Dealing with rude non-disabled

Article part of a serie published on www.scarleteen.com on July 28, 2017.

Many people with evident physical impairments — like those that require the use of mobility devices — encounter rude questions from nondisabled people on the regular. Those with chronic illnesses and other impairments that might not always be immediately obvious certainly come in for their share as well. Sometimes it feels like we should be selling tickets to the freak show.

Ridiculous and wildly inappropriate questions come from family, friends, complete strangers, and even medical professionals who should know better.

They may want to know: “What’s wrong with you?” “How did you get like that?” “Are you going to get better?” “How do you [ordinary daily task]?” But when it comes to sexuality, many nondisabled people are extremely curious — and rude.

Some seem to think asking for intimate details about your sex life is totally okay. They want to know mechanics and details like: “How do you have sex in a wheelchair?” “Can you…?” If you’re LGBQ, they ramp it up even more. The good old “but how do lesbians have sex?” question goes on steroids when one or both partners is disabled. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they’re being pretty rude — how would they like it if we went around asking them intimate personal questions?

You have the right to privacy, and to be treated with respect and dignity. That includes the right to decline to discuss private medical information with people, and to pass on an opportunity to talk about whether and how you have sex. The only people who truly need information about your sex life are your sexual partners — in intimate personal communication with each other about how to have joyful, delightful sex — and your doctor, when it’s medically relevant. (“I’m thinking about getting pregnant,” “I’m having vaginal pain,” or “I’m worried I might have an STI.”)

It can be hard to figure out how to deal with people asking invasive questions, particularly if you live in a culture where you’re taught to be polite to others, especially elders, and it’s an important part of your values.

It may feel uncomfortable or even wrong to assert yourself, so let’s start with the soft approach, one endorsed by none other than Miss Manners: The “pardon me?”

“Hey, can you, you know…get it up?”

“Pardon me?”

People ask rude questions for all kinds of reasons — genuine curiosity, confusion, a mistaken attempt at conveying interest, or, yeah, rudeness. A (sometimes rather pointed) “pardon me?” is an answer that’s both perfectly polite and unobjectionable while also putting people on blast that what they’re saying probably isn’t very appropriate. By reflecting the question back on the asker this way, you’re forcing them to rethink whether that question is such a good idea.

If they decide to keep pressing the point, it’s okay to say: “That’s none of your business,” “I don’t feel comfortable discussing personal matters with you,” “I don’t think this is relevant to the conversation,” or just, “You’re being rude, please stop.” Sometimes rephrasing the question and tossing it back at them can also send a pretty clear signal that ends this line of conversation — “How do you have sex in a wheelchair?” “Uh, how do you have sex without one?”

It’s okay to be curious — I’m curious about all kinds of things! — but it’s not okay to use actual living humans like a reference textbook.

There are resources available to nondisabled people who are interested in learning more about disability and sexuality that don’t involve querying every disabled person they meet about their personal lives. (Like this one, for example!) Sometimes nondisabled people feel awkward or uncomfortable and it’s not your job to put them at ease, but redirecting the conversation somewhere else can demonstrate that you have interests beyond your disability; shift the conversation to books, cooking, music, film and television, something in the news, or other topical subjects.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a bailout, either. Your friends should be able to back you up when you’re trapped in the corner with someone who’s quizzing you about whether it’s awkward to have sex when you wear an insulin pump. If you’re out with friends, consider arranging a discreet signal that means “come help me!” so you can escape these kinds of conversations. Your nondisabled friends should also know that it’s okay (and welcome) to intervene even without being asked if they see a disabled person being asked invasive personal questions, and encourage them to push back on speculation about the sex lives of disabled people even when we aren’t in the room.

Many people think it’s okay to ask rude questions because no one has told them not to, or they think the rules don’t apply to them. Letting them know it’s not okay isn’t just good for you, it’s good for society.

Wheelchair, Bound? Kink and Disability

Article part of a serie published on www.scarleteen.com on July 28, 2017.

Think you might be a little kinky? You’re not alone — while it’s hard to get specific numbers, the profile of the kink community is definitely on the rise. “Kink” is a very broad and subjective spectrum of sexual and social activities, as Heather notes in our “Working the Kinks Out” primer. You may think handcuffs, whips, chains, ropes, masks, and dog collars, but people define kink in many different ways, including in scenes that explore their emotional and social relationship to each other (sometimes referred to as role playing, which can be done without physical interactions too!). It’s important to note, though, that kink is not universal. Some people don’t find the term a good fit for their lives, and if it’s not a term you like, that’s okay!

If you want to explore various aspects of kink — or whatever you want to call it — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and it can be fun and one way to build rich, fulfilling relationships. However, just as in any community, there are definitely bad actors — predatory and abusive people — in the kink world. Some warning signs can help you differentiate between genuine kinkiness and abusive behavior, but in general, responsible kinksters are very focused on: Open, clear, safe, respectful communication; consent and clearly defined boundaries; respect for each others’ emotions and bodies; autonomy and empowerment; and physical safety in situations where people could be at risk.

Some corners of the community are super welcoming to disabled people because they know what it’s like to be marginalized because of who they are, what their bodies look like, and the nature of their sexual interests. Others may not be so friendly, in which case, their loss! If you want to explore kink, it’s likely to feel best in a respectful environment with people who support your right to access fair, equitable, kind treatment.

Let’s get physical

Some kinky activities may not require any specific adaptations for disabled bodies or brains. Others might, which is why it’s really helpful to be open about the nature of your disability and your limitations with partners. They can only look out for your safety if they know what to look out for. Self-assess your emotional and physical limitations as you look at activities that sound intriguing, from being tied up to some (negotiated) humiliation play — whether you are leading or following those interactions.

