Sex, Lies, and Disability: The Truth about People with Disabilities and Love Relationships

As part of its Cultural Center (formerly Women’s Center) activities and outreach to women and girls to get them to open up about themselves and their experiences, my university, like many others, puts on Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues every February. I tried out for them this year, but declined the thirty-second role I was given. I did this primarily because, even though I was assured I was not being discriminated against, I have had far too much experience with thirty-second, walk-on, stand-in-the-corner roles in theater. But I also declined because on reflection, the options given for the show weren’t really “me,” although I tried out with a couple of those options.

Of course, part of the reason they weren’t “me” was because some of the monologues were explicit. As a Christian, I wasn’t comfortable with some of the terminology, phrasing, and profanity used, to name just a few things. But even in those pieces that weren’t explicit, I couldn’t find a protagonist voice to truly get behind. One I truly identified with. No, this is not a post about my sexual or sensual experiences. It is, however, a post concerning mine and others’ experiences in the context of romance, relationships, and sex. It is a post concerning the fact that, even though society has moved past some disability myths, such as that people with intellectual disabilities can’t learn, or everyone with a disability is doomed to a life of menial labor or shut up in an institution, others still linger. (And unfortunately, the aforementioned myths still circulate in the minds of the disgustingly ignorant, more’s the pity).

One such lingering myth, which is fed because it has the appearance of truth, is that people with disabilities are relational and sexual zeroes. That we can’t possibly know or understand what it’s like to have a romantic partner or spouse. That we can’t give them what they need because we’re so needy ourselves. That we cause nothing but stress and pain in relationships and marriage. And that, yes, we are absolutely no good in bed.

I usually say “baloney” to myths like this, but in my humble opinion, this goes beyond baloney. It even goes beyond “garbage” or “crap.” I won’t use profanity, either, because I don’t think it even goes there. This myth is…well, it’s…it’s feces. It’s fish heads. It’s so painfully, laughably ridiculous that it ranks right up there with green plastic skirts on What Not to Wear. The construct that Oscar the Grouch lives in a trash can because he’s lazy and doesn’t want to contribute to society, or that Bert and Ernie really are homosexual, or that Cookie Monster is a pre-diabetic. The idea that the mothers of children with autism are or ever were “refrigerator mothers.” The idea of a high school geography teacher saying to her class, “America’s great because we’re not at war with other countries. We’re all peaceful and stuff.” Yes, according to a Sparknotes column, this really happened.

You get it. The myth is crap. So let’s get a fresh breath of truth in here, shall we?

As I mentioned in my post on parenting and disability, which is also a close relative of this one, the number of parents with disabilities (NOT “disabled parents”) is growing, as these adults continue to destroy negative stereotypes that claim they cannot be parents or have their own families. According to a research article on disability and sexuality by authors Doe and O’Toole, many parents with disabilities are actually now choosing to adopt children with disabilities, domestically and, yes, internationally. And no, that’s not because these parents couldn’t “naturally” have children–they chose to adopt these kids.

Of course, the natural conclusion might be: why? As a government agent in China put it when faced with a man who used a wheelchair and his wife without a disability, who wanted to adopt a child with physical disabilities: “Wheelchair man, wheelchair child, too much burden” (Doe and O’Toole). But was this government agent correct? Many parents of children with disabilities, even and especially those who have disabilities themselves, would say no. Why? Because they understand what a lot of people don’t understand or just plain refuse to acknowledge: those children are children first. And if the “normal, mainstream” way of doing something doesn’t work for your family, who’s to say you can’t find or create a system that does work? Homeschoolers, homosexual couples, couples with lifestyles that require being on the road a lot…they do it all the time. So why are parents with disabilities often seen as the one type of parent who can’t?

Now, let’s get personal. Let’s get back to the sex part, because, as Doe and O’Toole found in their research, “If you walk around with a kid attached to you, most people are going to assume you had sex.” Not so if you have a disability–even in America. Yes, it is still usually assumed that people with disabilities are incapable of sexual intercourse or pleasure, or even that they are completely asexual. Doe and O’Toole have a heart-wrenching take on this. According to some of their interviewees, even in the twenty-first century, many females with disabilities are not educated about themselves as sexual beings. Why? Because it is assumed that they will never live independently, have relationships, or have their own families. And because these accomplishments are often “marks of adulthood,” this attitude keeps the girl or woman with a disability “in the role of the dependent child.”

Ouch. As a woman who is single and saving herself for her husband, but very much wants that relationship, that household, that family, I gotta say it again: OUCH.

People with disabilities are not perpetual children, as you should already know. But we’re not asexual, or perpetual virgins, either. Like any other woman who chooses to remain a virgin until marriage, I do so because it is MY choice, not someone else’s for me. As for those people with disabilities who do not make that choice? Fine–let them make their own relationship choices, as you would for anyone else. It’s. Not. That. Hard.

“But Chick,” I can hear you say, “My daughter or son has mental disabilities, or major physical disabilities, or…” Whatever. The question in your mind is, can you, or even should you, educate them about their sexuality and the choices related to it? The answer? A resounding YES. People with physical disabilities enter physical relationships all the time, and go on to have wholly fulfilling relationships that are not based entirely on physical needs, but that the physical aspects are a healthy part of. So too, do people with mental disabilities, even those labeled “severe.” As with other things, they may just do so a bit differently than those without disabilities. For example, people with physical disabilities can be shown, taught, or figure out for themselves, ways to make sex comfortable and fun for them if some parts of their body don’t “cooperate.” As for people with mental disabilities, yes, they can understand exactly what a relationship, including the physical part, is, if explained appropriately. (By that, I mean, minus the condescending attitude). There are books and other materials out there written for these purposes–and they DON’T TALK DOWN TO THE READER. In fact, one such book, aimed at young adults with Down’s Syndrome, actually contains charts showing male and female anatomy to go along with the explanations of their functions. Ooooh, I can hear the shocked screams now…

So what’s my point? Simple: when I say people with disabilities are like everyone else, I mean it in every sense, including the highly physical and personal. We are not asexual. Nor are our desires “uncontrollable,” as some would have the world without disabilities believe. So stop perpetuating the stereotype, and start seeing us as desirable, whole people. Future generations will thank you!

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