The Last (Several Thousand) Words on Disability and Sex

Debbie says:

I’ve been a Heather Corinna fan for a long time. As the founder and a key maintainer of Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World, along with other sex education and activist work, she provides a great service to young people (and not-so-young people) everywhere. Laurie reviewed her excellent book S.E.X. here a few years back.

In Disability Dharma: What Including & Learning From Disability Can Teach (Everyone) About Sex, she hits it out of the park. Repeatedly.

Somewhat over ten years ago, I heard a very good talk on disability and sexuality from a woman whose name I cannot remember, speaking at a panel on disability which Laurie organized for a queer conference in Oakland, California. She taught me a lot about the subject, including some of what Heather says here about the topic, but she didn’t make the connection to the able-bodied world which I think is what makes this piece so special.

You really do have to read the whole thing, but I’ll give you a few choice snippets:

Heather starts by talking about erectile dysfunction and how seriously people (men) take it:

I don’t have a penis. But I do have around the same amount of erectile tissue in my vulva and clitoris that doesn’t always behave the way I’d like it to, so I can understand being momentarily annoyed when that happens. Before you rush to say “But YOU can still have sex!” hold up. While female-bodied people CAN have intercourse or other kinds of sex even if our parts aren’t fully cooperating, when we do, it usually doesn’t feel that good or can be painful. Female-bodied people engaging in genital sex when our genitals aren’t very responsive is a whole lot like someone trying to run a five-mile race when they have blisters on their feet: they may be able to do it, but they’re not likely to enjoy it very much. Since sex is about what feels good, not about what’s physically possible, myself or other vulva-owning folks really CAN’T have some kinds of sex when our genitals aren’t fully or at all responsive, just like male-bodied people can’t.

Then she links this to disability by talking about what happens when bodies don’t perform the way we either expect them to or think they “should.” She describes her own “mild to severe” hand disability and mentions that she also has two unrelated chronic pain conditions.

A disability is also different than not being able to get an erection on the Tuesday you’re visiting your boyfriend or girlfriend. While you or I can go without intercourse or sex, since they’re optional, I do need to get my pants buttoned and shoes tied in order to leave the house, my friend who is visually impaired needs to be able to find out what she owes the phone company and get her kid to school, and my friend who has trouble walking, driving and hearing still needs to be able to get to her doctor’s appointments somehow.

People with disabilities tend to, or at least try hard to, focus on what we can do. Not on what we can’t.

If all we focused on was what we couldn’t do, we’d be able to do even less, and be stuck in a perpetual pit of despair. This is a spot a whole lot of able-bodied people seem to be stuck in when it comes to sex a whole lot of the time, especially if sex is the first time or place when they have really wanted to do something where their bodies were uncooperative. Those with disabilities can probably teach you a few things about that, things you can probably learn pretty easily just by including us in how you think about sexuality …

She gets into the heart of Body Impolitic territory:

Know what else inclusion helps with? Acceptance of everyone’s sexual variation, including your own. Like understanding that we or anyone else can’t “make” ourselves like things or people we don’t like sexually, can’t willfully change our sexual orientation or gender identity, or that something one person finds to be very sensitive on their bodies is not on our own or on a partners’ body. Sometimes a given variation can be far outside of our experience or awareness, but rather than viewing that as cause to freak out or run away, we can view it as an adventure, as a whole new avenue for us to learn and experience things about ourselves or others we might not have had the opportunity to otherwise.

Disability awareness and inclusion also makes even more clear how totally ridonkulous most standards of beauty are. When we just look at diversity among abled people, it’s clear it’s out-of-whack, but when we earnestly include all the kinds of bodies there are in the world, and the far-more diverse range of what they can look like, act like, be like, what they can and can’t do, these kinds of standards seem even more bizarre.

Hopefully you can see that treating or thinking of yourself poorly when you’ve just hit up against a limitation of your body — be it temporary or permanent — isn’t being kind to yourself or treating your body and mind with the kind of respect it deserves. Hopefully you can also see that treating anyone else that way, abled or disabled, isn’t treating others with the kind of respect they deserve. If you’re someone with disability who is having a hard time with any of the things brought up here, sexually or otherwise, cut yourself some slack. Like I said, this isn’t about magical powers or other people just automatically being in a good place with disability: it’s something we learn, over time, and it can tend to take some time.

There is so much more, and all of it is pure gold. It’s certainly not true that there’s nothing more to be said about disability and sex–I just feel that way right now after reading and savoring the article. Usually, Laurie and I have a policy of blogging about stories or other people’s writing when we have something to add, but not this time.

Thanks to jesse-the-k for linking to this one.