Bioethics Blogs

Kulick and Rydström’s “Loneliness and Its Opposite: Sex, Disability, and the Ethics of Engagement” by Narelle Warren

Loneliness and Its Opposite: Sex, Disability, and the Ethics of Engagement

by Don Kulick and Jens Rydström

Duke University Press, 2015, 376 pages

Access to opportunities for the expression of sexuality occurs in a (fairly) unproblematic way for most of us. Alone or with others, sexual desires can be identified and fulfilled as the need arises, in encounters that involve only the people engaged in such expressive moments. This presumption—very rarely interrogated—is based, at least in part, on the conflation of sexuality with adulthood. The realisation of these opportunities, too, is unproblematic, taking place in private domains that (largely) exist outside of the purview of the nation state. In their innovative ethnography, Loneliness and Its Opposite, Kulick and Rydström take as their focus these mundane realities of people’s intimate and erotic lives, and the assumptions that underlie them, to focus on the experiences for whom access to sexuality is not easily, if ever, made possible: those living with significant disabilities who not only require assistance in their everyday lives but who also require help in interpreting, accessing and realising their sexuality.

The authors are concerned to move away from a consideration of sexuality as a human right, with this perspective’s implicit goal of producing a set of ‘lessons to be learned’, in order to focus on the social and relational effects of different forms of engagement in allowing people with disabilities to live lives that have both quality and dignity. To do this, they draw on the ‘capabilities approach’, developed by Amartya Sen and subsequently refined by Martha Nussbaum, to take a social justice lens in considering how layered contexts of disability in particular settings shape sexuality.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.