Misadventures in Queer Lady Dating While Disabled: It’s Not Me, It’s You

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I’m a virgin. Not only do I lack any sexual experience, but I have no romantic experience to speak of either. We’re talking 12 year old pre-spin the bottle levels of physical intimacy here. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, assuming that it’s your choice. There are a million reasons to take relationships at your own pace. Where it starts to be a problem is when you recognize that you possess and want to express these desires and society denies them. Worse, society takes the authority upon itself to deem you undesirable and ascribes a complete and total sexual absence to you and your entire community at large, with few exceptions.

My name is Erin and I’m a graduating college senior majoring in film and minoring in LGBT studies. I self-identify as a queer feminist who believes that personality / aesthetic / confidence wins out over anatomy in terms of who you love. I also happen to have a disability – cerebral palsy. My disability is very visible in that I use an electric wheelchair for daily transportation. Today I wanted to talk to you all about the ways in which being a disabled woman has shaped my romantic and erotic (mis) adventures.

Before we get started, a few things:

1. I want to discuss my use of the word “cripple,” which is obviously a loaded term and can be triggering for many people. It’s important to recognize that I use this term in a political sense and as a means of radical reclamation of a positive self-identity. It might make you cringe, but I want you to embrace the discomfort. Pain and repression can incite crucial discussions. If we can resist our natural impulse to avoid negativity by trying to paper over and redeem subjects that make us upset, we might start to see some actual change.

2. At no point do I ever claim to speak for the entire disabled community. I acknowledge that my perspective is shaped by a specific set of biases that other individuals with disabilities may or may not share.

3. On that note, I am fully aware that there are many disabled people that enjoy active, fulfilling sex lives. Just because no one has yet deemed me bangable does not mean that I think all individuals with disabilities are doomed to perpetual sexual Siberia indefinitely. However, my experience is valid and I would hate to see it belittled or swept under the rug under lofty promises of love, acceptance, and progress. I’m not here for pie in the sky. I’m here for right here, right now, and everything that has influenced me up to the current moment.

With nervous trepidation, I awaited the move all the way across the country to California. I had lived my entire life in an incredibly rural area of Pennsylvania and so I was eager to prove to myself that my relative lack of a social life or love interest was a result of being stuck with the same people and needing transportation to get just about anywhere. Berkeley is known for its socially liberal attitudes as well as being the epicenter of the disability rights movement so I anticipated that I could manage to scrounge together a clique somewhere. First, I determined that I needed to find a boyfriend in order to experience all the connection that high school seemed to deny me. Through online dating, I went on a few comically disastrous blind dates, little half-baked cyberspace petri dishes of human connection that never seemed to gain traction in real life. Either they would realize I was disabled and power through it, or I would tell them beforehand and they would stop talking to me or avoid opportunities to meet.

My discovery of my own queerness served to multiply the prejudice that I encountered rather than providing me a safe haven from it. I joined my college’s queer-straight alliance initially as a straight ally (lolz) and rapidly developed a crush on a girl. Thus began a long, equally unsuccessful stint of pining after women. Given the message of acceptance and sex positivity that the queer community so openly espouses, I was hopeful that I had finally found a niche where my sexuality would be respected and validated. To my dismay, the same passive discrimination was alive and well. In the event that infantilization proved inadequate, some would disguise their aversion to disabled sexuality with good old fashioned biphobia. My most recent crush, made painfully aware of my feelings after a night of drunken confession, dodged the subject by insisting that I would date a woman for a few years and then inevitably leave her for a man. When I protested that I would never leave a committed relationship on the basis of gender alone, she said I had no way of knowing that because I had never slept with a man. She was so desperate to escape the discomfort of acknowledging me as having romantic capacity that she created an obscure hypothetical to pigeonhole me as the untrustworthy, promiscuous bisexual while paradoxically virgin shaming me. (Fun plot twist: she began dating an able-bodied bisexual woman soon after this conversation.) I finally had to swallow the bitter pill that the reason I was never considered a viable partner was not because I failed to conform to some outdated criteria for heteronormative womanhood, but because individuals with disabilities are viewed as children and sexual nonentities through the eyes of all beholders across the sexuality spectrum.

Many of my caretakers and friends insist that I could have a love life if I would only date disabled people and proceed to combat my hesitation point by point if I object. The problem is that the logic of disability dating follows the rather simplistic formula of like goes with like. In my case, this boils down to wheelchair goes with wheelchair. I’m not opposed to dating someone with physical impairments in the abstract, but I resent the notion that other people in wheelchairs are my only option and that I’m “uppity” if they’re not my type. By insisting that disabled people should only date those with similar disabilities, the able community not only reaffirms their perception of our undesirability, but indirectly admits that they fail to view us as having any kind of adult sexuality at all. Here’s where the myth of the bitter crippled virgin comes into play. If disabled individuals are accused of rejecting sexual options, we are often held responsible for our own repression. The unfortunate thing is that usually the only group that recognizes the sexual capacities of disabled people is the disabled community itself, which ironically has the greatest difficulty in building a sexual exchange as an outlet of this appreciation due to the prominence of physical barriers.

