I still remember my first sex-related panic attack. I had just turned 18 and it was a house party. Your typical story; girl meets boy, boy meets girl, both consume a lot of alcohol and find a bed. Romance in the modern age. As we started to get hot and heavy I remember thinking to myself, see Laura – you’ve still got it! This lupus thing isn’t going to stop you from being the sexual powerhouse you were born to be! As we both fell on top of the bed and begin to go at it again I soon realized I might have been a touch optimistic. I could feel my lungs start to seize up from lack of breath, as if they were saying “ABORT THE MISSION! ABORT THE MISSION!” I sprung up, gasping for air. My male counterpart casually asked: “you ok?”
Sweaty, naked panic.
Like so many women in the western world the modern ideal of perfection infects everything I do. I don’t just have to be skinny. I have to be down to earth, sporty, smart, funny, driven, social, sexy, modest and, above all else, desirable. I have been brought up in a world where happiness is directly linked to how many people desire you. In this world, is there a part of you that isn’t attractive or sexy enough? Change it. Change it now. You can go on a diet, you can get your teeth straightened, dye your hair, wear makeup, iron out the wrinkles of your personality, wear tighter clothes- anything you can think of that helps you become a “better version of yourself” is openly encouraged.
However, what happens when you can’t use these options? What happens when you become an outlier on this strangely narrow spectrum of perfection? What happens when your difference, in society’s view, expels you from the world of desire and sexuality?
People with disabilities cannot change their disabilities. No amount of hair bleaching, tight clothes or lemon detox diets will change the fact that we are not on the spectrum of physical norms. They can become desexualized and dehumanized, someone to be pitied rather than desired. However, as I began to explore sex with my own and others’ disabilities, an entire new world was opened up to me, and honestly, it was sexy as hell! I began to break down myths that I had held to be true about sex and desires throughout my entire life.
Myth #1: Sex must be spontaneous.
Every movie, every novel, every TV show I watched, sex was this huge epic moment where their desires had become too much and it had ended up with the ripping of clothes and submission to passion. This perception can be damaging for someone who has to take 20 minutes to let her painkillers kick in before she can get freaky. Sex has many meanings, but at the heart of it all, it is about communication and getting to know someone. Just because you have to take a few minutes to work out a plan, doesn’t mean it isn’t “natural” or any less “sexy”- it is actually a sign that you are confident enough in your sexual dynamism that you can take the time to talk it out and still “jump back on the horse” as they would say. So well done you!
Myth #2: Sex toys should be kept out of the bedroom.
FALSE. So many types of false. Sex toys can be a huge help within the bedroom not just for people with disabilities but for every type of relationship. Sex toys are tools of empowerment. They assert your right to feel pleasure, they facilitate better communication with your partner(s) and they further your understanding of sexuality. So embrace that vibrator! Grab that dildo! Love your butt plug! And invoke your sexual independence (always with enthusiastic consent of course).
Myth #3: People with disabilities aren’t sexy.
In the western world, self-sufficiency is highly prized. The ability to do everything for yourself is seen as the height of maturity and desirability. Power is not only respected, it is lusted after. In our society, vulnerability is weakness. So how could a partner who isn’t fully self-sufficient ever be a sexually fulfilling partner? This myth that has been so heavily bought into by society that it limits the individual’s ability to accept, love and desire when it lies beyond the socially conforming narrative.
A person with a disability is not sexy despite their disabilities. They are sexy because of their disabilities. Sexual experiences can be some of the most vulnerable interactions you can have as a human being. What is sexier than someone who has not only embraced their vulnerabilities but has allowed it to empower their sexuality? You’re a little turned on right now, aren’t you?!
The launch of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has seen the topic of sex and disability brought into a wider human rights conversation. Nationally, we have seen South Australian state MP Kelly Vincent push for the legalization of sex worker services for people with disabilities. Australia has also seen the emergence of charity-based institutions surrounding the issue. Touching Base is a Sydney based charity that connects people with disabilities and sex workers as well as giving disability training to sex workers. These examples mirror policies within countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands and Germany allowing people with a disability to access taxpayer funded sexual assistance once a month.
However, there is large criticism that legalization of prostitution for people with disabilities further stigmatizes and feeds the notion that people with disabilities are incapable of forming intimate relationships. Currently the NDIS has no legislative program for sex and disabilities.
It’s three years on and I don’t have panic attacks anymore. I am learning to embrace my disability. My body, no matter how infuriating at times can be so beautiful. In its weakness. In its strength. In the rashes and the bruises, the fat and the stretch marks, in the needle tracks and the scars, my body has lived. It is the physical embodiment of every moment of my life. It is my postcard to the world. So I think it is about time I said thank you to my undervalued sexy partner in crime – and next time stick around for the entire one night stand.
A disability, like your skin colour, personality or body shape is an intimate facet of a person. It can change you. It can make you stronger, funnier, more empathetic or even better in tune with your sexuality and how to pleasure others. It is a piece of you. As a society it is our duty to not only embrace disabilities in their entirety, but also open our minds to allow the possibility that disabilities can be sexy.
Laura Campbell is ANUSA’s Disabilities Officer.
Photography: Daniel Savage, FluxAblitiy, 1, 2013.