Seven years ago, Stephanie Dixon, the 17-time Paralympic medallist who was widely considered to be one of the best female swimmers in the world, appeared on billboards across the country. In the ad, Dixon, then 26, exudes confidence and defiance in a black one-piece suit: her eyebrow is cocked, her arms are crossed, and her biceps look cut as she poses next to a slogan that reads, “She doesn’t want your sympathy. But her opponents might.” Dixon stands tall and elegant against the stark white backdrop, her left leg muscular and shapely. Her right leg is missing, because she was born a congenital amputee. “It looks like I was designed to have one leg, like a mermaid’s body,” she says.
Dixon looks every bit the poised, self-possessed Olympian, and she was—except for one area of her life in which she felt painfully insecure. “People assumed I was very confident in my body, traipsing around in a bathing suit,” says Dixon. “But that’s very different from being considered a sexual being by someone you’re attracted to.”
For years, Dixon was afraid that potential partners would be disgusted by her body. “I wanted to have sex. I just didn’t think anyone would want to have sex with me,” she says. Because she is missing her leg, she also has only half a bum and half a pelvis, and she was worried that her vagina was disfigured—she’d never compared hers to anyone else’s. Growing up in Brampton, Ont., Dixon’s sex education came entirely from friends (and one incident where, at her mom’s insistence, she and her older brother practiced rolling condoms onto bananas). As a swimmer, she’d gotten used to using tampons at an early age. But accessing the world of dating and sex felt terrifying. In high school, Dixon wore her prosthetic leg under jeans every day to fit in, but it wasn’t until she was 15, and began competing in Paralympic competitions—where everyone was contending with some type of challenge—that she felt comfortable getting her flirt on.
Still, that confidence didn’t translate to her day-to-day life outside the pool. By 19, she’d fallen into a pattern of only making out with men when she was drunk. In university, she would panic when someone showed interest in her at a bar. “Say someone wants to take you home—that is an awkward f-cking conversation,” Dixon says. “At what point do you let them know that one leg is going to be coming off?”
Dating and sex are complicated under the best of circumstances. If you’re living with a disability, the obstacles and challenges extend far beyond the “does-he-like-me?” stress that follows a blind date or the “is-she-into-it?” worries that come with a new sexual partner. Imagine revealing a hidden physical disability to a date for the first time. Finding a caregiver who can operate your vibrator for you, or readjust your limbs (and sometimes those of your partner) into the correct positions so you’re comfortable and don’t get pressure sores. Maybe even asking your partner to help you empty your catheter bag before you go to sleep. Any of those scenarios would do a number on your self-esteem. The challenges of dating with a disability don’t begin and end in the bedroom—they start with education, move to dating and accessible spaces and encompass sexual preferences that may change as your disability does.
While schools across Canada are still debating what broad information about sex education is appropriate, and when to teach it, specific education about sexual health and disability isn’t even on their radar. For years after Kaleigh Trace, 30, sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury at age 9–which landed her in a wheelchair and affected her mobility, sensation, and bladder control–she received absolutely zero information about sex. “There wasn’t a lot of [sex ed], especially in rural Canada. I guess we had one day when we were brought to the gym [to learn]. But I didn’t attend gym classes,” says Trace, who’s now an educator at Halifax sex shop Venus Envy and author of Hot, Wet, and Shaking: How I Learned to Talk About Sex. Instead, she learned sex education from peers, books or Cosmo—and none of it related to having sex in positions conducive to a wheelchair. “A lot of sex books will say, your vagina will get wet or your clitoris will expand. But definitely lots of vaginas don’t get wet. My sensation is just different. The things some people say will feel good won’t necessarily feel good for me,” says Trace. “So I did what a lot of marginalized people do—I pretended I wasn’t different.”
By the time she was ready to be sexually active, Trace was no longer in a wheelchair. But she was using two canes to walk, and still had to contend with bladder and bowel issues. Thanks to her mother, who had always been open and positive about sex, Trace applied at Venus Envy when she was 22 and was hired. Around the same time, she began masturbating more and figuring out what worked for her body. “A little bit late to start figuring out how to have an orgasm, but whatever,” she jokes. While Venus Envy was fielding frequent requests for information about sex and disability, Trace was the only educator on staff who actually had one. So she began to teach herself (and eventually others) about men’s bodies, about how antidepressants can affect libido, about the ways in which people who live with cerebral palsy and other conditions can have sex—and eventually started a blog, The Fucking Facts, to address some of those questions. “Nova Scotia is a really poor province. There’s no funding here to look at sexuality, so it falls on the hands of whoever is comfortable talking about it,” she says. And although there’s more information out there now than when she started at Venus Envy eight years ago, she’s still longing for more pop culture portrayals of disabled people being sexy. “‘We’re always asking each other, who do you read? What do you watch? Where can I find stuff?’” The internet offers up some quality, positive porn featuring differently-abled stars—Lyric Seal, a disabled actor in a wheelchair, does porn for the site CrashPad, and Torontonian Loree Erickson also acts in porn that features her wheelchair, including her 2009 acclaimed film, Want. But these portrayals still exist on the fringes, and finding them is not easy.
