films' depiction of people with intellectual disabilities as sexual subjects unfolds.
1.Toward a Sexual Culture for People with Intellectual Disabilities
The disability rights movement has tended to emphasize public forms of discrimination, treating access to companionship, intimacy, and sexual expression as secondary concerns. How to enable the sexuality of people with intellectual disabilities has been an especially problematic challenge. On the one hand, because they are believed to be innocent and childlike, people with intellectual disabilities continue to receive inadequate sex education and to be excluded from opportunities to engage in safe, consensual sexual activity and expression. On the other is the equally damaging myth of an irrational sexuality that, once unleashed, cannot be controlled. Intellectual disability has been associated with excessive desire since as early as 1614, when the first recorded case of mental retardation was attributed to "overindulgence in sexual pleasure" (Kempton and Kahn; Wade). During the era of institutionalization, those designated as "feeble-minded" were subject to involuntary sterilization as a remedy for their alleged tendencies toward criminal behavior and sexual promiscuity. Such programs were fueled by the eugenics movement, which sought to limit the population of feeble-minded and insane by preventing them from reproducing. When he upheld the state statute permitting compulsory sterilization of the "unfit," including those with intellectual disabilities, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously declared, "three generations of imbeciles is enough" (Lombardo). By the mid-twentieth century, when parent groups took on a greater role in advocacy, they assumed the innocence of adult dependents with intellectual disabilities, calling for protection rather than recognition of their sexual rights (Carey). Such views were perpetuated by early parental memoirs such as Pearl S. Buck's The Child Who Never Grew and Dale Evans Rogers's Angel Unaware.
Today, although people with intellectual disabilities have made tremendous gains toward accessing education, housing, and work, they are still denied sex education and opportunities for intimacy that many consider to be basic rights. Like Nussbaum's fictional ILLC, sex-segregated group homes are organized to discourage or actively prevent residents from having erotic lives. Many states still have restrictions on marriage and sterilization laws on the books (Carey; Carlson; Cepko; Wade). Adults with intellectual disabilities may not receive adequate sexual healthcare, particularly if they have challenging behaviors or physical conditions that make exams difficult. Doctors who assume disabled patients will not be sexually active do not administer the HPV vaccine or offer access to contraceptives (Ballan). Although students with intellectual disabilities are increasingly included in public schools, the sex education curriculum is rarely modified to meet their needs and abilities (Walker-Hirsch). Inadequate education, dependency, and difficulties with communication make this population especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse.
At the heart of the problem of sexual culture for people with intellectual disabilities are difficult questions about consent. Like other citizens, people with intellectual disabilities are entitled to privacy in sexual matters. But their experiences reveal the extent to which access to privacy is a privilege that may be used to regulate sex. In living situations with few private spaces or opportunities to meet sexual partners, spontaneous sex is unlikely. Residents of institutions and group homes must obtain permission to engage in sexual activity and, in order to do so, must be deemed competent to consent. Although legal definitions of competency vary from state to state, they usually require proof that there is adequate understanding of the activity and its consequences, and that engagement is voluntary (Eddy; Luckasson and Walker-Hirsch). While requirements of competency are intended to protect, they can easily become restrictive, especially when an individual's desire for sexual activity is not supported by parents or guardians. A vicious cycle arises when inadequate sex education leaves people with intellectual disabilities ignorant of the mechanics and repercussions of sexual activity, rendering them unable to establish their competency to consent. Thus, despite significant progress in more publicly visible domains, quality of life for people with intellectual disabilities continues to be compromised by limited access to meaningful outlets for sexual expression. The obstacles they encounter to safe, consensual sex often have far more to do with restrictive social environments or attitudes than with any physical or mental impairments (Rose and Rennie).
