Let’s talk about sex
I met Rolling Inspiration’s former sexual health columnist, Willem Stiglingh, more than a decade ago working on a sexual health helpline. Together we manned one lonely phone in the back room of a reproductive health clinic. With the advent of medication like Viagra, the field of Sexual Medicine was starting to boom. Pharmaceuticals had an invested interest in funding an NGO that was willing to openly and proactively address sexual health concerns. It was an incredible learning curve for us. Suddenly, with the relative anonymity that the helpline provided, people from all walks of life began to phone in with questions and concerns that would have, perhaps otherwise, never have been addressed. There was no limit to what we discovered about everyday people’s sexuality. We learned that a Muslim woman in her 30’s could struggle with fantasies about her gynaecologist; an Orthodox Jewish teenage boy could talk about his impulse to cross dress; and, of course, a beer drinking, rugby watching, bench pressing, South African male had a place to talk about his difficulty with achieving an erection. In fact, working on the helpline made it pretty clear just how preoccupied us men were with having erections. But, what we also learned is that good sex required much more than erect penises.
Whenever I stand in front of a group of patients whom have recently acquired a spinal cord injury or illness, I feel a bit like an imposter. What do I know about the “ins and outs” of sex in a wheelchair? So, when Willem first asked me if I would start writing this column in his place, I was sceptical. Someone living in a less reliable body should actually be writing about these things. But, unfortunately, Willem seldom takes no for an answer. And, fortunately, in the weeks that passed I came to the realisation that, apart from some of the important “mechanics” of having sex with a disability, the advice to any couple having sex (with or without disability) is ultimately the same. Good sex starts with a good conversation. With talking about what it is that you like and don’t like. It’s about not feeling ashamed about your own body and what you would like to do with it; getting to know how it works and giving each other permission to enjoy it to the fullest.
When we talk about disabled bodies, we are in the habit of talking about their maintenance. We talk about catheters, pressure sores and a whole list of other “burdens of care”. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to feel good about something that is constantly being seen as a “burden”. In his 1990 article, “On seeing a sex surrogate”, Mark O’Brien wrote about the torment of living in a body that was only touched for maintenance. Trapped in a body following severe Polio, he writes about his longing to have physical contact out of enjoyment, to express feeling and have human connection. In his first telephonic interview with his surrogate therapist, he describes to her how he felt like he was on the outside of a restaurant, looking through a window, watching people enjoy a feast that he would never get to taste. Her reply was, “You deserve a seat at that table.”
So, dear reader, lets sit at that table where everyone is welcome and continue a conversation about sex, bodies (disabled or not) and the relationships they’re in. If you have any thoughts, stories or questions, we can learn from, I would love to hear from you.