Pop culture, from which we take so many of our sexual cues, has been sorely lacking when it comes to realistic depictions of sex and disability. In an episode of Sex and the City from 2000, Samantha has sex with a man with dwarfism (though not before callously asking her friends how short one must be to be considered “a little person”). Eight years ago, Friday Night Lights quarterback Jason Street has an affair with (and impregnates) a woman as he explores his post-accident life as a quadriplegic. More recently, Game of Thrones has featured characters with disabilities that range from a spinal cord injury to an amputated hand to dwarfism. And in the fashion world, Jillian Mercado, a model with muscular dystrophy who uses an electric wheelchair, has appeared in campaigns for Diesel and Beyoncé. “I think we’re making huge strides forward,” says Stella Palikarova, 36, an activist and academic who focuses on sex and disability. “People’s awareness levels are different now.”
Palikarova was born with a genetic predisposition for a neurological condition called spinal-muscular atrophy, which impedes development of motor neurons and affects her muscle strength. The condition was triggered when she was eight months old. Growing up, it meant driving a power wheelchair around her hometown of Dartmouth, N.S., and missing out on some of the quintessential partying and hookup experiences of high school. But she received thorough sex ed (her teacher offered the class a literal taste of spermicide, and they practised rolling condoms onto a wooden penis named Woody), and Palikarova grew up feeling like she had a lot to offer a potential partner. In grade 12, she met a man nine years older than she was through a family friend and the pair dated for around five months. There were challenges: Palikarova can’t lift or dress herself, and she was 4″11′ to her boyfriend’s 6″6′. But they’d had fun laughing together and going out on coffee dates, and she felt safe and comfortable with him. Soon, they were going their separate ways—she to university in Toronto, and he to a new job in Connecticut. The day before he moved, he invited her over to say goodbye. There were boxes strewn everywhere, and things quickly turned sexual. Still, it wasn’t perfect: “He was trying to carry me into his bedroom and bumped my head against a wall,” she says. “We were both really nervous. He had a really difficult time staying hard.” She thought it was her fault.
As her 20s went on, online dating became the most straightforward way to meet people, and Palikarova, who’d always felt like a pretty sexual person, was keen to broaden her experiences. She’s had some success on sites like Plenty of Fish and OKCupid, though there are still challenges. “You don’t want to come across as labelling yourself, like, Hi, I’m a 30-year-old woman with one leg. It defines you,” she says. “But then you don’t want to show up on a first date and put your date in an awkward position.” It can also be difficult to find accessible buildings in Toronto to accommodate her wheelchair, whether it’s a hot bar to meet for a drink or a date’s apartment building if things are going well.
Dating with a disability makes issues of trust and consent even more crucial, and Palikarova has encountered a few unsafe situations. “I had consented to have sex with one guy and I told him to put a condom on and he didn’t, and there was nothing I could do,” she says. He had unprotected sex with her anyway. “I didn’t say anything, he dressed me, put me back in my chair and left, and I never talked to him again.” Although she agrees that what happened was a sexual assault, she never reported it to the police. “I blamed myself to some extent. I mean, I’m a disabled woman who invited a guy over to her home that she had never met before, for sex. It wasn’t smart. It never is,” she says. She thought by expressing that she wanted to stop, the situation might get violent, so she didn’t. Now she tries not to think about it.
Access to surrogate workers willing to assist with these types of interactions could help prevent situations like the one Palikarova encountered, or at least make people with disabilities feel more confident in asking what they need from a partner and asserting themselves when necessary. In places like the Netherlands, people living with disabilities are able to claim the costs associated with hiring a sex worker as a medical expense as often as twelve times a year. In Australia, a charity called Touching Base connects sex workers to disabled people through a referral list of disability-friendly sex service providers. In some cases, the sex workers are hired to have sex with their clients. In others, they’re hired to help a client have sex with his or her partner. And in Vancouver, a company called Sensual Solutions employs intimacy coaches who will massage, caress or guide someone through a sexual experience for $225 an hour. But in Toronto, it’s much more difficult to find someone who will help facilitate a sexual experience between two people, particularly if you’re a heterosexual cis woman. As far as Palikarova knows, there’s no one in the city who includes sexual assistance as part of their personal support work, and she’s had difficulty finding caregivers who understand that healthy sexual activity is a right for all, not a privilege for the able-bodied. “When I hire caregivers, I definitely look for people who are comfortable with the fact that I’m sexually active or that I may have overnight guests sometimes,” she says. “I need help getting ready for a date, shaving, grooming, all the prepping that goes into that. What if I want to surprise my date with some sexy lingerie? They have to be okay with those kinds of things.”