Like some other sexual minorities, the sexuality of people with disabilities is queer in that it confounds bourgeois notions about the appropriate settings and circumstances in which intimacy may occur. And like queers, people with disabilities face legal and social barriers to their attempts to express desire and engage in acts of sexual intimacy. However, their experiences differ in that sex often takes place in the context of dependency. Where "queer" suggests a liberating and often voluntarily chosen anti-normativity, intellectual disability is an identity imposed on those seen to be deficient in reason, knowledge, and cognitive ability. This identification itself would seem to preclude mature, reasoned, and consensual sexual activity. For people with intellectual disabilities, the denial of sexual access often goes hand in hand with the denial of other basic rights like access to education, privacy, and adaptive technologies for communication and movement (Wilkerson 195). The solution to these problems lies in establishing more equitable laws and policies about access to sexual expression, as well as challenging damaging stereotypes about the capacities of people with intellectual disabilities to understand, consent to, and engage in sexual activity. Popular culture provides a valuable resource for understanding public attitudes, but also for changing them. It can perpetuate damaging stereotypes, but it can also expose injustice and provide aspirational images of a more tolerant and equitable society. Monica and David, Girlfriend, and Me Too seek to dispel misunderstandings about the capacity of people with intellectual disabilities to be both desiring and desirable, even as they wrestle with how to situate the disabled body within abelist visual conventions for representing sex and sexuality on film.
2. Sex, Commitment, and Dependency: Monica and David forever
Alexandra Codina's 2010 documentary Monica and David was hailed for its sensitive and groundbreaking portrayal of human intimacy. "Monica and David gracefully presents the world of people with disabilities at a crossroads," writes reviewer Matthew Gilbert, while Variety praises the film's restraint, describing it as "neither overly sentimental nor insistently uplifting." Its subjects, Monica and David Martinez, are adults with Down syndrome who enjoy a loving, committed relationship. The film opens just before their wedding, and follows them through their first year of marriage. It begins by cutting back and forth between Monica and David, who offer a touchingly conventional story of meeting and falling in love much like the mock testimonials of long-married couples in Rob Reiner's 1989 film Sleepless in Seattle. Footage of rehearsals and dress fittings leads up to Monica's dream wedding, followed by a honeymoon in California. Back home in Florida, the newlyweds live with Monica's parents. They do chores, attend a work-life program, and learn to cook together. When Monica gets sad because her father doesn't acknowledge her birthday, David is there to comfort her. In turn, Monica cares for David when he is diagnosed with diabetes. Monica and David welcome a relative's new baby into the family and express desire for children of their own. Throughout the film, we are aware that, had they been born a generation before, Monica and David would likely have spent their lives in institutions where they would have had little contact with the opposite sex, and certainly no opportunities for love or marriage. Thanks to families that respect and affirm their desires, Monica and David can be physically intimate and enjoy the legal sanction of marriage.
Despite its rosy portrait of this relationship, the film also reveals more troubling aspects of Monica and David's life together. The first arises as the newlyweds stroll on the Venice boardwalk during their honeymoon. When the camera pulls back, we discover that Monica's parents are walking just behind, a visible reminder of the couple's dependence. Monica's mother and stepfather constantly struggle with how to protect Monica and David while encouraging them to be more independent. The film shows that the couple's dependence is partially due to their impairments. We see a social worker try unsuccessfully to help Monica think about a job, and Monica's confusion when the family moves. Unable to grasp the full implications of the boxes piled up around her, she anxiously puts her hairbrush back in a drawer that has already been emptied by the movers.
Monica and David's dependence is also depicted as a product of their parents' doubts and fears. At their life skills program, they are assigned boring and repetitive tasks like stuffing envelopes and stamping labels on paper bags. In one scene, David says he plans to apply for a job at Publix; in the next Monica confesses that her parents have rejected the idea. Although Monica and David dream of living independently, Monica's stepfather insists, "it won't happen. They won't ever live alone. Won't work." Although Monica and David express their wish for a child, David's mother denies that they will ever be parents. "They're kids themselves, at heart. Can you imagine?" After David's diagnosis with diabetes, his father-in-law describes David as "100% dependent." The film questions his assertion by cutting to a scene where David competently administers his own insulin injection as his in-laws hover anxiously in the background. Monica's mother is terrified that, alone in the world, the couple might encounter prejudice. "The thought of Monica or David running across anyone who would as much as look at them the wrong way drives me crazy," she explains. "That's why I like them with us. Because I feel like I can shelter them from all of that. There's not much else I can give them except safety and happiness." She enables them to have a loving, intimate relationship, but it must take place under her roof and on her terms.
