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.

Sick People Have Sex, Too

Article by Allyson Wendt published The Mighty in October 2017.

Fair warning: this piece is about sex. Specifically, it’s about the fact that people with chronic illnesses are people first, and are often sexually active, just like the rest of humanity.

Now that you’ve been warned, let’s talk about the popular conception of someone with a chronic illness. In a lot of people’s minds, a person with a chronic illness is always sick – in bed or on the couch, unable to do much. In reality, a lot of illnesses vary in severity over time, and people have good days or bad days. For example, I have days when my rheumatoid arthritis is flaring, but also many days when it’s fairly inactive. My migraines vary in severity as well. On bad days, I’m stuck in bed. On good days, I’m fairly productive and active.

That leads us to sex, which is a normal part of human experience. Like everyone else, people with chronic illnesses are sexual beings. The natural ebb and flow of sexual interest is complicated by illness, however, and medications used to treat it. Many medications affect libido and sexual function. Some illnesses make sex uncomfortable for any number of reasons; others limit sexual interest.

People with chronic illness experience sexuality in a variety of ways. They experience a variety of orientations and desires, and self-identify in many different ways. Some want sex a lot, some want it a little and some don’t want sex at all. In other words, people with chronic illnesses are people, and experience the same variety of sexuality we find in humanity in general.

So what’s the point? I suppose it’s that we shouldn’t assume someone with a chronic illnesses isn’t sexually active. And as patients, we should talk to our doctors about the impacts of medications and illnesses on our sex lives.

More broadly, it’s important to remember that people with chronic illnesses are people first. We are not defined by our illnesses, and experience life in all its variety. That includes sex – and a million other things.

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.

How able-bodied folks can make disabled partner comfortable sex

Article by Nick Moreno published on Wear Your Voice Mag on Jan 25, 2016.

“So how do you… do it?

When it comes to sex, people with disabilities are often times viewed as sexless, not worthy of sexual desire, fetishized and often stripped of our bodily agency.

So how does this all work? Well, it’s a case-by-case basis. Communication is key here. It’s more than just asking what your partner (for the night or, however, long) likes. It’s about setting up a dialogue to make sure you’re both on the same page. Ask us what accommodations we may need.

Accommodations can be anything from pillows, or foam wedges to prop up our legs/bodies (because not all of us can move and hold ourselves into positions that most able-bodied people can get into), to having breaks, taking pain medication, or using safe words, physical cues – like hand gestures – to let your partner know what you need and how they can help at getting you more relaxed. For folks who experience paralysis, ask them how they can be accommodated physically and emotionally. This will vary person to person, so be sure to check in on how you can help. If you’re planning BDSM scenes, be sure to go over safe words, gestures, or positioning materials you might need. Be sure not to overlook anything, this way you’ll be able to have fun and not worry about forgetting anything along the way.

Having sex when you’re disabled can be tricky sometimes. It’s important to trust when we say what we want. Some folks with disabilities are kinksters, some are vanilla, some are queer/trans- we’re all different. Ask what we like. Understand that for some of us, it can be quite difficult to share our bodies with another person. Some of us are insecure about our scars or deformities, but this isn’t true for all of us. Many of us love our bodies and some of us are still learning to love our bodies the way they are

Don’t give into the notion that we don’t like sex or that we don’t have or want sex. Question why this notion exists in the first place. It does so because of ableism and the stigma that people with disabilities are useless and incapable in all facets of life. It’s time that able-bodied people unlearn this and stop using folks with disabilities to satisfy their fetishes.

Once you know how to accommodate your partner have fun! Be honored that they chose to be this raw and vulnerable with you.

Foreplay will work differently for everyone. As with able-bodied folks, focus on the things that arouse you both, say the things they love — all within the person’s boundaries of course. Even during sex, briefly, check in from time to time. It can even be something as simple as “do you like that?”

While it’s great for you to be helpful, be sure not to treat us like we’re completely helpless. Many of us are more self-sufficient than you might think. Take extra care to stay away from words or phrases that are fetishizing, tokenizing, or ableist. This means phrases like “I’ve never been with someone who’s disabled before.” “So do you have sex like normal people?” Steer away from intrusive questions about specific medical history especially if you’re just hooking up. If a person with disabilities wants to share something from their medical history, they will unveil that to you on their own time, at their own accord! There’s no need to draw that out of them. Let us be in charge of our own narratives, and we’ll tell you if we’re comfortable with doing so; and if not — that’s okay too.

All in all, communication is key. Some of us like to have sex hard and dirty, other love a softer approach. Know and fully understand what accommodations we need. We can enjoy sex just as much as able-bodied people.

Sex & Dating While Disabled: Three Women Share What It’s Really Like

Article originaly published on Flare on Feb 14, 2017.