The challenge then lies in cultivating and claiming romantic and sexual viability in an able world determined to infantilize you. In the past, I depended on strict adherence to gender expression as a way of using femininity to overcompensate for my lack of assumed sexuality. This proved frustrating and ineffective on many levels. On one hand, presenting in a hyper-feminine fashion apparently confirmed the collective perception that I was just an adorable little girl. In retaliation, I went to the opposite end of the spectrum at night and would dress very provocatively to go to parties as part of a “I will force you to see me sexually, dammit!” mentality. I once went to a party in a black and red corset with matching fishnets. Throughout the night, I had at least five people come up and ruffle my hair to tell me cheerfully that I looked great. Even at my most overtly sexualized, I could still only manage to conjure up the image of a seven-year-old walking around in her mother’s high heels.

Eventually, I realized that my quest would be much more complicated. As someone with a deep love and respect for femininity as a personal expression of style, self-confidence, and social presence, the revelation that I wouldn’t be able to combat decades of cultural stereotypes with the right dress and a dab of red lipstick was devastating. It goes without saying that appearance isn’t everything and I have much greater pride and value in my intellect, but I have difficulty sharing my interior self with others if they’re so quick to write me off on snap judgments of my exterior. As a result, I spend most of my time trying to counteract the social stigmas that accompany the physical presence of my chair. The chair seems to suggest a medicalized microcosm that must mean its user is devoid of romantic or sexual impulses because of their assumed lower quality of life. Regardless of how much individuals will probably agree that disabled people have the right to their own sexuality, that doesn’t mean that the prevalence of these stereotypes doesn’t affect our lives and relationships on a daily basis.

By assigning the designation of bitter crippled virgin, able society attempts to absolve itself of guilt and accountability for disabled sexual repression. If they can somehow make our discontent a function of our own flaws, they don’t have to examine themselves. If we could just be happier, just be more passive, just not worry about it, all of our problems would be solved. There is one simple, glaring error in this train of thought: society can’t pathologize the individual for responding to conditions that society itself has constructed and reinforced. The bitter crippled virgin becomes a cautionary tale to promote quiet assimilation and prevent critical examination of the forces that cause us to continually be perceived as always a little bit less than human. There is no such thing as the bitter crippled virgin. This myth acts as an ugly mask to obscure those individuals with disabilities who are courageous enough to acknowledge social inequality and demand their right to sexual expression. Unlike the myth, their efforts are vibrant and very, very real.

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

About the author
: Erin Tatum is a queer disabled college student currently residing in Berkeley, CA. She is particularly interested in representations of queerness and disability in media.She hopes to advocate for more numerous positive portrayals of marginalized identities in television and film.

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Erin has written 1 article for us.


  1. This is great. I mean…it’s not great. It’s decidedly the opposite of great. But the talking about it is great. Thank you for this!

  2. Thank you for such a rich, well-written, sophisticated piece. I loved your article and found it very inspiring. I am a able-bodied lesbian and never had a disable girlfriend, but I really don’t think it would be an obstacle.

    I was just wondering about something. When you say that:
    “The chair seems to suggest a medicalized microcosm that must mean its user is devoid of romantic or sexual impulses because of their assumed lower quality of life.” I get your point but from what I can see around me, most people know that disable people have romantic and sexual feelings. In fact it makes them feel uncomfortable to think about it, because they don’t think they could reciprocate.

    We live in a culture where our appearance is so important and determines our ‘desire’. My question would be, how can we challenge that? How can we challenge the way people feel attracted to other people on the basis of very superficial elements?

    • I agree with Annaxox! Thank you for posting this Erin and for sharing your life with us.

    • I cannot speak as a person with a disability, but when you ask “How can we challenge the way people feel attracted to other people on the basis of very superficial elements?” I think the answer is in the title of this article ‘It’s not me, it’s you’.

      I interpret that to mean that it’s important that people do the work of examining their own assumptions about ‘other’ people and why something might (but probably shouldn’t) make somebody categorically un-desirable.

      I also think its important not to leave all the work up to certain people to prove their desirability.

    • Great question! I admit that I may have sounded presumptuous in stating that people interpret the chair as a marker of implied asexuality. I do know that many people are aware that people with disabilities have desires and will do anything they can to avoid acknowledging it because it seems perverse, especially if that were to reciprocate. Most people would feel uncomfortable to say the least about wanting to date/bang someone they’ve been taught to see socially as a small child.

      I think the key is to recognize and reevaluate the often automatic impulse to infantilize individuals with disabilities. Also, we need to take a look at the appearances we deem “attractive,” which applies just as much to ability as it does body image. Not saying that you should feel obligated to find wheelchairs/limps/other markers of disability sexy in themselves (unless you’re into that), but you shouldn’t rule out potential partners based solely on visual cues of disability either.

  3. “I’m not here for pie in the sky. I’m here for right here, right now, and everything that has influenced me up to the current moment.” This is perfect, people have enough trouble talking to each other without imagining a different person than the one in front of them.

  4. Aghhhh I love this. So important. Thanks for sharing. The queer community definitely needs to figure out our shit.
    I watched a conversation between Judith Butler and disability activist extraordinaire/artist Sunaura Taylor about this very issue, and Butler was so lost and awkward. Taylor, though, was incredibly enlightening: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0HZaPkF6qE
    But yes, thank you. These conversations are important.

