As any person who has ever browsed in the magazine section of a store knows, there is a proliferation of publications devoted to enticing people with respect to attracting a partner, looking fabulous, and feeling sexy. However, I doubt even one of these magazines features a cover, or even an article on women or men with disabilities in sexy poses, or skimpy lingerie. Underwear models, as we know, must be fit and beautiful. Plus-size model, Ashley Graham recently broke through a huge barrier when she was chosen for the cover of Sports Illustrated. The cover might have been even more controversial if it had featured someone with a disability wearing that sexy bathing suit.
Disability and sexuality is something that is never talked about
Sexuality and Disability is a journal devoted to the psychological and medical aspects of sexuality in rehabilitation and community settings. In October2014, reporter/journalist Katelyn Verstraten wrote a wonderful piece for The Toronto Star #TorontoStar, entitled, “Surprise! Disabled People Have Sex.” The article reveals how Tim Rose, now happily married, would be excluded from sex education classes because teachers assumed “he didn’t need to know this stuff”. The centuries old assumptions and myths about disability and sexuality persist even today. Old stereotypes such as; people with disabilities are asexual, they can’t have sex due to physical challenges, people with disabilities don’t get aroused or have the energy for sex, or disability and sexuality is an oxymoron. Today, some doctors and therapists make the false assumption that just because a person with a disability has other concerns, doesn’t mean they don’t also want to engage in a healthy sex life. A 2015 Cosmopolitan article features a fantastic quote from a young woman: “Honestly guys, I’m simply paralyzed, I didn’t have my vagina sewn shut!”
“Disabled people’s sexuality has been suppressed, exploited and, at times, destroyed over many centuries. It has been seen as suspect, set apart, and different from the sexuality of non-disabled people.” “In 2003 Penny Pepper published Desires Unborn, a ground-breaking book of short erotic stories featuring disabled people. “I do feel I can talk about sex in an open and relaxed way that I don’t see with many non-disabled people,” says Pepper. “I think it’s because we’ve had to confront these issues about body image and that’s a good place to be.”
While people with visible disabilities face barriers, it’s possible that people with non-visible barriers such as learning disabilities, neurological disabilities, or mental illness/psychiatric disabilities face even greater challenges. “According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20% of us will struggle with mental illness in our lifetimes. That means that even if you don’t struggle with mental illness yourself, it’s likely that mental illness will affect your life through someone you know or love—including those we may be sexually intimate with.”
Sexuality isn’t just about our bodies; it’s a part of our identity. And, it isn’t a series of beautiful scenes with perfect lighting and expensive lingerie we see in the movies. Our sexuality is an integral part of who we are, how we live our lives, our gender identity, and desire. Disability and sexuality is about breaking down some of the oldest myths and stereotypes about people with disabilities, our needs, desires, and connection with intimacy and sexuality. It’s also true that everyone experiences sex in their own unique way; some people have an extremely high libido, while others do not. For some people, sex and intimacy is 80% of their relationship, while for another couple it might be 30%.
A highly influential factor is that of society’s attitudes, beliefs, and social constructs of ‘beautiful’ and ‘sexy’. While these constructs are slowly changing, especially with the evolution of what society terms plus-size models, the notion of a sexy man or woman scantily clad and sitting in a wheelchair, or another image of ‘disability’ are still rare. Rachelle Friedman , was featured on the Today show in sexy lingerie. Rachelle is a paraplegic, and, also a wife and mom. “Like Friedman, Morrison-Gurza’s #deliciouslydisabled campaign and parties also challenge the stigma that people with paralysis and other disabilities aren’t sexy, have no sex drive, and can’t be sexual beings. Because it simply isn’t true.”
In the summer of 2015, Buzzfeed featured an erotic/sexy photo lay-out of veterans with disabilities. The poses themselves were suggestive and purposeful, and the men wore innovative and modern prosthetics many of which were constructed of high-tech materials. All of these men were wounded in action in their service of the U.S. military. Photographer, Michael Stokes created a powerfully constructed series of images which generated awareness and challenged centuries of old stereotypes over notions of handsome, sexy, sensual, and enticing. These men confidently serve as models in the hopes of crashing through the antiquated notions of someone would consider a ‘good-looking man’. Each of them demonstrated that disability and sexuality is about to undergo a serious evolution in our society.
To have a disability and be sexy is not unusual; society has only translated it to be that way. The notion of a woman or man in a wheelchair as good-looking and sexy upsets the notions that society has held on to for far too long. The concept of ‘physical beauty’ has, for too long, been intricately connected to the notions of sexy and desirable. People with disabilities were forced into the shadows, but there is a need to re-construct these almost Victorian beliefs and (literally) re-shape our thinking. “Perhaps ultimately all we need is a little encouragement to change our perception of beauty. To become reacquainted with the fact that it is not our impairments that define us, but rather the many remarkable strengths we possess as women and ultimately, as human beings.”
Gemma Flanagan is a British woman who became a model after a rare illness caused a disability. Her photographs and just as importantly, her attitude, prove that disabled and sexy can and do go together. People are glamorous and beautiful more so when they believe in themselves, and not because they meet some arbitrary standard.