When you start having a conversation with a leader, be as clear as you can about the limits that are important to you and make note of warning signs that something is going wrong. A responsible partner — of people who are and also aren’t disabled! — should already be looking for things like strained breathing, color changes in your skin or on your extremities, an extremely fast or slow heart rate, or signs of nonresponsiveness, but you know your body and your mind better than they do. If you have a cognitive impairment and you know that sensory stimulus can sometimes make it hard to communicate, for example, make sure your partner understands that.

If you’re doing the leading, think about your responsibility to keep your partner(s) safe. You may have physical impairments that make it hard to lift or move someone, react quickly in a crisis, or manipulate small objects. Some activities might be challenging, but adaptations can make them fun and sexy. Can’t use rope because it’s hard to grasp? Consider a woven scarf! Have trouble working with someone on a bed? Have them sit in a chair — and tie them to the chair back if they get wriggly. Know that you sometimes struggle with unclear communication? Turn very clear, concise communication into part of the experience.

Some specific risks to consider:

  • Airway safety: If you have difficulty breathing and/or use a ventilator/BiPAP, make sure any positions you use are safe, and tell your partner how to react if you start struggling.
  • Circulatory problems: If your disability interferes with circulation, some positions or activities can be dangerous because they may interrupt bloodflow.
  • Neurological issues: You may have sensation limitations, making it hard to tell if something is breaking skin, burning, or bruising you, or you could have problems standing or sitting for long periods of time. You could also experience referred pain (when someone touches you in one place and it hurts in another) or other unexpected neurological symptoms. For those who experience seizures, it’s important to have a plan in place in the event of a seizure, including ensuring the recipient of your attention is able to contact EMS if necessary.
  • Limited range of motion: Some people like pushing their bodies, but too far can be dangerous. If you feel pain or distress, say so — and let your partner know which kinds of activities just aren’t possible.
  • Cognitive disabilities: If you sometimes have trouble communicating, make a plan ahead of time for facilitating constant, safe conversation, including developing a list of criteria for stopping to take an immediate break.

Many people use safewords to indicate that everything is going great, hey maybe things should slow down, and no, stop immediately. The traffic light approach (“green,” “yellow,” and “red”) is common, but you can come up with something else if you like. Physical signals can also be useful to reinforce messages — or replace verbal cues if you can’t talk. If you have a limited range of motion, spasticity, or other issues that might make it hard to communicate physically, discuss this during your negotiations.

Being adaptable to respond to disability concerns doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, and in fact, sometimes creativity can spark a little evil genius.

If you’re the one wielding the power in a scene, your voice can be an incredible tool, but you can also take advantage of some of the same things you use in daily life to torment your partner. Those grabbers and extenders that help you grasp and navigate the world? Totally adaptable to a physical scene, too. Limited hand strength? You can use the weight of your body as a tool for restraining your partner. You can also bring a third person on the scene to do your bidding, if you want to explore role play.

If you’re the follower — or an equal, depending on how you interact with your partner(s) — you also play an active role in deciding how a scene will play out. You may have adaptive suggestions beforehand that will make the scene more fun and playful. Adaptations will improve and enrich your time together!

Spoken word

While exploring physical sensation together can be intriguing, some people prefer to go verbal (written, spoken, or signed) with a role play. This can make for a fun break, or it might be more your jam, or you might enjoy a mix of the two.

Sometimes role playing can be an interesting way to explore power and control, disablist social structures, and how you relate to the world. Sometimes it can also feel a little too real. A responsible, respectful partner understands when it’s time to stop, either by hearing the word “stop” or picking up on your nonverbal cues, whether they’re leading or following a scene.

Be really specific and clear in negotiations about what you are and aren’t comfortable with (“I don’t like medical role play” “I won’t say that word” “It makes me anxious when…”), and don’t be afraid to safeword out if a scene is making you anxious or causing distress, or to stop a scene as a leader if you feel uncomfortable with the direction it’s headed in. If you know you sometimes go nonverbal or feel a little scrambled when you’re in overload, tell a partner that so they know, and ask them to take it slow and check in regularly — if they ask for feedback and you don’t respond or sound confused, upset, or frustrated, then it’s time to stop.

Afterward

Whether you’ve been involved in an intense physical scene or a dramatic emotional one, kink involves a comedown. Structure time for a break to nurture each other after playing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what you’ll need after a scene together, especially when playing for the first time, so it’s ideal to have a conversation ahead of time to match up expectations.

  • Physical comfort: Did you lead a scene? Make sure your partner is physically comfortable with cushions, a blanket if needed or wanted, something to drink, and some snacks. Ask your partner if they’re feeling any physical pain or tension. Some people like being touched after a scene —maybe that’s gentle massage, snuggling, brushing their hair — so ask them how they’re doing and whether they’d like more or less attention. On the flip side, communicate with your partner about what you need to be comfortable, and check in with your body. Be aware that endorphins may make it hard to notice pain, dehydration, and other issues at first, so if you feel great, keep checking in with youself.
  • Emotional comfort: The intensity is one of the things some people love about kink, but it can cause a little emotional whiplash for everyone involved in a scene. You might not want to process immediately afterwards, but check in with each other about how you’re doing, and if you have any needs and issues to address. Keep your space calm and relaxing: Think low light, low noise levels, and gentle voices — unless you or your partner is someone who wants lots of stimulation after a scene.
  • Evaluation: After you’ve had time to recover, integrate your play into your ongoing conversation about your relationship. What worked and didn’t work? Did you feel frustrated, disrespected, or ignored? Do you have suggestions for fun things to do in the future, or practical adaptations? Were there communication breakdowns? Why?