So in 2015, Palikarova helped organize Deliciously Disabled, the country’s first disabled sex party. A care worker helped her put on a black bra stitched with multi-coloured Swarovski crystals. Her hair was curled, her big green eyes lined to precision. A lift was mounted to the ceiling of the venue in order to help get people out of their wheelchairs and into beds, and there were private rooms off to the side so participants could fool around or have sex, which some did. “People with disabilities so commonly don’t even have access to their own bodies,” Palikarova says. “You may not even be in a position where you’re able to pleasure yourself or masturbate. That’s a huge issue! It goes on the same list of human rights as being able to eat, or use the washroom. I don’t think you can segregate experiences of being human like that.” While plans for a second party last summer didn’t work out because of lagging ticket sales, Palikarova says she’d love to host another one if the opportunity arose. She also recently launched a new platform, Boundless in the City, to share her experience of living and dating with a disability.
In 2014, a British newspaper survey found that 94 percent of people haven’t had sex with a person with a physical disability. More shocking, though, was the 44 percent who said they wouldn’t, which can be a tough realization if you’ve acquired a disability as an adult and have to relearn how to navigate the dating scene. Zoe Vourantoni, who works as a sex therapist at Lucie Bruneau Rehabilitation Facility in Montreal and also runs a private practice, works with many such patients. She focuses less on demonstrating positions to clients who may be newly unfamiliar with their bodies (though there is some of that) and more about the psychology of having sex with someone if your body works differently or if you’ve sustained an injury. “Men will say, I have to watch my wife unload the groceries or shovel the driveway—I don’t feel like a man,” she says. “You have the intimidation of meeting new people, the grief you have losing the sexuality you once had.”
A large part of Vourantoni’s job is working with clients to restore some of the confidence they may have lost since an injury occurred—making them feel desirable again. “You’re looking for what you know and it’s not there,” she says. “The work is going to be a little bit more about the grief of having to take medications, that sexual function has changed, or having trouble with positions and moving around.” She also helps her clients with their communication styles, something many of her able-bodied clients need assistance with too. “One lady I worked with was young, really attractive and had a degenerative disease. After working with me, she got up the courage to go away on a girls’ weekend and got hit on at her hotel. She had a one-night stand and had to wear Depends before and after,” she says. “Her partner didn’t even blink an eye, he was fine with it. The idea is really to talk to your partner about what you’re worried about. You’re going to have some time between ‘hello’ and getting naked to address those fears.”
Vourantoni’s job also involves working to explore parts of the body that can feel unfamiliar after a devastating accident. Research shows, for example, that although people with spinal cord injuries lose feeling in some erogenous zones, brain plasticity can heighten sensitivities in other unexpected places—it’s just about finding them. “I work with one man who gets off when his partner scratches his face,” she says. “For him, since he has no feeling below his neck, during sexual activity that feeling really intensifies.” Nipples, ear lobes, and even the roots of hair are all areas that can take on similar erogenous qualities and help someone reach orgasm.
As Stephanie Dixon got older, her insecurity about her body intensified. She was gaining prominence in the swimming community, but she had severe sexual anxiety. “I was devastated. I was a 23-year-old not having sex, then a 24-year-old not having sex, then a 25-year-old not having sex,” she says. “Disability magnifies the doubts anyone has in their minds, not only internally but in society. You don’t see women with disabilities in lingerie commercials.” Her best friend from university was from Whitehorse, and after Dixon retired from swimming three years ago, she decided to take a trip to the Yukon, which turned into a permanent move. A year after that, her mother died and she sought the services of a grief counsellor. But it turned out she didn’t need help with grief, she needed help with sex. “I didn’t want to be a 40-year-old woman not having sex because she’s insecure about her body,” Dixon, now 33, says. “One day I just walked in and said, we need to talk about sex. It was the first time I’d ever talked about it to anyone.”
Initially, the counsellor encouraged Dixon to get comfortable with masturbating. And then, she told her that she should start having sex—a lot of sex. Dixon began to date a guy she knew through friends in town, and they had sex three times, the most consecutive coitus she’d ever had. “That he wanted to do it again after the first time, that felt like a victory for me.” Even tougher than sex itself was getting comfortable with someone going down on her, something that got easier with practice. “My ass is definitely distorted, and because of the emphasis placed on that in sexual culture, I’d even put on clothes before walking to the bathroom.” Being on top of someone? No problem. But having a partner look at her butt was the hardest part.
Over the last three years, Dixon dated a string of men who have helped her work through some of her remaining insecurities and have taken her on some outstanding dates—to walk the Great Wall of China, to look at northern glaciers in a helicopter, to catch lake trout in Atlin, B.C., to surf in Tofino. And, just in January, she got to see, finally, what it feels like to be on the other side of the security equation on a date with a man who hadn’t had a new sexual partner in more than a decade. “We got into bed and he froze. ‘I don’t think I can do this. I’m so afraid I’m going to disappoint you. I don’t know if I remember all the moves’, he told me. We did end up having sex, and it was great.” He has no disability, but insecurity is mental, not physical. “It came full circle,” she says. “I got to validate somebody else.”