Yes, Disabled People Can Have Sex. So Why Doesn't Anyone Teach Us How?

Bodies in textbooks and on screens never looked like me. So it took years for me to gain confidence in myself as a sexual entity, writes Dan Batten.
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The horizontal tango (variations in different time signatures are available) is the rhythm that keeps us ticking. It’s even written into the Human Rights Act – Article 8, to be precise.

That should mean I, and any other disabled person, have as much a right to a pleasurable private life as anyone else, so why is it that when anyone with an impairment sticks their head over the parapet and says ‘I’ll have me some of that, where do I sign up?’ do those expressions of ecstasy one links to ‘doing it’ turn to ones of bewilderment and barely concealed disgust?

In my experience it all begins at school, where putting a condom on a banana is perfectly normal yet discussing disability in a sex education lesson isn’t, thereby keeping the myth that people with impairments are asexual beings well and truly alive. Not only are people like me unwelcome at the party, it seems, it’s like we were never even on the guest list.

“I was never under the impression that my wobbly frame was going to drive the teenage girls of North London wild...”

My own perfunctory ‘health’ lessons at a school for kids with disabilities in the 80s taught me the basics, but the bodies on display in the textbooks and on screens looked nothing like the models inhabited by my classmates or I – and looking at some of the positions they were in, ours weren’t going to perform like them either. I have cerebral palsy, a condition which affects my coordination and fine motor skills, so the idea of trying the ‘rowing boat’ from the Kama Sutra is a no go. I can’t carry a drink, so contortions are out. My mind, though, remains very flexible.

I was never under the impression that my wobbly frame was going to drive the teenage girls of North London wild but the lack of help made me doubt, even resent, my physical self and left me with no idea of how to interact with the opposite sex. Nothing about me being a sexual being who might like to formulate some sort of meaningful contact with a fellow human at any stage of my life emerged in ‘health’ lessons.

My parents never broached the subject with me, either. Mum was schooled a Catholic, with all the guilt around sex that comes with that particular package firmly in place. Dad, very much a ‘man’s man’, was different: ‘Swedish Sluts 7 is in the top wardrobe boy, copy it when your mother’s out’ (the dual VHS set up in my room was way beyond him) in a surreptitious whisper just about covered it. Both just assumed that their brash metalhead son was filling his boots at the never-ending stream of gigs and clubs they were sponsoring. He wasn’t.

The parents of a former partner with a significant physical impairment, too, couldn’t process the notion that their attractive 21-year-old daughter might want to do a bit more than smile sweetly at yours truly – they actively blocked our attempts at getting me to stay over. For both of us, this was absolutely bewildering and frustrating, I had this gorgeous woman sat there and her parents hadn’t quite grasped, or didn’t want to, the fact that their daughter had entered womanhood. Fortunately, her support worker was far more enlightened, and far more willing, and facilitated our needs – normally by driving us to her flat and then, once we were settled, realising that her fridge was empty, said ‘I reckon it’ll take me a good two hours to go shopping.’ Well, you can’t rush buying the right produce, can you?

All this meant it took ages for me to gain confidence in myself as a sexual entity. I have my wife to thank for that, plus a one off encounter with a non-disabled woman the day after David Beckham’s sending off in World Cup ’98. Head down and straw very clearly in pint, resplendent in my uniform of combats, trainers and Machine Head t-shirt I was suddenly asked “is this seat taken?” It certainly was by the time I looked up to see a tall, very attractive brunette asking the question.

“Most people are embarrassed by what their peers would say if they went for ‘a disabled’.”

After a couple of hours chat – in which my shirt and groove metal was explained, Beckham’s idiocy dissected – she got up to leave. I remained in situ, ready to say what a nice time I’d had, and so on. However, when you’re single, sexually malnourished and an attractive woman looks at you and says “Well, I can’t fuck myself, can I?” you tend to follow her. She laughed at the notion of my impairment being any issue at all. “It’s definitely working, let’s do it,” I remember her saying. So we did – with no complaints, no issues and a few ego inflating compliments.

The takeaway from my story is that good education should create rounded, informed individuals. Could you imagine the furore if you left school not knowing the alphabet, not having been taught how to add up or write a sentence? No? So why should sex and disability be any less a part of everyone’s education than the three ‘Rs’ and schoolboy stupidity? There are no good reasons for omitting this from a curriculum, and tons of positive ones for promoting the positive sexual identity of people with impairments. If, as well as Pythagoras’ theorem, my right to a status as a sexual being had been drummed into me as a teenager I would maybe have felt I actually could have had some fun with the blonde in my sixth form maths class. Maybe I would have had the confidence to have suggested something highly improper with the two best friends at uni. Maybe I could even have just stood up to her parents and stayed the night with my girlfriend.

The notion that it is just people with impairments needing greater education on sex and disability is only part of it. How about letting a few of ‘nature’s imperfections’ shine? What’s wrong with a leg that isn’t straight, or a hand that doesn’t always respond as it ‘should’? The latter may even deliver a welcome surprise or two. Most people are embarrassed by what their peers would say if they went for ‘a disabled’.

Maybe ‘they’ think we’ll steal ‘their’ men and women if the secret gets out.

Dan Batten is a disability awareness trainer with the charity Enhance The UK

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How To Get Off is our answer to Valentine’s Day, celebrating bodies, pleasure and fantasy – whatever your relationship status. We’ll be exploring what really gets us off in 2020, looking at sexual awakenings, toys and erotica, and real-life experience.

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