It’s also important to note that not all kinky scenes with a partner include or end with sex — no matter the sexual orientations of the people involved in the scene, or even their preexisting relationship. You may like playing with someone you’re not sexually attracted to, may not view kink as a sexual activity, could be asexual, or could absolutely love the way playing together enhances your sex life. This can also be part of your negotiations, whether you’re hoping to integrate sex into role play or you just want to tie someone up and whack them with a whip.

A little shy about getting involved in kink, or not sure where to start? Sometimes local kinky organizations hold “munches,” gatherings that are basically mixers for kinky people, though they are typically 18+. They can be a safer way to meet people, because they’re in a controlled group space, and they can give you a sense of the community and whether or not it’s supportive. There may also be a local coffee shop, art gallery, or other spot known among kinksters if you want to feel things out in an all-ages space and environment that isn’t necessarily sexual.

Your body is not a sex object: Devotees and sexuality

Article part of a serie published on www.scarleteen.com on July 28, 2017.

When we talk about disabled people having awesome sex lives, sometimes something dehumanizing creeps into the mix: Some (usually nondisabled) people profess an “attraction to disability.” What they mean is they find disabled bodies — not disabled people — sexually stimulating. That means seeing your body as a sexualobject. If that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you’re not alone.

Some refer to it as a fetish, others as an attraction, and some call themselves “devotees.” Devotees say they find disability a big sexual turn-on, and while there are lots of different versions of this particular phenomenon, the community is especially active around amputees, wheelchair users, and people who wear braces or use crutches. This can also manifest in the form of attraction to or obsession with people dealing with mental health conditions.

There’s probably a lot going on psychologically behind devotees, but this isn’t for or about them. We’re interested in the cultural implications of treating members of the disability community like things. This is for and about those of us who are disabled.

People aren’t objects. And yet, objectification — the degrading practice of treating people like things instead of whole human beings — is a very common experience for people in marginalized social groups. You may have heard people talking about how the way we treat women is “objectifying,” for example.

Some devotees are interested in people with physical impairments that may require mobility aids or accessibility tools, including wheelchairs, braces, canes, walkers, and other equipment. Others are more interested in a psychological element — for example, they may romanticize depression, and like the idea of “rescuing” someone with a mental illness or intervening in treatment for drug addiction. Among devotees who do fixate on mental health conditions, some may say they know what’s best for someone and become very controlling, pushing people to drop out of counseling or stop taking medication.

We’re attracted to people — and they to us — for all kinds of different reasons, like their minds, what they look like, and the things they do. Attraction is that thing that starts your heart pumping a little faster, has you feeling a little dizzy and giddy, and can make life feel like a roller coaster when the person you’re interested in is around.

But having someone attracted to you solely on the basis of an identity trait outside your control — like race or disability — usually feels deeply dehumanizing. Just like it will often feel gross to hear people talk about wanting to date a person because they have big breasts, or make explicit comments about Black men’s penises, it will usually feel gross to have someone attracted to you only or primarily because you walk with a cane.

There’s another thing about devotee culture that’s dangerous, too. It also tends to perpetuate myths that “no one else” would ever be interested in dating you by implying your disability is necessarily singular, pervy and weird, and that’s both false and not good.

Throughout your life, people are going to be attracted to you because you’re their jam in a bunch of different ways. Maybe you’re gorgeous, or funny, or smart, or adventurous, or super knowledgeable about something, or kind, or dedicated…everyone has that special combination of traits that gets them going.

Your disability is part of who you are. It’s not the only thing about you, not by a serious long shot. Just as you would be suspicious of anyone who says they’re attracted to you “in spite of” your disability,  it’s reasonable to be wary of people who say they think you’re the bee’s knees because of your disability, unless they’re talking about in the sense of who you are as a whole person.

Think about the difference between: “I’m so happy I started dating Lakshmi, her disability activism and drive make me work to be a better person, she’s so pretty and funny, and she makes amazing roti!” and “I’m so happy I started dating Lakshmi, it’s so hot when I see her on the sidewalk with her wheelchair.”

It’s often pretty easy to identify a devotee, because many people are quite open and loud about their interest. However, some devotees like to prey on disabled people, especially young people who may not be as familiar with the ways of the world, or might not have a lot of relationship experience. As you probably already know, being disabled is one thing that can make you more vulnerable to abuse and abusive people in general. It can also be harder to spot the alarm bells when you’re still super new to this whole dating and relationships thing!

Devotees may:

  • Express a sexual attraction to your disability and/or your mobility devices
  • Take/ask for pictures of you using mobility devices
  • Talk about you primarily in the context of your disability
  • Express a lack of interest in everything else about you
  • Ask you to perform disability-related tasks for them to watch, like transferring in and out of your chair, adjusting your braces, changing catheters or colostomy bags, and similar activities
  • Ask a lot of invasive questions about your disability and how it affects your daily life
  • Push you to stop using necessary medication or equipment
  • Undermine your health care providers, saying they “know what’s best” or suggesting they can take charge of your treatment
  • Romanticize your mental health condition
  • Attempt to make you economically or otherwise dependent on them

Many local disability communities also tend to keep track of known devotees in the area, so if someone is making you uneasy, ask around.

You deserve to date people who are into you for you, not your disabilities; who see you as a person, not an object. Some disabled people do date within the devotee community and say they feel happy, fulfilled, and healthy doing it. As an autonomous human, you get to make your own choices about the dating partners you’re comfortable with and whether you’re open to dating devotees. But whether you are or aren’t comfortable with it, people should be open about the nature of their interest in you, and respectful of your boundaries — including the right to say, “No thanks, I’ll wait for a partner who’s into me for who I am, not for my disability.”

