Nov 142017
 

Last week I had the privilege of being on a panel about stigma, sexuality, and disability with Andrew Gurza and the cohosts of The Pulse.

We managed to squish a lively discussion of flirting, dating, stigma, self-disclosure, and loads more juicy stuff into a 35-minute radio segment.

The best part is that the show was recorded, and turned into a Podcast – and it’s up there on their Web site, right next to shows they’ve done on adaptive tech, travel, TV and movies – and more serious topics like the underemployment of disabled people, and the lack of services for Indigenous people with disabilities.

I really appreciate that the staff of The Pulse included a show on sexuality, acknowledging that it’s as big a part of life as all these other pieces.

You can listen to this conversation about stigma, sexuality, and disability at the following links:

Feb 052016
 

Of the five sex toy stores I’ve personally visited over the past 15 years, only one had a flat entrance.

Of those five, only three had employees who didn’t respond to me as a visibly disabled person with obvious anxiety, and, in one case, hostility.

Sex toys – It’s one of the first things people think about when they think sex and disability – if, of course, they’ve managed to get past the “OMG disabled people? Sex? I think I have the vapours!”

For people who follow online media, anyway, the idea of people with disabbilities being sexual creatures is getting more familiar, and sex toys tend to feature in those narratives.

For example:

There’s a great reason for this. Toys can make sex play more physically pleasurable for people who have spinal cord injuries or other reasons for genital nerve damage. Or, they can help a person who has chronic pain, or limited mobility (or both) reach their butt. Or, they can help partners do the sexual thinggs they desire but that their bodies won’t allow. Or…the list has no end.

How do folks with disabilities get their hands on sex toys in the first place? Generally, the way anyone else does: stores, online, or cobbling something together from the kitchen drawer or bathroom cabinet. ON the surface, it’s easy-peasy. Another But, a lot of stores still aren’t physically accessible to folks with mobility impairments, with steps at the entrance or inside, no automatic doors, narrow aisles, and more. Some stores don’t keep sample versions of each product on the shelf for people to handle. At the stores where they do have all sample products out for customers, you can literally glance at, or hold, or sniff dozens of dildos (or anything else you’re looking at) to get an up-close-and-personal sense for which one is most likely to work for you.

As with anything, you’ll really need to try the thing before you know for sure if you’ll like it, and you’re not allowed to do that until you pay up!

Having this large display of products right there can improve everyone’s shopping experience, but it’s virtually vital for folks who can’t see to get a sense of the depth and breadth (no puns intended here) of what’s out there. It’s also pretty crucial for folks who need to be able to tell if their hands, let alone any other body parts, can use the toys.

Shopping at sex toy stores is unlike most other shopping experiences.

It’s fun. It’s sexy. It can be scary as hell or as normal as going to the drugstore to buy toothpaste. A trip to a sex toy store, for some, is the ultimate “OMG that changed my life” experience,; for others it can be a “Bletch! never again!” story their best friends tease them about forever.

But shopping for anything can be a big deal for people with disabilities – whether it’s being able to get to the store (or use the store’s Web site without cursing technology and punching the computer), or physically accessing all aisles and shelves, or receiving customer service that’s respectful and helpful, receiving customer service at all (I.E. not being passed over in favour of the person in line behind you), or even being able, with a significantly lower likelihood of being employed and having disposable income, to afford what’s being offered.

The rest of this post will look at how beliefs about and attitudes towards disability can make or break a shopping experience, and why that’s even more of a big deal when we’re talking sex toy shopping.

My own first sex toy shopping experience went something like this:

Me: “I’m looking for a G-spot vibrator.”

Shop Owner: Opens clear plastic box and places toy in my hands. “here’s one. It’s only $34.99. Here’s the button to turn it on. How are you going to be able to put the batteries in?”

Me: Touching the slender hard-plastic cyllinder with a curved end that looked better for fishing (minus the sharp edges) than for rubbing delicate tissue: “Does this actually feel good?” (What I wanted to say: It feels too hard.)

Store-Owner: “Here, let me show you how to put the batteries in. You unscrew this part–”

Me: “I’m not sure it’ll feel…?” (Silently: “Yes, I think I can figure out how to put the batteries in. Not really worried about that right now.”)

Store-owner: “Oh. You just have to experiment and find what feels good for your body.”

Me:”Umm, sure. I’ll guess I’ll try it… That’s all you have for G-spotting?”

store-Owner: “This one will be the easiest for you to put the batteries in.”

Me: “Okay, I guess I’ll try it.”

A minute later I’d payed my money and left, plastic bag full of toy in hand.

