Sami Jankins brings up the conversation not being had about a topic on many of our minds.
Who is in control when the pants are unzipped? What about when the bra gets unhooked? Is there a hint of pause when the iridescent scars from a handful of surgeries come to light? Maybe the better question than who is in control is what is in control. In those moments when a hand grips their partner’s shoulder tighter, have the health issues of someone living with a disability temporarily released their hold? How much of their sexual identity is dictated by their disability?
My plane landed in Chicago. I made arrangements beforehand because I knew that running to the gate wasn’t in the cards for me. My health had been back and forth over the last few months. I travelled a lot over the summer, and trying to make my connection flight a few months earlier in Atlanta practically sent my heart over the edge. I was very close to passing out and at that point I knew that in the big airports I needed a wheelchair. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. What if I was to meet a potential attractive stranger in the airport like what happens in the movies? Would he still find me sexy in a wheelchair? Would I still be approachable?
In my day-to-day life I do not need a wheelchair, and I’m more comfortable being seen naked than letting someone into the vulnerable depths of what I look like when curled up in a hospital bed. I’m able to space out my spurts of energy. I can play “health pretend” for a while. This wasn’t my first run-in with wheelchair land. I was paralyzed in high school by a condition called Guillain-Barre and had to learn how to walk again. I think what got me through this was mercilessly flirting with my physical therapist who was trying to get me up and walking again. There was something inherently sexy about it to me – a young twenty-something trying to get my limbs to work the way he wanted them to. Nothing scandalous happened, but it helped me feel physically attractive in a situation where I felt such loss of control.
Disability and sexuality are a complex and intertwined topic. Dating requires the willingness to put yourself out there, and it’s challenging when your body is fighting against you. Then hair starts falling out because of illness. Then you puff up due to steroid treatments. Then you can’t drive because your condition no longer allows you to. How is one to compete with a body that is behaving fairly dramatic? It may be easy to presume that disabled does not equal sexy, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Disability is a power play between livelihood and the body. As disabled individuals it can be easy to get wrapped up in a distance from the physical self, which is everything that sex needs. Will we be accepted with our clothes off? Will we be accepted if our legs won’t cooperate? Will we be accepted missing a limb? Will we be accepted when our bodies are lined with scars? How much real is too much real? It isn’t that different from any other “will he or will she like me”, but it’s easy to psych yourself out of the dating game. It just tends to be different forms of acceptance that are being sought.
Narratives I’ve read in regards to disability and sexuality are often concerning to me. Almost every memoir I’ve read in the realm of disability literature includes the narrator being told by some less-than-awesome and verging on abusive significant other that they will never get anything better. They are not to leave a bad situation because no one will ever want them. This is where we, as disabled individuals, must find the ability to see-through lies and reclaim worth. It’s not always a simple process. The voices that long persisted in my head were individuals I dated from the past telling me how I wasn’t enough. I could still hear one guy yelling at me on the street, “no one will want you, only I ever will.” It was a haunting thought that I found challenging to push away. It is exactly the trials that we have been through that make us sexy. Building acceptance and confidence with where your body is at is just plain sexy.
Maybe the problem is that we as a society don’t see individuals with disabilities getting a lot of action on screen time. For individuals looking to spend sexy time with a disabled individual, please do not assume that sex is out of the question. Please do not assume that disability means sex is off the table (it very well could be ON the table). Don’t let something based on presumptions be a deterring factor in determining dating potential. There is an internet search away of suggestions and possibilities in making things work physically – of positions and how pillows can come in handy. I’ve been to sessions at health conferences detailing these topics specifically. If you dig someone, things can be worked out. Disabled individuals are not automatically disinterested or lacking energy for sex.
What makes us attractive or attracted to individuals is complex in nature, which is probably why books keep getting published on the topic. When it comes to disability and being sexy, I’m here to say there doesn’t need to be a multitude of books to make the statement that it’s the person and what makes them uniquely them sexy. If you are living with a disability, don’t count yourself out of that world. The right person will never tell you that you aren’t worth it or that no one will want you – don’t let that thought spin around in your brain. To those who may be trepidatious about dating someone that has a disability because “how does it all work” – you could sincerely be missing out on an amazing experience with a very cool individual. Disabled bodies are no more mysterious than any other new body to explore.
Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simoes/Flickr