 

Taking Your Body for a Ride: Masturbation and Disability

Because disabled sexuality is a source of so much pointed silence, it can be hard to think of yourself as a sexualbeing, and you have a right to be sexually autonomous, no matter what messages you might be getting from media, pop culture, and society. If you’re also a young person, or a member of another group whose sexuality makes other people extra uncomfortable, this can be extra challenging. The stigma surrounding sex and disability means you may also have received a lot of messaging about how masturbation is yucky and not okay. It’s hard to overcome that, and it can be a long journey, but we’re here for you.

Maybe you feel a little awkward or dorky about wanting to explore yourself, and you’re not alone — you’re also not alone if you feel just fine about it, but you’re stymied when it comes to where to begin…

…which is with some basic anatomy. We have a great guide on anatomy that’s focused not just on informative things like what you’ll find where, but how to view your entire body’s sexual health and autonomy. Sexual anatomy isn’t just about genitals or breasts. It’s also about that sexy brain of yours! Your skin! Lips! Ears! Nose! Toes! Exploring your body on its own is a great way to relax and find out more about yourself, but you can also squirrel away some information for future reference in partnered sex and your “Big Sexy Three” — if that’s your thing.

Think big: Masturbation goes beyond genital stimulation and can include what some people refer to as “sensation play,” which is fun for everyone, but can be particularly great if your genitals aren’t in the mood or you want to switch things up a little. Sensation play takes advantage of one of your biggest and coolest erogenous zones: The skin. You may have already noticed that some sensations give you a little shivery feeling — the brush of a hand at just the right pressure, for example. You can harness that to learn more about what feels good and where.

Set aside some serious time, and don’t push or rush yourself. It may take you a while to figure out how to get comfortably situated and discover what works for you, and you don’t want to be interrupted. If you’re worried about family members or aides disturbing you and you don’t feel like discussing your sex life with them, consider asking for a few hours of rest so you can take a “nap.”

Fun note: Because we’re so used to adapting things to make the world work for us, we tend to be pretty creative when it comes to sexuality!

Props, props, props

Even nondisabled people use props — they can change the experience of solo or partnered sex a lot! They may help you masturbate more comfortably, and can free up resources so you can concentrate on the fun stuff instead of an ouch. While some sex stores sell fantastic props and tools for solo and partnered sex, you can also easily improvise, and in the case of some specialty items, you might actually be better off with improvisational work.

First on your list might be some wedges, which you can use to find a comfortable position to support your body. You may already have some around, especially if you have limited mobility and you use wedges or pillows to help support yourself. They can be pricey at a sex store, but medical supply stores often sell their own versions for much less. Play around with different positions to find a way to cradle your body that feels safe and comfortable — and allows you to more easily access areas of interest (which don’t necessarily have to be your genitals!). If you can’t find or purchase wedges, you can also use folded blankets, towels, or sturdy cushions.

You may have good hand mobility and dexterity that you can put to use, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use toys and tools to explore your body. Our DIY sex toy guide has some tips and tools, and you can also experiment with various things from around the house — but remember the safety tips!

  • Cover any and all objects used with a condom — if you don’t have one, a latex or nitrile glove can be a good substitute
  • No objects with sharp edges or pointy bits
  • Do not use anything that could possibly shatter, splinter, or break off inside you
  • Objects with electrical currents are for outside use only
  • Do not use anything that belongs to or that you share with another person
  • Do not use electric objects in the tub or shower

If your hands need a break — or you just want to play with toys because they’re fun — some vibrators have long ergonomic handles that make them easier for you to use. Remote-controlled toys are another option, as you can slip them into your pants or underwear and control their speed and intensity — consider picking up a harness or a pair of underwear with a pocket, or sewing one into an existing set, so the vibrator doesn’t migrate. Depending on your level of impairment, setting up a vibe and lowering yourself onto it is another option.

These techniques work for genitals of all shapes and sizes, though you may need to do some experimentation to figure out what feels right to you. For those of you sporting a penis, a masturbation sleeve can be a great tool if you have difficulty using your hand alone (or want to experiment with different sensations).

If you’re a wheelchair user, one of our sexy crip experts tells me, you’re in luck: Your wheelchair can be a tool for sexual expression too.

Use a powerchair? Explore the tilt function to get your body in a comfortable position for self-exploration. Depending on your mobility, explore the sensation of shifting or rubbing your weight on the seat. Go for a jiggly, bumpy ride on a rough surface. Play around with the position of your belt and/or straps if you want to see what light bondage feels like. But remember to wash your seat cushion on a regular schedule!

On the rest of your body, pretty much anything can become a tool for sensation play: Feathers, back scratchers, dull forks, paddles, hairbrushes…anything that feels different and intriguing. If you have limited dexterity, you can grab a rod and attach items to it for greater and more comfortable reach. One cool thing about many sensation play toys is that you can keep them around while retaining your privacy, because a pencil on the nightstand or a fork you haven’t had a chance to take back to the kitchen yet doesn’t raise any eyebrows, and lots of people have grabby sticks to help them grasp objects.

And did we mention that you have a big, sexy brain? If getting physical is a challenge — you’re not in the mood, you don’t have time, or your living situation isn’t ideal — go old-school. Read some sexy stories! Write some sexy poetry! Find imagery that gets you feeling sexy! Play some sexy music!

When Sensory Stimulation Isn’t

Depending on the nature of your impairment, there may be some parts of your body where you don’t have that much sensation, but for some, the opposite problem holds true. Chronic pain and a variety of other conditions can mean that the wrong sensation in the wrong place is super uncomfortable — or agonizing. You may know your body and its limits when it comes to everyday life, from “ugh, sheets dragging on my skin feels like a nightmare” to “I really don’t like squishy textures,” but you might surprise yourself when you explore your body sexually. Maybe something that seems like it should feel fine, or really good, doesn’t — or maybe your sensory tolerance changes from day to day.

