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Do My Wheels Look Big In This?

July 18, 2019

This is a guest post by Geek ‘n’ Proud who Tweets @geeknproud42.

Do my wheels look big in this?

Why am I asking this? To clarify, I am not talking about whether your wheelchair, if you use one, has a good fashion sense. However, I am going to discuss a topic which I hope you will find equally, if not more interesting, and that is the potential frustrations that many people with disabilities can face, with respect to sexual and romantic relationships. I speak from the perspective of mainly my personal experiences, and hopefully I will be able to draw some conclusions from it, which may be useful to you.

So, before we start with my story, let’s remember that, although I can tell you what worked for me, there is not one magic bullet that will ensure that everyone who has a disability will have a happy and fulfilled personal life. Please also remember, that you may have a different perspective on the situations that I will describe, but it is important to know that no one has walked in another person’s shoes and hence we should all respect each other’s stories.

As I was writing this, I realised that my experiences had some recurring themes. I started off as a young teenager, thinking I was really into quiet geeky guys. As you will see, I have gone the long way round the houses to find I am still into quiet geeky guys, but other people too. But no spoilers. I have also noticed that I have had to consider paths that I might not have thought about, if I wasn’t negotiating this situation with a disability. I also think, that one of the main things I have learnt about this subject, is that it is all down to attitudes. I think this is particular to the combination of relationships and disability, compared to disability and other areas of life. It is certainly true that, if all entrances to a building have steps, then the building is not accessible to someone using a wheelchair, irrespective of the attitudes of the people inside and outside of the building. I also think that I can point to a lot of examples of different minority groups welcoming each other, but again no spoilers.

Let’s go back to the beginning, well almost. Back to my teenage years, at least. As a teenager, I felt very worried that my disability would interfere with romantic and sexual relationships. When I met up with friends, I seemed obsessed with asking them “do you think I’ll ever find someone? How do you think I should make that happen?”. Around me, I saw my friends pairing up, and unpairing, and I wanted to be in on the action, but I didn’t see how to make that occur. You have to realize that, until I was 18, I didn’t have full time personal assistants, and my parents helped me out. Now, my parents are absolutely awesome, and they gave me every opportunity possible to live life to the full. But, as we all know, the combination of parents and puberty is a difficult one at the best of times. It’s a kind of a dampener when you turn up to a date with your mum in tow. I feel like every other aspect of my disability was extremely well supported, but the issues surrounding sexuality were something I had to figure out for myself. I would say this is probably unavoidable. After all, who really wants to talk to their parents about how they are going to get up to no good? This situation was also partly my choice. I was, and still am, extremely passionate about science (particularly physics) and it was always my overarching ambition to study physics at university, and go into research. At one point, I had a choice of whether we employed a scribe at weekends, to write down my homework for me, or a personal assistant to help me get out and about. I chose the scribe without question, because I really wanted to get into the best university I could, and I knew I had to study extremely hard. I am not at all saying that I wasn’t also swayed by the fact that my scribe was a teenage boy who I had a bit of a soft spot for. But also, in a way, I used my success in my studies to substitute for my perceived lack of success in relationships. I almost saw doing well at school as an act of rebellion against all the people who assumed I couldn’t do things. I was a bit of a weird kid.

However, my best friend at the time was absolutely convinced that I was some flavour of queer. As it turns out, she did have a point, but I was a bit slow on the uptake in that respect. Being a physics student, I was surrounded by teenage boys and, hence there was always plenty of choice as, like I have already said, I thought geeky guys rocked! If one was in any way friendly towards me I would develop a crush on him in very short order, particularly if he was talking to me about my main passion – physics. This happened frequently, and often in front of my parents, so they came up with the mantra “Geeknproud is boy crazy!” to tease me. Of course, I was such a goody goody two shoes, that if my parents said it, then it must be right. This was despite the fact that at night I thought about naked women, because that’s what all straight teenage girls do, right?

This state of comfortable illusion lasted into my early 20s, by which time I was studying for my undergraduate degree in physics. Then, it happened! I committed the big no-no, that was to develop a serious crush on my personal assistant. You might say that I was trying to copy Stephen Hawking, who married his nurse, but it was simply that we really connected with each other, and I wanted to spend as much time as I could being physically close to her. Moreover, she was the first person who I knew well, who identified as a lesbian, and I was extremely curious about her life experiences.   More on her story later, no spoilers, but in case you’re wondering, I didn’t end up dating her. However, obviously I knew I was in a bit of a dodgy situation. I even used to believe that I couldn’t fancy women, because how could I ever have female personal assistants. I naively thought it was some kind of weird boundary that I couldn’t cross. Fortunately, she just laughed it off, and said it was just another example of me getting confused about people who I am very good friends with, which I used to do all the time when I was younger. I actually spent a whole year figuring out if it was just her or women in general. At the start of the next academic year, I finally resolved to bite the bullet, and joined the LGBT group at university, where I was surrounded by lots of other very pretty lesbians.  I had an amazing time; it was the social life I was looking for: a group of people to go to bars, clubs, museums, restaurants, cinemas with. I made a lot of strong friendships, but unfortunately no other gossip.

