The Let's Play Archive

Katawa Shoujo

by Falconier111

Part 81: Disability Corner: Disability and Sexuality

Disability Corner: Disability and Sexuality

This… This is going to be a doozy of a disability corner, one I got pretty worked up writing. There’s no way I won’t make missteps and say things that don’t line up with many people’s experiences, given how private and contentious this topic can be. Let me know if you see anything that needs fixing.

So, the LP forum has a policy on NSFW games:

Fedule posted:

  1. Rules regarding adult content:

    Some games are porn. This is not the place for these games. You know these games when you see them.

    Some games are steeped in themes and depictions of sex and sexuality, yet manage to not just be porn. You will have to use your best judgement to determine whether or not it is a good idea to exhibit these games. If in any doubt at all, ask the mods for a judgement before posting.

    Some games happen to get a little risqué from time to time. We've got nothing against this, but if a given pic is particularly NSFW, you should probably link it instead of posting it inline. If it's going to happen a lot, consider just putting an NSFW warning in your thread title. People appreciate content warnings.

Hopefully by now you’re convinced KS falls under that second category, but the original plan for the LP was to skip over that content entirely. While I knew from the beginning the sex scenes had something to contribute to the narrative, I also had no desire to push the rules or the mods. Even though NSFW games have a place on the forum, I didn’t want to focus on that aspect of something with a much larger meaning and impact. I didn’t have anything against those scenes; I just didn’t think I would need to touch on them.

And then I changed my mind, because I realized other factors were in play.

There were two rough tiers of special education in my high school. One tier had kids with learning disabilities or minor behavioral problems, kids who would otherwise flounder but who could pass without with the proper support. I don’t remember kids with visible disabilities there, or in the school in general, though I barely paid attention to anything in high school. The most I remember seeing was one girl who had some kind of degenerative spinal disorder that if untreated would have ended with her body snapping itself in half. They implanted a massive titanium rod in her back next to her spine, which was apparently enough to solve the issue. I’ve never seen someone that tall slouch so much with a perfectly straight back. Anyway, this tier bolstered the same schedules everyone else got with a small set of extra classes that served as a ported study halls plus an open line to parts of the administration that handled accommodations and counseling, and while it didn’t work for everybody, it worked well enough that all kinds of kids could pass through without too much stigma. We even had honors students, which I know because I was one; I gamed the system to get a 3.75 GPA before it dropped a full point in college :smug:.

Kids with serious behavioral problems (and, looking back on it, probably the kids with physical disabilities, too) went to a special school that nobody talked about. I only know it exists because one of my best friends went there during middle school. I don’t even know if it extended into high school, when they mainstreamed him. The rest of special ed, the kids who weren’t unmanageable but couldn’t really function in most classrooms, spent their time in their own segregated wing of the school, only emerging for assemblies or schoolwide activities. Kids in the first tier went to the same sex ed classes as everyone else, and apparently the other school had sex ed classes of its own. But members of the second tier never seemed to show up. And really, why would they? We’ve already talked about how disabled people are consistently infantilized, so it seems logical to bundle in the assumption that they can’t and shouldn’t have sex. Add in knowledge of how unlikely these kids are to punch through discrimination and land a good job, assumptions about societal standards of beauty, and a curriculum focusing on what makes them different from other teenagers, and you get two things; this sort of assumed asexuality that permeated the whole process and kept them out of class on the administration’s end, and the assumption they shouldn’t even be there on the students’ end.

Think about disabled characters in media. When it comes to relationships, who comes to mind? For me, it’s Elisa in the Shape of Water, a nonverbal woman and chief romantic lead. Granted, her co-lead is a fish man, but the message of that movie is kinda that ableists are the real monsters, so that doesn’t really faze me. It does faze me that her actor isn’t, you know, actually nonverbal, but abled actors playing disabled characters is so common it’s deeply unsurprising. How about a character played by an appropriate actor, Tyrion Lannister as played by Peter Dinklage, a better actor than Game of Thrones deserved. His primary love interests were… A manipulative prostitute he later murders and a woman who met the kind of fate I don’t want to type up for loving him, wow, holy shit. Uh, yeah, I wouldn’t exactly call that a blow for representation. Who else? Okay, there’s Fiona Helbron, who shows up in Elementary as the protagonist’s love interest; she’s explicitly described as autistic, has plenty of agency, and engages in a relationship with him before they break up out of incompatibility. Better than the last example, definitely, but a character who shows up in the fourth season of a seven-season show isn’t exactly high profile or anything – especially when she’s played by (as far as I can tell) a neurotypical actor. Sheldon Cooper had relationships, but the less said about him, the better. Oh, hey, there’s a movie called Me Before You about the romance between a woman and a paraplegic man… As portrayed by an abled actor who spends the entire movie convincing the people around him to let him commit suicide because he finds being disabled so horrifying, goddamnit.