If you have a vagina and you notice persistent pain and discomfort, you might be looking at our old enemy vaginismus, or vulvodynia. Testicular pain and soreness, or a tender foreskin, could also be signs of a problem. While a wide variety of sensory experiences is a part of life, extreme pain and discomfort are cause for concern, and you should talk to your doctor. Need tips on frank and sometimes uncomfy conversations with docs? We’ve got your back!

It can be frustrating when it feels like your body is making war on you when all you want to do is get off! Backing off and taking a break isn’t giving in, though — it’s giving your body some breathing room. If this becomes a recurrent problem, though, bring it up with your doctor. You have the right to live comfortably, and that includes the right to be sexual, so if pain and unpleasant sensations are limiting your sex life, that means they’re a drag on your quality of life, and that’s not good. Remember that in many nations, you’re entitled to privacy, and you can ask a parent or aide to leave the room so you can discuss concerns about your sexuality in private.

Assistance Required

If you use an aide or personal care attendant to help you with tasks of daily living, masturbation can feel pretty complicated — you may need help with things like transferring to your bed, getting your body situated, locating the toys and tools you want to use, setting up vibrators, and more. Because your aide is an employee (and sometimes also a family member), there are some complicated issues to navigate when it comes to sexuality. You may want to maintain a bright line between their work and your sexuality to avoid creating discomfort.

If you’re interested in exploring your sexuality, you can have a frank conversation with your aide about what you’re interested in so the two of you can set some boundaries and discuss what’s possible. It’s okay to feel awkward about that conversation! But remember that sexual pleasure is part of your overall health and wellbeing and you are entitled to be able to masturbate. Discuss your physical needs from a practical perspective — “I would like help setting up bolsters and transferring to the bed or couch” — and focus on making them as similar as possible to tasks your aide may already be completing for you. Your aide may already help you on a daily basis by setting out items you use, for example, or assisting with attaching things to extenders or grabbers so you can use them independently.

Similarly, your aide may spend time around your genitals in a health care context — they may assist you with putting on underwear and taking it off and toileting, for instance. Focus on the practicalities of issues like “I would like help cleaning up.” It may feel clinical and pretty unsexy, but it can also help maintain personal boundaries — you’re asking them to enable you to masturbate safely and comfortably, not to do the work for you.

Your aide (or family member) may decide that they should be in control of your sexuality — and that specifically, you shouldn’t have any. That’s not actually their call to make, but you may have limited options when it comes to things like firing them, especially if you’re a minor. Or you may feel too uncomfortable to have a discussion about it right now, in which case safe workarounds may be your best option — like waiting until bedtime to have some me time, when you know you won’t be interrupted! If your aide isn’t supportive of your needs, it’s time to get crafty, and think about requests that would give you a little private time to explore paired with the tools you need without being explicit about what you’re doing.

Consent Is Sexy: Sexual Autonomy and Disability

Article part of a serie published on www.scarleteen.com on July 27, 2017.

We all know that consent can be sexy — and also that navigating sexual consent can be tricky. Sometimes, disability makes it more complicated, so it’s important to take some time out to talk about that as you explore the world of dating and sexuality through the disability lens.

Because so many nondisabled people think disabled people aren’t sexual, conversations about sexual consent and autonomy often don’t include disability, or if they do, it’s only in a negative way, like suggesting that people with certain kinds of impairments aren’t capable of consenting at all. That makes it challenging to learn about this stuff in settings like health and sexual education classes, so if you feel a little at sea, know you’re not alone.

Nondisabled people sometimes like to make the disability community out as a big, confusing puzzle, and they act like this stuff is simple for them, but the secret is that it’s actually not. Consent can be incredibly complicated and it’s constantly shifting and changing within the context of any relationship or interaction. Nondisabled people can and often do find it challenging, may and can miss important signals that something’s not right, and can feel frustrated when they feel like their partners aren’t being clear with them. Those problems are common to all of us, because we’re all humans — sometimes disability can be a complicating factor, but it’s not the complication, because it’s interacting with other humans that’s the tricky part!

So, some things to know:

As a person with a body, you have autonomy and the right to decide if, when, and how you engage in sexual activity. Consent is constantly evolving, and may shift in response to a huge variety of factors — our emotional state, the circumstances of a sexual interaction, time pressures, or physical limitations, for example. Other people should foreground your sexual autonomy and respect your right to give or withdraw consent at any time. You have the right to have conversations about your needs, concerns, and limits.

As a disabled person, you may encounter the common attitude that you are not sexual, which in itself can feel kind of like a violation of consent, because it’s someone else making up their mind about your sexuality for you. If you have cognitive, intellectual, or developmental impairments, you may have heard that it’s also “not possible” for you to exercise consent and autonomy, that you are “incapacitated.” This is dehumanizing, infantilizing, and just plain wrong.

But there may be times when disability interacts with how you communicate or the way your body responds to stimuli, so as you enter the wide world of sexuality, checking in with yourself so you can assess how you exercise consent is important. Knowing yourself as best you can is the first step in communicating your needs to other people, after all! Sometimes it can help to sit down and brainstorm a bit, thinking about how your disability affects the way you navigate the world — another case for the “Big Sexy Three.”

And remember that consent goes both ways, too — maybe you’re very comfortable with communicating and setting boundaries, but you miss cues from other people sometimes. There are ways to stay sexy and accommodate your disability that are emotionally healthy and fun for everyone.

