No matter how much it’s talked about, it never seems to be talked about enough. Sex and disability remains an uncomfortable area. Sociologist Kirsty Liddiard sheds some more light.
Disability and sex is a taboo which many people – disabled or not – find hard to talk about. Many disabled people continue to have their sexualities denied and ignored and their sexual pleasures, desires and practices considered both inappropriate and unnecessary. Our bodies and identities are routinely cast with the sexual stereotypes of asexuality (the idea that we lack any sexual feeling and desire) or sexually inadequacy. Rather confusingly, some of us can also be seen as sexually deviant or “hypersexual” and others of us are assumed only to be sexual victims or objects of fetish.
Such stereotypes prevail for a wide variety of reasons. It could be because our impaired bodies and potentially weird and wonderful sexual practices trouble society’s restrictive sexual norms, which tend to privilege only a penetrative, spontaneous and physical sexuality which requires a fully-functioning, agile, (not to mention, beautiful) body. As a sociologist (and a disabled person), I was interested in disabled peoples’ experiences of sexuality and intimacy. After spending three years listening to disabled people tell their own sexual stories as part of my doctoral research at the University of Warwick, I feel I have some answers to offer.
Rather unsurprisingly, many people who took part in the research experienced society’s sexual norms as deeply oppressive. Adhering to typical gender roles within sex could also be problematic for some people.
Pete, a 42-year-old married man, said “I’m not the one who is in control as a man ought to be during intercourse.” Such feelings of failure were experienced despite the fact that many of these people regularly unintentionally expanded society’s narrow definition of sex through exploring and discovering many different ways of having sex and experiencing pleasure. Most spoke of sexual pleasure freely, and without the shame that many of the usual sexual stereotypes can impart. Additionally, while managing an impaired body within sexual life could involve a lot of work – dealing with issues such as pain, incontinence, fatigue and immobility were common – many found humour to be a useful coping strategy.
For example, Lucille, a 36-year-old married woman with an acquired spinal cord injury, said “if I wanted to have an affair, I’d have to send my lover to moving and handling training first!” Furthermore, some people said that their specific impairments could bring them extra pleasure during sex. For example, Shaun, a 33-year-old married spinal cord injured man, said he could potentially orgasm through stroking just above his injury on his shoulders, and Pete said “my body parts have spasms when I’m in the throes of making love – I like that feeling!” These experiences truly challenge society’s ideas about what constitutes a “sexy body”.
But these experiences cannot be separated from the extensive sexual oppression that many faced. Being denied autonomy, agency and sexual freedom through particular social institutions such as inadequate sex education, inhibiting care systems and unhelpful healthcare practitioners and services was common.
Many people told how they’d been bullied, abused, manipulated, exploited, chastised, ridiculed, humiliated and shamed within their intimate and sexual lives. This was often perpetrated by people in disabled participants’ own networks such as partners, friends, and families, as well as by strangers.
Helen, a 20-year-old wheelchair-user, said that her ex-partner would taunt her about the “boring sex” she gave; Graham, a 52-year-old man who walked with crutches, said that an ex-partner used to tease him about his “ugly legs”. Even well-meaning comments could be very hurtful. Kadeem, a 28-year-old Asian man and wheelchair-user, said “family members made comments like ‘we pray you get better so you can get married and have kids’… that broke my heart.” Sexual bullying – bullying that makes sexuality its target – was common among young people in the research. These experiences served only to compound existing feelings of low sexual self-esteem and self-worth.
While there were some inevitable overlaps, disabled men and women’s experiences of sexual and intimate life differed significantly. The majority of men had greater sexual and body confidence than women and had far better access than women to sexual support (e.g. via a personal assistant or carer) and sexual opportunities such as paying for sex. In comparison, disabled women voiced momentous bodily self-hatred. Lucille said that her body was “hideous, unattractive, un-toned” and Sally, a 21-year-old student, said “I hate, hate, HATE my body!! My lower spine is curved… Horrible! I have a horrible serpent like, skinny neck and no shoulder muscle. My right foot turns in and looks like a club foot. The list goes on.”
Importantly, women seldom asked nor were offered or assumed to need sexual support, and none had ever paid for sex because they felt doing so would be “unfeminine”.
However, better sexual access wasn’t always beneficial or empowering for disabled men. For those who had paid for sex (around a third), doing so rarely provided intimacy, closeness, and fulfilment. Mark said “it’s like being gutted, you just got sex and you actually want the whole package – a relationship, sex and everything else.” Therefore, it wasn’t uncommon for men to feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled following paying for sex; Kadeem described paying for sex as “relief for my cock, but heart and mind feelin’ shit”.
If this article has a conclusion, it’s that there remains considerable work yet to be done to affirm our sexual politics and eliminate the inequalities that many of us face within our sexual and intimate lives. However, this work can only begin if we end the silence and tell our sexual stories. So, what’s your sexual story?