Disabled and Sexual is a column by Hannah Shewan Stevens which explores all the challenges, comedy, and fun that disabled people experience as sexual beings, even while we are desexualised by a predominantly non-disabled society.
I used to invest precious reserves of energy into shedding the skin of disability, trying to displace its invisible ooze and shunt it to the darkest recesses of consciousness. You know the bit, the vast pit where we bury everything we cannot bare the look at twice.
Dissociating from disability – and outright denying its existence for years – felt like the likeliest path back to my old cocoon of able-bodiedness and blissful ignorance of the ableism encircling society.
I did not want to be disabled, nor could I accept it. Absolute denial and rejection, fed by my own internalised ableism, pushed me to suppress its influence over any aspect of daily living. I was not disabled, simply sickly but that could not be allowed to slow the pace of my life.
The influence of this disastrous self-deception was felt strongest in my sex life.
My relationship with sex has always been complicated due to a long history of sexual violence, but it reached new heights of confusion when disability invaded my life.
Chronic pain and fatigue flourished at age 14, just before my first teenage sexual explorations, and a myriad of chronic health–physical and mental–conditions have been diagnosed in the 15 years since.
To make room for sexual exploration, I suppressed my experience with illness. Trapped in a stage of vehemently denying being disabled, I used sex to escape from pain.
Losing myself to pleasure and meaningless encounters felt like liberation at the time.
But it wasn’t some self-aware coping mechanism that allowed room to accept disability to build a healthy relationship with sex, the approach caused eroded my wellbeing.
It allowed me to bury emotions in sex and avoid acknowledging physical or mental difficulties.
The hangover of internalised ableism also played a role. I grew up in an ableist society so internalising some of that was inevitable.
Becoming disabled did not release me from these bonds. I simply turned the biases on myself, believing that I must do everything in my power to avoid being defined as disabled.
I refused to accommodate my physical needs, such as taking the elevator over stairs, rejected the idea of pacing to protect my energy levels, and repeatedly turned down offers from support workers offering accommodations.
This abject rejection of help to mitigate the effects of my disabilities extended to sex as well.
Believing that allowing disability into the bedroom would cement the desexualisation I was already turning against myself, I approached sex as a non-disabled, able-bodied person.
I endured sex positions that were painful, stayed silent when joints subluxated mid-encounter, and never told partners about my illnesses or disabilities. I thought that if fewer people knew, I could discard the disabled label and free myself from its necessary accommodations.
The desperation to keep disability away from my sex life worsened my condition, increasing pain levels and exacerbating fatigue. I could not fathom uniting these two parts of myself successfully.
But I had to in order to survive. However, I took a big misstep on the way.
Somehow, in my journey to accepting disability and accommodating its existence in daily life, the pendulum swung from rejecting the label to overidentifying with it. Disability consumed my life. It dictated every decision and the other pieces of my personality got drowned out by its demands.
While ingratiating myself with the disabled community was life-saving, I fell into the belief that disability must dominate my life. Divorcing from disability or being consumed by it felt like my only two options. Either I could live as a disabled person presenting as non-disabled or I must merge disability into my life as an overwhelming force.
Spoiler: neither worked. Both approaches to disability forced a split in my personality and complicated my sex life. It was like watching all the layers of my life float away from each while I desperately tried to stick them together again.
After an initial immersion into disability, I pulled back and recognised that embracing a disabled identity did not require eliminating all the others parts of me. While accepting day-to-day accommodations and learning to thrive as a disabled person happened quickly, stripping away the influence over my sex life was a harder battle.
I still felt like my sexual and disabled identities were incapable of co-existing, a result of internalised ableism and my misguided belief that disabled people couldn’t be sexy or sexual.
Discovering a world of disabled activists and their unflinching approach to discussing sex cracked open the window and my desire to unite these two sides of myself shattered that final barrier.
The key was using pleasure as pain control. Seeing the power pleasure could have in managing my daily health made room for intertwining these two identities.
Suddenly, pleasure and disability were not so far from each other.
Finding the right balance is an ongoing journey, however, I learned to stop hiding my disability from my partners. I am no longer afraid to communicate my disabilities and educate people about how sex sometimes needs to be modified for disabled folks.
Through a whole lot of trial and error, the lesson crystallized in my mind. My sexuality cannot thrive when it lives in total isolation from disability, nor can it survive if being disabled is allowed to become my only defining characteristic.
Dissociating from either identity suppresses both and suffocates any hope of thriving. Forging a bond between sexuality and disability has liberated me from internalised ableism and built a steel foundation to grow from.
All parts of our identity are fluid and super glueing these two sides of myself together is unnecessary, but allowing a connection to form has saved my life from fracturing into two sides.
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