  5. It is easy for me, a person whose disabilities aren’t readily visible 95% of the time, to get wrapped up in my particular experiences and fixate on those. So thank you for sharing this piece, parts of which I can (understand? relate to? all of these words seem inaccurate and maybe disrespectful. I hope that what I’m trying to communicate is getting out) and parts of which are challenging for me to conceptualize, but is wholly important as a voice on the intersection of queerness and disability.

    • I completely understand! People with invisible disabilities are an equally important part of the dialog around disabled dating/sexuality. I mean to inspire discussion and my piece wasn’t meant to be an “oppression oylmpics” argument or exclusionary by any means, so please never feel hesitant to share your thoughts! :)

    • I also have a disability that isn’t visible most of the time, but when I was younger it was a much bigger part of my life (and was much more visible). This essay really moved me. I feel like I have a whole room full of emotions and anecdotes and important things to say…but all i can come up with is a tremendous urge to hug everyone who is commenting and sharing their experiences.

  6. I have been waiting for this forever! I was so excited to see this pop up on my facebook and I am not disappointed.

    I am relatively comfortable with my cerebral palsy. I tend to forget about it until doing something like making a dating profile or going in for a job interview, when I remember that my disability will be front and center.

    It’s frustrating to try and talk to able bodied people about what it’s like to navigate the dating scene while disabled. I think most of the people mean well, but what they end up doing is dismissing me/my feelings with something along the lines of, ‘would you really want to date that person anyway?” which isn’t really that helpful.

    This turned into a ramble, I’m sorry. I just want to say again that I LOVE this and I hope it sparks more discussion and awareness about the acceptance of people with disabilities in the queer community.

    Thank you.

    • “but what they end up doing is dismissing me/my feelings with something along the lines of, ‘would you really want to date that person anyway?” which isn’t really that helpful.”

      Ugh, I experience this particular interaction constantly–thanks for articulating it so well!

    • Don’t forget the go-to response of “well, you can’t expect everyone to be attracted to you.” As if we jump at the chance to play the disability card as an excuse to deny other reasons for incompatibility. Clearly our attempt at dating is a secret operation to label everyone who isn’t interested in us as an ableist bigot.

    • I agree a thousand percent with this comment.

      Erin, so grateful for this article. Like MM, I’ve been waiting for this post forever. I almost fainted when I read the first few lines and realized this wasn’t just about disability but also about CP. I’m so used to never seeing CP discussed or even mentioned that when it is, I’m completely thrilled.

  7. “society can’t pathologize the individual for responding to conditions that society itself has constructed and reinforced”

  8. Your article definitely strikes a cord with me, Erin. Particularly when you mentioned:

    “Many of my caretakers and friends insist that I could have a love life if I would only date disabled people and proceed to combat my hesitation point by point if I object. The problem is that the logic of disability dating follows the rather simplistic formula of like goes with like. In my case, this boils down to wheelchair goes with wheelchair. I’m not opposed to dating someone with physical impairments in the abstract, but I resent the notion that other people in wheelchairs are my only option and that I’m “uppity” if they’re not my type.”

    Superficiality in the LGBTQ community has always been a source of contention for me and your article makes me thing about a lot of things. A lot, a lot of things. But as I am not a person with a disability, I don’t know if it would be appropriate for me to weigh in here.

    • Of course it’s appropriate! We need the perspective of able allies too, as long as they understand they’re coming from a different perspective, which it sounds like you do.

      Superficiality is a major problem in both the LGBTQ and able communities. Many people have the misconception that being secure in your sexuality = only picking objects of desire deemed “appropriate” by society/media = limiting your potential partners to people who can be viewed as “sexy,” meaning people who can be traditionally objectified. I…just no.

      • You’ve hit the nail on the head really in expressing that it all comes down to desiring people who can be traditionally objectified. I mean, this is not news in wider society but when you come to a should-be inclusive and broad thinking space like the LGBTQ community, you’d expect/want/really hope that things are a little different, though it’s often not.

        The paragraph of yours I first highlighted made me think about the word most people throw around to dismiss why we don’t date certain people: “type”. I imagine that for a lot of people, their ‘type’ is made up of specifics that denote both physical and persona characteristics. But when does dismissing someone because they don’t fit into your “type” become a problem?

        If someone’s ‘type’ is tall, pale, athletic women who actively play sports, then that person’s preference may cause them to dismiss people of particular races or those who have varying levels of disabilities right off the bat, all on account of ‘type’.

        Is that okay? I don’t know if that’s okay.

        And then that makes me further think about what you said re: people lumping like with like. We rate each other with arbitrary qualifiers “a 10 or 5” on a scale of 1-10; a woman who’s “hot” as opposed to “cute”, and additionally we think that “cute 5s” should date other “cute 5s” because “hot 10s” are obviously out of their “league.”

        So not only do we dismiss people based on superficial typing, but only some people get the privilege of having a types. It’s like you have to be perceived as equally desirable as the ‘type’ of person you want to date for your preferences to be valid. Or else you need to lower your standard because you’re, as you stated ‘uppity.’