I graduated from my degree at Imperial College London in 2014, and started my PhD in Cambridge the same year. In the following year, my PhD research took me to CERN in Switzerland to conduct experiments there. It was really exciting to be working abroad, but, at the same time, I was very lonely. I was spending the majority of my time with people who I had only recently met, so one thing that really surprised me was how much I craved any kind of physical contact. It wasn’t appropriate to hug any of the people I interacted with while I was there, and apart from my parents and one friend visiting occasionally at weekends, there was no one I knew socially there.  Like during my undergraduate years, the LGBT group was the best part of my experience. I got on well with the people and we went to a lot of cool events together. I went over from the UK with a group of about 40 other PhD students who were on the same kind of course, and there was a tendency in that group to go around as a pack and not talk to anyone not from the UK, which I didn’t like. The LGBT group was much smaller and its members were a bit older and much more international, so I found their company more interesting. Due to the loneliness I felt there, on my return I was determined to make my social life more exciting.

When I returned to Cambridge, I started online dating with a vengeance. I had had an OKCupid account for years, but really it was so mild that I only ever got platonic pen pals from it. I’m not saying that it will work for everyone to make their dating profile cheeky, but it seemed to do the job for me. And to be clear by cheeky I don’t mean along the lines of some profiles that only have naked pictures, I just wrote it with a lot more confidence to say what I was looking for. I also found that the internet gave me a lot more freedom, because suddenly I didn’t have to worry about whether someone understood my speech. Of course you have to decide how and when you tell people about your disability and I decided to write about my wheelchair on my profile in a jokey and light-hearted way. Then, as I got talking to someone, at some point I told them more details, partly to protect myself from an unpleasant meeting in public. Again, I found much more acceptance in the LGBT community – it just seemed like an unfortunate trend that the vast majority of unpleasant messages came from heterosexual men. This was on top of never really feeling like sexual attention from men in real life was genuine, and not predatory, combined with my experience of being put in the ‘friend zone’ by nice boys as a teenager. So, I all but ruled out heterosexual men.

In case you’re wondering, the internet dating was successful. I found someone and we had a very happy few months together. She also introduced me to polyamory, so all in all, that first relationship was a very big learning experience in many ways. Even after we went our separate ways, polyamory was an idea that I continued to explore for the next few years, as well as other aspects of the world of dating and relationships. It is only relatively recently, with my current partner, that I have decided that polyamory is not for me, at least in this period of my life.

I will try to pull some sense for you, out of the few years I took, to figure out what kind of relationship I wanted. There were certainly a lot of very fun times, but also more setbacks, rejections and disappointments than I care to mention. But through the bad times I remembered how frustrated I had been as a teenager and how much I had wanted to experience what it was like to have romantic relationships. Certainly, when I was a teenager, I never thought I would have those notorious casual relationships, whatever that means. For me it meant, to give you an example, I got in touch with a fellow PhD student who lived in Brighton. Every few months I would go and visit them, or they would come to me, and then we would spend some of the time cuddled up indoors talking about black holes, sci-fi books and death metal, while other times we would go to Pride events or science debates. In the intervening weeks, we might only chat online a couple of times, but when we were together the connection was just as strong. I think that I always wanted to experience moments like that to prove that I could before I focused my attention on one person. I also found that in some ways my disability might have opened doors for me. At Pride people were always very happy to see I was going out and about despite needing to use a wheelchair. I was also always welcome into trans and non-binary spaces even though I only occasionally identified as non-binary. It’s also true that a lot of my partners in that period identified as trans, I don’t know why this happened in this way, but perhaps we recognised a shared experience in each other. I can’t say for sure.

So that is, more or less, my story. However, to tie up a few loose ends, after my personal assistant stopped working with me, we continued to be close friends. A few years later, she confided in me that she had always had a preference for men, but just happened to only have relationships with women. It took a slight readjustment to think of my initial reference point to LGBT+ culture as being mostly heterosexual. However, in a cool and unexpected turn of events, I ended up introducing her to one of my male friends and they dated for a while. Also, it turns out I did manage to find at least one lovely heterosexual male, and I am happily seeing him now.