Was this just one of those store-owners who wasn’t interested in spending time with customers?

No. When we weren’t talking about batteries, she mentioned that she’d just spent an hour helping a guy pick out a toy for his wife. I’m guessing the guy didn’t have a physical disability. He sure didn’t use a wheelchair; that was one of the stores with steps.

My experience hardly counts as discrimination, but there’s a reason it’s stuck with me.

I walked into that store expecting to be treated like a customer, shown options, given space and time and information to make my decision. I wouldn’t particularly have minded being shown how the battery compartment worked, but in a more “oh, by the way” manner as part of giving me information about the toy. The store-owner expected that I was a blind person. Whatever a blind person meant to her, it wasn’t someone who comes to buy toys.

My needs as a sex toy customer weren’t any different from any other customer’s needs. The store-owner needed me to not be different from any of the other people she expected to walk into her store and buy stuff so she could pay her bills.

My needs were to have a sex toy shop employee or owner stay calm and professional at a time when, no matter how enlightened I was about sex toys, I needed their help and was feeling nervous, anxious, and like I wasn’t quite supposed to be doing what I was doing or spending my money on “frivolous” things. The store-owner’s needs were – well – to deal with this anxiety-producing situation of being faced with a blind customer as quickly as possible.

I’ve learned from friends and acquaintances who’ve run or worked in sex toy stores that how to support customers is a big part of their work. They want customers to feel welcome, but not crowded, supported, but not intruded on, cared for, but not too much.

They know that people who come into their store could be having any number of sexual insecurities, relationship problems, body image issues, and more. They know that sometimes their potential customers come in looking for answers without even knowing what the questions are.

Your standard retail experience, where you usually expect that a salesperson will greet you, cheerily ask if you need help, and check in with you every 4 minutes, might feel downright terrifying to some folks trying to buy a sex toy, or porn, or a bondage kit, or a bottle of lube. Most of us have been taught to feel such shame around sex in general, and especially our own sexualities, that too much input or friendly chit-chat could feel really invasive or scary. (Note: This doesn’t apply to everyone. For some people, that kind of friendly connection puts them at ease, but they need to be the ones who initiate it.)

but, for a blind person, who may or will need help – depending on how much usable vision they have, E.G. Can they read lube bottles, see the pictures on DvD covers, or see where the rainbow-coloured dildos are kept? – how does a sex toy salesperson maintain as much physical or emotional distance as the customer wants while still giving practical help finding items and reading packaging? Or, what if a person in a wheelchair wants to look at a dildo they can’t reach? Asking a sales associate to reach it and hand it to them isn’t necessarily an invitation to talk.

I think what makes customers with disabilities’ experiences in sex toy shops unique is that many sex toy store customers, regardless of ability, bring their own nervousness, fear, anger, or whatever to their shopping experience. Let’s face it — sex and sexuality carry huge emotions attached to them. Most of us have internalized shame around sex and sexuality in one way or another.

Going into a toy shop, especially in a small town, especially if you look different or distinctive, can carry a whole lot of emotions and fearful thoughts with it.

So, the average toy shop customer could be walking through the store with any one of these emotions, or all of them and more all at once! They’re counting on people working their not to judge them.

Disabled customers, in addition to potentially coming in with this emotional bagage, will also often be carrying around the anxiety of “How will I get treated by these strangers, today?” and for some “Will I even be able to get into the store?” That’s a lot of inner chatter and anxiety to be carrying around all the time.

Based on what we know about general attitudes around and knowledge about disability, it’s pretty reasonable to say that When a visibly disabled customer enters a store, some people working their are going to have big, complicated emotions of their own come up. People have huge fears and uncertainties around disability. Folks will often explain their awkward behaviours around visibly disabled people as “not knowing what to do,” or “not wanting to do the wrong thing.” Disability is, I think, still this really unfamiliar thing, at least when it comes to disabled people being out and about, earning and spending money, making sexual choices, window shopping, and just generally not being off in some special space. I’m still working out ways to help nondisabled folks, or folks with limited experiences around a variety of disabilities, understand some of the basics of giving assistance, without turning it into a list of “do”s and “don’t”s that ends up looking a lot like this guide.

A lot of the negative and nervous responses to disability from nondisabled folks come from a place of “OMG, what if that (being disabled) was me” and also from a place of “This person isn’t anything like me; I can’t relate.” The fear most people have around disability is deep and it’s unlikely that that fear isn’t going to afect the interactions of people who feel it with visibly disabled folks.

