diane De Vries was born without arms and legs. This fast-paced, hard-hitting and beautifully honest documentary takes us through Diane’s life, through the ways the fear of her devoutly religious grandmother and the physical neglect of her mother shaped her childhood, through the ways being physically different impacts her interactions with others as an adult (she describes going to a networking luncheon where other participants asked about her wheelchair, but not about her work), her hopes and struggles, her experiences with intimate relationships and sexual expression. Some of her friends and attendants share their feelings and reactions to Diane, and their observations of how the rest of the world treats her.
What sets this story apart from other disability-related documentaries is Diane’s candid discussion of her experience in an abusive marriage.
I don’t think I ever felt like a victim, except when I was Jim’s victim.”
Jim was always my attendant as well as my husband, which I always hated. I thought that was the worst thing we could do to our relationship…
But he never wanted me to have an attendant.
Diane describes how Jim would become violent when drunk, throwing things, hitting her, and shaming her for the physical help she needed from him, such as help using the toilet.
This was in the seventies, and there wasn’t much technology to help people with limited mobility to use the phone, leave the house, or otherwise leave an abusive situation without someone’s help. Diane was eventually able to leave, after a friend dropped by to visit during one of her husband’s violent attacks.
Diane De Vries is (or was, I haven’t yet been able to learn whether she is still alive) a fascinating woman.
This documentary is one of the only sources I was able to find in which her story is told in her own words.
Today’s film is short, but long on great energy and ideas.
Laci Green and her friend Olivia give us the lowdown on sex and disability, everything from dating, to dancing, to fetishizing.
Two gems from Olivia:
People who fetishize (are sexually aroused by and attracted to) disability aren’t wrong or bad. The problem with fetishizing disability is more about the attraction being to the disability, not the person, and relationships are with people, not disabilities.
Olivia also points out that dancing with someone in a wheelchair usually means getting up close and personal (she describes her standing partner as practically giving her a lap dance), which can be sexy for both.
Unfortunately, the short format means some topics get short-changed. The discussion of sexuality and intellectual disability feels like it was tacked on at the end and rushed through. Sometimes, including everything doesn’t lead to full inclusion value-wise. I think it would have been fine to leave that topic out altogether and keep the focus exclusively on physical disabilities.
Again, though, the energy in this interview is terrific, and it’s a great introduction to different ideas, and to the general concept that disability doesn’t mean lack of sexuality or sexiness, and doesn’t mean the lack of desire for intimate relationships.
This film is fully captioned for people who need or want that.
When will we move past using words like “inappropriate” to talk about sex crimes? It’s more than inappropriate to, say, punch or steal from someone – it’s illegal. Unwanted and unconsented sexual contact must also be recognized as illegal, not reduced to being morally inappropriate.
The judge also cited handasyde’s deep remorse and guilt as part of the reason for the short sentence. These are feelings – moral consequences if you will – not legal or social.
Legally, this case is over, but the victims won’t forget. Their families won’t forget.
There’s so much wrong here that I don’t even know where to start.
We’re told that Craig Handasyde is a religious man, that he has eight children, that thirteen people (including two ministers) stepped up to give him a character reference.
We’re told that he voluntarily resigned from his job, and, later, turned himself in to the police.
Does anyone stop to question the time lapse between the last time he claims to have abused someone (2011) and when he resigned from his job (2013)?
Does anyone stop to remember that the abuse he’s admitted to and now claims to want to make amends for spanned thirteen years? (That’s more than a decade, half a generation.)
Do any of his esteemed thirteen references (one for each of the years he violated his clients’ trust?) stop to ask themselves how they could have so deeply misjudged this man?
We’re told by his lawyer that “What emerges is a picture of a man who is extremely passive and lacks the ability to assert himself.”
Let’s look at some other facts:
He admits to ignoring the efforts of one of his victims to push him away.
He invested time and energy in extra training and certifications, thereby winning the trust of his clients’ families and his employers. This means less supervision, more of a chance to do what he wanted, when he wanted.
Craig Handasyde is an abuser. He worked in a position that gave him power over others. He worked with some of the most marginlized and invalidated people. Maybe he felt as if he couldn’t assert himself, but he definitely didn’t act like it.
The claims Handasyde’s lawyer is making on his behalf don’t come anywhere near justifying his behaviour. After all, Where was the conscience that made him turn himself in when someone was pushing him away, telling him, more clearly than words ever could, to leave him alone?
We’re supposed to see a man who was in incredible psychological pain.
He may have been, but the hard truth is that this man sexually abused his clients because he wanted to, because he had no care or consideration for his work responsibilities or the emotional well-being of his clients, because he thought he could get away with it.