        This whole thing, I think, is such a huge part of how we socialise. And when we already are categorising and grouping able bodied, conventionally attractive people in terms of leagues and types and according to scale, it’s no surprise that we extend the same form of categorisation, only more exacting, to those with disabilities, or those who don’t fit into a size 0-8, or just generally those who don’t posses classic markers of conventional beauty.

  9. Thanks for sharing this, Erin. As a queer lady who is blind and newly trying to navigate the dating scene, I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying, and to the accompanying frustrations. I’m so glad to see this being brought up here. And mostly, I’m just excited that other disabled queers exist–would especially love to hear about any groups/forums/resources you’re familiar with!

    • I’d hate to disappoint you, but I actually don’t know of any queer groups that explicitly incorporate disability. I’m just as excited as you are that there seems to be a number of queer disabled folks here though! :p

  10. Autostraddle, why must you know me so well? I finished a presentation five hours ago about the difficulties disabled people face around society’s view of sexuality. This article was so well written, I only wish I could have incorporated it!

  11. Erin, thank you so much for sharing this part of your life with all of us. Articles like this, and continuing to talk about things, and pointing things out so others can see it–all move us towards a better place. Sorry, I really don’t have anything insightful to add, but I wanted to let you know that your article made me think. Thank you for that.

  12. Reading this made me angry at the world and also kind of sad. I just wish people could be more mature and just, I dunno, more open. Also, why aren’t they nicer? I have two mostly-nearly-kind-of invisible disabilities (they aren’t very invisible to me) and I nearly always keep both of them secret because of the ableism I have experienced when I have been more upfront about them.

    I would like to be a revolution of one, a veritable Woman Wonder whirl of social change so that I could just go fix this problem and make society better like right now.

    • You’ve also gotta love the invisible disorders you develop from the sigma of being disabled, like anxiety! (sarcasm obviously haha).

      Maybe we can be a revolution of one. That’s what social justice activism is for, right? ;)

    • “…I nearly always keep both of them secret because of the ableism I have experienced when I have been more upfront about them.”

      ugh, same.

  13. I don’t doubt that media presentation of what is and is not desirable in a woman has a huge role as to whether or not people find certain women more sexually desirable than others.

    My confusion then arises out of this question: How do I know if I am being superficial (even unconsciously) because of the way our culture has socialized me to view certain traits as sexual and others as asexual, or if I am just not attracted to someone and it has nothing to do with their ability level/skin color/weight/other noticeable physical attribute?

    I worry that there are subconscious factors that affect my attraction levels, even when I am actively working to be as open to people as possible.

    I am by no means saying that I find people desirable based on ability status. I don’t. At least I hope I don’t. I would like to think I am a kinder person than that. But I have never been put in a situation in which I have had to confront my own ableism, at least not in a dating sense.

    This article made me realize that there are communities whose difficulties I have not considered fully, and that made me want to ask in all sincerity, what are steps I can take to be an ally?

    • I struggle with this a lot too. I would never want to say that anyone who isn’t attracted to someone with a visible (or invisible) disability is basing their reaction solely on ability status and therefore is unconsciously ableist. At the same time, the criticism that everyone with a disability turns any rejection into an ability issue out of spite ignores that people have been conditioned to view individuals with disabilities as unfit romantic/sexual partners for years. It’s a chicken or the egg debate at this point.

      In terms of allyship, I don’t have an answer because I’m still defining it for myself and I think able people should go though the same process. I tend to get a lot of “So a good ally has to want to fuck disabled people?” and other reductive blunders like that. It honestly isn’t all about romance or sex. It’s about critiquing social perceptions on every level.

  14. I’m a visually impaired lesbian, and it’s true that being disabled affects your dating life. In my case, there was a lot of wrestling with my sexuality: Not in that I wondered whether I liked women or not, but in wondering if I could ever feel sexual. Feeling sexy/desirable for women is so tied to making yourself look pretty that I’m 25 and have never felt sexy in my life since I don’t have a good idea of what I look like a lot of the time. Not to mention the particular LGBTQ obsession with presentation, gender or otherwise. Or signaling (which I can’t read). Or labels (butch, femme, MOC, etc.) that presume you HAVE to express yourself through your dress and haircut. Pride is all about looking at things or people that are interesting, etc.

    I doubt I’m ever not going to be a virgin because the world only presents sexuality in a way that revolves around sight, and I only like women.

    • Zaure, this is so eloquent. Thanks for sharing. It’s true that society organizes sexuality around visual cues and that’s really limiting.

      Presentation can be difficult for me too because my appearance varies based on my caretakers (who can handle what sort of clothing/outfit for dressing and bathroom, etc). A lot of times I just don’t feel like me, but then again I have to question why visuals seem so important to someone’s sense of self and how they are perceived.

    • I have never considered the fact that those with visual impairments would have a different experience being read as queer or interacting in ways that don’t rely on signalling, hair, clothing presentation, etc. I’m thankful you shared your story and AS has opened up this conversation because these things go under the radar when you are able-bodied. I believe being queer is more than what you look like, but it’s hard when society is brainwashing us into defining ourselves by our appearance or what we see.

  15. Thanks for writing and publishing this article, I really appreciate your perspective, and the comments as well. It’s making me re-examine some things.