Sex and dating with a disability can be pretty f-cking awkward, whether it’s locating an accessible place to meet for a first date, or finding a caregiver who can operate your vibrator for you. Here, three women who have been there share their experiences—bad and good.

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.”

Mixed Messages: Ableism in Dating

Article by Aimee Louw originally published on www.canadianwomen.org on March 20, 2017
Ableism can be defined as systemic discrimination based on disability. You know, those encounters you have that make you feel bad about your disability, or those barriers that prevent you from having your needs or desires met.
Ableism shows up everywhere. And for women or femmes or gender non-binary people, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint whether it’s misogyny, ableism, or a gnarly combination.
So how does ableism enter the dating world?
“Ableism in dating is not overt, aggressive or necessarily oppressive. It is the things NOT SAID, the quiet questions, the missed opportunities born out of fear…” said Andrew Gurza, founder of the Disability After Dark podcast.
Often, the way that disability and accessibility are perceived can affect dating. Personally, I’ve learned that feminist crip rage isn’t understood or appreciated by all dates. (I mean, it is to me, but.) Dates who aren’t familiar with this area of advocacy and intimacy may find accessibility too demanding. It might seem like too much for people who don’t see ableism as a social problem.
Below are a few instances of ableism gathered from people in Quebec and Ontario, and some of my own experiences. These are excerpts from interviews and conversations I conducted during my time working for the Fédération du Québec pour le planning des naissances (FQPN), co-coordinating the ACSEXE+ project in 2015.
Often, when it comes to disability, there can be confusion about the way we move or communicate or perceive things, and also confusion as to what our body language is telling another person or how that other person should interact with us.
One anonymous respondent said:
“The most common experiences that I have gone through have been attached to the wheelchair and my speech disability and the connotations that others have when they’re not aware of my disability. Challenges are seen in the form of:
a) not being able to enter a popular bar or club that a date would have liked to spend a night out at;
b) the appearance of being drunk due to lack of coordination and slurred speech; or
c) the first time awkwardness linked to getting intimate.”
Meeting people can be a challenge for some disabled people for several reasons, including ableist assumptions about us. This anonymous interviewee talked about their experience with online dating:
“There are all kinds of reactions. Most of the time people feel sorry, and that hurts just as when someone stops replying because they got scared.”
Queer dating scenes don’t seem to be an exception to this. One queer respondent put it this way:
“I tried online dating a couple of times. I found it so stressful. Having to come out as disabled because it is not obvious online in my case. Having to perform the story: “Hey I’m disabled but it’s not that bad.” I can’t do it anymore. It makes me sick. Many friends tell me I should make more effort and date more often, but I just don’t feel like I have the energy for that right now.”
In my experience, there are very particular looks for “types” that we can use to identify or signal other queers to us. If, for reasons of body stuff or mobilizing or the way that we communicate, we don’t fit into those categories, or if we don’t want to, it can be a lot harder to meet people or even enter into queer dating scenes.
Some people said there was more ableism in the families of partners than with partners themselves. This anonymous accessibility activist said:
“Most of the people I was seeing were friends before, so… they already knew [about my disability]. The only ableist aspect with seeing friends is that they were more concerned with how their families would react to our relationship. It was like, ‘yeah, we could get serious, but it’s gonna get complicated with our families talking’. They were being honest, I guess.”
Another anonymous interviewee shared similar experiences:
“I’ve observed ableism from the family and friends of the individuals I have dated in past.”
A memorable moment for me: a family gathering of my boyfriend’s at the time. I was strongly encouraged to change his nephew’s diaper while being questioned by his mother about my potential as a child bearer. Here, my gender and her curiosity about my disability, and the expectation that I would be the future primary caregiver of desired grandchildren, combined to make for a particularly strange gathering around the changing table. Awkward!
And on staying in the wrong relationship our anonymous activist said:
“There are two main fears: 1) not being accepted and 2) being alone. I [have] stayed in relationships so that I wouldn’t be alone. But you’re hurting yourself, because it’s like a poison that seeps in the farther you go. You get to a point where you say, how did we get here? Wish we had dealt with this earlier…”
When it comes to women, femmes,girls and gender non-binary people, there are multiple layers of awkward or weird comments and unwelcome commentary. I can’t even count the times that I man has tried to get my attention or ask me out by first saying something like “oh what’s a pretty girl like you doing in that wheelchair?” Or the time I was out on a date with a man and he was confused and also endeared by the fact that I moved my body differently than him. There’s a specific kind of condescending questioning that this man – like others before him – felt in accessing information about my body. He felt completely entitled to ask me questions that were based on the assumption that I was abnormal and as such, needed to provide him with an explanation. All this on a first date!
As women and femmes we are under a lot of pressure to perform, be pretty, be sexy, fit images of femininity, say the right thing and when we have another differentiating factors such as a visible or invisible disability, there can be many constricted social requirements for us to comply with in order to feel accepted.
“People consider us as disabled people and not as disabled women” said Isabelle Boisvert during an interview, pointing out the common experience of being desexualised in a culture that equates women’s sexuality with a narrow image. I think disabled people across the board and across the gender spectrum receive this question a lot: ‘can you have sex?’
How many of my disabled, sick, Deaf sisters and siblings have encountered the condescending “let me help you with that”, as though we couldn’t possibly know what we need or how to navigate? Or had a date actually ignore a request for assistance in another way or in the way that actually would help?
This has definitely come up on more than one date with a man in my life: the chauvinistic and paternalistic “wow, you do so well, considering”, draws on a pervasive assumption that my disability prevents me from living my life. Inaccurate.
My advice? It can be really hard to distinguish between sexism, misogyny and ableism, but one thing is clear: If you’re feeling stigmatized or uncomfortable in dating, listen to your instincts. Ableism and other forms of discrimination often find obvious and subtle ways to enter into our dating lives.
For me, part of overthrowing ableism is dismantling misogyny and vice versa. They’re completely intertwined and harmful to people of all genders.
Feminist responses to ableism in dating include defending respect and sexual freedom for all disabled people. Accessibilizing is a process.
These acts of resistance can take many forms, including challenging ableist comments, resisting the urge to ask uninvited questions, ensuring a venue or show is accessible for your date, supporting disabled family members in their dating pursuits, negotiating consent with cards or a list, working for physical accessibility, learning sign language and more. If we join together, we can break down all kinds of barriers and go on some great dates.
Thank you so much to those respondents who shared their insights and experiences. It’s important to note that these respondents aren’t representative of their communities, however, as there is no universal experience of disability, there is also no universal design when it comes to accessible dating. There are certainly commonalities between stories, but each experience and story is particular to the teller.
If you have ways that you’ve experienced ableism in dating and want to share them for a future piece or just to vent, you can email Aimee at aimee@underwatercity.ca. You can also visit her website http://aimeelouw.com and her blog http://underwatercityproject.tumblr.com/ for more.

