ost of the time that disability and sexuality are talked about in the same breath, the focus is on the way that disability limits sexuality. After all, it is true that disabled people are desexualized and dating as a disabled person can be hell. For example, people assuming your date is your caregiver, invasive questions about what your body can and cannot do, and people flat out unwilling to date anyone disabled.
We also have barriers to sex, love, dating, and marriage that abled people don’t, such as dealing with everything from a potential fetishization of our disabilities to a loss or reduction of benefits if we get married.
But here’s a secret. Being disabled — having a bodymind that deviates from capitalist expectations — and dealing with ableism has given disabled people numerous (and varied!) strengths when it comes to sexuality. Our body/mind differences make us flexible (metaphorically, if not literally, e.g. hypermobility). We need to get to know our (and others) bodies in ways that most abled people never do, and we’re not limited by traditional notions of what sexuality is.
Disability — like other “deviance” — can be erotic.
And in reality, there are a lot of disabled people having a lot of great sex, and a lot of us are also getting paid for it. I started doing sex work after I got too sick to work in a typical job. I was in my second year of law school when my connective tissue disease and hashimoto’s (autoimmune illnesses) began showing symptoms. Although I was able to finish law school by going part time, I’ve since gotten sicker and my ever-present mental health issues have gotten worse.
In fact, many sex workers I know have similar stories of being too disabled to work a traditional job. (Or rather, we are unable to find any other jobs that are accessible — theoretically I could work a civ job with the proper accommodations, but finding an employer willing to make those accommodations is impossible as the law would find them beyond the definition of “reasonable.”)
However, even though evidence suggests that sex workers are disproportionately disabled, the common narrative around disability and sex work is that of the disabled client and non-disabled sex worker. I suspect this is because even though they are disabled, the client in these scenarios tends to have more privilege than the likely multiply marginalized sex worker.
(I was a disability lawyer before I got too sick, so I know what I’m talking about.)
As a sex worker and disabled person, it’s so important that we start cripping the narrative.
And a lot of what I’m talking about is rooted in my experiences in the sex industry, and I am casual about the connections I make between sex work and broader concepts of sex. Sex work is what helped me to come to these conclusions, and how I’m framing a lot of this, and of course exchanges outside the sex trade are different. Therefore, I want to note that the nature of sex work may complicate my analysis in some ways, but also capitalism always influences our choices around sex and love.
Sex work has informed my analysis by making a lot of what is not usually talked about transparent, in that capitalism means one huge way people show that something is valuable is that they are willing to pay for it.
In other words, sex work gives an insight into what people truly value in the way that value is shown in this society — money.
All of the things I am saying are also influenced by my research, which includes extensive formal and informal education. I’ve worked in fetish stores, at Planned Parenthood, and as an intern under a sex therapist among other things, and have two decades and counting of being a huge slut under my belt.
I also want to note that by focusing on strengths, or “positives,” I’m not suggesting that we downplay the devastating effects that ableism has on our sexual and romantic lives.
Ableism and social isolation can be deadly.
But disability isn’t just about ableism — disability can bring joy and it can also improve sex and intimacy.
We know ourselves and our bodies because we are forced to think about them all the time. The sicker and crazier I become, the more my life revolves around my body. Part of abled privilege is not really having to think about your body, because the world has made it pretty easy for your body to get its needs met. This isn’t the case when you are sick or disabled.
Just meeting my body’s basic needs takes a lot of work and if I fail to do something — like missing my meds for example — the consequences can be huge and last for days. So in order to be able to feel even hallway decent, I always pay attention to my body’s signals.
Here is an extremely incomplete list of disability related strengths around sexuality, heavily biased by my whiteness, education, and indoor (i.e. more privileged) nature of my sex work.
We Know What We Want
During sex, this focus on our bodies gives disabled folks an advantage because we know how our bodies respond to certain things. For example, I have fibromyalgia, which means I have an elevated response to touch, so any kind of touch I will feel more intensely, whether it’s pain or pleasure or hot or cold. So just as we know what feels bad to us, we also can know what feels good, and a lot of good sex is about knowing what you want.
We Know How to Tell You What We Want
The other part is communicating said bodily knowledge. Since I have chronic illnesses, I’m at the doctor all the time. And at every appointment I have to answer so. many. questions. about the specifics of my body and symptoms, so I’m excellent at talking about my corporeal self. If there is one thing I have learned in sex work, it’s that different people are into different things, and being able to talk about what you want and don’t want is huge.
