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Disabled and Sexual: How Internalised Ableism Gave me Sexual Imposter Syndrome

Disabled and Sexual is a new monthly(-ish) column by Hannah Shewan Stevens which will explore all the challenges, comedy, and fun that disabled people experience as sexual beings, even while we are desexualised by a predominantly non-disabled society.

In daily life, the words ‘I am an imposter’ play on an interminable loop in my head. Most of the time, I shrug them off and dive back into whatever I’m doing, but when those words pop up during sex they are much harder to ward off.

Those words are also the reason you’re reading my second column a lot later than I intended. The original theme of this month’s column was very different and although you will still read it in June, these words just had to come first.

Every time I sat down to write, I felt like the word ‘imposter’ was emblazoned across my forehead.

What gave me the right to speak with authority about sex when I’m disabled? How did I have the audacity to think my voice was worthwhile? What qualifies me to write these columns?

The logical answer is plenty of things. I am training as a sex educator and I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life researching sex academia and educating myself about the psychological ins and outs of sex and romance. Plus, I’ve had more than enough sex to put all of these lessons into practice!

I know what I’m talking about and getting this column was one of the highlights of my career, yet self-doubt crushed my confidence and froze my fingers on the keyboard.

By silencing myself and allowing imposter syndrome to keep these words trapped, I remained ensconced in a cocoon of internalised ableism. Then the imposter crept into sex too and suddenly I found myself questioning my passion for it.

My doubts made it difficult to engage fully in the moment. One of my greatest achievements – the column you’re currently reading – got twisted up inside the cogs of my brain and suddenly I felt like I did not belong in sexual spaces.

I am certain there are many disabled people who have felt the same way because all of us know how it feels to not belong, be excluded or dismissed from society. When it comes to sex, especially sex education, this isolation escalates.

We are often left out of sex education, which means many disabled people are not empowered with the knowledge that can enable them to pursue a healthy sex life, and notions of queerness are also neglected, so some of us are left to figure out our sexuality or gender identity all on our own.

Although there are one billion disabled people worldwide and we make up 15 per cent of the global population, society constantly tells our community that we are not sexual beings.

Sometimes this manifests as ignorant people who cannot fathom anyone finding us sexually attractive or through aggressive abuse aimed at disabled parents for being ‘selfish’ enough to have kids. At others, exclusionary ableism is more subtlety insidious.

It’s in the absence of romantic or sexual representation in popular media, the lack of accessible dating apps and the exclusion of disabled perspective in articles exploring every sexual theme on the planet.

When disabled people are told – outright or subtlety – that we are not welcome in romantic or sexual settings, unless it’s to titillate fetishists, our sexual self-esteem is crushed under the weight of society’s casual ableism.

This can manifest as sexual imposter syndrome. Perhaps during solo sex when we are engineering our orgasm, self doubt will crawl into our brains and tell us that orgasms are for non-disabled people, not cripples like us.

Or it might appear in partnered sex when we have to take a break due to fatigue or joint pain. In those moments of rest, I wonder if it would be better to resign myself to a sexless existence because even my body doesn’t seem to think I should be having sex.

However sexual imposter syndrome manifests, it drains the precious reserves of energy all disabled people have to measure out carefully to survive each day.

Perhaps less of us would fall prey to this monstrous imposter if better sex education was available to us, or even if platforms published more articles that consider our experiences because when we go to look for help online, like non-disabled people do every day, the literature simply isn’t there.

Our sex stories are often dramatised in the press as controversial love stories for the non-disabled masses to point and laugh at. The sex guides that litter every lifestyle magazine website in existence regularly forget to include a disabled perspective. Even academic literature designed to expose the gaps in sexuality research often leaves out the experiences of the disabled community.

When disabled writers and content creators try to fill these gaps, we are often met with rejection or abuse. Content creators are ridiculed for advocating for disabled sexuality and I have lost count of the rejections I’ve received for disabled sex pitches.

Although I am sure many of them were legitimate rejections, the ones that claimed the idea did not have mass appeal or would not have an audience still feed my sexual imposter syndrome.

And though the accessible sex toy world is burgeoning, they are rarely marketed to a mainstream audience and many disabled people are missing out on products that could enable healthy sexual experiences.

Without access to literature that relates to our experiences and faced with a dating world engrained with ableism, sex as a disabled person can feel impossible, which means that the imposter gets to run wild and ruin our orgasmic potential.

Despite the whole world’s continued exclusion of disabled people from sexual spaces, we do belong there. After finally slaying the imposter blocking me from writing this column, I know that the real imposter in my sex life is not disability it’s my self-doubt.

But if we wait for all of us to beat our imposters individually, the battles will rage on forever as each new generation of disabled people ages into their sexual prime. We have push back now.

We need more representations of disabled love and sex in popular culture – including books, films and TV shows – and we need mainstream publications to start incorporating disability into articles focused on sex. Whether it’s as quoted sources, detailed guides on disabled sex or accessibility ratings in sex toy rounds ups, there’s a lot of work to be done.

We must enable more people to take on the label of disability with pride, because accessing your sexuality when you have not claimed or acknowledged your disability can allow imposter syndrome to fester for years – as it did in my brain. I thought my body was just broken and that sex would always be a struggle for me but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

If we collectively call out ableism, we can eradicate it from society’s conscious, which will help reduce the desexualisation of disabled folks and exorcise the sexual imposter syndrome that haunts so many of us in the community.

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