This man gets to be as religious as he wants, as gay as he is. He doesn’t, in my opinion, get to use these as explanations for abusing anyone, disabled or not, especially not anyone he was supposed to be protecting.
It’s frustrating, too, since this case just reinforces the beliefs that gay people aren’t safe to be around. The headline on one story about Handasyde’s crimes tells us that he spent years “hiding his homosexuality behind victims who could not communicate.” Again, one thing has nothing to do with the other. He didn’t sexually abuse his clients because he was gay, though he may have justified it to himself that way.
Handasyde’s lawyer is calling what he did a “secret life.” A secret life is having an affair, visiting sex clubs, doing stuff that isn’t criminal but that you’re still afraid to tell people about.
Describing a crime as a secret life lends it an air of mystery and eroticism it doesn’t deserve.
I don’t care how contrite Handasyde is now. He was not contrite for thirteen years. This was not a crime of passion, or lack of control. This was a crime of intention.
It’s also truly sad that his victims are portrayed as people who can’t communicate.
One of them did, by pushing Handasyde away. Another had a noticeable personality change, becoming more aggressive. Another victim’s mother describes him as not having a “happy nature” anymore.
Imagine not being able to tell someone how unhappy you are. Imagine not being able to tell them that someone is touching your body and doing other things you don’t like or want. Imagine trying to tell, and having peple not understand.
There are no easy answers, especially since most of the tools used for getting information from people who don’t communicate verbally are visual, and most of the victims in this case are blind.
I don’t know what could have been done to help these men be safe from their abuser, but it’s worth pointing out that in those entire thirteen years, no one ever suspected Craig Handasyde of doing anything wrong, or, if there were suspicions, no one ever acted on them.
Honesty, self-awareness, a wicked sense of humour, an unflinching sense of the ridiculous. You generally need all of these to be able to talk as candidly about your sex life as Kaleigh Trace has done in Hot, Wet, and Shaking: How I Learned to Talk About Sex.
These essays are about a lot more than talking about sex, though. They’re about love, and laughter, and what Kaleigh’s Grandma thought about the explicit language on her blog, and how to prepare for an interview at a sex toy shop (hint: you don’t need to be a sexual superstar), and first sexual experiences…
And through all of these stories, there’s pure, playful honesty about being disabled in a world that doesn’t easily accept people who are visibly diferent.
Hot, Wet, and Shaking is full of delicious details that made me feel like I was right there with the author. I feel like I could be right there with her when she’s talking about that time she pulled a sex ed prop out of her purse – in the middle of the grocery store (A Bag Full of Dicks). Reading Looking For Blood,I feel right along with her the fear and frustration of needing reproductive healthcare in a world that wants to make that hard to get, and wants you to keep it a secret. I nod knowingly as she describes her first crush on a woman: “My attraction was so painfully visceral that for a short time I was truly convinced not that I was gay, but that I had the stomach flu.”
Other stories share some of Kaleigh’s sexual misadventures (And The Warmth Spread Over Us), her awesome-sounding bike and it’s wobbly rider (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Tricycle), a delicious (in my humble opinion) piece of erotica written in a fit of frustration that there are almost no sexy stories about disabled people.
The Lady and the Butch is a contender for one of my favourite stories. It’s so delightful, I wish it were true – 100% all the way true. Really, an older lady coming in to buy her first vibrator ever, because her “queer lesbian” granddaughter told her to? It doesn’t get much more novel, and amusing, and ultimately touching than that.
But Kaleigh, while she wants to share with us the awesome experiences she’s had and self-discoveries she’s made since starting to work for Venus Envy takes her customers’ privacy seriously, so all store-related stories are fiction based on real-life people and events.
Where this book really shines is in the stories in which Kaleigh is being unfailingly vulnerable with us – not just because she’s usually talking about sex – though that’s great too – but because she shares parts of herself that make her uniquely her, and she sheds light on sexual stories and scripts we don’t usually get to hear but which are a part of a lot of people’s lives.
Fresh-Faced and Orgasm Free is some of the best writing in this book. It’s so much more than a “how I learned to masturbate” story. Kaleigh shares what it’s like to grow up with physical disabilities, to grow up interacting with her body in mostly medical ways. She describes lerning how to drain her urine through a catheter, how she became familiar with her genitals as a place she needed to manage.
As an adult she realizes: Touching myself was so common that it was hard to imagine it as a sexual experience. It was functional,
not hot. Necessary, not fun.”
