Reality shows tend to thrive on an unhealthy pact between exhibitionism and voyeurism that is destructive in a world that already struggles with its understanding of the purpose of romance and human sexual relationships. There’s a new reality show just out called Down for Love that has found its way into the Netflix Top 10. Headlines promise it will “restore your faith in dating shows.” If you are a part of the Down syndrome community, you might guess from the title that it is about young people with Down syndrome and their search for romantic relationships. If you are not, you may need some explanation of the title and its relevance to the content. I am a part of that community, and I have concerns.
Programs like this test the balance between inclusion and exploitation where persons with disabilities are concerned. A few may remember an old sitcom from the 90s called Life Goes On, which starred Broadway superstar Patti LuPone as the mother of a young man named Corky, who was played by actor Chris Burke. Burke was the first actor with Down syndrome to be successful on the screen, and Life Goes On was the first primetime show to feature a main character with an intellectual disability.
There was no hint of exploitation in Life Goes On. It was an honest slice of life and an outstanding early model of what we now call ‘inclusion.’ Corky went to a public high school where he was mostly in classes with his typical peers, and he lived in a family where he was loved and supported.
Burke was born in 1965, when parents were still being encouraged to institutionalize their children. His parents refused that suggestion and took him home after he was born, loved him, and encouraged his talents. He graduated from Don Guanella School in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1986, moved to New York, and was cast in Life Goes On a year later.
Down for Love is a different sort of program and is set in a much different time and context than Life Goes On. I have only seen the trailer, but to me it feels much more like exploitation. (Maybe it’s the reality show genre.) Some living with Down syndrome and their families will very likely find it charming, but others, like me, will resent a television show that makes a curiosity out of the vulnerabilities of young people with Down syndrome as they struggle to find meaningful relationships. We’re assured by reviewers of the dating show that it is unlike other dating shows that “revel in making their participants as uncomfortable as possible,” but dating and relationships in the twenty-first century are always complicated for typical folks. That is especially true for persons living with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
As the father of a son in his early twenties with Down syndrome, I am very aware of his desire for relationship and intimacy, but I also understand the limits of his capacity to understand what it requires to successfully act on that desire. In his message to participants, Pope St. John Paul II spoke beautifully to the 2004 International Symposium on the Dignity and Rights of the Mentally Disabled Person. He said:
The care of the emotional and sexual dimensions of disabled persons deserves special attention. This aspect is often ignored, glossed over and reduced or even dealt with ideologically. Instead, the sexual dimension is a constitutive dimension of the human being as such, created in the image of the God of Love and called from the outset to find fulfillment in the encounter with others and in communion.
Pope St. John Paul II continued to say that “their need for love is at least as great as anyone else’s,” but “disabled persons find themselves living these legitimate and natural needs in a disadvantaged situation.”
The Holy Father’s words express the compassion one seeks from the Church, but which is completely lacking in Down for Love. Two of those disadvantages—depending on the extent of an individual’s impairment—are autonomy and consent. Both are critical for successful Catholic relationships and essential for sacramental marriage. My son doesn’t have the capacity for either, but some may. Down for Love is not a compassionate response to the “emotional and sexual dimensions of disabled persons.”
I’m curious what the motivating interest of viewers outside the Down syndrome community might be in a program like this. Down for Love, Love on the Spectrum, Born This Way, The Undateables, and programs like them aren’t interested in showing how individuals with disabilities struggle to find employment or how they and their families navigate medical issues or educational opportunities (including the relatively new opportunities for those with these disabilities to enter college programs) or other aspects of their lives. In other words, they don’t reveal the whole person. Rather, they focus on what sells: their struggles; their bumbling, at times; efforts to “find fulfillment in the encounter with others,” as Pope St. John Paul II said. That, to me, is exploitative. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but there is a fine line between genuine public interest in the person and circus entertainment.
We Catholics are called to expose the shallow and pessimistic attitudes that have infected our culture’s understanding of sexual relationships. A Catholic woman contacted me recently who is working for a non-Catholic provider of residential services to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She is looking for another job because she knows she can no longer work for an employer who is endorsing non-marital sexual relationships among the residents. Her experience is too common. The secular disability culture encourages sexual exploration and relationships outside of marriage as a human right. Of course it does; it has no spiritual understanding of human dignity and the true purpose of sexual relationships.
The exploitation of persons with disabilities has a long past, from court jesters, to circus performers, to the present. While some may disagree with my assessment of Down for Love, there are other examples of exploitation that are less subtle. There is no better example than the currently popular group called Drag Syndrome. This, another play on the name of Down syndrome, is a horrific abuse of these individuals to create what one individual has called “a sexually exploitative nightmare that is the equivalent of a turn-of-the century freak show.”
Exploitation is transactional. In the case of the performative arts that seek to generate revenue—things like reality shows and drag shows—those with intellectual disabilities can easily be convinced to compromise their human dignity to amuse and entertain others. That is a kind of Faustian bargain in which the devil always wins. What may have the appearance of innocence is, at its heart, the same dance with the devil that is ancient in human affairs.
Meaningful human relationships are important, and all too rare, for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Pope St. John Paul II expressed their needs beautifully, as I mentioned. Should their efforts to navigate the complexities of relationships be the subject matter for a reality show that can result in vulnerable people being used as a source of amusement? Absolutely not!