My ex and I were together for a year. In that time, we talked about a lot: her novel, my work, how to do a job you hate, what we missed about college, new friends we made, our families, whose boss was worse (hers), creative frustration, favorite cocktails, Doctor Who and, obviously, sex. But my disability almost never came up. I mentioned it on our first date because I thought I should; I’d deftly avoided it online, and knew that jig was up once we met in person. So I resolved to set the tone – if I made it “no big deal,” it wasn’t one. Right?
It’s surprisingly easy for “no big deal” to become total silence. I can count on one hand the number of times I brought up cerebral palsy to her by name. And even then, it was as a glorified apology – an explanation for why I tripped over nothing or didn’t have my driver’s license yet. Sometimes I made it into a punchline, but only to keep it as far away from myself and (especially) our relationship as possible. And save for one memorable instance, it pretty much stayed out of our sex talks. Don’t get me wrong – I never stopped thinking about it, in and out of the bedroom, but I also never pressed the issue. Because frankly, I didn’t know what to say.
That’s what’s tricky about disabled sexuality: most people, disabled or not or anyplace in between, have no idea how to discuss it. So fear of “saying the wrong thing” takes over instead and the problem feeds itself. We never talk about it because we don’t know how to start. And that, my friends, is how you can date someone for an entire year without really acknowledging that cerebral palsy will probably affect your sex life. Easier to just ignore it.
I don’t want that to be an excuse anymore. Here’s the truth: sex is a lot more fun when you’re not pickling in uncertainty and denial. So to help you avoid that pitfall and get right to the amazing sex you deserve, I’ll share with you what I, as a disabled person, want to hear from my partners. Now you can stop wondering and start talking.
1. “Tell me what you like.”
Daunting? Absolutely – but also crucial. Disabled folks don’t get many opportunities to put our pleasure front and center. What we enjoy often takes a backseat to what we can and can’t do. And that goes double in the bedroom, where our bodies aren’t supposed to show up at all. Focusing on what feels good shows me you’ve got your priorities in order: not measuring my body against arbitrary expectations, but actually getting to know it. Trust me when I say that is huge.
If you create space for me to articulate what I want, you’re also acknowledging my body as something to be enjoyed rather than ignored or apologized for. Who doesn’t want to feel that way? And for those of us who like our sex with a side of politics, it is in fact radical to reframe disabled bodies as desired and desirable. No one is supposed to like being disabled or being with someone who is. Prioritizing pleasure over ability debunks that assumption and opens the door to better (i.e. more creative and communicative) sex for everyone.
2. “This is all really new.”
Look, I don’t expect you to come to bed armed with a Sins Invalid ticket stub and the latest edition of the Disability Studies Reader. Admitting you don’t know what you’re doing is okay. Because – guess what – sex with anyone is kind of terrifying! What matters is not stopping at that fear. Yes, disability is a complicating factor, but it doesn’t change the fact that intimacy is fundamentally a big ask. And I’ve found that one way to make sex less scary is to acknowledge what you don’t know. Acting like you’ve already done the homework usually leads to bad sex because it means you’re not listening. I’m not interested in what you know so much as what you’re willing to learn.
3. “Take your time.”
Essentially my sexual password. As soon as someone said this to me, I knew it was what I’d been waiting to hear all along.
I’ve always found the ticking clock to be one of the trickiest parts of sex. Sure, you can read every body-positive book and take every queer studies class and know that all bodies are different but really, you can still sense when something’s taking a while, right? Especially with a new person.
The thing is, cerebral palsy just makes life take longer. I walk slowly, need a good chunk of time to get ready in the morning, and definitely can’t settle into my body right away when someone else is touching it. So much of being disabled involves keeping up in a world not built for you; the pressure that entails is pretty hard to unlearn. So being able to go at whatever pace my body needs is not only a relief – it’s also a turn on. It shows me I can trust you, that you’re excited to be with me and enjoying what that means, and that you’re not in this to judge my body or see if I can “still do it.” (Side note: able-bodied people, do us all a favor and stop fixating on that. It just reveals your morbid curiosity and entitlement, both of which are gross. It does not make us want to sleep with you.)
4. “Let’s try another way.”
Every disabled person worth her salt knows about adaptation. It’s the buzzword our families, teachers, and physical therapists champion from the start – and best of all, it’s a great sex skill! We know how to get creative. But sex adds so much pressure to perform, it’s easy to forget that it doesn’t have to look a certain way. Fortunately, queer folks have a leg up (pun not intended, but embraced) in knowing that sex isn’t just one thing. Use that fact to your advantage. I try to speak up when a particular position or activity isn’t working for my body, and love when my partner is attuned to that as well. I spend so much of my day-to-day life explaining my body to people; if you can shift some of that burden off me when we’re having sex, we’ll both enjoy it a lot more.
5. “I love your body.”
I don’t need to hear this from anyone else – I know my body’s great, thanks – but I certainly want to. Disability makes it easy to internalize that your body is a caveat, liability, or mistake. I know I’m not alone in admitting that I worked so hard to be likable for years because I wanted to balance out my body’s shortcomings. If I was the nicest, funniest, and smartest, maybe someone would date me even though I look like this. It’s a tough habit to reverse, especially when “see past it” remains the party line on disability decorum. Hate to break it to you, but that’s not allyship – that’s erasure. True understanding and engagement, the kind that’s a requirement for good sex, means complimenting my body for its own sake. If you see something you like, tell me. Don’t keep it to yourself. Get specific.
Trust me, it’s a fun conversation.