Monica and David makes a radical statement about the potential of people with intellectual disabilities to engage in caring, responsible, and mutually satisfying relationships. There is no doubt that this couple understands the meaning of commitment. Although the camera respects their privacy, it implies that sex is a part of their relationship. For example, it follows them into the wedding night suite—romantically festooned with candles and rose petals—and then backs out as the door closes discretely. The film thus offers a rejoinder to the legal and social restrictions that have prevented people like Monica and David from having sexual lives. But it also suggests that sexual agency is limited if it takes place in the context of more global dependency. Monica and David live in what Michel Desjardins calls a "shadow world" created by parents who acknowledge the sexual needs of their disabled children, but believe them to be incapable of other adult freedoms and responsibilities. Advocates talk about the "right to risk," which means allowing people with intellectual disabilities to engage in activities that may sometimes be wrong or harmful. In being sheltered from all conflict and prejudice, Monica and David have been denied the right to risk. They have had no opportunity to develop the resilience that arises from encounters with adversity that are an inevitable part of all adult lives. This is not a symptom of Down syndrome but of a rarified environment where they have been protected from struggle and disappointment. The film thus asks lingering questions about whether it is possible to have a mature, intimate relationship unaccompanied by the threats and dangers to which the rest of are vulnerable.
3. Girlfriend, Interrupted
While Monica and David breaks ground in portraying people with intellectual disabilities as capable of loving, committed relationships, the prospect of their sexual freedom invites a more difficult and controversial set of concerns. Like the rest of us, people with intellectual disabilities will not always be guided by good judgment in the expression of their sexual agency. What happens when a person with an intellectual disability takes a non-disabled person as his or her object of desire? Is mutual consent possible in such a relationship? And if so, should it be sanctioned? What measures should be taken to gage the understanding and consent of a partner with intellectual disabilities? Even when consent is ascertained, the question remains as to why such relations arouse loathing and disgust among the of able body and mind.
There are no documentaries on the controversial topic of discegenation involving a typical partner and one with an intellectual disability. However, fictional films have the capacity to imagine such obscure or unactualized realities. In Girlfriend and Me Too, contradictions between form and content attest to ongoing ambivalence about challenging the visual conventions of an ableist cinematic tradition. In many ways the antithesis of Monica and David, the 2010 film Girlfriend tells the story of Evan Gray, a man with Down syndrome (played by Evan Sneider) surrounded by mean, exploitative, and abusive people. Directed by Evan's high school friend Justin Lerner, the film features locations and people from their hometown. Although Girlfriend received mixed reviews, critics reserved unambiguous praise for Sneider's performance, which covers a full range of adult emotions, including desire, anger, and frustration.
The narrative is set in motion when Evan's mother (Amanda Plummer) dies and his uncle, reluctant to take him in, instead leaves money for Evan to live on his own. Evan's high school friend, a single mother implausibly named Candy (Shannon Woodward), is behind on her rent, having an affair with a married man, and beholden to a violent and abusive ex-boyfriend. Evan, who has always had a crush on Candy, and is also fond of her young son, offers the money to save them from eviction. Both Evan and Candy are confused about the meaning of this transaction. Candy can't understand a gift from a man that doesn't involve abuse. She imagines that Evan wants sex, and offers to let him watch her taking a bath but forbids him from touching her. For his part, Evan does want sex and he also believes that giving Candy the money makes her his girlfriend. Although he is unsure exactly what that means, he knows it involves friendship and care, as well as sexual intimacy.
