As a disabled friend told me over the phone a few months into lockdown: "I have a vibrator and have taken to sexting via voice note."
I often have these conversations with disabled female friends – especially over the past year when so many of us have been shielding, unable to have sexual encounters with other people.
Sadly, in our society there is a reluctance to acknowledge that disabled women have sex. Once a disability is disclosed, we’re stripped of our womanhood and sexuality, unworthy of even the most basic of female stereotypes. We’re not the insatiable one, the career woman, the prude or the heroine. We are merely the stylised piece of inspiration porn, meant to be benignly appealing, not sexually overt.
Growing up, I had internalised the notion that disabled women should not expect much from dating, relationships and sex. I came to believe that we should not expect pleasure. The turning point for me came when I had the worst sexual experience of my life when I was 25. My then partner prodded me purposelessly, without direction and, I hope, inadvertently in my sensitive areas. Later, I wondered why I hadn’t voiced my displeasure. The answer: because society, friends and family had told me I should just be grateful that a man desired me. Any potential sexual partners were charitable and willing to endure a supposedly limited sex life. They were fictional martyrs to an unspecified cause.
There is a photograph of me that was taken before the pandemic. The beauty treatments and filters are firmly in place. I wear my favourite dress and may have strategically planned the lighting. It reminds me of the period between my sexual epiphany and COVID-19. I dated and I felt free. I went on good and bad dates, and I was ghosted. It was messy, overwhelming, underwhelming and sometimes just dull.
When the pandemic happened, I put that dress away; few people would wear such a dress in isolation, even fewer the bra that accompanies it. I often think there are two versions of me: pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. That photograph tells a story, not just of the physical but also the emotional toll of living in near-complete isolation. The earlier version of me had nerve. I took the lead when it came to sex. Sure, there were moments of internalised ableism, but only moments. I thought I looked great – I still do – but that version now coexists with the one who has been in near-complete isolation for over a year, the one who didn’t touch another person for over six months.
Unless you have lived within the confines of shielding, you can’t understand its all-encompassing nature. I would leave the house for a short walk once a week. Many didn’t have that privilege. There were times when I would meet a stranger at a two-metre distance and would be unable or unwilling to speak as my voice cracked from disuse. My body, which had been active before the pandemic, seemed to disintegrate. I have cerebral palsy and when my body is under stress, my muscles work against me. It is a constant battle for control. My muscles think they are doing what is best for me but it feels like a wearing cycle of self-inflicted harm. In those moments, I felt pre-pandemic me disappearing still further. I still flinch when people consciously or unconsciously touch me.
I believe it is a conditioned response; it feels like a survival mechanism and as much as I miss sex, I’m reluctant. How does one go from being afraid to leave the house, which has become like a mental and physical fortress, from being afraid to touch a stranger’s hand to being willing to touch any other appendages? I cannot lie; I thought I would come out of lockdown with a different attitude: "I will wear whatever and blow whomever I want, as long as I can breathe and kneel." It felt like the ideal post-lockdown mantra, aside from the fact that I am physically unable to kneel. But it hasn’t occurred. Instead, I am some hybrid of Samantha Jones and a Jane Austen heroine: by no means chaste or sexually uninterested but willing to leg it if you touch my bare hand.
In hindsight, I don’t think this is surprising. Still, the fear, while not as intense as it once was, lingers. The virus is a potential threat to my health, the restrictions may be removed, but the fear will not dissipate any time soon. So as I contemplate rejoining the sexually and dating app active, I will be cautious. After all, perhaps it would be unreasonable for me to ask any potential partner to take a PCR or rapid lateral flow test or to bathe in antibacterial soap before each sexual encounter.
Soon, when I feel ready, I will wear that dress, do all my beauty treatments, apply some filters and ensure the lighting is strategically planned. I’ll also date and have sex. Let’s be realistic. Though I am grateful for their steadfast companionship, there’s only so much a vibrator, voice notes and porn can achieve.