Talking about bodies, pleasure, and sex is hard, but disabled people have a head start, as we’ve probably had to talk about them more than other people. If we are visibly disabled we have had to deal with strangers casually interrogating us.
If we need any accommodations at work or school, we’ve probably had to disclose medical records and explain exactly why we need the requested accommodations. If we have caregivers or aides or assistants, we’ve had to instruct them on what to do and how to do it, etc.
For reasons both problematic and wonderful, we need to communicate about bodies so much more than abled people. Having the language for our bodies — even beyond genitals — is salient during sex because mutual conveyance is key for sexual connection.
Since we all have profoundly different preferences, boundaries, and expressions of sexuality, we need to communicate — as both disabled and non-disabled folks in the BDSM community already know. However disabled people have an advantage as our bodies are a testament to there being no such thing as a “default” body, just as there is no “default” expression of sexuality.
We know that one size does not fit all when it comes to bodies, sex, and desirability.
We are Sexy
We are disabled because something about our bodies and/or minds is deemed to be deviant — which I mean in the most loving and perverted way, because everyone knows that deviance is sexy.
One of the interesting things about sex work is that you tend to be most profitable by focusing on the things that make you different. For example, people who are significantly taller or shorter than average will emphasize that in their ads. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to monetize being sick as I talk more about not feeling well and disability.
(Yes, it’s absolutely so fucked up I am trying to monetize being sick in this way. This is the apocalypse. I need money for my meds.)
Of course profitability does not equal value, but it does complicate the idea that conformity to some “ideal” is all that there is to desirability and attraction. (Though of course ableism is rampant in the sex industry — and you will have an easier time if you are extremely “traditionally attractive” including not being visibly disabled or having any other visible marginalized identities.)
We’re Open to Different Expressions of Sexuality
As with bodies, sex itself is best when it deviates from the expected norm for many (maybe even most?) people. As disabled people know, there are so many ways to do things, and no one way is any better than any other. For many reasons, disability-related and not, some people with penises may not be able to get erections. Just because you don’t have intercourse, doesn’t mean you aren’t having sex.
In the disability community, we understand that using a wheelchair is no better or worse than walking. Similarly, sex with penetration is not necessarily better than sex without penetration (or any other kind of sex).
It doesn’t matter how you get there, just that you do! (If you want to.)
Since our bodyminds are already considered deviant, let’s revel in it. Non-disabled people have as much variety in the ways that they have and enjoy sex, but they don’t tend to talk about it, especially in heteronormative and non-queer spaces. They also like to pretend that they have sex the same ways, but as a professional I can tell you that those cishet folks have sex in all kinds of different ways, for many different reasons.
We Have A Sense of Humor About Bodies
Disabled folks are also forced to have a sense of humor about our bodies. Bodies are disgusting and sex is gross. I don’t want to go into too many details, so you can use your imagination. But sex can get messy. As disabled people we likely have more comfort with the ways that bodies can be unpredictable. Which is great, since a lot of the most fun things in the world are also a little disgusting.
We are great at figuring out how to make things work. Because accessibility usually sucks, we have to come up with all of these ingenious ways to get things done. Through things like organizing mutual aid or trading tips on which psych wards are the best, beyond all odds we manage to get some of our needs met.
This same tenacity also serves us well sexually, since sex sometimes throws us challenges. Whether it’s trying a certain position, figuring out the best way to flog someone when you have elbow arthritis, or learning how to feel pleasure after trauma, we’ve already been doing this a long time. It’s amazing how resilient disabled people are.
We’re All Different
We know that sex takes many forms, and in the end there actually is no “better” it’s a matter of how two people interact. Honestly, the whole premise of this is faulty because the secret is there is no “better” or “worse” at sex.
Sex is about relationships between people and bodies and pleasure.
What one person may think is the best thing ever, another person may never want to do. There is no right or wrong way, it’s a matter of compatibility. So while I’m using “better at sex” as a rhetorical device here, I want to be clear that it’s not actually a real thing.
Once again, there is no actual objective universal ideal about any part of sex and desirability, though we may be taught otherwise. As disabled people we are lucky when it comes to sex, though. We can learn from queer liberation movements — who view deviation from the norm of a nuclear family as an opportunity for a greater future. So can we understand our wild and deviant bodies as opportunities that force us to create our own meaningful sexualities, instead of just accepting what has been taught to us.
At the end of the day, sex is just bodies. One or two or more bodies giving and receiving pleasure. And the disabled know about bodies.