Sexuality in Malta? A greater taboo if it involves persons with disability

A study carried out by Michael Debattista for his Masters dissertation reveals the realities faced by persons with disability when it comes to intimate relationships

The Maltese perception of disability as “tragedy” lingers on, affecting not only the personal and sexual development of the person with disability but also how friends or relatives act around them.

The stereotypical assumption of persons with disability as asexual also persists.

A study carried out by Michael Debattista for his Masters dissertation reveals that parental over-protection was also problematic for participants who took part in his study.

“Participants asserted that overprotective behaviour ranged from the exclusion of persons with disability from performing house chores to being overly inquisitive on their whereabouts. Sometimes, parents sympathised with former partners of persons with disability following the termination of an intimate relationship,” Debattista found out.

Suffering from visual impairment himself, Debattista focused his dissertation on persons with disability and intimate relationships and the realities in the Maltese context. 

Multiple factors pushed him towards this subject, not least his personal experiences. Even more influential was the fact that the theme of sexuality in Malta remains a taboo, and becomes an even bigger taboo if it involves persons with disability.

“I consider my visual impairment as a characteristic, not as something dehumanising. I feel myself as a complete human being, even when it comes to sexuality,” Debattista says. “As a matter of fact, I was involved in intimate relationships in the past, almost all of them having occurred after the onset of my visual impairment condition in early adulthood.”

He admits that some of his past romantic rejections were due to his visual impairment condition. 

In October 2012, Malta ratified the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability. Debattista explained that Malta must honour its obligations, including the freedom of expression of sexuality as stipulated in Article 23 of the Convention.

In 2014, the government launched a policy on the rights of persons with disabilities, touching on the sexuality and parenthood of the disabled. 

Various studies have found that, when it comes to sexual citizenship, many persons with disability are subjected to various oppressive measures, ranging from lack of support from family and friends; to lack of accessibility of appropriate information and services; to malpractices such as forced sterilization and denial of marriage to persons with disability.

In fact, Debattista moves to make a series of recommendations including educating students in a formal education setting.

“It’s all about attitudes and it’s definitely not desirable if an adult is conditioned by his prejudices. What is important is that teachers are not influenced by their way of looking at sexuality but should teach their students about recognising diversity,” Debattista tells MaltaToday.

He moves on to suggest that comprehensive education should involve individuals who speak about their own experiences.

“A person with disability who speaks about his or her experience in bringing up children would be an influential way how to overcome these kind of misconceptions.”

Debattista argues that, even when it comes to handling emotional needs, students must be taught how to overcome fear if they – or their friends – develop an impairment.

“When it comes to relationships, students must be taught that there is nothing tragic or shameful in having a disability. At the end of the day, what makes a relationship meaningful is how people interact with each other.”

Eight persons with disability took part in the study, all of whom were involved in an intimate relationship at the time the study was conducted. Three participants have physical disability, two with sensorial impairments, two persons with intellectual disability and one with specific learning difficulties. 

Interestingly, the study itself reveals the existence of a “hierarchy of impairments”. Interview participants viewed persons with intellectual disability and persons with mental health conditions as less desirable partners than those affected by physical or sensorial impairments. Studies have attributed this to a process called “differentiation”, whereby persons in an impairment group differentiate themselves as being better than those from other impairment groups.

“It reflects the perceptions of society and persons with disability. It creates the distance which allows persons with disability would see as an extension of ‘normal’, replicating unequal status quo. What is needed is to remove that bias altogether,” Debattista explains.

Such a study could not have taken place without analysing the “uniqueness” of Maltese culture, with its close links to Roman Catholic values. Notwithstanding Malta’s recognition of the rights of various social minorities, negative attitudes in their regard persist.

During the interviews that took place in preparation for this study, almost all of the interview participants told Debattista that the prospective non-disabled partner might experience shock upon learning of being in touch with a person with disability. 

For example, one interviewee said she had similar experiences with social network media, where non-disabled people stopped communicating with her as soon as they learned of her physical impairment.

Interviewees spoke of how non-disabled persons would be shocked upon learning that a person with disability engages in sexual practices or is involved in an intimate relationship.

“I work with adults with severe disability and, when new people come to the residential home, they would be shocked to find out that the residents masturbate. They do it because they naturally have sexual needs … but people are shocked,” one interviewee said.

Another interviewee said: “I think that the assumption of persons with disability as having no desire to have a relationship of sexual nature is still out there.”

The study confirms a recurring attitude by non-disabled people who stare at persons with disability. Deaf people experience it too when using sign language.

Some interview participants also reported having experienced insensitive remarks by non-disabled people, some of which centred on their sexuality and reproduction. 

“Many people ask me how I communicate with my husband, or how I managed to understand him. There were people who asked me how I would realise that my baby is crying, if I were to become a mother. I think that such questions are cruel … there is no need for people to ask such questions,” a deaf interviewee said.

Interview participants spoke of negative reactions from significant others, ranging from partner’s family and friends, to parents of persons with disability. Some of the participants stated that families and friends of non-disabled partners have a propensity to talk them out of relationships with persons with disability on grounds of the perception of disability as a burden. 

One deaf interviewee reported the lack of acceptance from her husband’s family: the mother-in-law, despite knowing how to send messages from her mobile phone, insisted on keeping in touch with the participant via telephone ever though the participant could not use the telephone due to the severity of her impairment.

More in Health