Madison Cawthorn is a jerk, but he’s a complicated jerk

So people are talking about Cawthorn’s sexual behavior as a riff on the “service as a husband” statement he made in an interview to explain why he has missed so many votes so early in his career as a congress member. There’s actually a lot to critique in Cawthorn’s behavior, but I’m choosing not to focus on this aspect, the aspect where he talks about sex a little too loudly and a little too defensively.

There’s a toxic behavior of able bodied people that desexualizes people with disabilities, and strips men with disabilities of their masculinity, which is to say their adulthood and value as a member of a community. You may be familiar with the concept of “infantilizing” people with disabilities. Well, this is part of that. Men are adults, and infants don’t have sex. It’s all related. When there’s no sexual disfunction at all, and the person with the disability knows that, it’s still bad enough. It excludes you from community if people assume that something important in their own lives is something completely irrelevant to you.

It gets worse when there is actually sexual disfunction involved … or potentially involved. Nerves are complicated, and Cawthorn’s spinal injury could leave him unable to get an erection or not, we don’t know…but the odds that he’s permanently unable to get a penile erection are really high, far, far higher than the background rate of the population. Moreover, because most people don’t understand how complicated nervous systems can be, most people think an injury like Cawthorn’s has a 100% impotence rate.

Cawthorn’s behavior is gross, but he’s almost certainly responding to gross assumptions, prejudice, and community exclusion he faces as someone with a spinal cord injury. If he was a douchebro in high school whose friendship circle committed small sexual assaults and bragged about those assaults and/or their sexual behavior, then while other people would become more adult as they became adult, the insecurities of adolescent years would be replaced by the insecurities of being a guy assumed to be impotent in the middle of a culture where men’s sexual activity is associated with his general competence.

His behavior is atrocious, but it’s known that straight guys with spinal injuries compensate by being publicly sexual in their conversations and behavior. The prejudiced behavior of his peers can never justify his own bad choices, but we can at least understand that anti disability prejudice and Cawthorn’s insecurities in the face of that prejudice play a role here.

I encourage everyone to strongly condemn his assaultive behavior, loudly and often. There’s no excuse for it.

But before you condemn him for talking about sex with his wife just a little too loud or in a venue that’s a little too public, maybe consider how our society’s ableism is creating a context conducive to such overreactions. In particular, I’ve seen speculation (a LOT of speculation) that Cawthorn is a closeted gay man and defensiveness about potentially being seen as gay/bi/queer might have a lot to do with his behavior. I agree that defensiveness probably plays a role, but since we know that straight guys with spinal injuries are prone to this defensiveness as a result of how society treats them in relation to their disability, speculating on his queerness is not only unlikely to be correct, it’s actually likely to increase the anxiety (and ultimately the defensiveness) of other straight guys with spinal injuries.

There are a lot of people with spinal injuries, and while Cawthorn deserves condemnation, I don’t want to make those other people believe that we’re not sympathetic to what they’re going through. So for me, I’m going to choose not to focus on his loud, “I HAVE SEX! I CAN HAVE SEX!” statements and instead focus on the scary, fucked up, assaultive “car rides” he gave women in college and the scary fucked up political positions he takes in congress. And I’m certainly not going to suggest that he’s queer just because he’s a man with a spinal injury who seems defensive about sex and masculinity.




  1. Saurs says

    Very strange to ascribe to his wheelchair or society’s response to his wheelchair to the more obvious explanation: his history of sexual harassment and assault which began before his accident.

  2. says

    Still, it’s kind of like when the subject is white women’s racism and a general concern about women’s problems is brought up.

  3. says

    It does read an awful lot like excuse-making for his behavior. I don’t like it. And I AM disabled, I understand the tendency to infantilize us, and I still feel like… nah, dude, he’s just a giant asshole, and he was like that before the injury, too.

  4. says

    baden@4 – Even that could be a situation where a nuanced perspective can be useful. I was on a bus one time and saw a short thin white lady being aggressively sleazed on by a couple of man-sized black men. Nothing to the level where you can justify calling the cops of course, sleazy men are often capable of toeing that line to a perfect degree of plausible deniability – like man of elevatorgate fame.

    In the IRL situation she just kept her head down until her stop and got out, making bare minimal pleasant noises to avoid ire, afraid to tell them to fuck off because who knows what they would have done? Wasn’t much any of us could do without a risk of escalation – I was considering my options – except intervene if they went over the line overtly.

    Fortunately they didn’t follow bus lady off at her stop. But if a scene had taken place, and if in the course of that somebody had done something racist, women’s problems would absolutely have been a consideration – even if they wouldn’t be an excuse.

    Of course this isn’t true for all the situations you mention, maybe close to zero of them. But if it was true – as it is in the case of societal ableism’s effects on Madison Cawthorn – it would be appropriate to mention as part of the discussion. With that nuance, which was well-handled in the article here.

  5. Neil Eddinger says

    I would have thought that having such a life-altering injury might, well, alter your life; but he’s just as big an ass-hole now as he was before. Maybe he’s even a bigger ass-hole, I don’t know because, fortunately, I don’t know him personally. I hope he gets out of politics and seeks the help he obviously needs.

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