  • Do you sometimes have difficulty verbalizing (speaking, using a signed language, taking advantage of a communication board), and if so, are there other modes of communication you find more comfortable? Do your verbal skills vary depending on factors like stress levels and fatigue, and if so, do you have a way to signal that you need to switch to another communication method?
  • Do you experience involuntary reactions that might send an inadvertent or unclear signal to a partner, like verbal tics or muscle spasms? A partner might interpret a leg twitch as a cue to stop when it doesn’t mean that at all — or means just the opposite! Conversely, a moan could mean “Yes, please” or it could mean, “This pressure on my chest is really uncomfortable and I’m having trouble breathing.”
  • Do you have a mental illness that sometimes causes anxiety when you’re communicating with people, or paranoia/fear about other people’s motivations, or extreme moods that may interfere with your ability to calmly assess people and situations?
  • Do you have a cognitive disability and/or neurodiverse identity that sometimes makes it a little challenging for you to clearly articulate your needs, or for you to pick up on the needs of the people around you? Maybe you have trouble with nonverbal cues, for example, so a partner making a sound or physical gesture doesn’t really provide useful information for you.
  • Do you have a seizure disorder or another condition that might cause memory problems, lost time, or other issues that may lead to temporary impairment that makes consent logistically challenging or impossible?
  • Can you think of other things about your disability that change the way you communicate or sometimes make it harder for you to clearly connect with people?

Affirmative consent is the name of the game: Yes means yes! As you sit down and think about your needs, consider how that can be converted into a deep, authentic conversation about consent. Have trouble with nonverbal cues? Ask your partner to be clear and specific with you, and say you will put the brakes on if you feel like you’re not getting the feedback you need. Sometimes have trouble being verbal yourself? Set up some agreed and unambiguous signals with your partner for things like: Yes, no, keep going, and I’m feeling overwhelmed and need a time out. Teach your partner about the warning signs of emotional or physical overload, seizures, and other issues that mean it’s time to stop immediately and let you have some rest.

If you feel like your mental illness sometimes interferes with your ability to consent, be up front about that too, and resolve to work through challenging or frustrating situations together. If you know that sometimes your mood disorder makes it challenging for you to regulate your responses, for example, don’t be afraid to take a pause for a few hours, a day, or more while you process an unexpected or intense emotional response. If your depression or anxiety can make you withdrawn and interfere with your ability to assert yourself, ask your partner to take it slow so you can build confidence.

Know that emotions outside the bedroom can complicate what’s happening inside it: If you’re stressed out about a big test or you’re having family problems, that may interfere with your ability to make choices that are safe and right for you, and you may need to ask your partner to take a step back. If you’re adjusting to new meds, maybe take some “me time” while you do that so you can learn more about how your body is responding without the complication of getting sexual. Try to avoid using sex as a tool to avoid dealing with anger, depression, and other intense emotions — while you might be able to consent, that doesn’t always mean it’s a good choice for your mental health.

Consent doesn’t have to feel clunky or awkward. You can make it part of a sexy experience together — talking back and forth, asking questions, affirmatively saying “yes, I like that” or asking “is it okay if I…” can be exciting, tantalizing, and fun. It can also help you feel more secure in your sexuality, and more nurtured by your partner, because you’re taking care of each other and going on an adventure together.

Be frank about your limits and needs, but also, ask your partner to do the same. By working together, you can enrich the time you spend together, and create a sexual space that feels safe and affirming for everyone involved. Especially as you get to know each other, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions and give lots of feedback. As you come to understand your sexy brains and bodies, you’ll learn more about what works and what doesn’t, and you can apply that outside the bedroom, too! Couples that communicate with each other can enjoy a more collaborative relationship, with less friction created by confusion and mixed messages.

Disability sex yes!

Serie of articles published on www.scarleteen.com on July 27, 2017.

This is not the be-all-end-all guide to sex and disability because a) it’s not, and b) there just can’t ever be such a thing with any guide to sex. This series, much like your entire sexual life, is a work in progress and an endless, ongoing conversation. We hope this can be a good place for you to get started, and something that starts you on the path of good feelings about sex and your disability.

Sex and disability aren’t often heard in the same sentence, and when they are, there tends to be a lot of sideways glancing and nervous giggling. After all, disabled people aren’t sexual, right?

Wrongity wrong wrong! (Except for the ones who aren’t, but that’s not because they’re disabled.)

Disabled people have bodies, and many people with bodies enjoy being sexual with them, because it feels good, it’s fun, it allows them to get closer to other humans, or they just want to give it a whirl and see what all the fuss is about. Like other people with bodies, you have autonomy, which includes the right to decide if, when, and how you have sex and engage in other activities.

One of the things I hear most frequently from disabled youth is that they’re super interested in sex, but have no idea where to go. They feel like everyone’s going to make fun of them for wanting to explore their sexuality. I call bull on that — wanting to get sexual isn’t weird or gross just because you have a disability, and you can totally have a rewarding, rich, awesome sex life if you’re disabled – no matter what sex looks like to you and how many people are involved. We’re going to explore sex and disability in this ongoing series, because when people do admit that maybe disabled people might like to have sex, they often don’t provide any information about how this whole thing is supposed to work, and that’s no good at all.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts, though, a few things to keep in mind:

Disabled people can and do have sex

Remember that “sex” isn’t just about penises being inside vaginas, though some disabled people do that, too. Human sexuality is incredibly, amazingly diverse, including because humans come in all shapes and sizes. You’re the designer of your sex life, including whatever limits you need as you decide whether you’re ready or not.

Depending on someone’s impairment and level of disability, people may find the use of adaptive tools like wedges, ramps, and more super helpful — and we’ll be talking about those. People with sensory disabilities or paralysis may need to do some experimenting to figure out what looks and feels right for them. Some people with cognitive disabilities that affect their sensory experiences, ability to communicate, and ability to process information may work with their partners on communication and tactics for dealing with awkward moments. Some disabled people find toys and gear like harnesses incredibly helpful for expressing their sexuality. That’s called “adapting,” and there’s nothing unusual about it — nondisabled people adapt their sexual activities to suit their needs, too!

