Interview: Sex & Disability

WARNING: This post is likely NSFW, and talks about sex.

If you do not want to know anything about my sex life, you don’t want to read it.

I was recently interviewed for an article about sex & disability.

In what ways do you find that people who have physical disabilities are stigmatized against or prevented from enjoying a healthy sexual lifestyle?

When was the last time a sex-ed curriculum addressed sex with someone with a disability?

22% of the overall population of Nova Scotia identifies as having a disability, and that number jumps to 35% if you just include people over 35. You could trip and fall tomorrow and also be wondering why the hell Dalhousie hosts events in buildings that don’t have a ramp. A lot of Disability Rights Activists use terms like “temporarily able-bodied” or “currently non-disabled” because you don’t know.

And yet, unless you took a much more comprehensive sex ed program than I did, there’s no discussing things like how to have sex when you can’t use your legs, for example, or how to hold a toy when your hands can’t grip something. We’ve had to write our own Sex Ed books. (I’ve talked about them a bit more below.)

As well, when was the last time you saw someone with a visible disability who was sexual on t.v.? I don’t watch a lot of t.v. so maybe this is better now.

On the other hand, you get women with disabilities also being hyper-sexualised by devotee culture, which fetishizes women with disabilities, usually amputees. I’m not sure if that’s going away from what you want to write about.

Typically, though, people with disabilities are de-sexualised. (Not asexualized – asexual people with disabilities exist). One of the big things that comes to mind is in institutions that put people with disabilities of the same gender in the same room. Mixed rooms were a no no because of what might happen, but apparently there are no queer people with disabilities, and no same-sex rape. (Not to mention that not allowing people with disabilities privacy is also a big problem. I’m not sure about you, but unless I’m with a partner, I don’t want to masturbate with someone else around. But gosh, those cripples probably don’t masturbate or need privacy for any reason. That was my sarcasm voice, btw.)

Or, hell, just something really simple:
When was the last time you saw an advertisement that included someone with a visible disability in it? Now, take away all the ones that are for a government program, or are focusing on how “diverse” something is. Okay, now try and list one that goes with the “sex sells” aspect that is so common in advertisements for everything from cars to perfume.

If you’ve got anything, let me know. I’ve never seen a man like my husband sexily selling me a watch.

As the lover of someone labelled with physical disability, how do you find that acquaintances or colleagues respond when they learn that your husband is a wheelchair user?

“Oh my gosh, Anna, you are *so* brave.” :”You must be so strong.” “Oh, and he had the disability when you met? Gosh, that’s so brave of you.”

Dear everyone: I am no more brave for loving my husband than you are for loving your partner(s).

People have also gone from berating me for being child-free by choice to sudden nodding understanding. Not because they realise that I have a right to make my own decisions regarding my family, but because they find out that (gasp) Marfan’s Syndrome is hereditary. Who would willingly have a child *like my husband*, after all?

Mostly, though, people who have seen Don and I together, who have watched us be cuddly, hold hands, and just be a couple together in public will often be shocked – shocked I tell you! – to find out that I’m not his caretaker or his sister, but that we’re married and have (whispers) sex. With each other.

No one has ever actually outright asked about sex in our relationship 1, but at least one ex thinks that Don can’t possibly be satisfying me so I should have sex with him instead. All I could think was “Oh honey, Don has long nimble fingers. I’m pretty good, thanks.”

Physically, what kinds of barriers do couples with physical disabilities face in their sexual life that those who don’t have disabilities might not be aware of? What do you do to overcome those barriers?

Speaking just for ourselves first:
Depending on what sexual positions we do, it can cause him pain later, or pain during that is difficult to ignore, no matter how much fun we’re having at the time.

A lot of the medications he’s on have an affect on his ability to sustain his erection, although not on his ability to get aroused or sexually stimulated.

If he’s having a high pain day, we don’t have sex.

Also, he sleeps more than I do. This is the most tragic thing ever. We would totally be having more sex if he didn’t need so much sleep! *laugh*

We do a lot of playing with toys. Venus Envy sells a cuff you can put a dildo in and wear around your thigh, for example, or just hold a dildo. Mutual masturbation. Lots of sexualized teasing and cuddling and the like. Sexual talk. Other games and stuff.

We also plan things. (I know, if you plan your sex life in advance, it’s not spontaneous. Woe.) So, more than once, we’ve planned weekends where Don’s taken less of his pain meds, we make sure there’s as little physically for him to do in the days leading up and the days after, and just have a really good, really sexy time.

As for other couples, physical disabilities can limit the ability to hold a toy, so things like that cuff can be helpful, or straps that hold a stimulator in place. Finding other erogenous zones on the body to stimulate. I know some people take viagra to counter-act the side effects of the drugs, but viagra is expensive.

There’s a book that Venus Envy carries regularly called “The Complete Guide to Sex & Disability”.

Emotionally or socially, did you find that you had any barriers you had to overcome in order to marry someone who had a disability, when our society generally attempts to culturally castrate men who are differently abled?

The biggest barrier we had to getting married was the paperwork. I made Don fill it all out and just signed where he said. (We eloped in Scotland when we lived there in 2006.)

I think it is not for nothing that certain friends stopped talking to us once they found out we were married. They assumed that there was no reason for me to marry Don unless I was up to something. (Obviously it is to rake in those fat disability cheques. Which we don’t qualify for, because I am a student.) One, for example, sent me a very abusive email about how he didn’t approve of our choices in life so he couldn’t give our relationship his “blessings”. *sigh*

Certainly earlier in our relationship people could *not* understand that Don and I were together, despite any and all evidence to the contrary. One person actually walked in on us together in bed cuddling after sex, and still insisted that he would “know” if Don and I were together and obviously we weren’t. Another friend confided in me that she found Don “icky”, and figured that I must be with him because I felt sorry for him. Oh, and the person who, finding out we were engaged, had a long chat with me to make sure I was “really okay” with this.

