Disabled people, and disabled women in particular, are not 'supposed' to be confident in our bodies or minds. We’re not supposed to know what we want. We’re brought up being told to be grateful that anyone wants us because we’re not enough. As a result, I grew up with little confidence.
Recently I was asked what I could offer a partner. "I’m good with my mouth," I responded, which received a disgusted frown. You see, we don’t own the sexual narrative. It is a radical act when we don’t conform; when we praise ourselves and call ourselves sexy. We are expected simply to feel proud of what our bodies, minds and characters have endured. Generations of disabled women have been told to be quiet, silent, to belittle themselves. Those lessons are difficult to unlearn. Therefore we must continue to commit radical acts of defiance, to articulate our desires loudly and be uncompromising in our ungratefulness for basic understanding.
Disabled women are conditioned to believe that we aren’t sexual beings. We’re not attractive. Our bodies are deficient. We’re dehumanized, mythologized and dissected. As Dr Kirsty Liddiard, a sociologist and senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield specializing in disability, gender and sexuality explains, we live within an ableist culture, which means that we have internalized negative messages about disability and, ultimately, ourselves. "Much of the disability imagery society consumes is inaccurate or oppressive, particularly when it comes to love and sex," she says.
The negative comments that we so often receive aren't exactly helpful either. "Oooh, have you got a boyfriend?" "How do you have sex?" "I could f*ck you better." They make us feel like we reside in an inescapable echo chamber of wilful ignorance and anatomical foolishness.
Fiona Solomon is a former social worker who now manages the TLC site, which seeks to signpost disabled clients to screened sexual service providers and promotes rights in this field. She has a no-nonsense approach to sex – it’s on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, after all, and orgasms are beneficial for your mental health as they release endorphins. Fiona questions why disabled people shouldn’t have these needs met. It is rare to have a forthright, resolute discussion about disability and sex but it is essential for the good of all. When sex is arranged, it is safe and functional. It fulfils a need and acts as a release for those who may otherwise feel too harshly judged to contemplate having a partner.
Of course, TLC is forced to deal with some issues: there are people who fetishize disability and want to tick 'sex with a disabled person' off their list of sexual exploits, for instance. The organization works hard to weed out these people and, for the most part, their clients are thriving – enjoying sex and expecting pleasure, despite other people's preconceptions. However some clients, Fiona notes, do not enjoy casual sex. They want intimacy, relationships – and why wouldn't they? Disabled people are as diverse in their sexual needs as the non-disabled. A passing remark stays with me: the clitoris is the only organ designed solely to bring pleasure. Why do we live in a culture that tries to bind disabled women to a lack of it?
Kelly Gordon, the creator of the sex-positive podcast Pleasure Rebels, says that living in such a culture means there is a daily, weary fight not to have your disability weaponized against you. She chose to have a 'fake it 'til you make it' attitude which, she says, led her into several potentially dangerous encounters as she felt the need to prove that she could have a fulfilling sex life. This was, she tells me, before we had dial-up modems, before the concept of catfishing. "It wasn’t as easy as a video call and a quick social media background check to see if someone was 'real'." Kelly now uses her experiences to benefit others, pointing to the barriers that hinder disabled people from experiencing sexual pleasure – from a lack of education to sex toys and sex aids which remain inaccessible for many. Kelly is passionate about inclusion, having fought hard to reclaim the narrative around her "beautiful disabled body". In a world where disabled women are conditioned to believe they are not enough, such a sentiment feels radical. Our history no longer needs to humble us. Why should we be reduced to a single part of our identity?
Roxy, 33, has multiple sclerosis and says that when she was diagnosed she was made to feel that a part of her life was simply cut off. "I generally thought there was a high possibility that I’d be alone, that no one would want me. To take on the burden of my illness. That is what I was made to feel like – a burden." A turning point occurred when she connected with other disabled and chronically ill people two years ago. They showed her the power and delight that could be gained from fully embracing her wants and needs through masturbation, massage and the love and support of her partner. Suddenly, there was a way to articulate her desires with "no guilt" or limitations placed upon her body.
Nici, 26, has a chronic pain and fatigue condition and agrees that finding a community of people who understood and who expressed their desires openly and exuded confidence was a turning point. "You are entitled to have the same desires and wants as anyone. I’m nervous people won’t always see me that way, but that’s their problem." Ultimately, she concludes, she can be sexy – unapologetically so. As more disabled women like Nici take charge and express their desires, we can disempower our fictionalized counterparts: the disabled women who live and breathe solely in the minds of the non-disabled.