  16. Amazing article! You really can’t assume anything by a persons appearance and you’re right Erin, society needs to start looking at what it says is “attractive”. These kinds of social cues are what helps people perceive others in certain ways. If disabled ppl are always shown as incompetent and childlike then they will almost always be perceived that way regardless of how they actually are. It’s a sad truth that definitely needs to change! And can I just mention that I too am a virgin with a 12yr old level of intimacy. I often feel like I’m not seen as desirable because I don’t fit into what society says is beautiful (I’m overweight). I know that it’s not the same as having a disability, but sometimes feel the same way.

    • Thanks for your fantastic insight. You’re not alone! I think society’s unrealistic beauty standards hurt pretty much anyone non-normative, which seems to be the majority. And all the mental energy we expend around weight and determining which bodies are and aren’t attractive based on something as silly as muscle and fat is beyond ridiculous.

  17. So, I’d like to address the elephant in the room. About why someone might be ableist, beyond social programming.

    I’m in a relationship with a man who struggles to control his bipolarity. In the beginning this seemed like a boon, because he seems to be able to empathize with my struggles with depression, and the prejudice that goes with admitting you have a “psychological impairment”, better than anyone I’ve ever dated. But over the better part of a year I have realized that because of his disability, he is barely able to take care of himself. At 34 he still relies on his mom to do his laundry and clean his room, and eats takeout lunch every day because he can’t get it together to pack a brown bag. He ascribes all of this to his bipolarity.
    So when I imagine a future together, it is almost impossible to see a situation where we could split household responsibilities down the middle. When I imagine having a child together, I wonder how the stress would affect him, and how (if) we as a family could handle that. And I feel that these are very valid concerns, whether or not they have anything to do with accepting the first date.

    The other aspect is, did being ableist have to be socially programmed? The evolutionary perspective is cruel, but I think it holds a grain of truth. Most of the aesthetic attractiveness of other people (muscles, nice hair, nice skin, symmetrical face, even breast size) are indicators of health and reproductive viability. Even if we have no intention of having children, we are *biologically* programmed to seek these features out. Dance probably developed as a way of demonstrating coordinated motor control (“gracefulness”) to our eligible peers, another indicator of viability.
    I was quite attracted (and not the only one) to a young man, wheelchair bound due to a lower spinal cord injury, in part (besides his intelligence and sense of humor) because it was impossible to infantilize someone with such a masculine face, and (paradoxically) to consider someone disabled who spoke eloquently and wrote out his own notes. Could fine motor control (voice and hands) be a key aspect that we look for, that gives a paraplegic man an advantage in the sexual arena over a woman with cerebral palsy? I don’t mean to be hurtful, but I am trying to consider the full spectrum of possibilities.

    • I think those are very valid concerns about a particular person and relationship that really have no place influencing how someone would view other bipolar people, other disabled people, or other humans in general. I can certainly see where one might make the assumption that others who suffer from bipolar and similar disorders might face similar daily challenges, levels of stress etc, but that doesn’t make it an acceptable thing to think. Someone’s skill set, independence and especially their views on what their disability may or may not prevent them from doing is going to be completely different person to person. Having an ableist attitude toward people you don’t know based on people you do still isn’t okay (although again, I can see how someone might easily do this.)

      Your point about which particular disabilities tend to be more or less accepted by the able bodied is interesting. I’m blind, and while I have a good amount of residual vision and am very independent, I find that missing visual cues and related information can often read to sighted people as a lack of awareness/intelligence (almost as though those things are going over my head because of a lack of mental capacity rather than a lack of adequate vision.)

    • And just to be clear: I definitely don’t think and didn’t mean to imply that your assessment of your partner is ableist. Having an informed opinion on his capacities and his viability as a romantic partner based on what you’ve experienced in your relationship with him is totally fine and what anyone in any relationship should do. I only meant that applying those opinions to other disabled people would be problematic. Hope that was clear :)

    • I support the use of sex surrogates if individuals with disabilities want to pursue it. The problem is most able people immediately adopt the mentality of “Now all disabled people can use sex surrogates! I’m so progressive.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with using a sex surrogate, but able people often generalize this choice as proof that we “always have an outlet” for our sexuality if need be and refuse to admit the ableist prejudices that fuel this assumption. This is underscored by the fact that sex workers who work with the disabled are often elevated to sainthood (watch the trailer for documentaries like Scarlet Road, or read the general reaction to the recent film The Sessions). All narratives like this do unfortunately is subtly confirm disabled sexuality as grotesque. (Not any of the participants in such a sexual exchange, but the able public’s response).

      • Especially since that implies that people with disabilities solely want sex as a physical thing, rather than being able to have the emotionally-fulfilling aspects that can come with a sexual relationship.

        Thank you for writing this, Erin. It’s definitely given me a lot to thing about in my own approaches to people with visible and invisible disabilities.

        • Right. There’s nothing wrong with just wanting sex, but people need to check their privilege before they decide that sex workers are the be all end all for all people with physical disabilities. I know some sex workers develop friendships with their clients, but that’s obviously different from a committed relationship.

  18. Great article! To be honest, this isn’t an issue that was really on my radar, but it sure is an important one.

    There’s a poet who lives in my hometown named Travis Laurence Naught; he published a book of poetry called “The Virgin Journals” that addresses disability and sexuality. He’s a super cool guy; I had a chance to hang out with him a bit when he performed at a reading some classmates and I hosted. Some of you may find his work interesting, I definitely suggest checking it out.


