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As a disabled young person, did you struggle to find reliable information on your body and its sexual drives? Were you frustrated with laughable public school sex education? Have you struggled with sexual expression as a disabled person? Have you ever felt there was no way to achieve the pleasure you want and need?
As a non-disabled person, have you ever been challenged about how to give sexual pleasure when dating someone with a disability? Were you afraid of hurting your new partner?
Have you ever wished someone could help guide you?
I share your frustrations. From a young age, I was very sexually curious and early discovered that I could give myself pleasure. (Much later, I would learn the word “masturbation.”) The adults in my life tried to prevent me from experiencing sexual pleasure. But I received no adult guidance, other than being told “no” or “don’t do that.” The limited sexual health education offered through public school was confusing: we were taught anatomy but not mechanics. Because of the national focus on abstinence, we certainly weren’t taught the finer details of consent, or anything about relationship skills, and certainly nothing about sexual identity. And while I didn’t have a recognizable start to being kinky, queer, or nonmonogamous, I was out to my friends about being all three by the time I was 13.
Despite abstinence-driven mystification, I started exploring my sexuality with partners even as a pre-teen. Together, we fumbled our way through kissing, mutual masturbation, oral sex, and penetrative sex. At the same time, my disabilities impacted the ways I was able to experience sexual pleasure, as well as romantic and sexual relationships. While I was unable to understand what was happening with my health, my partners were often alienated by the complications my health imposed. Partners broke up with me due to my erratic availability and my worsening symptoms. There were days when I just could not leave the house due to my medical and mental health conditions.
But I still wanted to have sex.
In order to fulfill my sexual desires I embarked on empirical and theoretical research. For empirical data, I had a series of casual, short-term partners. On the days when I was up to leaving my home, I’d slake my thirst for theory by visiting local bookstores and the library, immersing myself in the LGBT2QIA and sexuality sections. In 1996, I also gained access to the World Wide Web, and with it, started teaching myself the details my formal sex education had missed. I learned that there were communities of queer, kinky, nonmonogamous people, many of whom had disabilities, just like me. Because I was still underaged and living with my parents, I had to hide the books, zines, websites, and chat rooms that helped me feel connected.
As I grew older, I had a couple of longer-term relationships, which both suffered due to the lack of understanding about my disabilities. As the second of these relationships was ending, a friend recommended that I “find my people” in order to be happier in my relationships. He was right. From that point, I sought out not only similarly oriented people, but began to learn more about the identity I had been avoiding: that of being a disabled person. When I first started exploring disability’s impact on sexuality, in 2015, there was still very little written on the topic. As I started to learn more about disability culture, it dawned on me that my demographic was being left out of the sex and sexuality industries, such as education, pornography, sex toys, dating apps, etc. I spent a year researching, self-educating, and experiencing or observing ableist discrimination. As a response to these experiences I co-founded the Disability and Sexuality Access Network (DASAN) in 2016. DASAN’s expressed mission is to bring the worlds of sex and disability closer together.
Since 2016, I’ve taught about sex and disability, as well as kink and disability, at several universities for undergrad and graduate medicine, social work, and social science students. Lecture invitations have included social justice-oriented and kink/sex/sexuality events. I’ve provided independent training and consultations for various sex education-related providers. Popular workshop and lecture topics include disabled sexuality awareness for nondisabled people (“Accessing Disabled Pleasure”), and kink for chronic pain management (“Fuck the Pain Away”). And I’ve connected with hundreds of disabled individuals about their sexual desires and needs, particularly as these desire- and needs-fulfilment have changed during the pandemic.
Because of the escalating climate crisis and the toll of the coronavirus pandemic, my research has turned toward surviving the future disruptions we all face. The coming disarray will be particularly difficult on multiply marginalized people, such as: low-income; queer and trans; Black and Indigenous People of Color; and, of course, disabled people. I am now rethinking how we prioritize and/or express sexuality, kink, and disabled sexuality in times when survival itself is in question.
As someone who has shared your experiences, I offer peer support as you explore disability sexuality, or surviving and thriving in challenging times. For non-disabled folks, I offer sessions for learning to please your disabled partner, or planning for an uncertain future. I appreciate the trust you show as we envision your future together.