So, you’ve got a person looking for sex toys or sexually explicit materials, or condoms, or maybe they don’t even know what they’re looking for, and you’ve got a person feeling undone by the physical reminder of disability in front of them. Remember what I said above about hostility? Yes, that happened. No, it wasn’t fun, but that’s a story for another time.

I think the reason that being greeted with hostility in a sex toy store surprised me so much was that, by and large, people who work in sexuality-related fields have been some of the warmest, most respectful, most creative and disability-aware people I’ve ever met. But these have alsso been the people who recognize that both disability and sexuality are mega-giant issues that can undo people’s sense of security. More happily, these are also the people who realize that sex and sexuality can be fun, creative, and playful, and is something everyone has, and can access, if they want.

Oh, and in case you wanted to know: My instincts were spot-on (pun intended, maybe?) about that toy. It didn’t work for my body.

And, the toy store with no steps? Come As You Are, though, sadly, they had to close their doors in 2016.

Aug 032015
 

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…

– Kelsey Warren, My Body

This poem is Kelsey’s answer to the question about her sexual relationship she couldn’t laugh off.

It’s powerful, edgy, and provocative.

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.

…unless you’re disabled, in which case you’re assumed to be childlike, uninterested in sex and lacking a sexuality, even unaware of sex; in other words, nonsexual.

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 deeply complicated.

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.

Maybe one place to start, for everyone, is to expand what we think of as sex in the first place.

Jul 312015
 

Welcome to the Ready, Sexy, Able news round-up for July.

This month we have news and opinions from all over the world, about everything from sexual health rights for disabled people to the changes that can happen in a relationship after disability.

I have also included some sex education articles that aren’t disability-specific, as well as a section for general disability rights pieces.

Sexuality and Disability

Sex and disability: breaking the taboo

Asking questions about sex that disabled women are often afraid to pose

People with intellectual disabilities demand sexual rights

Address Sexual, Reproductive Health Needs of Young PWDs

My Husband Had to Learn Sex Again, and I Had to Become One Tenacious Bitch is an excerpt from Wondering Who You Are: A Memoir> published earlier this year and available in print, e-book, and audio.

New Sex Ed Program Created for “Special Education” Students

ACSEXE+: Talking disability and sexuality in Montreal (audio podcast, no transcript)

“A woman with a disability gets real about dating and sex. She’s funny and honest

I’m in a wheelchair, I’m queer and I’m still a real man.

Paralyzed Woman Poses In Lingerie To Prove Disabilities Don’t Limit Sexuality
The Public Reacts to the “Paralyzed Bride” taking off her clothes in the #Whatmakesmesexy shoot

This review of Loneliness and Its Opposite: Sex, Disability, and the Ethics of Engagement, available in both print and e-book, suggests that this research on the sexual lives of disabled people living in sweden and Denmark is valuable, but that at over 300 pages,and filled with theory and analysis, this book won’t be accessible to everyone who could benefit from reading it.

Sex Ed

From Scarleteen, a sex and relationships education site for young people, comes advice on sexual communication and how to deal with feelings of sexual shame.

From sex educator Cory Silverberg: An article asking Is There Such a Thing As Good Enough Sex?

and Sex Is a Funny Word, a sex ed book for 8 to 10 year olds available in print and e-book.

Disability Rights

We Need to Change the Game of How We Talk About Intellectual Disability

Why Person-First Language Doesn’t Always Put the Person First

Jul 062015
 

I wrote the following post in March 2014, after attending Mara Levy‘s talk, Problem-Solving Sex with Disability at the Catalyst Conference.

Mara Levy is an Occupational Therapist (OT) in Washington DC. Occupational therapists help people who’ve experienced injury or illness to return to activities that are meaningful to them—activities like walking, driving, working, crafting, and the like.
Mara includes sexual expression and sex in her definition of meaningful activities. This may be a “well duh!” idea to many readers here, but there’s this belief out there that people with disabilities have more important things to worry about than being sexual, and that sex just isn’t relevant once someone becomes disabled. (Not true!) it doesn’t help that many medical and rehabilitation providers don’t address sexual issues, concerns, or changes with their clients, and you can have people really not sure where to go with meeting the sex and sexuality needs that don’t go away after illness or injury.

There are a lot of negative, or just plain silly, responses to disabled people and sexuality.

Here’s what Mara says nondisabled people need to do about that:

  • listen
  • rid themselves of paternalistic attitudes (thinking of disabled people as childlike or helpless)
  • Avoid jumping in to help or change something unless they are asked to
  • remember what is and isn’t their business (hint from me: If you wouldn’t ask an apparently nondisabled person on the street about their sex life, don’t ask a disabled person)
  • respect boundaries

And, Mara added, nondisabled people need to do this processing and awareness building on their own time.
A disabled person’s sexuality is no one’s business unless they ask you for help working on sexual issues, or unless they want to have sex with you (and you want to have sex with them).