Surrounded by dysfunctional relationships, Evan's only other source of sexual information is soap operas. He witnesses Candy being treated brusquely by Kenny (Jerad Anderson), the married man with whom she is having an affair, and Russ (Jackson Rathbone), the angry ex-boyfriend who tries to provoke Evan by telling him, "Candy likes it rough, being smacked and grabbed while you're kissing her." Given these role models, Evan has a strikingly mature and responsible understanding of what it means to be in a committed relationship. He explains to Candy that being her boyfriend means that he cares about and will take care of her. But Candy is also aware that he wants physical intimacy and she uses various strategies to diffuse the threat of his desire. When Evan first gives Candy the money, she infantilizes him by asking if he wants to play with her son. "No," he says, repeating a line from a soap opera he had been watching earlier that day, "I want you to myself." At another point she draws on a tradition of seeing people with Down syndrome in terms of sentimental, religious imagery when she tells Evan, "its like you're my guardian angel or something." He rejects this analogy, reminding her, "I'm your boyfriend." Evan is kind, but not naïve or selfless. When he sees Russ raping Candy, he flies into a violent rage, storming into the deli where he works, knocking over food and display cases. "I've never done it," he tells Candy in frustration. "I want to be with you. I took care of you. I protected you guys….Are we ever going to do things like real boyfriends and girlfriends can do?" She pushes him roughly to the ground, after which he runs away crying "you treated me badly!" Evan's experience is not unique, since he lives in a social environment where nobody seems capable of engaging in healthy, mutually sustaining forms of intimacy. But he also contends with the additional burden of being seen as sexually naïve and undesirable because of his disability.
In Girlfriend, sex functions primarily as a means of expressing aggression and asserting ownership. It is never an outgrowth of love or mutual desire. However, it acquires a more redemptive meaning as discengenation. Realizing she has abused Evan's kindness, Candy offers sex as a gesture of gratitude and contrition. The encounter takes place in the forest, at a remove from the social environments where sexual relations are bound up with domination and abuse. Drawing on familiar cinematic devices for representing taboo sex, the camera cuts away from the couple and pans slowly over a view of the lake, while the sounds of their breathing come up on the soundtrack. Afterwards, Evan and Candy walk back towards his house holding hands. The visual reticence of the scene is notable. Where the averted cinematic gaze seemed respectful in Monica and David, here it seems coy, given that we have already witnessed explicit scenes of violent sex between Russ and Candy. Although sex between Evan and Candy is consensual, the numb post-coital expression on Candy's face suggests that she is motivated far more by guilt and regret than desire. Girlfriend may break new ground in representing Evan as desiring and sexually active, but Candy is little more than a compendium of clichés about the fallen woman.
Viewers are aware that the brief contentment of the scene in the forest is temporary. Candy is moving away, making an ongoing relationship with Evan unlikely. He faces a lonely future in a small town where there seem to be no other romantic possibilities. The prospect of Evan's coming loneliness recalls the film's opening scene, in which he sits at an empty desk calling one high school friend after another only to find them too busy to talk. Although inclusion is usually celebrated as the ultimate goal of disability rights, this shot of Evan alone in the frame bespeaks the alienation that it may bring. Evan (both character and actor) represents a generation that benefitted from deinstitutionalization, and the right to live, work, and go to school in their own communities. As mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students were to be educated in the "least restrictive environment," included, whenever possible, alongside their typical peers. The film depicts Evan having successfully navigated the academic and social challenges of high school. He has a job and lives in a community that, however dysfunctional, is relatively tolerant of his presence. But the cost of his inclusion is that he has no community of peers. There are no other people with intellectual disabilities in the film, and no context where Evan is not the only person with a disability of any kind. Thus Girlfriend is haunted by questions about what opportunities exist for a man like Evan after high school is over. His unsuccessful attempts to remain connected by phone reveal that school friends are now adults busy with careers and family. The remaining members of his family have abandoned him. There seem to be no social services to help Evan find a supportive community as he lives independently for the first time. Whatever pleasure comes from his brief encounter with Candy cannot be expected to suffice for the absence of more enduring, intimate relationships. As Tom Shakespeare has argued, in focusing too much attention on access to sex, we risk losing sight of all the other forms of companionship inaccessible to people with disabilities. In showing the fleeting satisfaction of Evan getting the girl, Girlfriend also unwittingly shows the more long-term dissatisfaction of living without a community of peers and supporters. It is a haunting reminder that it is easy to feel good about the more publicly visible manifestations of inclusion while overlooking the subtle and enduring forms of prejudice that continue to limit the adult lives of people with intellectual disabilities.