Trying to learn about masturbation through the sex guides she sells at work, she realizes that none of them really speak to her experience. They all assumed that bodies work in certain ways…that all people can use their fingers to circle their clits, that everyone’s nerve endings fire in pretty much the same ways. “It occurred to me that perhaps I had yet to learn my way of coming because all the step-by-step methods I was reading, all the porn I had watched, and all the sex I had had thus far had not considered my disability.”
There’s so much more I’d like to tell you about this book, about the lyrical ways Kaleigh describes her body, about her observations of and fears around fitting into queer culture, about just how complex and unexpected the piece of erotica was.
But I’m not allowed to copy the book out here, so I’ll just encourage you to get it for yourself.
Can we all agree that asking random people on the street (or in the mall, or anywhere, really) about their sex life is just plain creepy?
People with disabilities are asked, much more often than you’d think, how, or if, we have sex. No, really, this happens all the time. If it’s not about sex directly, it’s something to do with relationship status. Maybe it’s random questions about whether you’re married, or about your dating life. Maybe it’s your server at the fancy restaurant assuming the person you’re sharing a romantic candlelight dinner with is “just” a friend, or worse yet, your brother or payed caregiver.
Honey, if they’re with me then they’re not looking for normal — and I don’t mean because I’m crippled. Because sex with me can mean any fetish, any request you’ve always been afraid to make, any position you can think of. Because sex with me can be watching porn together, reading erotica together, or preferably making our own of both…
As with anything both taboo and sexy, Internet news sources picked this up right away, with headlines like What It’s Like to Have Sex with a person With a Disability.
Kelsey’s sexuality is clearly broad and flexible, and she has the gift of a lovely voice and the art of creating words that grip us and won’t let go.
I know I’ll be going back to this video for inspiration -the sexy kind, not the inspiration porn kind.
But this doesn’t speak to all disabled people’s sexualities – and I doubt Kelsey means it to, since she named her poem My Body – even as it’s the perfect challenge to the idea that disability makes someone not-sexy and incapable of or uninterested in sex, or to the idea that “normal sex” – (whatever that is) – is impossible for disabled folks.
The lives of people with disabilities are so often boiled down to being about our disabilities alone, – usually because nondisabled folks can’t imagine how life with a disability would work – that the idea of grocery shopping, or getting dressed, or having sex with one’s partner become exciting or alien concepts nondisabled people want to learn about the way they’d learn about astronomy or the mating habits of giraffes.
There’s also the assumption that all of these life activities are controlled first and foremost by the disability – that disability changes everything. Newsflash: It doesn’t. We’re just as likely to swoon over cute puppy pictures (or stories for those of us who can’t see the pictures), have ridiculous laugh-fests with friends, or get frustrated over the rising costs of milk. The ways we get dressed – whether it’s how we know what colours we’re wearing or how we put on our underwear or tie our shoes – are just the ways we dress, not anything better, or worse, than dressing the “normal” way – because that way of dressing is normal for us.
“I want to learn more about accommodating people with disabilities if I’m going to have sex with them.”
This was one of the answers I got to a question on Twitter asking what people most wanted to learn about sex and disability.
Since it was sex we were talking about, I asked if this wasn’t actually more about pleasure than about accommodation. When I think about accommodation, at least when it’s related to disability, I think of Braille signs on elevator buttons, equal opportunity employment, or buses that announce stops and have wheelchair lifts – not sexual intimacy or X-rated play time.
It turned out this person was concerned about hurting a potential disabled partner if he didn’t understand how their disabled body worked.
Fair enough – but… We don’t know how anyone’s body works until they tell us, until we’ve spent enough time with it to learn what every little sound or wiggle means. It ultimately doesn’t matter what someone’s body does or doesn’t do; no “Sex and Disability 101” Or “Sexual Exploration for Everyone” workshop is going to be able to tell you how to have sex with them.
The fun, and fear, of sexy time with a new partner is the same regardless of ability. The challenges come up when we’re faced with things we’ve never encountered, and sometimes have never heard of.
Knowing something about different disabilities can take some of the mystery of disability out of the equation, and that’s a good thing. The more familiar words and realities like cerebral palsy, hemiplegia, degenerative retinal diseases, PTSD, etc, are, the less unfamiliar they’ll be to people, and the quicker they can get on with their everyday business, including getting it on with a new lover. It’s also a relief to disabled folks when people understand the basics of what we’re telling them, even if it’s as simple as knowing basic human anatomy.
Sure, there are general disability-related differences in romance and sex we can pretty much always assume to be true: A blind man can’t glance across the room and entice an alluring stranger with eye contact. A woman who uses a wheelchair to get around may, depending on the nature of her disability, need help in and out of the chair, with changing positions, with going to the bathroom after sex. A deaf person will likely want to leave the lights on so they can read a lover’s lips, watch body language, or do whatever they need to do to communicate while getting it on.