People also need to question the all-too-common assumption that a visibly nondisabled person seen with a visibly disabled person must be the caregiver or helper. This gets old—really fast—especially if the people in question are actually lovers.

Speaking of partners, Mara made what I thought was a really important point about consent. It’s not just the person with disability who needs to consent, but their partner. For some disabled folks, most physical activities have some level of pain or discomfort attached to them. A partner may not be able to consent to something they know hurts their partner, no matter how much they’re told that it’s okay, and that this sexual activity is wanted. For people with chronic or episodic (occasional, brought on by specific factors like weather, certain activities, etc) pain, this may well be part of the sexual negotiation.

Because people are often sent the message that talking about sex and sexuality isn’t okay—and this is doubly true for people with disabilities—Mara emphasizes that it’s important for medical and rehabilitation providers to give their clients or patients explicit permission to talk about sex and sexuality. Even if that’s not their area of interest or specialty, even if they don’t have all the answers (people who do specialize in sex and sexuality rarely have all the answers), just listening can be powerful, and starting the problem-solving process can lead to patients and clients getting what they need and want from their sexual lives.

There are a lot of barriers to people with disabilities experiencing their sexualities, such as:

  • Physical and psychological pain or discomfort.
  • Societal attitudes about what “real” sex is, about who is sexy and attractive, even about who is allowed to live. (Hint from me: Disabled people are often told, by strangers and friends alike, that a nondisabled person would “just die” if they had such-and-such a disability.)
  • Paternalistic or inspirational attitudes. It’s a strange either-or in which people with disabilities are either seen as childlike—in need of help or guidance—or are seen as amazing, imbued with super powers. Sometimes, disabled people are subjects of inspiration porn, which isn’t at all sexy!

Mara proposes using the same model she uses to work with clients around their activities of daily living—I just had to throw some rehab speak in there—to helping people solve sexual problems or simply to reach their sexual goals.

This model has us looking at the person, at the environment, and at the situation. For each one, we figure out what needs to and can be fixed, what can be compensated for, and even what may traditionally be seen as a problem but which can actually be an asset.

What does the person bring? Not just their disability, but their hopes, their desires, their beliefs about sex (and what they know about sex). The environment may or may not be accessible to this particular person. What’s the situation? What’s the person trying to do? Does the available environment make the situation possible? (If the person wants to have intercourse with someone, but needs (maybe for pain or mobility reasons) to be able to lie down on a firm surface, and the only room that’s available has a fluffy feather bed, the needs of the person, the requirements of the situation, and the reality of the environment, aren’t going to go together.

That’s just a simple example of course. The kinds of questions that will be asked, and the kinds of fixing, compensating, or adapting that will be done will depend on the activity—and when it comes to sex and sexual expression, the activity list is endless. So here’s just a sampling of the kinds of questions one might ask:

Person

  • What are the physical issues (E.G. pain, reduced sensation, mobility impairment)?
  • What are the psychological issues (E.G. anxiety, stress, grief around acquired disability)
  • What values and knowledge does the person have around sex?
  • Does the person have a solid understanding of their medical condition? Is the prognosis and treatment known? Are there limitations on sex recommended by healthcare providers? If medication interferes with sexual functioning in a way that doesn’t work for the person, can that be changed?

Environment

  • Is the place where the person wants to express their sexuality accessible (E.G. dance club, bedroom)?
  • If the person needs a caregiver to help with some tasks before, during, or after the time of sexual expression, is there someone close by who can give nonjudgmental assistance?
  • Cultural environment: What attitudes are held about sex and disability, both separately and together? Are they negative or limiting? Has the person internalized them? Are they having to spend time and energy resisting spoken and unspoken messages they’re getting about their disability, their sexuality, or both?

Activity

  • What’s the activity in question? What movement or amount of physical and emotional energy is required? What props are required?
  • Are there things that would help, such as pillows to support the body or grab bars to help with movement?
  • What are the goals the person has for the activity—orgasm, connecting with their own body, laughing and sharing playful, intimate touch with someone else?

The questions you’ll ask will be very different if you want to go dancing and flirting at a local bar or if you want to find a romantic partner.

It occurs to me that this kind of problem-solving process can be applied to anyone’s life, whether you have a disability or not.

It seems to me particularly useful though in breaking down barriers that say that sexual expression for someone who has disabilities is just too complicated to warrant attention.