The unfortunate side of this, of course, is that disabled people can also get sexually transmitted infections and some disabled people can get pregnant, too. Safer sex and birth control should definitely be on your agenda. Fortunately, you have an entire website all about these subjects at your very fingertips.

There is nothing wrong with disabled sexuality

Disabled sexuality is very stigmatized in many cultures, and there are a lot of reasons why, some of which start with the belief that disabled people are “innocent” and need to be protected from the big bad world. You may have encountered attitudes suggesting that disabled people who have sex are freaky or weird, and that disabled people only have sex when there’s a fetish involved. That’s not true — lots of disabled people actually have super mundane sex lives, while others are total kinksters, some of whom are even part of the fetish community, but often their fetishes have nothing to do with disability!

Consensual, joyful sexuality isn’t wrong or weird or gross or freaky, even if your body doesn’t always do what you want it to do or your brain likes to fight you and even if other people want to desexualize you because of your impairment. The only people who should be ashamed of themselves are the ones who think they can dictate what your sexuality looks like because they make assumptions about you on the basis of how your body and brain function.

In fact, there’s also something very right about it. Sometimes adaptations that make sex more accessible, fun, and empowering work to your advantage — like being more conscious about communication and taking advantage of props to get comfortable before you get down for sexytimes.

Being disabled doesn’t mean being dateless

You may also have heard that if you’re interested in sex, you’ll be flying solo, because no one will want to date you with your disability. This is grossly untrue!

THIS IS SO VERY UNTRUE.

Lots of disabled people date, both within and outside the disability community. They also get married, raise families with partners, have casual sex, and much, much more. Nondisabled people seem to operate under the belief that they’ve got a lock on this whole dating and relationships thing, and they’re wrong.

Sometimes people use this line because they’re hoping to convince you they’re your only hope — like they’re doing you some huge favor by wanting to date you, so you should take them up on it while you’ve got the chance. Those people should sit in the corner and think about their life choices, because what they’re doing is not okay and may even be predatory. Never feel like you have to settle for someone out of fear that no one else is going to come along, because they totally will, and they’re going to be great.

Disability can make you more vulnerable

So, disability and sex, yay!

BUT.

Being disabled means you face disablism — discrimination on the basis of your disability status (also called “ableism”). That makes you more vulnerable in many settings, including the world of sexuality, because people may view you as an easy target. Disabled people are much more likely to be victims of violent crimes, including sexual assault, than nondisabled people. As you explore your sexuality, you can become even more vulnerable, because we live in a society that doesn’t respect disabled people, their bodies, and their autonomy.

Frustratingly, one of the places that sometimes happens is in medical contexts. While many people associate disabled people with “the medical system,” you may actually spend varying amounts of time in clinical settings — and health care providers can be abusive too, whether it’s a physically abusive nurse or an emotionally manipulative therapist or anything between. Sometimes that abuse can become disabling, whether someone exacerbates an existing disability or makes you feel small and undermines your sense of independence. Health care is an institution, and institutions (including law enforcement, educational settings, and workplaces) tend to abuse people who are vulnerable.

You’re at increased risk of sexual assault, harassment, and other abuse because of society: It is not ever your fault if you are or have been sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted. You deserve to be treated with care and respect, your emotions are valid, and it is not acceptable for the people around you to sweep your experience of trauma under the carpet. 

There are lots of resources available to help you. You may find that some sexual assault crisis centers, hotlines, and services are inaccessible and/or disablist, and that’s a reflection on them, not you. You may also find that should you choose to report, school officials, parents, law enforcement, and other parties may not take you as seriously, and that is also a reflection on them, not you. You know yourself, you know your body, and you know when someone has crossed a line.

We’re going to be talking about issues like how to adapt sex and your environment to meet your body where it is, having sex while autistic, sex and mental health, disability and kink, sexual autonomy and consent, and how to deal with rude nondisabled people who should really know better.

How can you use this series?

Like I said up top, this isn’t the be-all-end-all. It’s also not designed to be read in any particular order. You can just read the pieces most relevant to you, or the ones you’re most curious about, in whatever order you want, whenever you want to read them. Plus, you can share the series (so far) with friends and partners who might benefit from it.

As you’re reading, it can be helpful to think about self-assessment and larger conversations. For example, you can have very long conversations or a lot to say to a sexual partner about which props you need, and which work better or worse, for what sexual activities, and how you like to use them. You can also explore your emotional reaction to sex in some settings, or to sex in general!

But there are likely to be situations where you prefer a quicker “basics” conversation; a simple primer on you and your needs, not an at-length conversation. You’re here for a quick makeout, not a long-term relationship. Sometimes, just making sure the other person knows that it’s 100% necessary your lower back is always supported or else and that it works best for them to let you pick the prop is just fine.

Think about your three most important accommodation needs in a sexual context — what we’re calling the “Big Sexy Three.” What does a partner absolutely need to know about you for you to have a safe, fun, and enjoyable time together, whether you’re making out for the first time or in a long-term relationship?