4. Me Too: Still not Included
Released a year before Girlfriend and Monica and David, Antonio Naharro and Alvaro Pastor's Spanish film, Me Too (Yo, también) broaches similar questions about inclusion, social prejudice, and the sexual rights of people with intellectual disabilities. Many parts of Europe are known for more progressive attitudes toward the sexuality of people with intellectual disabilities than the United States ("Sexual Health"). In Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands, it is legal for people with disabilities to pay for a sex surrogate of the kind depicted in Ben Lewin's 2012 film The Sessions (Diemer; Lehmann). Many European countries are also recognized for their liberal sex education policies. However, in Spain sex education is widely acknowledged to be inadequate for all students, and there has been virtually no attention to the sexual rights of people with disabilities. Daniel (Pablo Pineda), the protagonist of Me Too, is a man with Down syndrome who has been encouraged to make the most of his considerable abilities: he is well educated, holding a college degree in Educational Psychology, has meaningful employment, a good deal of independence, and a social circle that includes disabled and abled friends. What he does not have is a sex life. The film questions whether a society that has enabled Daniel's many accomplishments has nonetheless failed if it does not provide him with opportunities for safe and satisfying sexual expression.
Like Monica and David, Daniel leads a comfortable life surrounded by a loving family and friends. When the film opens, he has just started a job at Seville's Department of Social Services, where he immediately falls in love with his attractive but troubled co-worker Laura (Lola Dueñas). That Laura seems to genuinely enjoy Daniel's company is communicated via a classic montage in which the two friends share laughter and good times. Viewers are also repeatedly reminded of Daniel's capability: he is good at his job, has warm relationships with his family and co-workers, moves around the city independently, and is knowledgeable about art and literature. In one scene, Daniel and his mother (Isabel García Lorca) practice reading in English. In another, his book learning is highlighted when he jokes to his brother (Antonio Naharro) about Laura's cultural illiteracy, telling him that she thinks the Hieronymous Bosch painting "Garden of Earthly Delights" is a park.
Despite enjoying many aspects of middle-class adult life, Daniel is sexually unsatisfied. Laura's promiscuity is widely known around the office. Rumor has it that she has slept with every male co-worker besides Daniel, and several scenes depict wild nights of dancing, drink, and sex with strangers. Laura gets no apparent pleasure from these encounters, which are clearly motivated by unhappiness and self-hatred rather than desire. Meanwhile, shots of Daniel watching porn on his home computer, looking desirously at Laura's cleavage, lips, and lower body, and fantasizing about sex with women at the office remind viewers that he has a typical, if unsatisfied, heterosexual male libido. As Daniel and Laura grow closer, his parents fight about whether it is appropriate for them to spend so much time together. Daniel's mother is protective, insisting that Laura cannot be sexually interested in him; Daniel's father responds that his son should be allowed to make his own choices, even if they are the wrong ones. Their disagreement hinges on questions about the right to risk similar to those raised by Monica and David. Certainly, Daniel is not alone in desiring a flirtatious woman who may not return his affections. Does it make a difference that he has an intellectual disability and she does not? Should the recognition of Daniel's capability include the freedom to make mistakes? Or does he need to be sheltered from bad decisions that might have more devastating consequences for him than for a typical peer?
