People with disability can express their sexuality

Madeline Stuart: the 18-year-old from Brisbane hopes modelling will change how society sees people with Down syndrome.

Madeline Stuart: the 18-year-old from Brisbane hopes modelling will change how society sees people with Down syndrome. Photo: Facebook

The world rejoiced this week when 18-year-old Brisbane teenager Madeline Stuart's story of modelling went viral. Madeline (who prefers to be called Maddy) has Down syndrome. Last year she set out to develop a healthier lifestyle through exercise and eating less, and as a result lost 20 kilograms. She told her mother she wanted to be a model and now Maddy's profile has skyrocketed on social media. This week she has been in talks with clothing labels, as well as being featured on news sites across the world.

Maddy is not the first model with Down syndrome to take on the fashion industry. Earlier this year, Jamie Brewer was the first model with Down syndrome to strut the catwalk at New York Fashion Week. The 'Changing the Face of Beauty' campaign is advocating for disability in advertising and fashion, with over 100 American clothing lines signing on children with disabilities to model their clothes. 

Her mother Roseanne describes Maddy as confident, with no hang-ups about her body. She told the Daily Mail: "I think it is time people realised that people with Down syndrome can be sexy and beautiful and should be celebrated". 

Writer and appearance activist Carly Findlay.

Writer and appearance activist Carly Findlay.

However, when Maddy's picture was featured on social media, commenters suggested the teen was being too sexualised. Maddy was in a modest peach-coloured bikini, showing off her arms and stomach, with her auburn hair curled around her face. While there were some supportive comments, many seemed uncomfortable that Maddy was embracing her body and sexuality.

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"We need to start valuing people, especially girls and women, for who they are, not just their looks. I wish Madeline all the best, though", said one commenter.

"Right. So it's perfectly alright to objectify and sexualise 'normal' women, let's start doing the same for the intellectually disabled! Better yet, let's start on women in wheelchairs, and women in vegetative states!  Come. On. It's all wrong, and it all needs to stop," added another.

Outrage! 

Another commenter offered a counter view, pointing out how empowering the act of modelling would be for Maddy. "People commenting on objectification are missing the point. You can argue that how we see 'sexiness' for women is objectifying, which is true. But it doesn't stop people from wanting to feel sexy or beautiful, and this young lady is in a group of women who are barely ever regarded as those things. So power to her if it makes her feel good. I think saying she shouldn't be doing this in the first place because it's 'objectifying' is really coming from a place of privilege, because most likely you've never known how it's felt to be constantly denied that feeling."

I don't believe the photo was sexualising Maddy. I do think it shows a beautiful young woman with a disability, proud of her body and rocking a demure two-piece. I also think it's wrong to assume that Maddy has been manipulated to pose in a certain way or has had no say in how she's portrayed in the photo. That's a dangerous stereotype of people with intellectual disabilities.

We see teenagers, often much younger than Maddy, posing in less clothing and more provocatively every day - in magazines, on TV and our Instagram feeds. So why are people uncomfortable about seeing a young woman with a disability expressing her beauty and sexuality?

The late Stella Young wrote: "People with disabilities, and in particular those of us with non-normative bodies, are routinely desexualised, degendered and infantilised. Sexual identity and even gender identity become secondary to our bodily identity... But seeing a reflection of my naked self pop up regularly in my Facebook feed with nary a NSFW warning in sight has served as a reminder that my body is not considered sexual, no matter what I do with it," Stella continued.

Stella's words reflect the idea that sexuality and physical beauty are often overlooked when it comes to people with disabilities. And we don't see enough of people with disabilities dressed sexily or engaging in sexual acts in the media. So when an image like Maddy's pops up in someone's Facebook feed, they're confronted. They want her to cover up and tone it down. While Maddy is raising expectations about what people with disabilities can do (yes, we can model!), there's still a misconception that we don't show off our bodies, express our sexuality or have sex. 

That's not true. Most of my friends with disabilities are in sexual relationships, and aren't afraid to vocalise the fact. I particularly admire Jax and Kath for being so open about their own lives and encouraging other people with disabilities to engage in and enjoy sex.

Rachel, whose spinal cord was severed at 23, tells me that she encounters assumptions of desexualisation regularly. She uses implant as a contraceptive and says many disability support workers think she is using only to manage her menstruation.

"When people ask, I tell them I find it the most convenient method of contraception," Rachel said. "I use it because I have sex and I don't want a baby. It seems many people cannot get their heads around the fact that I not only have sex, but I have sex with people outside of relationships, on mutual terms, and that's what I want whether I were disabled or not.

"I find it quite strange that it is automatically assumed that I am asexual by virtue of my disability. I don't want marriage, not sure about babies, but sex is fun," she said.

Olivier Fermariello has used photography to prove the point that people with disabilities are open to expressing their sexuality, and do in fact have sexual needs and desires. His 2014 project Je T'aime Moi Aussi gives us insight into the private lives of people with disabilities. They are photographed naked, and shown with their partners engaging in ordinary and intimate activities. FeatureShoot describes the subjects of Fermariello's photos as "neither ignored nor fetishised", and states "the nude body becomes a means of defiance". 

Similarly, a 2010 parody of American Apparel advertising showed a disabled person as a sexual being. A photo series by Holly Norris featured artist and disability activist Jes Sachse spoofing American Apparel poses - cheeky shots in her underwear, topless, and one mimicking the orgasm face. Jes has a non-normative body due to a genetic disorder called Freeman-Sheldon syndrome

On her website, Holly Norris stated: "'American Able' intends to, through spoof, reveal the ways in which women with disabilities are invisibilised in advertising and mass media. I chose American Apparel not just for their notable style, but also for their claims that many of their models are just 'every day' women… Women with disabilities go unrepresented...in most of popular culture. Rarely, if ever, are women with disabilities portrayed in anything other than an asexual manner, for 'disabled' bodies are largely perceived as 'undesirable'."

People with disabilities should be seen as entire humans - not devoid of sexuality or sexual desire. Maddy's photo should not make people uncomfortable or feel the urge to give her more clothes. The concern police should not be so quick to cut her choices and success down. 

As for me expressing my own sexuality? I don't mind showing off some cleavage, and my fiancé doesn't mind it either. I've been blessed with a pretty good set of breasts. Mum once commented on how much boob I was showing. I told her that at least they're not staring at how sunburnt I look!