I had a friend in college who got so mad…
No one ever saw her as sexy.
They saw her, all right. But they wanted to help her. They wanted to know if she needed anything.
Instead of getting sex, she got sympathy.
Which was the LAST thing she wanted.
My friend was visually impaired, so the first thing people noticed about her was her white cane.
It’s hard enough to have to work around a disability, but losing out on love shouldn’t be part of the package.
Unfortunately, the differently-abled do have real barriers to lasting love relationships.
Not the least of which is public perception.
There’s an unspoken taboo about sexualizing someone with a physical handicap. When we see someone with a wheelchair or white cane, our eyes focus on the prop and not the person. We don’t see that sexy smile. We don’t hear that flirtatious come-on. We’re too focused on how we can be helpful.
And that’s a great way to diminish the person in front of us.
Disability and sexuality are two separate things. Most people with disabilities have a normal, healthy sex drive—even if the actual mechanics of sex need some adjusting.
Yet depictions of sexy disabled women are almost non-existent in the media.
When did you last see an actor or model with a visible physical impairment? If so, was the physical impairment part of the storyline or just a feature like skin color or height?
Many differently-abled folks are tired of being defined by what their body can or cannot do. They never get to be “just another guy” or “just another girl.” They’re always “the girl with cerebral palsy” or “the guy with the prosthetic limb.” They’re defined by the one thing they don’t get to choose.
And that doesn’t feel fair, especially when they’re young and single and interested in finding that special someone.
Not only is it hard to claim their identity as a sexual being, but it can be difficult for both parties to talk about expectations without feeling awkward.
Does dating someone with a physical handicap mean you become their caretaker? Is casual sex off the table? Do you need to treat them with kid gloves? Does feeling attracted to them mean you have a fetish you don’t know about?
Perhaps even considering these questions makes you feel squeamish.
You’re not alone. In Loneliness and Its Opposite, Don Kulick and Jens Rydström write:
The sexual desires and lives of women and men with disabilities is a subject that makes many nondisabled people deeply uncomfortable.”
Perhaps that’s why one of the most prominent writers on sexuality and disability is English professor and sociologist Sir Thomas Shakespeare, who has a genetic disorder (achondroplasia) and uses a wheelchair.
His life experience and academic background give him unique insight into the issues handicapped people have historically faced.
Disabled men, he says, are often seen as impotent. Disabled women are seen as childlike or hypersexual. For centuries, their sexuality was suppressed for fear of passing their “problem” onto the next generation.
But times are changing. Today, “the problem of disabled sexuality is not ‘how to do it’ but ‘who to do it with.’”
Dr. Danielle Sheypuk, psychoanalyst and former Ms Wheelchair New York, helps disabled clients develop “dateable self-esteem.”
She notes that disabled people often have strong self-esteem—they have to, in order to make their way in a world that doesn’t easily accommodate them—but that their confidence crumbles when it comes to dating.
They wonder whether anyone could look past their baggage, whether their bodies are attractive enough, whether they have enough to offer. The same exact questions asked by singles everywhere … only more poignant.
In her TEDx talk, Dr. Sheypuk talks about a promising third date with a man who’d seemed very interested in her. Until he started peppering her with questions about how she was going to do the work of being a mother and a wife, given that she was in a wheelchair.
“Well, I’m just going to hire someone, like every other New Yorker,” she replied.
He never called back.
There are no easy answers when it comes to navigating sexuality. Not if you’re able-bodied, and certainly not if you deviate from the norm.
My friend ultimately reclaimed her sexuality by engaging in a sexy nude photoshoot. The photos reminded her that she had power over how she was seen. Instead of waiting for men to hit on her, she could take charge.
As for me, I will always be grateful to her for doing the emotional work to educate me. We ALL have the right to express our sexuality and find love, regardless of how our bodies work.
 Shakespeare, et al. The Sexual Politics of Disability (Cassell, 1997).
Let us know what you think!