Loveabilities: My Talk about Sex and Disabilities

The content of this blog is from a talk I gave at the Loveabilities Festival on Sexuality and Disabilities.
           I want to begin by sharing that I have a disability that you may not see unless you look closely.  I became hard of hearing in my 40s and I need to wear hearing aids in order to function.  Without my hearing aids, not only would I be cut off socially, I would only be able to do my work as a sex therapist and trainer with a great deal of difficulty.  I am grateful that I have a way to communicate clearly with others.  However, because of my disability, I have had the unfortunate experience of being viewed as less intelligent than others or having people think I’m weird for asking them to repeat themselves. 

Because I have learned to read lips, lately I have had a lot of trouble interacting in public as we are all wearing masks.  But I have learned to be assertive and be frank about my disability.  I tell the other person that I am hard of hearing and that I may need them to speak up.  Fortunately, most people understand and are happy to help me out.  On the spectrum of impairment, my disability is perhaps more annoying to both me and the other party, but it has definitely increased my awareness of what it means to be stigmatized and my empathy for people who are disabled in any way.

The sexuality of people with disabilities is a topic that has too long been neglected.  This is unfortunate for many reasons, but from my perspective as a psychologist, perhaps the most is that without adequate knowledge and training, sexologists and sex therapists cannot provide ethical and affirming treatment to people seeking help.  We become just the same as any other able-bodied person, ignorant not only of the needs of a vast population of fellow travelers but also of what we can learn from them.

            That is why at we spend plenty of time on this topic in our sex therapy training.  While I realize that some of the sexologists I am training may not work with many people who are disabled, I know that from learning about the experiences of people with disabilities we can come away with valuable lessons—some of which I thought I would share with you.

First, we explore the myth that people with disabilities are uninterested in sexuality and relationships.  Unlike able-bodied people who see themselves in the media every day, people with disabilities are rarely portrayed in love stories in an affirming way.  This omission reinforces the damage that is done when we are not inclusive in our thinking.  If we neglect the sexual and relationship needs of people with disabilities, we send a message that it is too difficult to find someone who will love them or want to make love to them.  I loved the scene in Crip Camp where Judy Heumann states, after she is tested positive for an STI, that, “The doctor could not imagine that anyone would want to have sex with me.”  Well, let’s imagine it!  Because when we understand that people with disabilities have a sexual self, we understand that sexuality is truly a universal experience.  This opens us up to learning more about what it means to express one’s sexuality and the important way it contributes to our self-concept as someone who is worthwhile and can create a meaningful sexual or romantic connection with another person.

Second, we explore the myth that one has to have a certain body type in order to attract a sexual partner and to experience sexual pleasure.  Once again, we not only see able-bodied people having sex, but able-bodied people with stereotypically attractive bodies—slender, muscular, and athletic.    It makes people whose bodies are less than perfect wonder if they are alluring, sexy, or desirable.  It makes them pessimistic about finding love, and they may become give up and become even more isolated.  It isn’t true that a perfect body brings someone perfect love, any more than a perfect table setting promises a delicious meal.  For reasons that are a mystery, human bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities.  We are not all made in the same mold.  Instead of celebrating differences, people with disabilities may suffer with negative body image.  As we explore further, we understand that most everyone is vulnerable to negative body image, succumbing to the idea that we will only find the love we seek and the pleasure we want when we reach attain some imagined level of physical perfection. 

            The third myth we discuss is that somebody has to be fully mobile or have perfectly working senses in order to give and receive pleasure.  This is of course untrue.  There are many ways to give and receive pleasure that don’t require that we follow a sexual script in which we use our bodies in a particular way.  Here I need to pause and share with you that it was a funny moment when I had to tell my husband to stop whispering sweet or dirty nothings in my ear because I couldn’t freaking hear him!  If treat the sexual script as being written in stone, then  we might forget that instead of using our hand for touch, we can use a foot, a toe, or a tongue.  If genitals don’t work as described in textbooks, then we can turn to a myriad of sexual aids. 
             We learn from people with disabilities that human beings are creative in their endeavors when there is something that they want.  If sexual pleasure is the thing that is wanted, then there are many ways we can experience it.  We also learn that in whatever way we are able, we can communicate what feels good, and we can create our own scripts for satisfying sex, whatever our ability.

            That is why I love the name of this festival, Love-abilities.  Whether our bodies are able or disabled in some way, we can all celebrate our ability to love and be loved.  We are limited in our lovability only by a lack of imagination.  That, I think, is the best thing that we can all learn from people with disabilities.  With sexual confidence, assertiveness, and vision, we can all learn that people in any body can be a sexual being!

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