Journal article sparks censorship debate

man in wheelchair arms raised against a setting sun
Censorship of Sexuality and Disability

This article contains mature content.

When Syracuse University bioethics professor William Peace, author of the popular “Bad Cripple” blog, became paralyzed at age 18, his primary concerns about the impact of his now-limited mobility were nothing out of the ordinary.

“Education was a priority, but as a newly paralyzed man, I had something far more basic in mind. No, not walking – my bulky Everest & Jennings wheelchair was more than enough for me. In fact, I considered that piece of junk a modern marvel,” Peace wrote in the winter 2014 issue of the Atrium, a faculty-produced bioethics journal run by the Northwest University Feinberg School of Medicine. “I had something more important in mind: I wanted to have sex. But did my dick still work? Could I still fuck?”

Near the end of his year-long stint at a rehabilitation facility, in 1978, Pace’s question was answered. A nurse, now deceased, whom he remained friends with for nearly four decades, gave Peace a blowjob.

Peace, now a father, shared his story in a special issue of the Atrium, titled “Bad Girls,” which highlighted various scholars insights on the intersection of sex and people with disabilities.

In response, the Northwestern University shut down the journal for 14 months, until it finally allowed the articles to be viewed online May 18. Moving forward, the University has now proposed setting up a committee to preview the journal content prior to publication.

Northwestern University argues that the moves are necessary to protect the medical school’s image.

“(The University) is strongly committed to the principles of free expression and academic freedom,” Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage told Inside Higher Ed, adding that the whole issue is now available online.

Free speech advocates have been unrelenting in their criticism.

“The ability to explore controversial subjects lies at the heart of academic freedom…,” said Peter Bonilla, a director with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a First Amendment advocacy group, in a news release. “A university’s brand should be the unfettered search for truth, not politically motivated censorship.”

Peace, for his part, has defended the essay extensively on his Bad Cripple blog. As he sees it, the continued taboo against openly discussing sex and people with disabilities represents one of the most significant barriers to the evolution of the disability rights movement.

“The denial of one’s sexual identity and of the physical pleasure sex provides is potentially devastating to any individual,” Peace wrote on his blog. “My essay ‘Head Nurse’ unsettles conventional social norms. I, as a paralyzed man, am not supposed to be sexual, and I certainly am not expected to acknowledge receiving sexual pleasure in the form of oral sex.

“To deny the realities I wrote about in my essay is to deny the truth – and it is a truth people should know.”