Sex: not just for the able-bodied
By Katie Toth, Sex Columnist
Picture someone with disabilities in the bedroom. Many of us usually think they’re either sleeping or asking for help getting dressed. We should all forget every stereotype we’ve been taught and instead remember Claire Sainsbury’s simple words on Scarleteen: “Disabled people have sex, too!”
People with disabilities are often overlooked in healthy sexuality discourses. Meloukhia, a feminist blogger with disabilities, writes, “Either we are desexualized, or we are fetishized for our bodies and treated explicitly as sex objects/playthings for able bodied fetishists.”
I am quick to gloss over the discussion of sexuality in the context of disability, fearing that the intersecting issues will get too complicated or I will get in over my head. But I’m not the only one.
Different disabilities are stigmatized in different ways, but many people who have them can identify with a common thread: the assumption that those who are disabled do not have sexual agency. Whether you’re disabled physically, intellectually or have learning or mental health difficulties, our society sends a clear message that it is weird for you to be sexual.
This kind of stigma negates the ability of people with disabilities to have a sexual identity. I was about to say that this stigma renders them asexual, but it doesn’t even do that. In acknowledging someone as asexual, you offer him or her a sense of agency, an opportunity to identify with a lack of sexual desire.
How does this fit in with the rampant sexual abuse of people who have disabilities? With the trope of the “desperate” disabled woman, or with the concept that if you have disabilities and someone abuses you, it’s not really abuse, but rather flattery – you should be “happy” about it or “take what you can get.”
When you are in a wheelchair, your body often becomes associated not with hot sex, but with either a childlike, protected state or one that is stoic and heroic. Deaf people and people who can’t see, like Marlee Maitlin on Family Guy, get mocked. This just perpetuates a stereotype that those who are physically different can’t be smoking hot. Thank god for Maitlin’s stint on The L Word to challenge some of that bullshit.
With those who have intellectual/developmental disabilities, some people – often doctors, caregivers, conservative family members or even strangers – worry about giving people information they’re “not ready for” or that will “encourage them”. The blatant paternalism of such behaviour should be obvious. Why shouldn’t people with disabilities be encouraged to feel sexual? Do they not have the same rights to self-expression as everyone else?
Secondly, and of perhaps more urgent importance, is the necessity of education in order to protect anyone from what they may decide they aren’t ready for. Because people with disabilities aren’t always given consistent information about relationships and sexuality they need, out of a weird “protective” (read: condescending) drive on the behalf of caregivers, they remain some of the most sexually vulnerable people in the world.
According to the Wisconsin Coalition against sexual assault, as many as 83 per cent of women and 32 per cent of men who are developmentally disabled are victims of sexual assault. How can anyone be expected to speak out against their abuse if they haven’t been given the properly extensive educational tools and language to do so?
For those who have physical disabilities, stigma can be less blatantly paternalistic, but that doesn’t necessarily make it less condescending.
In the university community, many of us identify as having some sort of learning disability. Many of us can look back to some point in high school where this made us feel isolated or weird.
I’ve never experienced not being refused entry into a mall, store or someone’s home because my wheelchair didn’t fit, but the isolation that would cause is probably more than just emotional. I can say that I was on crutches once for a summer, and walking places suddenly became a large and draining effort. When I did finally get somewhere, such as Starbucks, and receive extra whip cream from the hot Starbucks guy, and start to feel kind of sexy, my friends would tell me that he probably felt sorry for me because my crutches made me look like a gimp. Thanks, douchebags.
It’s like a double whammy on your ability to date and be sexy. Not only does it take you more time, more effort and exhaustion to be social, but also, once you throw yourself out there, you’re treated like you’re somehow not entitled to the same rights and privileges inherent in being there, such as the right to flirt or assume you’re worth taking home. Suddenly, I was only expected to look sad and pathetic in my plushy, comfortable chair.
But I digress. The discussion of sex and disability doesn’t have to be all stigma, assault and disparity.
Despite all the bullshit people who have disabilities are forced to overcome, they – like everyone – still engage in some pretty rad sex. That is, when you open your mind to the question of what sex is. The sexuality spectrum is broad for people who have disabilities, just like for people who “don’t”.
Diane Heatherington, a Halifax sex educator, emphasized one thing during a recent interview: when it comes to sex, the necessity of a sex-positive environment rich in education and consistent information is the same for everyone. All people – with or without disabilities – can benefit from more education, more acceptance of their feelings, and a more open mind about the huge spectrum that constitutes “sex”.
For deaf people, or those who don’t communicate auditorily, sex might just come with a priority to leave the lights on. That’s not just a hearing-impaired thing, though – it’s a hot thing.
For people who can’t see so well, oral communication becomes key, and any of us who are good auditory learners can learn from these cues and start making more noises and asking for what we want out loud in the bedroom.
Those with disabilities that affect their hands or penile functioning might bring in toys, vibrators and lube. Again, this isn’t “modifying” sex for a disability, any more than me going down on a hot lesbian who’s easy on the eyes is “modifying” sex for homosexual tendencies. It’s just having hot sex in a way that some people don’t jump to when they’re busy thinking of the standard hetero missionary position.
Whether we have disabilities or not, we can all learn from trying different methods of communication and different ways of getting ourselves, and our partners, off. Including those with disabilities in a discussion on healthy sexuality only makes everyone’s sex life more fun.