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Yes, we can. And we can also change the way we talk about disability and sex

There are major barriers for disabled people who want to pursue sex and relationships. They are real and deeply felt. Yet the stigmatising tone of public conversation makes me wary, writes Henrietta Bollinger

“Um … advice? From me? Yes, we can,” was my cautious, then tongue-in-cheek answer. “As Obama would say!”

The others laughed. It was a joke. But I’d just been asked what advice I might have for young people like me who were exploring sex and sexuality. It was also a pithy summary of what 16-year-old me had needed to know.

As a disabled woman this was not something I’d been sure of: could sex be part of my life? When I later conducted research on the experience of young disabled people in sexuality education the question repeated itself. Being unsure if sex and relationships would feature in their lives meant they were unsure if any of the information about safe sex or healthy relationships applied either. They largely disregarded what they had learnt as irrelevant , increasing the risk of abuse. So, I know how important it is to clearly say: “Yes. As a disabled person sex is for you, too.”

This sentiment in the piece headlined “The reality of having sex when you live with a disability” I had to agree with. I also agree that there are major barriers for disabled people who want to pursue sex and relationships. These range from a lack of affirmative education, to the inaccessibility of places where people usually meet potential partners, disabled people’s social isolation and stigma towards disabled people, including assumptions that may come from their own families or the people who support them. There are related issues too, like people’s rights to marriage, fertility or to have children. In this country, it is still legal under the Adoption Act for children to be removed from their parents’ care on the grounds of parental disability. Disabled people are also still far too frequently subjected to sterilization.

The barriers are real and deeply felt. They absolutely need addressing as part of realising equitable and full lives for disabled people. I would absolutely advocate for the removal of all barriers that inhibit us from exploring sexuality or entering sexual relationships as equals to non-disabled people. Yet the tone of public conversation makes me wary. On the rare occasions we do talk about disability and sex it is either to highlight the barriers or to equivocate about sex work. Advocacy which claims the act of sex as something we are entitled to often misses the fact that good sex should be a negotiation, a social interaction. Nobody – including those who work in the sex industry – owes it to anyone.

Sex work as a way for disabled people to access sex has been brought to popular attention by films like The Sessions or Touching Base. The Sessions was a dramatization of Mark O’Brien’s life; a man with polio who decided he wanted to have sex before he died. Touching Base is a documentary about an Australian sex worker who visits disabled clients. Stories like these have a lot of value in terms of amplifying the “Yes we can” message. For many disabled people working with sex workers provides intimacy they may not have and the opportunity to explore their own bodies, take “safe-risks”. But these stories are told into a context where sex workers continue to be stigmatised and so do disabled people.

When this is made the dominant narrative, it allows the rest of “able” society off the hook in terms of examining its own prejudices. Instead of asking hard questions about attitudinal, social, educational and physical barriers that exist to all people being full sexual citizens – we outsource. We tell sex workers that there are morally more and less acceptable ways of doing their jobs, instead of constantly supporting them in their choice of work.

Disabled people, we say to ourselves, are entitled to sex as a service, the uncomplicated meeting of a need. But as partners, lovers in their own right?

There is another story, too, a story that we tell less often – maybe because it is more mundane.

This is the idea that disabled people can and do have sex – without the help of any support or sex workers. We are straight, queer, alone, together. We are partners, lovers, parents and all the rest. It is the kind of conversation that is happening privately, or being just lived. It is the mundane story we need to make sure people know is out there too.

Because after we understand that “Yes we can” we ask: how? And we have to know there is not one reality of sex and disability but many. The more varied the stories we tell, the more will seem possible to the disabled kid in their sex ed class, as well as to their potential partners.

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