The problems broached by Me Too do not just concern Daniel's sexual rights, but also cultural taboos about discegenation. Could the woman he desires ever be capable of reciprocating? "No woman with 46 chromosomes is going to fall in love with you," Daniel's brother warns as the infatuation with Laura grows. "Fall in love with a woman you can get." Here, the issue is less about Daniel's rights or capacities, than the social prohibitions that put him off limits for genetically typical women. Because Laura willingly has sex with virtually every other man who crosses her path, her resistance to Daniel must be seen as entirely about his disability. The depth of this prohibition becomes clear in a scene where Daniel goes to a bar with his coworkers. Laura gets drunk and begins to dance sensuously with him. When he responds by trying to kiss her, she pushes away. He asks to come home with her and she refuses. After wandering the streets, he ends up at a brothel, where the bouncer calls him a "boy" and denies him admission. When Daniel responds that he is 34, the bouncer tells him he doesn't have enough money to come inside, even after Daniel insists he has a credit card. Clearly the real issue is not Daniel's age or financial security, but his personhood. The door shuts in his face, leaving him in the street shouting "I am a man!" His despairing cry encapsulates a painful liminality. He is well-educated and capable enough to succeed at more public forms of inclusion. His accomplishments put him on par with the non-disabled women who attract him. But he is still a person with Down syndrome, and as such, is subject to taboos against discegenation. In this scene, it is clear how the denial of Daniel's sexual agency is tied to the denial of his status as a person.
The counterpoint to the narrative of Daniel's frustrated relationship with Laura is a subplot about a couple named Pedro (Daniel Parejo) and Luisa (Lourdes Naharro)—also with Down syndrome—who participate in a dance program for people with disabilities at the center where Daniel works. Pedro and Luisa clearly love one another. Although capable of mature desire, they haven't been educated to understand appropriate boundaries of public and private intimacy. While desire may be instinctual, the rules governing its appropriate expression are cultural and people with intellectual disabilities—who may have difficulty picking up on and responding to implicit social cues—often need to learn acceptable ways to act on their feelings. At first, Pedro and Luisa's dancing is too erotic, crossing a line from performed to actual expressions of desire. Pounding on a drum, their teacher interrupts to explain that such intimacy is inappropriate for the shared space of a dance class. The problem is that Pedro and Luisa have no access to privacy. Indeed, Luisa's overprotective mother is so determined to thwart the relationship that she pulls her daughter from the program. Undeterred, the couple runs away, stealing a wedding cake from the bakery owned by Luisa's family. Denied access to a legitimate marriage, they express their commitment to one another via the purloined cake. Eventually, Daniel and Laura find the couple at a hotel. Instead of immediately calling their families, Daniel shows them how to use a condom, while Laura gives Luisa a pep talk about consensual sex. The easy and open expression of desire between Pedro and Luisa is an obvious contrast to the inhibitions that constrain Daniel and Laura. Like Monica and David, Pedro and Luisa are no less capable of passion and commitment than their able bodied peers. Also like Monica and David, Pedro and Luisa are clearly incapable—for reasons of ability and social environment—of leading fully independent, adult lives. Ultimately their story is resolved happily, as their families come to accept the relationship and agree to provide the couple with the social supports they need to remain healthy and safe.
True to the conventions of romantic comedy, Daniel does finally get the girl. He and Laura are reconciled after Laura's abusive father dies, freeing her to recognize her love for Daniel. However, there are further complications that call into question whether there can be a happy ending for a protagonist like Daniel. Although she professes to love Daniel, Laura still doesn't want a relationship: he can have only one night with her, she tells him firmly. This negotiation takes place during a sweet and awkward scene where Laura confesses that she has slept with many men, but never made love. Her claim of inexperience puts the partners on equal terms. They kiss and begin to undress, at which point the screen discretely goes black, followed by a conventional post-coital shot of their heads on a pillow. They smile at each other and then burst out laughing.