  19. This article made me sign up to make a comment for the first time after years of reading autostraddle. Thanks Erin for being so brave to write this. Like many others who have already commented, this issue was never really something I thought about before. What I do know however is what is like to be well into my twenties, a queer woman and never even kissed someone let alone had sex/been in a relationship. I guess there is a few reasons why this is so – I have always put my studies ahead of socialising, I live in a regional area and I am pretty shy in social situations when I am in them. But I what I just wanted to say is that I know how frustrating, pathetic and lonely you can start feeling when you aren’ fitting in with the rest of society’s expectations. I usually end up having to hide/lie about my lack of experience in social situations because of my embarrassment that surrounds them so I say good on you for not hiding and pulling society up on this issue.

    • Wow I’m honored! I always put my studies before socializing too. I don’t regret it, but in hindsight it was more of a means to deflect my isolation and give myself the illusion of agency – I told myself I wasn’t dating because I was too busy, not because of the social barriers imposed by my disability. Of course I think society has unrealistic expectations for romantic milestones (It will never not make me giggle that people talk about their “first kiss” at 11/12) and I’m only 21. It’s gone on for such a long time now I’m past embarrassment about it. Still, I usually avoid the subject since people usually interpret the truth as an invitation to be patronizing (“you’ll find love someday! you’re great!” etc.) and I just want to yell “Since when did I ask for your validation?!”

  20. Thank you for this article. It helps to know I’m not alone in my struggles with my disability.
    As a late deaf person I find it really difficult to meet and connect with new people. Most people don’t have the patience or don’t want to communicate differently. Even on dating sites where you can chat, people avoid interaction.

    A simple thing like chatting with a cute barista while waiting for your order is very difficult. Inviting people for an innocent coffee so you can talk face to face is always taken as a romantic date invitation and thus rejected. While for me it’s just a way to communicate better. Now I’m just trying to accept that it is what it is. Just live my life, try to be happy and put aside my hopes of dating and relationships.

  21. This is one of the best articles I have read on Autostraddle, and I am so glad you brought this issue to attention.

    You’re absolutely right to call out the queer community for being ostensibly so “inclusive” while at the same time, to use your words, infantilizing people with disabilities. In my observations, it’s often the same people that will angrily call out others on using ableist slurs but simultaneously would not consider dating a disabled person, and we as a community need to deconstruct what prejudices and social pressures shape our sexual preferences. I’ve heard way too often the excuse of “I can’t help what I like!” in reference not only to disability but also race and cis/trans* status, as if writing off an entire segment of the population can be excused without any further examination of where those preferences come from. I also am appalled that people have used straight-up biphobia to justify their prejudice against you as a disabled person — it is so fucked up it is almost laughable.
    As a disclaimer, I am writing as an able-bodied person (at least physically) so I can’t contribute any personal experience, but I wanted to thank you for writing this article.

    Also, I’m not sure if you’ve seen this tumblr already but its goal is to address exactly the problems you discuss: http://disabledpeoplearesexy.tumblr.com/

    • (also reading that last part over I didn’t mean to give the impression that I had a mental disability and thus co-opt a term that isn’t mine, I just meant I have severe anxiety and some other fun psychological disorders that make things more difficult but probably are not considered disabilities)

      • (Not judging you or whatever; embracing an identity is a very personal choice. I’m just saying it so that way you knew that identifying as disabled through the presence of mental illnesses is an option. :) Like I said though, it’s a very personal choice. I personally identify as disabled because of how my mental illnesses have shaped my experiences and my options; I have friends who have similar mental illnesses but do not identify as disabled)

    • “as if writing off an entire segment of the population can be excused without any further examination of where those preferences come from”

      This, exactly! As has been discussed in other comments, it’s definitely not okay to claim that someone’s lack of attraction to a disabled person is solely an issue of ableism (and I don’t know any disabled people, myself included, who would try to claim that rather than also examining the other various factors that go into romantic attraction), but it’s also impossible to say that the conditioning and misconceptions around disability don’t play into it in a very big way.

    • ” it’s often the same people that will angrily call out others on using ableist slurs but simultaneously would not consider dating a disabled person, and we as a community need to deconstruct what prejudices and social pressures shape our sexual preferences. I’ve heard way too often the excuse of “I can’t help what I like!” in reference not only to disability but also race and cis/trans* status”

      THIS. This is my pet peeve. There’s a difference between patting yourself on the back for political correctness and actually viewing people as social equals.

      Thanks for that link btw!

  22. I am able-bodied, but my step dad is in a wheelchair, so I grew up seeing a lot of things from the side. A lot of people gave my mom shit for choosing to be with someone who has a physical disability. Growing up in that situation, I can see the difficulties my mom faced by choosing to be with him and not with an able-bodied person, so i can understand the hesitation of dating someone in a similar situation…I also feel though that I grew up being able to see the benefits:-) I think it helped everyone in my family to value and appreciate life in a very different way.
    I just finished a sociology class in “medicine and society” and we spent a couple classes focusing on studies, and the whole thing blew my mind away. we didn’t talk about sexuality in my class, so reading this gave those lectures even more meaning to me. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

    • That’s really cool Becca! A lot of people I know within the disabled community acknowledge pros and cons to dating both able and disabled partners. Glad it worked out for your mom!

