Feeling your way to good sex
When it comes to sex, I am concerned for women: We are confused about how we want women to behave, sexually. We want them to be sexy, but not too sexy. Otherwise, we find derogatory names for them. We want them to enjoy sex, but not too much. Otherwise, we find even more derogatory names for them. But, when it comes to women with disability, we haven’t even thought of them yet as being sexy or sexual.
For some reason, we find it surprising to learn that a woman with a disability can actually have a very healthy sexual appetite. We seem to imagine that a body that looks or works slightly differently, is not capable or deserving of sexual pleasure. We also seem to equate disability with illness. People who are living with a disability are not necessarily ill or frail. We also struggle to appreciate anything that differs from what we see as “normal”.
As one female author with a disability describes: “All the emphasis on ‘the perfect body’ doesn’t help, especially since there’s no way I could ever aspire to what is seen as ideal. Being in a wheelchair limits my ability to move in what you would consider the standard sexual ways. It can be hard enough discussing sex with an established partner, never mind having to be upfront from the start and really spell out the realities - for example, telling someone it hurts when he does that, I have no feeling there or I physically cannot manage to do that. That takes a lot of confidence, especially when you compare it to the popular media images where couples just melt into each others’ arms and the sex is instantly wonderful.”
The reality is that women living with disability can and do enjoy sex. But, it’s a topic we have paid very little attention to. For example, the impact of a spinal cord injury on men’s sexual pleasure is relatively well understood by now. Perhaps this is partly because the impact it has on the mechanical ability of men to have sex (achieving an erection) is more obvious. Maybe it is also because we believe that sex is more important to men than women? But I speak to women every day, some disabled and others not, and many of them want more sex in their lives. There is very little reason, other than mechanical complications such as positioning, that a woman with a disability shouldn’t be able to enjoy intimacy and appreciate her own body. Sex, for men and women, is about much more than the mechanics. Sex, with or without disability, is not always “instantly wonderful” as the movies would like us to believe. It sometimes takes courage, communication and a bit of a sense of humour.
Whether you have a disability or not, one of the most important ingredients for good sex is feeling good about yourself. This is probably the greatest challenge for women living with disability. The way society views disability does not encourage ‘feeling good’. We live in a society that is specifically focused on women having a certain kind of body. Aimee Mullins, a beautiful woman who stands tall on her two prosthetic limbs, argues that: “Interestingly, from an identity standpoint, what does it mean to have a disability? Pamela Anderson has more prosthetics in her body than I do and nobody calls her disabled.”
So, who are the really disabled ones? The ones who park in a disabled parking bay when they don’t need to? The ones who can’t bring themselves to love a body that is perfectly ‘normal’? Aimee Mullins thinks, that “everyone has something about themselves that they feel is their weakness... their ‘disability.’ And I’m certain we all have one, because I think of a disability as being anything which undermines our belief and confidence in our own abilities.”
Although a disability often means dealing with very practical challenges such as loss of mobility or sensation: What if the things that stand in the way of us feeling good about ourselves are our greatest disability? Marlene le Roux, survivor of polio, actively campaigns for the right of women with disability to feel good about their bodies: “I also believe that sensuality is a journey towards this acceptance of yourself. To feel comfortable in your own skin is very sensuous. My journey towards being sensual and in control of my body started with accepting my own laughter, my zest for life, my own sense of rhythm. And this journey started when I decided: I accept everything, I blame no one, and the world owes me nothing.”