The funny thing about these examples? They’re the only ones I found before I gave up looking, I didn’t have to cherrypick particularly egregious ones. Finding disabled people in romantic relationships in media is staggeringly difficult; even disabled sources usually ignore them. And those that do show up? Just take a look at that track record. Out of the four roles up there, only one was played by an actual disabled person, and his situation was by far the most tragic. And out of those five relationships, three of them ended when one partner met a horrible end, one ends in a breakup, and one ends with one party either dying or turning into a fish woman, depending on how you interpret the ending. You only get an unambiguously happy ending if you throw in Sheldon, and that’s for a character so distorted by ableism and marketability the people he’s usually conflated with hate his guts. That does not exactly bode well to a young disabled person looking to come to terms with their feelings!

So, why does this happen to us in media? Well, here’s a thought experiment: think back to any fat poor people you see in movies or books or shows. Think about their relationships and children, when they have them. What do their relationships look like? What do their children look like, and how do they act? Do you ever see them expressing romantic or sexual desire, and if you do, how positively or negatively is it portrayed? How is their behavior contrasted with that of people who are only one or neither of those things? After a bit, you’ll start to notice how little actual sexuality shows up in their lives, and how it usually gets treated as disgusting when it does. But that doesn’t stop them from having kids. In fact, they frequently have lots of kids, kids who are often deprived, mistreated, cruel, or as unappealing as their parents. I’ve mentioned eugenics before, and if you want a good example of the logic that drives it, the idea that certain people are just born worse than others and restricting their reproduction would be good for the human race, just look at how it’s expressed here. Eugenics as an active practice and policy goal may not be in vogue anymore, but the connection of undesirability to creating bad children stays intact. And as for disability? Take a look at how the people above seem to inevitably produce defective children, any connection to reality be damned, and apply that same logic to disabled people. Think back to what Alexander Graham Bell thought of Deaf people in relationships, and what that Autism Speaks representative said all the way back in the first disability corner. And think back to what our dear imaginary friend in the Euphemisms disability corner said happened when disabled people had descendants. If society deems a group unfuckable, there’s a very, very high likelihood it will regard their children with horror. Disabled people have a dark history with forced sterilization, one that hasn’t exactly gone away. And did you know that in the United States, you can lose disability benefits by getting married? Relationships are a fundamental part of being human and I doubt most of the lawmakers and bureaucrats who put that together were single, so why didn’t they close that loophole? I’m willing to bet this perception played a part.

But honestly, I bet most of them barely considered disabled people getting married much of a threat in the first place, or assumed it happened too rarely to matter much. I used the word “unfuckable” deliberately. Our society operates off an impossibly idealized norm that gives perfectly attractive people panic attacks trying to reach it already. For those of us who physically can’t match it, or have behaviors that don’t fit it, or just don’t have the energy to live up to it, we start off at a disadvantage. Add in the blows society deals to our social and economic status and we drop lower. Add in the infantilization and we drop even lower, enough so that it doesn’t seem to occur to some people that we could have sex at all. Those two factors, perceived unattractiveness and perceived undesirability of our children, are intimately tied: if a relationship with a person is seen as abominable, that relationship, and its products, will be treated as abominable. We are not allowed to be sexual beings, and anyone who thinks otherwise is dismissed. The only permitted exception is the occasional amputee fetishist or something, and setting aside the ethics around that, it’s worth thinking about how much of a fetish is rooted in the lure of the forbidden.

Now, you might think this smacks of complaining about not getting dates, and while I can see where you get that, you’re a little off base: I’m talking societal scale, not personal. I mean, yeah, disabled people are almost exactly half as likely as anyone else to be married. That sucks, on all kinds of levels, for almost everybody involved. But I’m looking at this from a broader perspective. I’m talking how disability benefits can vanish if disabled people get married, or even live with their significant other – and how similar programs outside the US have similar issues. I’m talking how that marriage gap skyrockets among ethnic minorities, with the results for black people in particular looking uncomfortably like a successful eugenics program. I’m talking how having mental disabilities makes you something like seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and how that information, despite being years old, rarely makes it to the media or the legal system. I’m talking how disabled kids are if anything more likely to catch STDs than abled kids, in a world where they often get shunted out of sex ed. And, of course, I’m talking how the massive psychological toll all this takes on its victims as it systematically grinds them down, taking something that’s a key part of many people’s lives and crushing it under the weight of ignorance, cruelty, and sheer indifference.

And none of that has managed to kill our capacity for romance and sexuality. Some of us just aren’t equipped to maintain relationships, some of us are too traumatized to engage in them, some of us struggle to find a partner, and some of us just don’t care about romance and sexuality in the first place. But as dismaying as that half-as-common marriage statistic is, that still points to millions of disabled spouses in America alone – and that’s not counting other kinds of relationships, especially given the depressing effect benefits discrimination has on marriage rates. We still fall in love, we still have and raise kids, and we have a bumping queer community that produces high-profile activists in their own rights. Oppression can’t kill human nature. It can ruin lives and destroy people, though, and in this area it does so constantly. This cause isn’t hopeless – I’ve seen enough viral posts on the marriage/benefits catch-22 circulate in social media to know that SOMEBODY cares – but it’s far, far down on the priority list. And as long as it stays there, we’ll keep getting everything I mentioned in the last paragraph.

This is why I felt I needed to include Katawa Shoujo’s NSFW scenes in the LP. So much of the furor over the concept back in the day came from how it sexualized disabled people. Reading old articles and blog posts that criticize the game, these writers usually doubt the devs can handle a subject that delicate. And I get that. But I also get a sense that these writers think this is a subject that shouldn’t be written by internet randos instead of someone more qualified to handle the task, or that a game should be covering the subject in the first place, or that the game’s subject matter should be written about it all. To the first point: then who? I can’t blame you for recoiling from the idea of people from 4chan writing a visual novel about disabled sexuality (as inaccurate as that turned out to be), but who qualifies? Nobody listens to our activists in general, forget them working to put out something with mass appeal. The only people who do get public attention write that shit I mentioned up there. To the second point: then how? We’ve already seen how every other medium consistently mishandles disabled sexuality. Is there something about visual novels (or video games in general) that make them inherently less respectful or impactful? As well as the final product turned out, I can’t exactly fault those critics who wrote these articles before the game came out for not having access to time travel to verify their suspicions. But nothing else is respect or impactful right now, and those who had a chance to run a check during or after production never bothered. And is there a reason disabled sexuality specifically has to be attached to a higher form of art in order to be discussed, as opposed to any other form of sexuality? What, exactly, sets us apart?

And for the third point, well, very few critics actually came out and said it. Most stuck to one or both of the first two options, slapping a reference to the last at the end of a sentence or review if at all. And yet so many articles have this air of disgust about them, like they can’t believe anyone would be disgusting enough to bring it up at all. They seem to assume covering disabled sexuality in the first place is basically impossible to do respectfully and shouldn’t be done at all. So: what, exactly, about our sexuality makes it so difficult to cover that you can’t talk about it like sexuality in general? Is it because it’s such a sensitive issue? It’s not like media, even video games, haven’t deftly covered controversial topics before. Is it the sexualization? Well, it is sexuality, that kind of comes with the territory, so is sexualization so much worse for us than it is for everyone else? Put aside any assumptions about “respectful” treatments for a second. Would you apply this standard to any other minority group? It sounds ridiculous to say that, say, queer or black sexuality are too delicate to be discussed, so what makes us different? They don’t think it’s possible for a person without disabilities to appropriately handle the subject? I can see where they’re coming from there, and there are plenty of disabled people who’d agree with them. Which begs the question – did they actually check to see if any disabled people were on the dev team, or did they decide sight unseen that wasn’t true? Why would they assume that? And we have so little voice in broader culture anyway that waiting for the right person to come along just isn’t going to happen. Do they really believe someone will, or are they just kicking the can down the road?

I could keep going forever, but eventually every answer would just boil down to “why do you think disabled sexuality shouldn’t be talked about”, and more often than not, as much as they might try to dodge, the answer would probably boil down to “it’s not something I want to think about” or “it’s not something that should be thought about in first place”. As for the first, sure, then don’t think about a game that features it in the first place and leave the rest of us in peace; if the subject matter makes you that uncomfortable, presenting yourself as an objective observer while you peddle your bias isn’t going to help anybody. As for the second, that kind of polite ableism lets everything I’ve covered so far go unchecked. If you think that disabled sexuality isn’t legitimate, that it’s gross or impossible or destructive, I can’t stop you. But I can say I don’t really trust you to be objective or kind or perceptive, especially if you pretend you are any of those things. I feel I’ve gotten pretty heated in this disability corner, but this topic is both near to my heart and one almost never acknowledged because it’s seen as uncomfortable or awkward or gross. As long as that’s the case, we’ll continue to suffer. My junk really does shrivel up and pull into my abdominal cavity at the thought of just a bunch of Internet shitheads making a game about fucking disabled girls with a slur in the title. But I’d rather have that out in the open, where I can attack and debunk it, then leave it buried under layers of infantilization and intentional neglect where no one has to think of it at all.