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Disability and Sex a hidden taboo?
Disability and sex are a combination rarely discussed whether that be in mainstream media, healthcare, education or in general society. Too often the assumption is made that people with impairments do not date, enjoy intimacy or have an active sex life, and many disabled people across the UK and the world are accustomed to being viewed as asexual beings.
Scope, a leading national charity which focuses on creating equality for disabled people, say there are 14.6 million people across the UK who have a disability. It is unclear why disabled people for so long have been viewed as sexually inactive, but it is vital that society becomes aware that regardless of an individual’s impairment they too can be sexual and have the same sexual experiences as some who are not disabled. Many people only see disability and sex being paired together in cliché stories such as a disabled person paying for a sex worker, or in the Channel 4 programme ‘Undateables’ where the title itself creates connotations that disabled people cannot date conventionally or engage in intimacy.
Enhance the UK, a charity which aims to transform perceptions around disability are leading a campaign named Undressing Disability, this initiative focuses on increasing the quality of awareness in sexual health and the attitudes of sexual awareness for people with disabilities. Jennie Williams, CEO of Enhance the UK, believes that not many people combine disability and sex together and a major part of it is “reframing what disability is for a lot of people.” She said: “The media loves to talk about sex workers and it’s such a boring narrative… there is a place for it and there is no shame in that, but that’s not all it is and that is a tiny percentage. Everybody that I have worked with in the last 15 years that has used a sex worker, has used a sex worker as a stepping stone into something more meaningful. It’s still very taboo and the narrative that we have going on is very boring, but it is slowly and surely getting better.
“The Undressing Disability campaign looks to make sex education more inclusive for young people. If you’re talking about sex education and penetrative sex, but what if you cannot have penetrative sex? What if that’s not possible for you? So, you end up not being included in that. Disabled women are three times more likely to be sexually abused because they are not getting the sex education that they need, and they end up being in very vulnerable situations.”
The charity runs a Love Lounge which enables a space for disabled people to seek advice on sex and disability. In May, Enhance the UK are releasing their own range of accessible sex toy products for disabled people. Jennie said: “The accessibility for disabled people in the sex toy industry is terrible and that is why we’re bringing out our own inclusive sex toy range. People say that they are inclusive, but what does that mean? Inclusive to me means being able to open a package if you have poor dexterity, it means being able to have a QR code to find out information if you have a visual impairment. There are a whole host of things to what makes a sex toy accessible, and that’s why it has taken a really long time to get to the point where we feel comfortable releasing it.”
Sarah Zachariades, aged 46 has diplegia cerebral palsy, she feels that there should be more realistic representations of disability in the media. She said: “All over the TV they are bringing more disabled people on, but with the roles they play there is never really anything that is sexual. They may have a main role or a storyline but they never touch on sex, for example, in many films you see two people clearly making out but you never see that with disability… they do not portray us in that sense.
“A lot of the time when people are interested sometimes you question whether it is the right type of interest, is it some sort of fetish or are they just curious. I always get asked can I have sex, what can I do, is there any problems, and these can be really intrusive questions. I am quite open anyway and I am not bothered in the slightest because to me if I do not educate them then people will continue to be ignorant. There is a real naivety to it all, when I was pregnant for example… people would say how did that happen then, and I respond by saying the same way it would happen for anyone,” she added.
Although it is true that non-disabled people and mainstream media do not understand the relationship between disability and sex, it is important for disabled people to discuss sex which may in turn create a productive two-way conversation on how disability and sex should be represented in society. Disability and sex can be seen as a taboo topic not only in non-disabled society, but also in discussions throughout the disabled community.
Richard Luke, aged 45 lives with quadriplegic spastic cerebral palsy, he says that we need to improve the media discourse around disability and sex by “constant communication.” He said: “You have got to shine a light on it because once people know it and accept it, it then becomes more normalised. The more we shy away from it the more it becomes something we do not talk about. The Victorian era ended so long ago, and we do not need this hangover carrying over to the disabled community.
“If we take mainstream media as an example, we don’t have sex, we simply are not interested in sex and all we want is a nice blanket on our laps and go to feed the ducks. That is the prevailing attitude of mainstream media, and yeah it is a taboo because we are not seen as sexual beings at all. It is a challenge to be seen as a sexual being and a disabled person.
“Where the damage and the harm are caused is when the only time a disabled person is referred to (in the media) in a sexual scenario is when they’re having to buy a service. That is hugely damaging because not only do you have the perception that we are unattractive or the only way we can get sexual contact is by paying for a service, but people in the sex industry are also usually demonised as well. So, you get a section of people that are dead set against sex workers and then they use that to say you are taking advantage of these poor disabled people… There is an attitude that we are being taken advantage of because there is no way in the world a disabled person has the wherewithal to decide that they want sexual contact and are happy to pay for a professional service, so it’s like a double-edged sword really and that relates back to the infantilisation of disabled people.”
Spokz is an organisation that focuses on providing lifestyle equipment for disabled people as well as wellbeing services. Mel Halacre, Clinical Director for Spokz People, says that people need to better understand disabled people’s relationship with sex. She said: “There is so much negative messaging from society, you are either asexual or quite often when I’ve had conversations with professionals about newly disabled people, they say sex is the last thing on their mind. They need to focus on feeding themselves, dressing and washing. But when you actually ask the individual, you find out it’s the first thing on their mind and so there is an obvious mismatch there.
“Relationships are why we want to be on this earth and sex is a part of that. For example, with learning disabled people, you often see this theme of thinking they are ‘oversexed’, which is incorrect. It comes from a place of if you’re not allowing a space for someone to explore their sexuality then it may come out in other less appropriate ways,” she explained.
Stephen Liney, aged 36 has Becker muscular dystrophy, and has had experiences where people have made assumptions about his dating life because of his disability. He said: “I got married in 2020 and in 2019 I went to go and choose a wedding ring. The girl who was working behind the counter made it clear to me by saying “by the way that is a wedding ring”, and I said I know that because I am getting married. What happened there was she assumed that because of my disability I could not have been buying a wedding ring, these type of comments insinuate that I am not capable of having a relationship… disabled people are not considered to be sexually active or have that need.”
It is clear there are consistent tropes of disability and sex in society whether that be the representation of impairments and sex in the media, the accessibility of the sex toy industry or the assumption that disabled people are asexual. There are many issues that people with disabilities and disability allies are trying to fight for and raise awareness to, but it is clear that disability and sex should not be forgotten and involved in the fight to create equality for people with impairments.
by Ned Kelly (@nedkellyuk)
Specialist Information Officer and Cerebral Palsy Programme Lead
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