Why Disabled People Doing Sexy TikTok Challenges Is Crucial to Society
From #BossIt to #Silhouette, these trends can alter how disabled individuals are viewed sexually.
TikTok trends like the #BossIt and #Silhouette challenges regularly flood our social media feeds, but the most gripping videos are those that subvert our expectations, like the disabled folks hopping on the trend and proving that they are just as sexy as non-disabled people. As a disabled woman, I’ve often felt disconnected from my sexuality because the media lacks romantic or sexually disabled representation, so these videos have been a gateway to acceptance.
Throughout history and in present society, disabled people have been desexualized. And even when our relationships do appear in mainstream media, people accuse our partners of having a fetish or being gold diggers, which is why displaying our sexuality on a public platform like TikTok is so empowering. Assumptions of disabled asexuality or that we disgust our bodies can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece in the form of Aphrodite and her disabled husband, Hephaestus. In all the lore, she is portrayed as a serial cheater and her behavior is largely considered acceptable because her husband is disabled.
Obviously, asexual disabled people exist, too, but it’s about time we cast out this ancient ableism, especially when there are one billion of us worldwide and 61 million American adults are living with some kind of disability. As Francine Sharrocks, founder and CVO of findmysexpert.com, explains: “To be a disabled individual and disregarded for our sexual needs and wellness can be an exceptionally difficult experience.” Although taking part in TikTok challenge videos may seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of deconstructing ableism, it is actually a crucial step toward tearing apart stereotypes of disabled people.
To understand why a few disabled people being sexy on TikTok is so significant, we have to look behind the curtain and explore why they are so often desexualized. It all starts at school with sex education—which we all know can be depressingly bad anyway—when disabled people are often removed or excluded from the classes. Dr. Kaley Roosen, Ph.D. C.Psych, a clinical and health psychologist at Toronto Psychology Clinic, says, “Parents and doctors need to talk about sexuality with disabled kids early on, never assuming that they are not interested.” Unfortunately, including us in sex education is not enough to counteract the stereotyping of disabled people in society, which often portrays us as benefit-hungry villains or innocent faces used as a charity’s guilt trip.
Dr. Roosen sums it up: In short, disabled people are desexualized because they are not seen as fully human.
This is not helped by a severe lack of representation on screen—where we are used as tools of inspiration for non-disabled people—or by the way we are treated medically. Dr. Roosen says, “[Disabled people] don’t receive access to the same preventative sexual health practices under the assumption that they are not interested or sexually active.” When your body is constantly poked and prodded in medical environments on a regular basis it can be difficult to connect to sexual identity because you feel more like a thing than a person. “It is common for disabled people to feel objectified by medical professions,” explains Dr. Roosen. “They start to see themselves as not quite a human, but a series of medical complications. In essence, they can internalize these messages and feel very unattractive or undesirable to others.”
Having a key part of your identity invalidated purely for being disabled can be soul-destroying and lead to developing unhealthy behaviors in order to be accepted by non-disabled people. For example, I used to be terrified of using my cane on a first date because I feared potential partners would instantly desexualize me after seeing it. “I have researched eating disorders in disabled women and found that desexualization directly led to using unhealthy weight loss practices in an attempt to overcompensate for their disability, and be more sexually appealing to others,” adds Dr. Roosen. “They also talked about making themselves hypersexualized to challenge stereotypes.”
Under the intense pressure of deeply embedded societal ableism, the desire to be considered sexual can be a destructive force but sensual TikTok challenges offer opportunities for disabled people to celebrate their sexuality in a positive and controlled way. We deserve to feel sensual without being disregarded as non-sexual beings, so a 30-second video can be a monumental step toward breaking down assumptions about disabled people internally and externally.
Dr. Roosen adds, “TikTok and other social media platforms provide safe spaces for disabled folx to explore their sexuality in a healthy way. Seeing a person with a similar body type, identity, assistive device, or medical condition as you embracing their disability and saying, ‘I am sexy, I am empowered, I am confident,’ can make the difference between that person believing the internalized societal message that they are not good enough and feeling a sense of hope and optimism about their own future.”
These challenges also act as subversive education for ableists who insist that they would never date a disabled person. Dr. Roosen says, “It is also important for non-disabled people to see these images because it challenges their assumptions about asexuality in disabled people.” The cultural impact of these videos is significant and taking part is a powerful way to contribute to the deconstruction of ableist attitudes. However, this should not trump personal comfort. Francine says, “It is good to check in with ourselves and see if we want to take part, or are we happy to cheer others from the sidelines.”
Being disabled in an ableist world means waging a constant war to thrive. But by embracing their disabilities with unapologetic sensuality, disabled people are clearing the path for me and others to connect to their sexual and disabled identities. If more of us engage in these trending challenges and defy society’s expectations of disabled people, we could finally see a change in the way disabled people are continually desexualized. Even if it takes a while for the rest of society to catch up and acknowledge it, these videos prove that disabled folk are sexual sensations on TikTok and in the real world.