Mar 012013

Robin Mandell is presenting Why Talk About Sex And Disability Anyway? and Sex Work and Disability. Check out Robin’s bio here.


Robin MandellHow do you see yourself as a catalyst for change?

Well, it feels a little self-aggrandizing to call myself a catalyst of anything, but I suppose that, in a way, I am—or at least aim to be.  As a woman with both visible and not-so-visible disabilities, I’m aware that as I talk about sex and disability I am a visible reminder that people with disabilities are real, not just theoretical concepts to fuel a subtopic for the sexuality field.  This visibility is what motivated me to start speaking up and speaking out about disabled people’s sexualities.   I use my knowledge and lived reality of the varied experiences of being disabled in conjunction with my sexuality and sex education knowledge, and vice versa.

In my other guise, as Volunteer Assistant Director of Scarleteen, I promote change every day through educating teens and young adults–another subset of the population who, no matter how visible they are in popular culture, regularly have their rights and existence as real people tromped on or forgotten.  It’s cliché to say that young people are our future, but they truly are, and promoting their sexual, physical, and emotional well-being (in other words, just plain happiness) is paramount.

Who or what was a catalyst for you?

There have been so many catalysts in my life, some of which I wasn’t aware of until long after they happened.  I have Ducky DooLittle—her humour, smarts, and winning personality (and wonderful hugs!)–to thank for launching me into this field, but the seed was planted long before, at a body-positive, feminist, inclusive sex toy workshop run by Carlyle Jansen, the owner of Good For Her in Toronto.  She taught me where the clitoris is; need I say more?

Seriously, though, Carlyle’s attention to keeping the workshop emotionally safe for everyone, her friendliness and openness, her vacility with using her hands and a tam (a woolen hat with a pompom on top) to illustrate the parts of the vulva, all sent  a subtle message of acceptance.  She was a marvelous model of the educator I didn’t know at the time I would end up being.

What do you feel are some of the biggest challenges or concerns facing us in the field of sexuality right now?

The political climate here in the US  has made people’s bodies, and access to healthcare such contentious issues that I do fear they threaten to tear apart people’s sense of autonomy and happiness.  I’m deeply distressed by the fear-mongering around sex and sexuality, and the impact I see this having on people’s mental health, not to mention affecting their ability to care for themselves physically.

What do you feel are some of the most important/valuable positive changes that have been made in the world of sexuality in the past year?

I’ve been particularly pleased to see more resources and information emerging about the ways sex workers and people with disabilities are working together to enrich disabled people’s experiences of sexuality.

Why do you feel it is important to bring the topic of your session, Sex Work and Disability, to CatalystCon East?

The more I read, and listen to—there’s been some excellent documentary work done on this topic—about the work that sex workers and people with disabilities are doing together in other countries, the more I realize how vital sex work or sex surrogacy is to the experience of being disabled in our culture.  We live in a society where sex isn’t seen as important for people who can’t “do it” the “normal” way, a society where the medical and rehabilitation systems are sterile entities, suppressing or ignoring the existence of sexuality, and where relationship models don’t support relationships where one person might need, and always need, substantially more (in terms of physical or emotional support) from the other.  Both the medical system, and intimate relationships, are considered sacrosanct, which makes it feel like a taboo to have written what I just wrote (which is why it needs to be written and spoken).

This is where sex work and sex workers can be so valuable.  Just as adaptive technology can lead to independence for disabled people, so to can employing a sex worker lead to sexual independence, not to mention the opportunity to explore sex and sexuality unjudged, and to enjoy adventure.

At Catalyst West, I brought some of these issues up during Sabrina Morgan’s session on client stigma, and that is where this session was born.  In offering this presentation, I do feel some mild conflict, as the illegality of sex work in the US makes it difficult for us to take this work into the margins of public discourse, either on sex or on the lives of people with disabilities.

Why do you feel it is important to bring the topic of your session, Why Talk About Sex And Disability Anyway?, to CatalystCon East?

I’ve noticed that sex and disability is a popular topic these days.  It’s almost a buzz-word.  So I got to thinking about why we need to talk about it in the first place. What are some of the realities underlying the need to talk about sex and people with disabilities? What are some of the realities talking about disability brings to the discussion of sex?

People with disabilities have more social and occupational opportunities now than in times past, but that sort of inclusion has a blind spot (pun intended) when it comes to disabled people’s sexualities.

We really can’t have a good understanding of sex and disability, unless we look at understanding its components, “sex” and “disability.”  If we look at just two components, for example—the cultural beliefs of what “real” sex is, and culturally manufactured complications to social inclusion for disabled people—we see how complex the discussion can get.  Talking about sex and disability has to go so much further than talking about access to sex stores or events, or talking about toy accessibility (though those are both worthy and necessary–and to me, interesting—topics).

I’m excited to be able to present this talk again with Robert Lawrence, who has vast knowledge and personal and professional experience in this field.

Share one unknown (or little known) fact about yourself.

I have memorized all of the two-letter words (there are over 100) “legal” to use in a Scrabble game.

Learn more about all our amazing speakers here. Register for CatalystCon East here.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: