A Review of "The Outsiders Club" Screened on BBC 2 in October 96
MA Diploma Disability Studies
I decided to write a review on the social group known as The Outsiders. The group's main aim is to enable disabled adults to form personal relationships, including specifically sexual ones (Shakespeare 1996), either with each other or with non-disabled members. The group has been in existence for several years, and has attracted a great deal of attention, including reaction from present and former members, and in particular from within the Disabled People's Movement . Many of the comments made by former members of the group have been critical, sometimes highly condemnatory, and frequently made by disabled women (Rae 1984).
In both my professional and private capacity I am interested in sexuality and disability, and specifically in the ways in which disabled adults can establish meaningful relationships with other people (disabled or on-disabled). Issues such as sexuality and the forming of relationships are regularly discussed in mainstream youth and community work, but rarely with regard to disabled people (which is not surprising since disabled people are often absent from mainstream groups). Indeed, it is only in the last few years that disabled people themselves have been in the forefront of this debate, and the leading protagonist have usually been activists within the wider disability movement, who are well aware of other social and sexual issues such as gender, sexism, homophobia, and so on. The Outsiders was set up (and is still fronted by) an able bodied woman who for many years has been well known in the controversial arena of sexual liberation and soft-core pornography, so it is hardly surprising that her group has both supporters and critics.
A recent BBC-2 documentary series (From the Edge) devoted a whole programme to the group, and this essay picks up the main themes that were aired.
SEXUALITY AND DISABILITY
Morris (1989) writes "once we first become disabled we are usually denied any
form of sexual identity." It is certainly true that among the many negative stereotypes of disability some of the most commonly held views are that disabled people are non-sexual, or sometimes asexual beings, or that they are likely to be attracted only to each other.
THE OUTSIDERS CLUB
The Outsiders Club was established by Tuppy Owens in 1979. Tuppy, a self-proclaimed stalwart campaigner for sexual equality, and a trained sex therapist. She conceived the idea of a social group for disabled adults after her close male friend, Nigel, became blind. Fearful of the effect of disability ever afflicting her own life - and blindness in particular - she became determined to assist Nigel in any way she could. She began by taking Nigel to parties where she described to him in great detail what other women were wearing, and took delight in it. She claimed that this enabled him to
have more fun, as he could imagine what women were wearing, even though he could not see them. One question raised by this is: whose needs were being fulfilled? I have
already suggested that many able-bodied people have quite misguided views concerning issues of sexuality and disability, so was Tuppy fulfilling a sexual fantasy of her own, or performing a valid role for her friend? (Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sells et al. 1996).
The club produces its own Practical Suggestions Guide, a guide considered offensive and oppressive by some members of the disability movement (Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sells et al. 1996). The reason for this view is that the guide's content is based around a medical model of disability which suggests that disabled people's problems are due to their impairments, not to environmental and attitudinal factors (Oliver 1996). In other words, in the view of the critics the guide fails to acknowledge the dominant model of disability which is widely propagated by the disability movement. There is a 'medical' side to disability (or 'impairment') and it is at least arguable that some (maybe most) problems of sexual function are intrinsically medical - and not imposed by society. However, issues of shyness, assertiveness, and social/sexual confidence may well be rooted in expectations of disapproval, contempt or rejection from an unaware non-disabled public.
HOW THE CLUB TREATS ITS MEMBERS.
Billy Prosser, a member of the club considers that the topic "Disability and sexuality
is taboo", ie sexuality as expressed by disabled people carries a kind of stigma. Goffman in 1963 uses the term "stigma" to refer to an attribute that is discrediting. To an extent this derives from traditional cultural and media assumptions about physical beauty and "attractiveness". Disabled people are seldom portrayed (for instance in films, on TV, in books, comics or magazines) as sexy, or desirable, or sexually alluring to non-disabled people. The club's membership is made up of able-bodied and disabled people. What is interesting about the current membership is that there is a gender imbalance, with men outnumbering women by 2:1, and it appears that the club attracts able-bodied men but not able-bodied women (Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sells et al. 1996). So what attracts non-disabled men to the Outsiders Club? Are they splendidly broad-minded individuals who have no sexual hang-ups about mixing with disabled women, or are they themselves sexually frustrated, isolated people at the last chance saloon?
We need to look at the management, structure, and general style of the club to find some answers, and to try to answer the underlying question - is The Outsiders Club a good or a bad thing?