Understanding disability by studying WebMD and Wikipedia won’t help anyone learn a lovers’ body.
We want answers, and formulas, for sex, and for understanding disabilities, and there just aren’t formulas for understanding either, or both together.
No one’s limbs work the same way, no one’s brain chemicals do the same things, no one person likes exactly the same sexual activities in the same way.
Becoming an encyclopedia of disability and intimacy will only take anyone so far in growing a relationship with a disabled or nondisabled partner or playmate.
I don’t necessarily suggest conducting an interview with someone you want to have sex with – unless question-and-answer sessions light your erotic fire, and theirs – but discussing questions like the ones below can be a good place to start if you’re just not sure what to do with this playmate you find so hot:
What feels good to you?>
How do we have sex so I don’t hurt you?
I want (insert your deepest fantasy, or just what your body craves that day). What do you want?
I think the connection we need to keep making between disabled people and sexuality is our right to want sex, to think about sex, to be sexy and express our sexuality – or not to do any of those if we choose not to. For some people that includes the right to have sex, but for others it’s more about the right – and the responsibility – to live in a world that’s so often about sex appeal, and where so many interactions are expected to have sexual overtones.
We used to describe these attitudes towards disabled people’s sexualities as seeing people with disabilities as “asexual.”
Asexuality is, however, an actual identity or orientation. It’s not generally seen as an absence of sexuality, but as a way some individuals relate to their own sexualities or with the idea of sexuality in general.
Disabled people can, and do, identify as asexual, without that having anything to do with their disability.
I think highlighting the variability of disabled people’s sexualities is important, and sometimes overlooked.
We emphasize so much that disabled people are sexual beings, that we forget that we’re allowed to be lousy lovers, or to have sexual relationships that don’t work, or to have lovers who just don’t enjoy our sexiness without that making them narrow-minded, ableist jerks. We forget that having sexual rights also means we have the right to be lousy in bed, that we have the right not to shock others with our sexualities, that we have the right to be celibate by choice.
So many disabled people don’t get choices, though. They don’t get privacy, or say in who provides their personal care, or who knows about their personal business. The idea that disabled folks who need physical assistance with daily personal-care needs (dressing, bathing, caring for their home, etc.) could also get assistance (without judgment) with the parts of their sexual and intimate lives they physically can’t negotiate themselves is deeplycomplicated.
There are no easy answers – so much of what I’ve brought up here would, and has, fill books – and there are no quick fixes for making mass changes to attitudes about disability, or sex, or disabled people expressing our sexualities. We’re talking about changing generations of attitudes about two experiences people hold so much fear around in general.
Highlighting the many different voices of and experiences with sexualities, relationships, and disabilities – that’s our main goal here at Ready, Sexy, Able.
So, every Friday we’ll post a video or podcast that explores a different aspect of the connections between sexualities and disabilities. We’ll keep it accessible, with links to alternate formats when available, and written summaries when they’re not.
First up: Andrew Morrison-Gurza talking about one of the most “sex positive experiences” he’s ever had, with a disability-related comedy of errors on the side.
Read the story here, or watch Andrew’s dramatic re-telling.
Cara Liebowitz of That Crazy Crippled Chick has some powerful things to say about beauty standards, expectations, and what many disabled bodies really looke like.
IN her latest blog post, On Being “Ugly Disabled”, Cara tackles the idea that some disabled bodies are seen as acceptable, even beautiful (physical disability as a fetish is a whole other discussion point), while others are seen as ugly.
She starts out with her trademark honesty:
“I am not one of the “pretty disabled”. I may have been close to it, once, but as I’ve gotten older and my disabilities have changed and multiplied, I have quickly moved away from any hope of “passing” as either non disabled or “prettily”, “acceptably” disabled.”
Cara challenges everything we think we know about what it means to look professional, to look like a woman, to look like other people’s ideas of what disability should look like. She challenges the idea that disabled women are only beautiful if we’re delicate, elegant in the way we move, pretty, and quiet.
She also challenges the idea that disabled people need to spend valuable energy looking “normal”: “I do not sit up straight and my posture becomes worse when I am tired or excited, which can lead to me sliding out of my seat or propping myself up with my arm to keep from falling completely over to the left (my weaker side).” (I’d hope no one should suggest that Cara should always keep from getting excited so that she can sit up “properly”.)
You can read the rest of Cara’s excellent post here.
For more of Cara’s bold, direct thoughts on disabilities and beauty standards, check out her essay Palsy Skinny: A Mixed-Up, Muddled Journey into
Size and Disability in Criptiques.