Yes, people with disabilities have sex—and we love it
Think accessibility is just wheelchair ramps? It’s not. It’s redesigned sex toys, experimentation and ableist attitude-checking, too
BY ANDREW GURZA (AS TOLD TO AIMEE LOUW)
I started my podcast, Disability After Dark in 2016, because I wanted to fill the void in the conversation around sex and disability. I remember feeling frustrated that, when I watched TV shows like Queer as Folk, all I’d see were muscular able-bodied men on screen. I’d rarely see my experiences as a queer man with a physical disability represented in the media.
First, I set out to fix that by creating a queer disabilities beat for myself as a writer. And while my cerebral palsy doesn’t prevent me from typing, it does make it physically exhausting. So I looked at the podcasting landscape and realized there was nothing on sexuality and disabilities—and my show was born. Three years, 150 episodes and more than 200,000 downloads later, we’ve covered so much ground.
The biggest myth I want to challenge is that disabled people don’t want to or can’t have sex. That’s just false. I’ve had able-bodied people tell me that listening to the show helped them realize disabled people can be hot and sexual. And disabled people have said it helped them learn about their disability in ways they hadn’t ever explored.
There is such a lack of knowledge about—and respect for—the sex lives of disabled people. When people see my disability, they often ask very personal questions, often about how I have sex. I’m an open person, but that’s not always appropriate. I was once in my wheelchair taking an elevator, and a complete stranger turned to me and said, “So, does it work?” as he glanced down at my genitalia. We were not in a sexual space. All I could think was: Why are you asking me this? Within the podcast forum, however, I’m happy to educate people and explore taboos, because I can do it on my own terms.
I’ve had a lot of fun looking at sex through a disabilities lens. For example, I did a Cosmo-style piece on foods to eat on a first date from a disabilities perspective—what do you order if you need help to eat? On another episode, entitled “Sexy Disabled Bathtub Time,” we gave couples tips and tricks on having sex in the bathtub if one of you is disabled—including what it’s like to have to get someone to carry you. Some guests speak to completely different experiences from mine, such as being trans and disabled, being a person of colour and disabled, or dating with developmental disabilities. When someone comes on and wants to share their story, it makes me love the show all over again. It’s really important for all disabled people to have a space to be vulnerable.
Here are some of the big themes we’ve talked about—the things that everyone should know.
Flirting while disabled
When you’re using an online dating site or app, it’s hard to disclose disabilities. You’re always worried you’ll get shut down, so you have to decide how and when to tell someone. Disability is not a monolith, and everyone has a personal relationship to their own disability, so there’s no wrong or right way to go about it. My philosophy is to be completely transparent: I’ll describe myself up front as a “queer cripple” both to take ownership of my disability and to play with the shock value of it. (Photograph by Graham Isador)
If you want to meet someone the conventional way, one of the main challenges is that so many queer bars are not wheelchair accessible. A couple of years ago I wanted to go to a Halloween party at a really popular Toronto venue, so I contacted the organizer on Facebook to ask if it was possible in my chair. He asked some questions and then came to the conclusion, “Your wheelchair is too big, but if you can get another one for the evening, it will totally work.” I had to tell him that that doesn’t count as accessible.
Getting hot and heavy
Once you’re in a relationship in which at least one of you has a disability, there are more issues to navigate, from not wanting to hurt a lover who experiences chronic pain to establishing the boundaries between partner and caregiver. If things get serious, you might find yourself weighing up whether you can afford to move in with someone you love, if that means losing the disability benefits you rely on for things like home care and assistive devices.
As a disabled man, if I’m going to have sex, I need to connect first on an emotional level so I can trust you and show you into my world. Then we can be comfortable about things like you helping to get me out my chair and get me undressed.
The biggest buzzkill
Probably the biggest barrier to having a meaningful and fulfilling sex life for disabled people is ableism. Not just in the larger community, but within ourselves and our communities as disabled people as well. It can feel like there’s a hierarchy of disabilities—“I’m less stymied than you are, so we can’t date because I want someone who can do this.” We all need to respect one another more.
Let’s talk about sex, baby
After three years of doing this podcast, I’ve learned that what makes a good sex life is communication. I know that may seem super-cliché, but there has to be communication around the disabled body and what you want or don’t want.
Couples that stay together also talk about difficult things, like what the non-disabled partner has to do for the disabled partner outside of the bedroom—and perhaps about feelings of resentment that might arise. Nobody wants to offend a disabled person, so nobody likes to talk about that stuff. And, in turn, a disabled person might not want to call out their partner when they’re being ableist, for fear of losing them. (Photograph by Jessica Rae)
There’s also an interesting distinction between what it’s like to get intimate if you were born in a disabled body and what it’s like if you became disabled later in life (say through an accident). As someone who has always had cerebral palsy and who is proud of their disability, I have a completely different experience of sex and dating than someone who is grieving the loss of abilities. The things we need to open up about with our partners are, therefore, also very different.
The conversation has come a long way, though. When I created the viral hashtag #disabledpeoplearehot in February 2019, I wanted to encourage disabled people to show off their hotness and give them agency over their bodies. I enjoyed hearing from people from all over the world, who shared their photos and reflections with me on Twitter. Afterwards, many people told me the hashtag made them feel seen.
More resources in the GTA
If you’re disabled and looking for support and information around sex, Planned Parenthood Toronto, a United Way partner agency, is a good place to start. They recently engaged a youth advisory committee from the disabled community to help create more accessible services and currently have three exam rooms and a client washroom that are wheelchair-accessible. They’ve also partnered with EdgeWest to provide fully accessible services for young people under the age of 29 with disabilities. And the Vibrant Healthcare Alliance has a program called SexAbility that offers sexual health information, advice and referrals to young people with mobility disabilities.
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