  23. I don’t have anything to add to the discussion on this fantastic piece other than to say thank you, Erin! This was wonderfully written and speaks to so many important issues regarding disability, sexuality, community etc.

  24. I definitely don’t want to derail this discussion and I don’t think the situations are the same at all but I see a lot of parallels to the way trans* women are desexualised in queer spaces.

    People get really hostile when you question where their declarations of non-attraction to entire groups comes from. I mean it’s sort of understandable in queer spaces with the way sexual orientation is constantly under attack but it doesn’t mean it’s excusable or you shouldn’t continue to challenge and question it.

    Kia kaha (stay strong) sister.

    • Often desexualization and infantilization results in an outwardly smoother transition as ignorant people aren’t “threatened” by someone they can’t imagine sexually. However, many of my friends felt stuck in limbo after they transitioned: their friends, family and caretakers continued to act like they were humoring them, often for years.

      But the overlap doesn’t always result in desexualization. Enduring chronic pain can be seen as macho/tough/etc and being perceived as frail can lead to sexist assumptions about being feminine/weak/”in need of protection”. This can be very frustrating for young people as they first come to terms with both their disability and their gender. Since people often react to a disability first and ignore the behavior, appearance, clothing or even the words of a disabled person, being gendered for aspects of a disability can lead to being sexualized despite making huge efforts to just be left alone.

  25. This is a really great piece!! A lot of the things you said really resonated with me.

    Erin, I’m wondering if you’ve gotten into disability studies at all. I’m an PhD student in disability studies at UIC and after reading your piece I really feel the need to plug it to you! Disability studies has some really great discussions about the themes of discrimination, infantilization, desexualization, etc. related to sexuality. From what I read I could see you getting really into it. I’d be more than happy to talk to you about it or about our program, both of which are really awesome!

  26. (trigger warning: mental illness talk)

    Erin, thank you. I have an invisible disability (several mental illnesses) and recently I was beating myself up for passing my 24th birthday and still being a virgin. While I was busy beating myself up about it though, I began realizing that my reasons for being a virgin are totally valid. It’s not so much that other people are afraid of *me* (although, admittedly, this is part of the reason) but that my disability has been a too all-consuming part of my life to have a relationship and a sex life. I’ve been too busy trying to keep afloat (primarily staying alive, quite literally, and doing well in school, because my education has always been very important to me) to think about anything else. I’ve *finally* reached a point of stability in my life so I am venturing out into the dating world.

    I think I’m going to journal about this; this has given me a lot to think about. Thank you <3

    • Yeah, I think it’s so important not to fall into the trap of internalizing society’s prejudices as personal flaws. In my opinion, self-improvement is good to an extent, but not when it’s done as a way to reinforce a negative mindset by attempting to “fix” yourself towards an imagined ideal. Don’t ever apologize for being who you are.

  27. Thanks so much for this essay. As a differently-abled individual I identify with a lot of what you say. I also feel like I have to prove my desirability, sexuality and attractiveness. It’s true: many people do not look at differently-abled individuals in that way. It is not an excuse as to why me, you, and others have difficulties in terms of dating/sex/relationships. It a FACT. We as a community are up against this twisted idea of forever being asexual and child-like.

    I really like the part about you dressing provocatively. I do the same thing. It has not been very successful for me but I continue to try and do it 1) because I enjoy it and 2) because I want to challenge the idea that a physically differently-abled woman has no sex appeal.

    I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on differently-abled people dating each other. The concept of “dating up” is a universal idea in society. Many fully-abled body people might think they are dating down or settling by dating one who is differently-abled. Personally, up until a couple years ago, I did not consider dating a differently-abled person. It wasn’t because I thought I could do “better.” I just never considered it. The realization bothered me at first because I am a member of the community of which I did not think of. Heteronormative ideas also speak to the idea of a strong, capable partner. The ideas and assumptions surrounding disability do not fit that bill.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. I don’t know of many people who understand where I’m coming from in regards to this issue so reading your essay was extra special for me.

    • I used to be totally against inter-disability dating because I was told it was my “only option” and heavily pressured to do so whenever I made a new disabled friend. Everyone treated us like kindergartners and I felt insulted. I didn’t want to be complicit in perpetuating our own infantilism by confirming the stereotype that we weren’t “good enough” for able bodied people. Nowadays, I realize my reaction was the result of internalized ableism and I’m pen to anything, although certain levels of mobility impairment in my partner in light of my own limitations could make getting physical a bit more difficult. ;)

  28. This article really had me thinking about my own perception of disabled people. I think it was the point, and I thank you for it. I spend a lot of time pondering my own relationship to stuff before I go and form a global opinion. I had never really thought out my own relationship to disabled people and the stigmas that surround them. I mean, I do think about people with disabilities at times, especially kids, because I work with kids. But when it comes to adults, I reckon I’d never asked myself : “Would I think of someone in a wheelchair or with a physical disability as sexually attractive?”

