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Sex and Disability

Oct. 7, 2014
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Recently, I attended Momentum, a conference on feminism, sexuality and relationships. There were many thought-provoking sessions (I was especially intrigued by Esther Perel’s closing statements on sex and the American work ethic), but I learned the most at a breakout workshop on sex and disability called “Ready, Sexy, Able.”

Presenters Robin Mandell and Ruth “Dr. Ruthie” Neustifter started out by discussing how people with disabilities, especially visible physical disabilities, are desexualized by society. I was really struck when Mandell referred to people in general as being “temporarily able-bodied,” meaning that the majority of us will experience disability at some point in our lives due to illness, aging or other factors. This is an issue that should concern all of us.

Dr. Ruthie asked the audience to consider how “phallocentric sex”—a model of sex that focuses on the penile penetration of the vagina and male ejaculation—is limiting for some people with disabilities, particularly those who are unable to experience erections or vaginal penetration, and I would argue that it is actually limiting for all of us. As one participant noted, “Shared intimacy beats the shit out of simultaneous orgasm.”

It’s also important to remember that not all disabilities are visible or physical. For people with disabilities that make it difficult to concentrate (such as ADHD), Dr. Ruthie discussed techniques that can be used to stay present during sex, such as planning space for a sexual encounter so that it has an optimum balance of stimulation and focusing on one particular sensation—one’s breathing, the way a partner’s kiss feels—as a way to stay grounded. Later in the conference, veteran porn star Sinnamon Love shared that she has a son with autism and has found it extremely difficult to find appropriate, comprehensive sexuality education for him.

After the workshop, I caught up with Dr. Ruthie to chat more about the workshop and why it’s important to discuss this topic. She says, “I have been [seeking] spaces to let me do workshops on this for a while, but it’s been hard to find. It’s essential that under-served and underrepresented populations are getting their message out there. If sex educators and fellow professionals don’t know about sex and disability, we’re recreating the oppression.”

In her work as a sexuality and relationship coach, Dr. Ruthie encounters issues related to sex and disability a lot. “Many people assume that sexuality can’t be a part of their life anymore [if they have a disability],” she says. “They have been taught not to ask health care providers about sex, that they should just be ‘happy to be alive.’” She also discusses sex toys and sex positions a lot with clients with disabilities: “Utilizing sex toys or aids is a necessity, not a luxury, and these toys should have the same quality we would rely on for any other device.”

Sex educator Shanna Katz led a workshop about sex and disability in 2011, and I was able to steal a few minutes of her time to get her take on the issue. Shanna says, “The number-one thing about sex and disability is that folks with disabilities—whether cognitive or physical—are sexual beings. The notion that they are asexual is perpetuated by doctors, caretakers and society as a whole. Just like there are few folks of color represented in positive ways sexually in the media, there are even fewer with disabilities. People with disabilities are seen as either martyrs or perverts—they’re either fetishized or their partner is a ‘good person’ for being with them.”

Katz also mentioned that FetLife has a great kink and disability group and gave me some tips on making the Tool Shed more accessible to people with disabilities. I’ve tried to make sure that our store is navigable by those using wheelchairs or canes, but I now realize that many of our toy floor models (which are available for people to handle and test before purchasing) are grouped too close together for some people to see or easily pick up. She also suggested that we make it explicit that our classes are ADA-friendly, provide ASL interpreters, reserve seats at the front of the room for those who lip-read, and generally accommodate people’s needs. Erm…yes…I had just assumed people would ask if they needed anything, and I need to change that.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side. During her time off to focus on Tool Shed, the Shepherd Express will be running the best of her advice columns from previous years.

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