This paving slab thing really seems to bother some people.
Some of it seems to be just good, old-fashioned prudery. Personally, I don’t have a problem with kids hearing an oblique fellatio joke. Think about the dreadful things we’re happy for them to watch (they were still watching Hannah Montana when ‘Love & Monsters’ aired, for example). By contrast, a mild joke about consensual sex between people who love each other seems quite nice. Besides, we turn off the TV in disgust because there’s a joke about sex and then the kids go to school and spend all day giggling about bottoms and willies. I know I did.
If she really is stuck in the slab (and we can’t be sure of this, given that Elton is an unreliable narrator and we never see Ursula’s slab-embedded face from the POV of his video camera), there’s no reason to suppose that the Doctor didn’t ask her if it was what she wanted. Why assume that he’d force it on her?
There is something potentially disturbing about a woman being so utterly in a man’s power… but Elton doesn’t read like an abuser. Of course, the problem is that he can abuse her if he wants because of her extreme physical vulnerability. This seems at least as pertinent as the gender issues in this episode.
There is, of course, no reason why a ‘disabled’ person can’t have a happy, fulfilling life. They can and do… at least when they’re not reliant on ATOS for access to basic human dignity.
I’m making the link between Slab-Ursula and ‘disability’ despite the fact that she connects with this complex social phenomenon in very broad, Fantasy terms. Aside from the origins of her ‘disability’, she represents near total immobility, which is not unheard-of in the real world but which is unrepresentative of the huge matrix of different ‘disabilities’. She could, if read too closely as ‘disabled’, be considered offensive as a representation because of her extreme helplessness. Taken that way, she could tie in with the perception of ‘disabled’ people as like objects lacking agency. Pity dehumanizes the pitied; that’s why common humanity and solidarity are infinitely preferable.
I think a major bit of the unease over this scene – and the joke in particular – is actually submerged anxiety about sex between ‘disabled’ and ‘able-bodied’ people. The conscious worry is perhaps over abuse… but abuse is not peculiar to relationships involving the ‘disabled’. Of course, there is a horribly high level of abuse of the disabled, but abuse is, by definition, not about consensual sex between loving partners. The idea that Elton and Slab-Ursula’s relations might be inherently abusive probably stems from that very perception of the ‘disabled’ as weak and helpless, semi-people, in need of protection. The object without agency, as above. Like kids. (Children in our society are too often seen as passive receptacles.) For an adult, there can be no such thing as consensual sex with a child (which is true). Ergo, for an ‘able-bodied’ person, there can be no such thing as consensual sex with a ‘disabled’ person (which is not true). Of course, the analogy rests on the correct perception of a common power imbalance (the essence of abuse)… this is why the extreme nature of Ursula’s ‘disability’ becomes a potential problem when she is related to real-world ‘disability’. Real ‘disabled’ people are not always so utterly dependent… and focusing on the power differential as a physical thing fails to grasp how socially-constructed it is, how dependent upon social structures of privilege. ‘Disability’ is relative to how the social world is culturally and materially constructed.
I’m not saying, by the way, that anybody who doesn’t like ‘Love & Monsters’, or that scene, hates ‘disabled’ people, consciously or unconsciously. Society in general needs to do better in our perceptions of these issues.
What the ‘disabled’ actually need (besides Iain Duncan Smith consigned to a slave labour camp where he spends all his time making stretch limousines customised for wheelchair access) is to be treated like people, just like everyone else. (I feel able to pronounce on what ‘they’ need in this instance, because all I’m saying is that they need to be accorded the baseline status that I get automatically. For anything beyond that, my job is to shut up and listen.)
The episode makes it plain that, if she is really stuck in the slab, she’s also in a non-abusive relationship, whatever the potential problems. If we get caught up on those potential problems, we run the risk of discrimination, i.e. of over-emphasizing the potential problems in ‘disabled’ relationships while forgetting about the huge amount of abuse that takes place in ‘able-bodied’ ones, thus embracing the hubris of privilege.
Having “a bit of a sex life”, or at least being accorded the ability to have non-abusive sex if you choose, is surely part and parcel of being treated like a normal human being (which is how ‘disabled’ people should be treated because its what they are). The kind of ruthless, inhuman, results-driven neoliberal world that Kennedy/Absorbaloff represents (a call-centre-verse where all human enthusiasms and capacities are slaved to a maniacally ravenous, pinstriped monster of consumption) is the kind of world that produces monsters like ATOS and IDS. Children can see them on the TV and nobody turns a hair… and they’re far more offensive than a joke about a ‘disabled’ person giving the man she loves a blowjob now and then.
(Note: I put the term ‘disabled’ in scare-quotes because, while it seems to be the best term, I like to treat it cautiously.)
EDIT (26/10/13): Clunky clarification added in brackets at end of the first sentence of the last paragraph. Just in case anybody decided to deliberately misinterpret my meaning.