On the one hand, it is a radical move to put a person with Down syndrome in the role of romantic hero. Rarely, if ever in the history of film, has a protagonist like Daniel managed to get the woman of his dreams. On the other, the camera in Me Too creates ambiguity about the implications of this outcome by establishing a strong disparity between revealing scenes of sex between able-bodied couples (the good sex between Daniel's brother and sister-in-law, as well as the bad sex between Laura and the strangers she picks up in bars) and sex involving people with Down syndrome. There is thus a contradiction between the film's story, which deals frankly with problems of sex education, fulfillment, and prejudice against people with intellectual disabilities, and the ableist gaze of a camera that is reluctant to make disabled sex visible. Such visual reticence is reproduced at the level of plot, as it illustrates the inability of typical peers to imagine Daniel as a desirable or desiring subject. The film identifies the sad plight of a man whose exceptional education and capacities make him unlikely to be attracted to another person with Down syndrome, while showing how equally unlikely it is that he will have a relationship with a non-disabled person. In this sense, Me Too documents a challenging, and potentially tragic, transitional moment in the sexual culture of people with intellectual disabilities, who may be offered opportunities to develop to their fullest intellectual and social potential, but denied sexual rights. Even when those rights are acknowledged, it may be impossible for typical peers to imagine them as sex partners. Me Too makes apparent that an absence of sexual access is tied to broader failures to fully recognize people with disabilities as persons.
Beyond this transitional moment lies an uncertain future. Perhaps one day we will look back at these films as we do on Stanley Kramer's 1967 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, where the controversial engagement of a black man and a white woman now seems quaint. But for all the ways such an analogy is illuminating, it is also incomplete. Disability is not race. The differences of people with intellectual disabilities are cognitive, as well as physical, and claims about their sexual rights will need to account for atypical ways of perceiving, understanding, and navigating the world, as well as the possibility of lifelong dependence. Creating a sexual culture around people with intellectual disabilities, particularly one that sanctions discegenation, will necessarily involve not just overcoming social inhibitions, but also providing better answers to challenging questions about consent, equity, and dependence.
Cultural representations have an important role to play in shaping attitudes: they may unwittingly reinforce prevailing views, or become the impetus for enlightened and productive conversations about sexual justice. Recent films show that some, like Monica and David or the fictional Pedro and Luisa, may be capable of mature, committed relationships but only in the context of dependency. Their sexuality, which can never be fully private or autonomous, thus belongs to a shadow world, similar to, but not of, the complex reality experienced by the able bodied and minded. Others, like Evan and Daniel, may be capable of living and working alongside typical peers, but isolated from meaningful friendships, romance, and intimacy as a consequence. Partial or frustrated discegenation may leave them in a painful and unsatisfying liminal position.
Another set of questions raised by these films concerns the protagonists' fervent desire for institutions steeped in ableist and heterosexual values, such as romantic love, marriage, and family. Is what they want simply to access the most conventional opportunities for intimacy available to the able-bodied? To put the question this way is to overlook the fact that inclusion can have radical consequences. Any institution that genuinely includes people with intellectual disabilities is inevitably altered in the process. These films invite us to think about how sex and intimacy are transformed in the context of dependency, the absence of privacy and the prospect of reproduction. They ask how ableist notions of romantic love and heterosexual coupling may be altered when one partner has an intellectual disability. And they prompt consideration of the role played by gender in those conceptions. Would a film like Girlfriend or Me Too be possible with a woman as the desiring subject with Down syndrome? In what way do prevailing conceptions of gender, power, and vulnerability require that the intellectually disabled partner be male?1 In addition, by showing their protagonists' capacities for intimate acts and relationships, these films also lay the groundwork for future representations that show people with intellectual disabilities engaging in same-sex, adaptive, and other queer forms of erotic intimacy.
