As I gazed across the dusty trodden path at my horse competition, I saw this gorgeous guy. Fit, pearly white teeth, just enough scruff and a great outfit. He also happened to be in a wheelchair. I thought to myself, “Oh, he must have broken a leg falling off a horse or from dirt biking,” as if a guy who looked like that could only have a temporary disability. I struck up a conversation and later found out that he was actually paralyzed from the waist down due to a spinal chord injury. I immediately felt uncomfortable hitting on him, as all sorts of hypothetical questions started racing through my mind: What would it be like if we ever hooked up? Could he even get an erection?
I wish, in that moment, I had been more open-minded and less ignorant and afraid to consider the possibility of sex or a relationship with a man who had a disability. This week, I had the privilege to interview one Stanford woman, who has been in a wheelchair since she was 10, about sex and sexuality of people with disabilities. Though of course she cannot speak for all people with disabilities, it is important to consider and understand that just because a disability affects a person physically, it does not mean that the individual must say goodbye to a healthy love and sex life.
Diagnosed with genetic spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a neural-muscular degenerative disorder that affects all of the muscles in the body, our student still enjoys, like many college students, talking about sex and engaging in romantic and sexual activities and dating.
INT: Does your disability affect the way you feel pleasure?
STUDENT: Physically, everything is exactly how someone without SMA would feel. Not all people in wheelchairs are paralyzed. And people in wheelchairs [and even paralyzed people] can have sex. [Though I] have not had sex, I have had orgasms. I am actually overly sensitive because my body is just overall more sensitive – in general, pain hurts more, and pleasure feels better too.
INT: Can you describe the first time you hooked up with someone?
STUDENT: We talked more about what we liked rather than what he thought I could do. He didn’t ask, “Are you able to give me a blow job?” but seemed to like it when I did. He didn’t seem shocked or surprised, and that made me feel comfortable.
INT: Are you ever afraid for your physical safety or well-being during a hookup?
STUDENT: I am more worried about power dynamics in relationships. One casual Friday night hookup, somebody definitely took advantage of my weakness. It didn’t escalate, thank god, but up to that point [during this hookup], I felt physically used. That’s what I fear as far as trusting the other person. I don’t think I can get [physically hurt]. I have done some crazy things, and it hasn’t hurt me yet!
INT: How do you deal with issues of trust and power dynamics?
STUDENT: I don’t trust people unless I have a previous relationship with them. I think that’s natural for people with disabilities. For me, it is [about] not being able to defend myself – I am cautious with the type of people I decide to be with. I didn’t think it was a big deal until I had a bad experience [where the guy] pulled me out of my wheelchair when I didn’t want him to. That was a terrifying experience – I felt bad because I thought I had put myself in that situation.
INT: Are there certain positions or acts that are better or most comfortable for you?
STUDENT: It is always really comfortable when somebody sits down or if we are both lying down. Getting at the same height level is always a challenge, but somebody who is strong enough to lift me or move me is definitely a turn on! Usually, I am on bottom – I am used to that, and I like that. But [one time], there was someone who was really strong and flipped me on top of him and secured me in a way where I felt like I was in control and I liked that. He knew my abilities and was sensitive, but not afraid to hurt me. He wasn’t afraid that I would be shocked or upset. It was just a natural thing for us to do in that moment.
INT: Have you ever used any sexual aids such as a swing or wedge?
STUDENT: I never have, but I have definitely used my chair in different ways. One thing that has been fun for me is giving and receiving oral sex in my chair – it is easy to get at my height. My chair even tilts back so I can experience different angles.
INT: Has it been difficult to find partners who feel comfortable being intimate with a person with a disability?
STUDENT: It is definitely difficult. I have had a harder time at Stanford than I did in the past. I feel like a lot of people here have high standards without considering other options. I had assumed if I came to a place where people were more educated, they would be less likely to stereotype my sexuality. The best partners I have had have been people with experiences [i.e. disabled family members] – people who are not afraid to understand disability. I don’t want to be treated like a fragile doll – I want to be treated like a woman. There is a fine balance between force and fun, but I do not want to be treated like a gentle baby.
INT: How do you overcome any self-consciousness?
STUDENT: I’d say I’m pretty confident in general, but I am extremely self-conscious about how people perceive my sexuality. Bars and parties are difficult and frustrating to meet people because I often dislike their questions like, “What happened?” But that doesn’t mean I don’t like going out or that I don’t like dressing up. I still wear heels and don’t care what people think about it. I don’t like the assumption that you have to be frumpy and wear sweatpants if you are in a wheelchair.
INT: Do you have any advice for someone who is looking to date a person with disabilities or has a disability and is looking to explore his or her sexuality?
STUDENT: It’s important to learn what that person is like regardless of that disability. The way I describe disability: Everybody has their issues; it’s just that I sit on mine so everyone knows them and can see them [right off the bat]. It is difficult to discover your sexuality – I haven’t been fully happy with my own experiences. I am a huge fan of self-exploration and was raised in an environment that was okay with it. I like thinking about it myself before I involve another person.
Everyone must face their own barriers on the road to discovering their sexuality. Whether a person is questioning their sexual orientation, struggling with body image issues or just trying to figure out what turns them on, it is never an easy or homogenous path to self-discovery. Although people with physical disabilities may have more apparent barriers to overcome when it comes to intimacy, there are plenty of veiled, inner obstacles that all people struggle with. The student I interviewed demonstrated that she is a sexual college student who happens to be in a wheelchair, not that she is a disabled woman who is surprisingly sexual.