Most young people spend a lot of time talking about sex with their mates. All sorts of sex in fact – the other sex, our sex, how much sex, good sex and bad sex.
We’re quite prepared to be upfront about the fact we think talking about sex (and thinking about it too) is totally normal and completely healthy.
Then something came along which made me realise that there was one aspect of sex we didn’t ever talk about. That something was an Oscar nominated film performance from an actress called Helen Hunt. The film is called ‘The Sessions’ and it’s all about disability and sex. I realised that we haven’t been talking about disability and sex. The issue is being brushed under the carpet and that’s not healthy. I reckon it’s time to get talking.
THEY DON’T TALK ABOUT DISABLED PEOPLE GETTING SEX AT SCHOOL EITHER
Sex education at most schools school is usually only really focused on relationships between people who don’t have a disability. This can mean young people with a disability are not informed about sex and relationships. Think it through and you start to realise this can add up to the idea that sex isn’t for disabled people. Reflected in the views of wider society it becomes a taboo subject.
You’ve probably seen or at least heard of the Channel 4 programme ‘The Undateables’. It’s basically a dating show for people with disabilities. The show challenges the view that having a disability somehow makes you asexual or non-sexual. It shows that disabled people, as much as anyone, want to find a partner for sex, love and all the other stuff boys and girls (or boys and boys, and girls and girls) do together.
Some people are concerned that the programme exploits people in the show. Actually, the name of the show give’s the wrong impression and is rather exploitative. ‘Undateable’ in who’s views – who is to judge. Jumping to conclusions about exploitation can result in sexual rights being compromised, leaving people feeling as if they can’t, or have no right, to sexually express themselves.
THE GLEE OF SEX
As mentioned above sex and disability is topical with the release of ‘The Sessions’. It tells the true story of a man with a man paralysed from the neck down who uses a sex surrogate to lose his virginity. The film challenges the view that people with disabilities do not want to have physical relationships. The idea that people with disabilities don’t possess sexual desires means that these desires are overlooked.
The film shows a man overcoming his own insecurities and fighting for a right that he feels he deserves. The film has done a great job at getting people talking and bringing issues into the spotlight.
Sex and disability aren’t addressed together much in films and TV. But remember when Artie from Glee lost his virginity to the hot cheerleader? One of the things that he said was that he wasn’t even sure he could have sex after his accident. This is a common worry and one that may make people cautious of entering into a relationship in the first place.
WHAT IS A SEX SURROGATE?
A sex surrogate is not the same as a prostitute. Sexual surrogacy is based around therapy and involves attending a number of sessions over some months. A surrogate addresses psychological as well as physical issues.
People with physical disabilities who rely on a carer find it particularly hard to have sexual relationships. Often people’s carers are their parents, who may be overprotective making it even more difficult to express sexual desires.
On one hand this can result in feelings of isolation and even shame. However some parents who are carers pay for sexual surrogates for their children when they are old enough. It isn’t part of life that a parent expects to be involved in so it can be difficult. But being open about desires can avoid resentment as it acknowledges the validity of sexual feelings.
There are some agencies that are especially for this who find sex workers for disabled people. They work within the law, have been vetted and are used to working with people with disabilities.
IN THE NEWS – SUS-SEX
Back in March sex and disability were in the news when it was revealed that sex workers were being used in care homes in Sussex. The revelations had a mixed response. Some people are concerned that this opens the door to the possibility of exploitation. Others defend it, saying that the sexual surrogates are doing something that care workers are unable to, both morally and by law.
For some, using a sex worker and knowing that they can be intimate, can give the confidence that they need to be in a relationship with a more long-term partner. Learning that they have some physical sexual capability to back up their sexual desires raises their self-esteem.
Others may not want to use a sex worker and would prefer to wait until they are in a relationship. Going back to Glee, Artie was upset that he lost his virginity through ‘meaningless’ sex – albeit as an expression by a caring friend. He was excited to lose his virginity as he wasn’t sure he could have sex. After the encounter he was left wishing he had waited.
You can make your own mind up about whether first sexual encounters are always meaningful. However this reaction in itself is a reflection that people with disabilities experience the same worries about sex and love as anyone else.
SO, LET’S GET TALKING
There’s a lot to consider. Some have concerns that the use of sex workers could lead to abuse of vulnerable people. While sexual desires are important, exploitation is a concern. Although if you follow the thought that sex workers are themselves being exploited the question becomes who is exploiting whom.
For this reason it is important for there to be open and honest conversations about the issues. By doing this, disabled people can feel that any sexual desires they have are normal.
Half of the battle is making society more aware of the issues; this is first step to combating stigma on the subject.
I write for Doctor Wellgood – a health and wellbeing website for young people. We tackle important issues with a focus on people ages 15-24.