THE MANAGEMENT COMMITTEE
The Outsiders Club's Management Committee consists of four people, including
Tuppy Owens, she is the only able-bodied person on the committee. In the film, Annette Taylor, the club's Chairperson, suggested that the club ought to address the negative images which have developed since its inception in 1979. When viewing a film like this, I feel it is imperative that we, as individuals (either club members or interested observers) are able to challenge our own moral standpoint. It is perhaps inevitable that
individuals who are confronted with the issues depicted in the programme have been provoked into feelings of discord. I found, as I was watching, that it was practically impossible not to draw upon my own personal feelings concerning the issues expressed above (Waitman and Conboy-Hill 1996).
THE OUTSIDERS CLUB AND SEXUAL SURROGACY.
In the film, Tuppy Owens mentioned her support for the use of sexual surrogates, presumably (in some cases) via contacts made at The Outsiders Club. A sexual surrogate is someone who usually is employed by a sex therapist to assist with some sexual problem. This can be associated with a lack of confidence or poor self esteem. The film interviewed two able-bodied sexual surrogates, one male and the other female. Both surrogates in this film used statements like: "I like to give pleasure and to make the person happy" and "I massage them". The fees commence at £60 per session, and a typical case would involve an able-bodied, female, sexual surrogate who would spend two hours with a disabled person (male) for the purpose of sex.
The surrogate explains:
"I take them out of their chair, put them on to the bed, make them comfortable, please them, wash them, dress them and put them back in their wheelchair" I found the impersonal, matter-of-fact words used by the surrogate woman in the film rather offensive. She kept referring to disabled people as "them" which seemed to imply that the disabled person was somehow less than the surrogate herself. It was considered reasonable by the surrogate that a fee (£60) was charged, partly because it is after all a 'business' transaction, and "otherwise they would become too attached if we did not charge".
POWER, CONTROL, and FETISHISM
The film showed several disabled women who discussed their experiences of the club. One woman, who uses a wheelchair, claimed that she had only been asked out by able-bodied men. Tuppy's explanation of this was that some able bodied men feel inadequate within their own experience, but are enabled to feel empowered if they have sex with disabled women. She said that such men feel they are in control, and by this process are able to exercise power over a woman, albeit that the woman is disabled. Shakespeare makes the point that there is an assumption here that any sexual contact is better than no sexual contact (Shakespeare 1996). A further disturbing aspect of the club, mentioned in some detail in the TV film, is that it is used by some (usually able-bodied) men as an informal network for specific sexual tastes. An example of this is that in the Outsiders Club handbook it states: "Do not confess your fetish early in the relationship, as some women may find this offensive". There seems to be a voyeuristic view of disability in cases such as these, and this was given weight by Shakespeare in 1996. What is particularly disturbing, is that the Outsiders magazine publishes most of the members' names and addresses with telephone numbers. It was suggested that most people who join do not fully understand how the club operates. This highlights very real dangers, particularly for some women who may already lack social skills and consequently be considered to be vulnerable.
Tuppy Owens and members of The Outsiders Club co-operated willingly in the shooting of the film - to their credit. They do not seem ashamed or evasive about what they do and how they operate. The programme was not long enough to be a truly authoritative portrait, but it did raise sensitive, awkward, and provocative issues. The programme itself almost seemed to depict some disabled people and some non-disabled people (ie Club members) as somewhat sexually deviant or even dangerous, which it suggests is hardly surprising when we live in a sexually supercharged culture, where the emphasis is upon the body beautiful and how attractive a person is (Longmore 1987), and there is a growing fascination with sexual extremes. The programme quoted from its guide that women should not turn down advances from men as this may be perceived by the men that the women who are saying no in fact mean yes(Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sells et al. 1996). This is a dangerous proposition, and adds fuel to the uneasiness that is evident in people's views about the club. I do not disagree per se with the idea of a sexual club where consenting disabled adults can meet together with other disabled people or non-disabled people to develop social skills, build self esteem, and possibly involve themselves in sexual relationships. I do however consider that the Outsiders Club does not meet the needs of disabled women, and their vulnerability is not fully understood by the club's organisers.
Longmore, P. K. (1987). "Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People in Television and Motion Pictures." .
Oliver, M. (1996). Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice. London, Macmillan.
Rae, A. (1984). Refusing to be the Outsiders. Spare Rib 145 . p. 18-20.
Shakespeare, T. (1996). Power and Prejudice: Issues of Gender, Sexuality and Disability. Disability & Society: Emerging Issues and Insights. L. Barton. London, Longman.
Shakespeare, T., K. Gillespie-Sells, et al. (1996). The Sexual Polities of Disability: Untold Desires. London, Cassell.
Waitman, A. and S. Conboy-Hill (1996). Confronting Moral Standpoints.