Now, let me try to draw out what I think I have learned from the experiences I’ve had. I think the main point is that in the area of sexuality, relationships, and disability, a lot of the potential barriers can be broken down into the attitudes of the people involved and of society as a whole. For example, I experienced a very welcoming attitude from people in more LGBT+ friendly spaces, and a more threatening attitude from people in mainstream spaces. I also found that the validity of me going into trans and non-binary spaces was never questioned, even though, most of the time, I present in quite a feminine way. I wondered if this could have originated from people recognising that I’m also in a minority because I use a wheelchair, and whether someone who presented in a very masculine way, for example, would be questioned more. I have not tested this, so I can’t be sure. Once again, I want to stress that I am not trying to say that all LGBT+ people are accepting to everyone, and all non-LGBT people are not welcoming, because that would be a gross and unfounded generalisation. However, I am just talking about my repeated experiences. It also made a big difference when my attitudes changed. When I put a lot more confidence into online dating, and was convinced I would find someone, I did, whereas when I previously thought it was a long shot, I only got lovely platonic pen-pals. Of course, boiling everything down to attitudes can’t be applied to most issues regarding disability. But this only addresses the interplay between someone’s disability and their relationships – which is fundamentally about the connection between two people, hence attitudes.

I want to just break down some of the frankly ridiculous attitudes that often prevail around people with disabilities, and sex and relationships. Some of the most worrying ones that I have heard are:

  • People with disabilities can’t have sex
  • People with disabilities don’t want sex
  • People with disabilities aren’t sexy
  • People with disabilities can’t or shouldn’t have children
  • Patronising attitudes towards people with disabilities dating
  • People with disabilities only have kinky sex

Let me go through them and talk about where they could come from and why they are just wrong. First up, we might often hear people saying that folk who have disabilities can’t have sex. This is just an inaccurate, gross generalisation. The majority of people who have disabilities can have sex just fine. It may happen in a slightly different way to how it is portrayed in film, or other media, but as we all know, that is fake. It is true that some people with disabilities find it extremely difficult to have sex because they might have issues like pain, decreased mobility, or issues to do with mental health that could get in the way of feeling sexy. However, these people are the minority.

Then we have the myth that people with disabilities don’t want sex. This one originates from the way society often portrays people with disabilities as needing to be cared for, which could make them think of people with disabilities in the same way they think about children. Out of this could originate an idea that people with disabilities aren’t able to make their own choices because they have someone doing it for them, so how can they consent to sex? This is also myth because, at least the way I see it, and most people I’ve met, the role of the assistant is to act as an enabler. Moreover, just because someone has a disability, does nothing to change the fact that they have the same wants, needs, desires and fantasies as everyone else.

Next up, we have the damaging attitude that people with disabilities aren’t sexy. This is purely a product of the bad attitudes of society, about using a wheelchair or having a movement disorder – it’s not seen as sexy. But clearly one needs to look past the disability to the person, whether you are looking at their personality, or their body, or both – it depends what one is trying to get out of the relationship.

Then we have the idea that people with disabilities can’t or shouldn’t have children. This is plainly nonsense because most disabilities aren’t inherited, and also most people with disabilities can have children in the same way that everyone else does. There are some people who could have difficulties, but again, they are a minority.

What’s next, ah yes, patronising attitudes to people with disabilities dating. This is a product of some of the attitudes we’ve already talked about, that people with disabilities aren’t desirable, so if someone chooses to date someone who has a disability, they are doing them some kind of weird favour. I can’t stress enough how wrong this is. But it is all too easy for someone with a disability to pick up this attitude, and have it really damage their confidence.

The last one is particularly weird, and ties into the patronising attitude one: ‘people with disabilities only have kinky sex’. In other words, if you’re considering having sex with someone who has a disability, you are some kind of sexual deviant. Of course, sex with a person with a disability is nothing to do with the person or their body, what planet are these people on??!

Jokes aside, these attitudes can be seriously damaging to the self-confidence of people who have disabilities, however much we tell ourselves they are nonsense. To make matters worse, certainly speaking from experience here, but I know it is also true of many other people, we have to often spend a lot of time thinking about our bodies in the context of disability. For example, at one point when I was a kid, I had to travel to physiotherapy three times a week, decreasing to once a week during my adolescence. But still, when you include the preparation and the travelling to and from the appointment, you still have a significant part of the day where you focus on all the things your body can’t easily do, even if it is in the context of trying to make things better. It can be hard to switch from that, to thinking that you are absolutely gorgeous, and could pull anyone.

So what is the upshot of all of this? Well, certainly I think it is unfortunately fair to say that most people who have disabilities, at some point lack confidence in the world of dating and relationships. On top of this, the situation isn’t helped at all by the lack of representation of people with disabilities dating, in the media, or even people with disabilities doing anything. This not only does not provide people with positive reinforcement, that the character in the film got a partner, therefore I can, but it also does nothing to relieve the bad and unfounded attitudes that people with disabilities aren’t date-able. It can also be very difficult and embarrassing to know where to turn. As a teenager, I felt bad about chewing my friends’ ears off about how I was going to accomplish the seemingly impossible. And I don’t think I was alone.

But, what I’m trying to say is, this problem is easily fixable. All we have to do is keep challenging these bad attitudes, wherever they come from, and always remember how sexy we all are!


One Comment leave one →
  1. July 18, 2019 9:07 am

    Reblogged this on Journeys In Words And On Wheels and commented:
    Disabled people want and can enjoy sex…

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