However imperfectly, these three films reveal the injustice of a culture that does not enable, and indeed often actively restricts, the sexual lives of a significant minority. They make a strong case for why people with intellectual disabilities should have sex education, adequate reproductive healthcare, and access to the same kinds of privacy available to other citizens. They show sex as a kind of social justice index, one that is inextricably linked with more public and less controversial civil rights for people with disabilities. Yet, given that sex should involve mutual consent, it is not clear that discegenation is the same kind of right as access to education, meaningful work, and social opportunities. Desire is not something that can be legislated. Nonetheless, changing the way people with intellectual disabilities are represented may influence beliefs about their viability as sexual partners. When Daniel stands in the street shouting "I am a man!" he is not simply protesting his infantilization, but also the long history of seeing people with intellectual disabilities as less than human. Me Too suggests that absent opportunities for safe, consensual sexual expression, people with intellectual disabilities do not enjoy the full rights of personhood.
Finally, these narratives about intellectual disability also have something important about to say sexuality as such. First, they are a reminder that determinations about consent are messy and complicated in all sexual encounters, given that pleasure often exists in tension with reasoned considerations of risk, consequence, and voluntariness. Second, they reveal the extent to which sexual experience rests on political determinations about who has the right to enjoy intimacy in private. In advocating a sexual culture for disabled people, Siebers calls attention to "the fragile separation of public and private spheres, as well as the role played by this separation in the history of regulating sex" (136). Privacy is not simply freedom from legal and social control but rather a space produced and sanctioned by these forces, one that is not equally accessible to all. Finally, much as we might like to imagine that desire cannot be disciplined, these films expose how profoundly desirability is shaped by cultural assumptions about health, gender, intellect, and ability. In showing rare instances where those prohibitions are overcome, however briefly, they also help to change those assumptions. They look toward a world that recognizes that people with disabilities also have the needs for love, friendship, and intimacy. And they suggest that fulfilling those needs might also bring deep satisfaction and pleasure.
I am grateful to audiences at Emory University and Indiana University for the opportunity to share this work in progress, as well as to the helpful comments of an anonymous reviewer at DSQ.
- Ballan, Michelle. "Talking about Sexuality." Lecture to National Down Syndrome Society, 11 October 2012.
- Carey, Allison. On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth-Century America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2009.
- Carlson, Licia. The Faces of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.
- Cepko, Roberta. "Involuntary Sterilization of Mentally Disabled Women." Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law, and Justice 8.1 (2013): 123-165.
- Desjardins, Michel. "The Sexualized Body of the Child: Parents and the Politics of 'Voluntary' Sterilization of People Labeled Intellectually Disabled." Sex and Disability. Edited by Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 69-88.
- Diemer, Christian. "Selling Sex to the Disabled." http://www.europeandme.eu/15baby/771-sexual-assistance. Accessed 1/12/2015.
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- Lehmann, Andre. "Sexual Assistants: The Stigma of Helping Disabled Swiss." http://thejakartaglobe.beritasatu.com/archive/sexual-assistants-the-stigma-of-helping-disabled-swiss/. Accessed 1/12/2015.
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- Luckasson, Ruth and Leslie Walker Hirsch. "Consent to Sexual Activity: Legal and Clinical Considerations." The Facts of Life…and More: Sexuality and Intimacy for People with Intellectual Disabilities. Edited by Leslie Walker-Hirsch. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 2007. 179-192.
- Nussbaum, Susan. Good Kings, Bad Kings. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2013.
- Rose, John and Melissa Rennie. "Managing the Risks Associated with Sexual Activity." The Facts of Life. 193-224.
- Scheib, Ronnie. Review of Monica and David. Variety http://variety.com/2010/film/reviews/monica-david-1117942690/. Accessed January 6, 2015.
- "Sexual Health: A Public Health Challenge in Europe." http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/BIB/SexEd/SexEd.html#3.24.
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Mr. Blue Sky (Sarah Gurfield 2007) may be the only film about the reverse scenario, where a typical man falls in love with a woman with Down syndrome.
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