Sexual health for people with disabilities focus of new training program

Article by Wallis Snowdon published on March 7th, 2017, on CBC  Edmonton website.

‘They just see the disability, and that’s not who I am. I’m a whole woman. I’m a whole person’

Michelle Bissell had heard it before, even from complete strangers.

“People with disabilities should not have sex.”

The Edmonton woman, who has cerebral palsy, is hoping a new University of Alberta training program for medical professionals will help empower people with disabilities to learn more about their sexual health, and ease some of the stigma that persists in society.

“It’s just awful, because obviously they don’t see me as a whole person. They just see the disability, and that’s not who I am. I’m a whole woman. I’m a whole person,” said Bissell, a longtime advocate for disability awareness.

“In a lot of respects, the medical field glazes over that part, because people with disabilities aren’t thought of in society as a sexual beings.”

‘It is a taboo subject’

The Online Certificate in Sexual Health program was recently launched by the U of A’s faculty of rehabilitation medicine. The course, led by sexual health expert Shaniff Esmail, is intended to train more health-care professionals about the relationship between sexual health and disability, and how to approach it with respect.

Sexual health is a topic everyone struggles with, said Esmail, adding that most doctors feel ill-prepared for these sensitive conversations with their patients.

“The biggest barrier is that sex isn’t talked about. There are very few programs and unfortunately it is a taboo subject,” said Esmail, a professor and associate chair in the U of A’s department of occupational therapy. “I was surprised when I started doing some research that there is very little to no programming for people with disabilities.”

The post-graduate certificate program is the only one of its kind currently in Canada.

The demand for the program was so high that a second round of students was admitted in January 2017, the university said in a statement. Currently, 20 students are making their way through the program.

‘It can be scary’

Statistics Canada reported in 2012 that almost 14 per cent of the Canadian population aged 15 or older reported having a disability that limited their everyday activities.

Up to 3.8 million Canadians, if not more, are experiencing sexual health issues, and the demand for better training in the medical community only continues to grow, said Esmail.

However, the sexual health of patients with physical and cognitive limitations is often ignored by those charged with their care and recovery.

“People with disabilities tend to be systematically asexualized,” Esmail said. “They don’t get the opportunities or resources to actually learn about sexuality.

“Whether it’s their parents, teachers, or significant others, sexuality is something that people with disabilities have been isolated from.”

Bissell, who will be lecturing regularly in the new program, wants to ensure others don’t feel the isolation and fear she has experienced.

“I was born with CP so I’ve always been like this, but someone who has been injured who can no longer make love, that can be a lot,” Bissell said.

“People are released from the hospital and they don’t know how to handle things. It can be scary, especially if someone was in an accident mid-life. They need to have those conversations.”