Maybe it’s: “My head needs to be supported at all times, I need you to check in before touching me, and you need to be careful with my ventilator tubing.” Or: “I’m not comfortable on my knees, I prefer to transfer out of my chair on my own, and please look at me when you’re talking so I can read your lips.” Or: “Sometimes I shut down when I’m overstimulated, so I need to take a break if I start getting quiet; I really strongly dislike the sensation of this particular brand of lube, and it’s hard to breathe when I’m on my back.” We made a little shorthand card for you to use — and for you, the “Big Sexy Three” might be a “Big Sexy Two” or a “Big Sexy Five” — that’s okay!

a card that lets you write out and share your big 3

Are you looking for realtime resources on sexual health, including someone to talk to about sexual assault? Take advantage of the message boards as well as our other direct services, like chat and text — or you can shoot us an email if you’re struggling and need help. We’d also like to hear from you about other topics around sex and disability that you’d like to see explored or addressed that we haven’t gotten to yet. The best sexual health — and the best sexual health education, in our long and humble opinion — is collaborative!

Many thanks to contributors and consultants to this series, including Kayla Whaley

Big, polka-dot, exciting Consent!

The Sexy Check-list.

What do you like? What are you not interested in doing? What helps you feel most comfortable when being intimate with someone? What are the ways that a partner interacts with you or talks about your body that makes you comfortable, or could make you feel uncomfortable? What are some ways you can be sure to respect your own and your partner’s boundaries?

You may have seen our last post all about the Sex-Talk. Check it out here if you haven’t. It touches on some of the basics of communicating with partners and ways of starting those conversations.

So now you’re communicating with your partner(s) and you’re wondering where to go from there…

Let us start off by saying, lists can be sexy.

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Before getting to the bedroom, couch, pool, car or wherever you do what it is you do, you could hash-out some of the details of what you’re into and comfortable with and find out what your partner(s) like. That means you’ll have a better idea how to please your partner and respect everyone’s boundaries. If you know what your lover likes and they know what you’re into, the sex is exponentially better. That’s a fact.

Some people communicate verbally as things arise, some people like to have more formal ‘what are you into’ conversations, and some people benefit from written or visual tools to communicate about sex. Often, what you talk about with a partner depends on where you are in a relationship. For example, you might focus on discussing comfort levels with snuggling, kissing and public displays of affection in a new relationship. Whereas, after some time passes, as you get to know what your partner(s) likes and what you like to do together, you might delve into topics that are more involved such as anal play, threesomes and the use of toys. Of course, this varies greatly between individual, relationship and community.

The info in this post is here to inspire you and provide suggestions. Take what you like, add what is missing, and get at us if we are leaving important things out!

Aside from simply having a conversation about our likes and dislikes, try using a sexy check-list. It can go more in-depth and can be a less stressful type of communicating when it comes to intimate topics! You can add your own items to the list, and don’t have to go through it all at once.

RESPECTING EACH OTHER’S BOUNDARIES IS OBVIOUSLY HOT AND 100% NECESSARY.

Check out  tools that helps us respect our and our partners’ boundaries… and can be a helpful guideline or communication tool when discussing limits and desires.

Ok, there are two elements to a sexy check-list:

1. Possible sexual acts

2. Potential responses to possible sexual acts

This is what we mean by possible sexual acts: things that you could do with a partner(s). It’s the proverbial smorgasboard of sexual acts. This list, adapted from the website Scarleteen, is a starting point (get the complete list here).

-A partner touching me affectionately without asking first

-A partner touching me affectionately in public

-Having a partner’s shirt/top off

-Kissing

-Having my pants/bottoms off with a partner

-Being completely naked with a partner. Lights on/ off/ low

-Someone else putting a condom or glove on me

-Using lubricant with a partner

-Doing things which might cause a partner momentary or minor discomfort or pain

-Doing things which might cause me sustained or major discomfort or pain

-Ejaculating, with or in front of a partner

-Holding hands

-Tickling

-Manual sex (hands or fingers on penis or strap-on), receiving

-General massage, receiving

-Oral sex (to anus), doing to someone else

-Scratching

-A partner wearing something that covers their eyes

-Phone sex

-Cybersex (chat)

-Viewing pornography, with a partner

-Snuggling

-Talking during sex

-Talking after sex

-And many others…

Possible responses: We can have a multitude of responses when discussing our boundaries. Here are 4 possible responses and their descriptions.

1. Yes = I like doing this and am usually open to it given the right circumstances

2. No = I’m not down now and for the future. Just not my thing.

3. Not sure = Not until I explicitly say yes. (Maybe I’ve never heard of it. Maybe I don’t know how I would do that. Maybe I’m not ready to do that with you… Or simply, I don’t know, so let’s not do it unless I’m sure.)

4. I’d be willing to try, if the right conditions were in place, such as_____

a. if I had my adaptive gear

b. if we had chemistry

c. if I was feeling well

d. if my pain levels weren’t too high

e. if I felt comfortable

f. if the side effects from medication weren’t bothering me

g. if I’ve showered before hand

h. if I’m not in a depression or psychosis – if I am please don’t suggest it

i. if I feel safe with you

j. if we’ve taken these steps first____,____,_____

k. think of the conditions that might suit you…

We can use many different types of codes or symbols to respond to the above questions, and pass far beyond this list to many other acts and questions. It is great to go through sexy lists like these with your lover(s) ideally before you’re overtaken by excitement!

Spend some time making your own list. It could be on paper, in a private doc on the computer or even in your head as you lie down before sleeping. Really ask yourself – what kinds of things do I like, what am I curious to try, and what is a solid no?

If you’re in a relationship,

You could make your own list, your partner(s) could make their own list and then you could come together again over coffee or tea or smoothies and go through them together. <3<3 It helps you to better know yourself and to better please your partner(s)

Lists like this are not finish lines but starting points: for evaluating your own sexuality and/or for deeper conversations with someone else.There are many ways to establish boundaries and share desires. Add the sexy check-list to your sex-communication toolbox and let us know how it works!

One thing is for sure: the more you communicate and share about sex beforehand, the better it will be!!

See? Lists can be sexy.