I read the article “Sex: some facts of life” by Kirsty Liddiard in the April issue of Disability Now with great interest. I once trained to go into social work, with the aim of working with newly disabled people. I also recently decided to change my studies from a Psychology degree (to one in English and Creative Writing) after finding that the medical model is still being taught as the only way of describing disabled people’s identity. It was really encouraging to see someone examining the issue of disability and sexuality from an academic approach. With Kirsty being a trained sociologist and disabled herself, I hoped that the article would finally confront the issues disabled people face around sexuality and relationships in a rounded manner. However the piece actually seemed to blame any problems disabled people might have on disability itself and how society sees the disabled, without any broader conversation.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have an experience all of the issues covered in the article, from abusive relationships through poor body image to a lack of confidence over a change in the way my body functions sexually, and fully appreciate how each one can deeply effect someone’s identity and ability to form successful relationships. My own journey to the place I am at now, in a very successful and happy relationship with someone who loves me the way I love them, was a long and painful one. I also appreciate that the way I feel about my disability has had a serious impact on that journey, and is still key to my psyche and effects how I really feel about my own attractiveness. But I do not agree that these issues are something that disabled people face alone.
A key factor to being able to begin the task of looking for love is self confidence, and this is an area that effects everyone in our society. We only need to consider the huge growth in the number of people undergoing cosmetic surgery to understand that issues of confidence have an impact on members of society that we disabled people might see as examples of “physical perfection”, and that this is not what they see when they look in the mirror. Most sociologists and psychologists agree that low confidence around body image is a growing problem throughout our society, effecting both sexes. However much we might see our issues with body image as being more valid or obvious, the truth is the emotional and psychological impact of low self confidence is the same for anyone who suffers from it.
This lack of confidence can lead on to forming unhealthy relationships, which the article also covered. But yet again the stories of every one of the people interviewed could just as easily be those of non disabled people. I spent many years of my 20’s in a relationship with someone who abused me, both verbally and physically, and they went on to repeat this behaviour with their next partner, who has not disabled. I used to feel that it was my disability that caused this person to act the way they did, and this led me to stay in an unhappy relationship so long, but I now understand that is incorrect. While my lack of confidence was tied to my disability, it was the confidence issue itself that made me stay. The same goes for anyone stuck in an abusive relationship.
A deeper factor in disabled people’s lack of confidence can be due to a difference in the way our sexuality functions or our inability to have sex in a “normal” manner. While I was disabled from birth, my sexual function changed when my spine collapsed at the age of 15. This led me to spend most of my adult life wrecked with self doubt about my ability to satisfy my partners sexually and to what would happen if anyone found out about what did and didn’t work in the trouser department. So I spent years lying to everyone I knew and praying any ex’s would keep my secret. When I met my wife, being with her gave me the confidence to “come out” about the way my body worked. When I did so in the most public manner possible (i.e. on TV) I found that nearly everyone of my male friends sidled up to me at some point and admitted that they to suffered from serious sexual dysfunction issues. The fact that Viagra is now taken as a recreational drug demonstrates how big this problem is for all of male society. I do not feel informed enough to discuss the issues faced by those people who might need assistance when having sex, but can see how that might effect not only how you feel about yourself but how you approach sex entirely. I do know that it is normally these people who are expected to use prostitutes if they ever want to have sex.
Thankfully the article did finally dispel the idea that sex with a prostitute is a solution for disabled people, especially men, who are seeking sexual experience. There are many people who campaign for legalising prostitution who use disabled people as an excuse for their argument, yet it should be obvious that it will be an empty experience whether you are disabled or not. For anyone lacking self confidence, visiting a prostitute can only reinforce these issues. No one will feel better about themselves if they feel the only way they can experience love or sex is to pay for it. But there is more than one way of paying for it. I once was in a relationship with someone who expected me to pay their rent, buy their clothes and cover all costs when we went out and seemed to think that was fine as they gave me sex. It made me feel cheap and made me mistrust prospective partners too. If I hadn’t met my wife I don’t know what kind of barsteward I might have become. I also know from those non disabled friends who have visited a lady of the night that they have exactly the same experience of emptiness afterwards.
We now come to the issue of fetishism. I spent most of the 90’s partying on the fetish scene and will admit I found the acceptance and tolerance I was met with really liberating. I even spent a short time going out with someone who admitted they “dug the wheelchair”, if you get what I mean. I left the whole world because as it became more accepted by the wider society, the ignorance of the wider society bled into the attitude this underground scene. Once people understood that a disabled person wouldn’t be in a fetish club if they couldn’t have sex, what ever type of sex that might be, but I eventually found myself explaining on a nightly basis that my wife and I could have sexual relationship (on a nightly basis if we wanted).
Just because I spent time in the world of fetishists, that doesn’t mean I have no understanding of why so many disabled people find the whole thing offensive. No one likes the stereotype that the only people who might want to have sex with them could be called perverts. Back when I was part of the London fetish scene I filmed an item for Channel 4’s “Freak Show” series that I hoped would explore the subject of disability and fetishism in a serious yet light hearted way. Instead it was edited to imply that my wife was only with me because I was disabled, so I know how hurtful this idea can be. It especially upset my wife, as she had actually said that she loved all of me and my disability was part of what made me, me. Never trust a TV producer and their editor. The crazy thing is I admit that I chatted up my now wife partly as I saw she had a scar all down her right arm. I think scars are really beautiful and the way she paraded it so openly said something great about what kind of person she was. But does that make me a devotee of her and her scar, or is it just another facet of how perfect she really is?
All of this is OK and it is only my own opinion, but does it help us find a solution to love, sex and relationships? Well I hope it does. If we as disabled people realise that all of the issues we face around the subject are the same as those faced by everyone, whatever the cause, then we should hopefully feel able to enter the world of love on a more level playing field. Yes we do have our own issues to face, but the way they effect us emotionally is not so different to the way the rest of society’s issues effect them. All I know for sure is many of my non disabled friends are desperately looking for the same thing we are all chasing, a happy and loving relationship and they wouldn’t care if that was with someone who disabled or not. At the root of this whole subject is the fact that self doubt is part of the human condition and how we cope with it makes us who we are. So let’s stop seeing disability as a barrier to love, and instead embrace it as part of what will make us a real catch.