The reality of sex and disability: Defying ableist assumptions
By: Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird
Instead of being asked what my favourite colour is or what kind of music I like, the most common question I’m asked on dating apps is, “Can you have sex?”
The world of dating is difficult to navigate with a disability. I became a wheelchair user at nineteen. This was also the age at which I moved away from home, started college, and began dating.
Image by Motortion
I had never given much thought to the intricate details of having sex, and so I was surprised to see it was an issue of fascination for many able-bodied people. Especially for the guys I met on dating apps, who couldn’t seem to understand what a disabled person was doing on these platforms.
Disabled bodies often don’t fit in with conventional beauty standards and are seen as being non-sexual. My body is far from the type you could expect to see on Love Island or any similar dating show.
I’ve made my peace with this, but I fear for the younger people in the disabled community who will grow up without seeing bodies like theirs represented in the media. This lack of representation others us, and enforces the idea that disabled bodies can’t be attractive or sexy.
According to a survey conducted by the Irish National Disability Authority in 2017, a significant number of people think that people with intellectual, sensory, and physical disabilities should not be allowed to have sexual relationships. When asked why, 11% of respondents couldn’t give a reason for their beliefs.
There are asexual people with disabilities, of course, but it’s incorrect to place that label on all disabled people. Disabled people can have fulfilling sexual lives – despite what you may have been conditioned to believe.
What is the obsession with wanting to know how disabled people have sex? And why do the people asking this question feel entitled to do so when the answer isn’t any of their business?
For a lot of people, the issue of sex is a private one; a conversation only to be had in the bedroom. I don’t feel the need to know about the sexual habits of anyone else. So why are people so curious about mine?
I’ve developed severe paranoia when out on the street with my able-bodied partner. I find myself worrying whether people are looking at us, trying to imagine the intimate details of our sex life. I often wonder whether people pity him, or think he’s doing something heroic by dating the girl in a wheelchair.
There are certain disabilities that restrict movement and require adjustments, but sex is never impossible.
I’ve come across a few brands devoted to producing disability-friendly sex products. One of these brands, Handi, aims to make sex accessible to people with physical disabilities who struggle with physical limitations.
Speaking to me over email, co-founder and disability activist Andrew Gurza said “I think that non-disabled people are interested in learning more about sex and disability. Culturally, we are taught that disability is something that we are not allowed to talk about.”
“In that same vein,” Gurza continued, “we are taught that sexuality ought not be addressed at all. So, when a non-disabled person has the chance to ask a disabled person this question, they often do it in super harmful ways, without thinking about the disabled person’s feelings. If we had more educational tools that actively normalised disability as a part of life, I don’t think this curiosity around sex and disability would be so strong. It is because we turn sex and disability into a mythology before daring to consider it a reality”
I agree with Gurza: without education, we cannot expect change.
Being open about my disability online has attracted many men to my social media profiles who fetishise my disability.
My Instagram and Facebook inboxes are often flooded with men seeking a sexual relationship with a disabled woman like me. I don’t know what’s worse: being completely desexualised because of my disability or being hyper-sexualised because of it. Surely there has to be a happy medium between the two?
Watching porn is the most popular method of sex education for many people, no matter their age or gender. But the fetishisation of women with disabilities in some areas of the porn industry is often a fetishisation of their perceived vulnerabilities. It is any woman’s prerogative to choose if she wants to capitalise off of this, but it is also my prerogative to be uncomfortable with the fetishisation of my body.
Fortunately, there are an increasing number of sex workers with disabilities who are challenging the fetishisation of their bodies and abilities. I hope to see these sex workers contribute towards the creation of a society where people with disabilities being sexual is normalised rather than simply fetishised.
I don’t know what kind of acrobatic sex able-bodied people are having if they assume that disabled people can’t take part in it, but disabled people can be sexual beings too.
Our sexuality is not an invitation to treat disabled people like objects, as they too often are in the porn industry and by ‘devotees’ – people who fetishise disability.
My wish is that able-bodied people stop either hyper-sexualising, or completely de-sexualising, myself and other disabled people.
Our sexuality is nobody’s business but our own.
Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird is a 24 year old master’s student from Ireland. Outside of her studies, Niamh spends her time writing freelance articles and advocating for people with disabilities in areas of society where ableist stigma persists – like sex, for example. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.