If you’re wondering if I had any issues with it…

No. No, I didn’t. But I suspect a lot of people think I must have bravely considered all the future pain that being in a relationship with someone with a disability could potentially bring me, and bravely decide that I would bravely marry him, despite that horrible horrible future in front of us. (Was my sarcasm too heavy?)

The only thing I considered was whether or not I wanted to get married.

In your opinion, as an able-bodied person who is with someone who uses a wheelchair, what is the hardest aspect about maintaining a sexual relationship with someone who has a disability?

Balancing conflicting needs. Which I suspect is the same for people in relationships with currently non-disabled people. If I had my way, I’d probably be having sex right now. (Have I mentioned my husband is damned sexy?) But, it’s been a low sex week because he’s in a lot of pain with the change in season. Woe is me.

Actually, yeah. That’s the only difficulty I can think of.

  1. This is no longer true, but I’ll write about that later.

By 15 February, 2010.    sexuality, social attitudes  ,  



12 Comments

  1. It’s amazing how people treat him like he’s sub-human! Disgusting. Thank you for sharing this story.

  2. Wow, I’m sorry about your friends acting that way. Seconding the the thank you.

  3. I wonder how much of this my wife gets. I know when she goes to social stuff without me people ask her lots of questions about what’s wrong with me–she tells me about that. But now I wonder what she might leave out.

    An ex of mine has mental illnesses, some of which I share. Some people, when they find out about her disorder, suddenly get all understanding about why we split up and I want to bite them, hard. We didn’t split up because of her mental illness. I left her because she hit me in anger. (If anything it was because of my mental illnesses because that triggered the hell out of me and I panicked every time I was near her.) Gosh we got reasons for shit just like not-crazy people, imagine.

  4. Funnily enough, I was just talking about this with someone.

    In the first season of the Canadian TV show ReGenesis (I think it’s episode 10 “The Source”), the main character has a short relationship with a woman with chronic pain, who’s in a wheelchair. Granted, she can walk, and is young, thin, and beautiful, but I was still surprised and impressed.

  5. I think it’s neat that they would portray a wheelchair user who can walk (although I haven’t seen the show, so I can’t say anything else about it). The mainstream view of wheelchair users tends to be that they can’t ever even stand up or anything, which is obviously annoyingly oversimplified and harmful to people.

  6. This is a nice coincidence; I actually came here today to drop a tip about another sex and disability story. This week’s episode of The Moth (and if you’re not familiar with The Moth, you should be) is a young woman with cerebral palsy tells the story of her first love. The episode is called “Janice Bartley: Italian Stallion” and is available from their website or iTunes.

  7. Great interview; thanks for sharing. I am pretty horrified by the things some people have said to you … wow.

  8. I appreciate the viewpoint from another spouse. I became a wheelchair user only after years of marriage and don’t know if people have said such things to my husband about my disability–if they have, he’d probably keep it from me, though I know he also would react with protest to such statements. I have started getting questions about how I go to the bathroom so I imagine there’s more on people’s minds. People have hinted he should leave or conversely, thanked him for staying and act like he’s a saint or a martyr for it. As with you, pain is the big impediment; when we hit low pain times and sometimes when can manage without increasing pain, we’re good to go.

  9. Myself wheelchair bound by nerve damage and med’ed out on pain meds, I can stand and walk a few steps with support, but perfer the ‘safety’ and mobility of the powerchair (it was like getting my life back when the VA came through with the chair)
    All of which is to let you know where I am, and perhaps also because like a religious ‘born again’ I have a need to tell people where I am, being finally at the accepting stage…
    uh, anyhow the reason for posting, before the side track, is to commit on how sometimes the best support comes from other marginalize peoples; in my case I have found the greatest support among Goth and BDSM communities, from guys, and gals, in black eyeliner and lace willing to dance close enough to risk toes and flowing clothing with out any sense of ‘doing the crip a favor’ or of perverse interest in being seen with a crip to BDSM get togethers where sweet subbie ‘boys’ help me with positioning and where I have also seen (often) emotionally/mentally shaky newbie subs protected from both themselves (by making sure they know what they are getting into in a nonsexual location) and the sadistic predators that sometimes claim to be Dom(me)s in order to abuse those who don’t yet understand a sub can always say ‘no’ even when the actual word is ‘orange’
    Universal? Possibly not, but I have found it true for me and thought it might be interested in those groups but were holding back out of fear of being PWD. Both cultures are very accepting of differences, and only ask the same grace in return…

  10. er sorry, lost a few words in tpying…
    “Universal? Possibly not, but I have found it true for me and thought it might be helpful for those interested in those groups but who were holding back out of fear of response to their being PWD”
    (Sigh, must remember to re-read entire post before hitting ‘submit’ key…)

  11. I’ve also found the BDSM community fairly welcoming of people with disabilities, Edge of Thorns. Though I don’t get out much lately, it’s nice to know that I have a community out there for when I do. And they’re pretty cool with all of my mobility impaired mentally ill trans* poly pansexual switch self.

  12. 3rding a sense of support from the BDSM community. Not all the time & I know I’ve seen disagreements within/between people who practice it but… I was surprised with how accepting some of the more outspoken members are, at least on blogs.