    I will go on and say, with quite a bit of shame, that I do think I would have the reflex to infantilize disabled people, to some extent. Why? Because I see them as people who need “more care” than me. Why do I see them that way? Or rather, why did I think of them that way until right now? Because society.

    Truth is that we just don’t hangout enough with disabled people. I honestly do not recall having one classmate in a wheelchair ever. I know that I often feel like I cannot relate to them, just because I’ve never had the occasion to actually really *talk* to them. Maybe even ask them questions. We’ve stigmatised disabled people to the point where we’re not even comfortable being genuinely curious about their condition. Curious in the healthy, polite way, I mean.

    We are forever doomed to be these wee small kids who pull their moms sleeve in the street to very innocently ask : “Mommy why is the sir in a wheelchair?” and instead of getting a real reply about how the human body functions, and why some bodies are a bit different, we get hushed with a : “Don’t point at people, it is impolite.”

    Thank you for sharing your feelings, and making me think about my own views on the matter. You are right, we all need to do a lot of work. I’ll go start now. :)

    (Also, I really liked this part of the article :
    “My most recent crush, made painfully aware of my feelings after a night of drunken confession, dodged the subject by insisting that I would date a woman for a few years and then inevitably leave her for a man. When I protested that I would never leave a committed relationship on the basis of gender alone, she said I had no way of knowing that because I had never slept with a man.”

    Man, does biphobia suck. *tragic high five*)

    p.s. If my writing is arkward, I plead francophone.

  29. FYI: I’ve never been to this site before. My sister-in-law found this article and sent it to me. I have Late-Stage Lyme Disease which severely affects my mobility and energy levels. I’m also bisexual.

    This article is fantastic but I almost love the comments-discussions more. Really hashing out what makes a person ableist, how and why we say we’re attracted to certain sets of people, invisible/visible/mental/physical disabilities, queer politics; it’s all there and I love it.

    In my last serious relationship, my partner was more focused on my illness than I was/am. Whenever my illness came up, even if it was just me putting my medicine bag into my purse, my partner would try to give me a hug. Like every time I’m confronted with a reminder of my illness, I’m supposed to be an emotional wreck and want comfort. My disability is a part of my life that is there and it obviously affects many of my choices but it’s not at the top of my mind 100% of the time. A person in a wheelchair isn’t constantly thinking about their wheelchair, just like I’m not constantly thinking about my medicine or my cane. I find that a lot of able-bodied people want to have that discussion with me constantly like it’s all there is to talk about, when in fact there is everything else to talk about.

    At the same time, I’m a person riding the line between visible and invisible illness/disability. I’m currently buying property for a small farm with my brother. When I go into the bank or to meet with the realtor, I’m consciously thinking about how to present myself (as anyone would, I think) but for me it’s “do I suffer the pain and leave my cane in the car so that these people will have more faith in my abilities?” (Sorry, I know this was more about sexuality but people were talking about physical presentation and it got me thinking.)

    Thanks to Erin and everyone for writing things that I could read and think critically about and appreciate.

    • i’m so glad your sister-in-law found this article and sent it to you. your whole comment is really thoughtful and thought-provoking, and i appreciate you adding more layers and perspectives to the dialogue happening here. good luck buying property and farming, and thank you for sharing pieces of your story with us. i hope you’ll come back to the site a lot! we’d love to have you here.

    • I really like your comments on how your partner in your last relationship seemed to be more focused on your illness than you were. That’s something I’ve encountered, too, albeit for mental illness as opposed to a physical one. Sometimes partners try so hard to be supportive, they forget that not every moment of our lives is inextricable from illness, and that often, the best thing they can do to support us is to help us focus on something else.

      As Vanessa said, good luck with the farm and property! I hope that, however you choose to present yourself, the people you’re dealing with see the confidence and strength you seem to feel.

  30. This article is perfect. As a fellow lady lover with a disability I find it increasingly frustrating when I’m viewed as being neither sexually nor romantically desirable by a good chunk of society, let alone the fact that society thinks I’m not capable of nor desire sexual contact.

  31. Honestly I never thought this would be a huge problem, especially for someone who is quite attractive. I’m sorry that you haven’t met any genuine lovers yet. Anyone worth loving really wouldn’t care about the wheel chair. God knows anyone can become wheelchair bound or worse at any time in any relationship anyway. It happens to heterosexual couples all the time.

    I hope you find your ms. right soon so you can be fully appreciated instead of marginalized. People are pigs.

  32. I was doing a search on Google about the “joys” of being queer and disabled when your article came up. I’m not in exactly the same position, however I am physically challenged and queer and it’s dismaying how differently people look at you when you don’t fit their mold.

    Thank you for being a voice about these issues, you deserve better than what you have been given by our community. It’s not easy but thank you for being so honest and shedding light on an issue that has hurt a lot of people.

  33. My best friend had (she died a few years ago)CP. She used a power chair, had a lot of involuntary movement, the CP affected her speech, and she was more or less the sort of person who attracted a lot of condescending telethon-style infantilization from strangers.

    She was also out before Stonewall, kicked an incredible amount of ass, and I feel sorry for anyone who never had the chance to meet her.

    For a while she had a bumpersticker on her chair that said: “I got this way from kissing girls.”

    I will never stop missing her.

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