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Body and Sexuality Disconnects with Disability

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evan21 asks:

Hi all! This might be a super specific question only to me, or it may help some of you out in the Interwebz, too. I am a university student with a disability called cerebral palsy. As a result, I walk on crutches. I have also been a virgin for all my 21 years. Generally I'm a romantic type of guy, but in a university environment, this tends to get me friend zoned pretty quickly. Lately I've realized I carry a lot of shame about my body and my sexuality. I can't be seen as a sexual object, because it would "ruin" my romantic image. Because of the disability, I tend to live in my head and not deal with my body as much.

Even though I'm an outgoing, positive person, anything to do with sexuality makes me feel bad and down on myself. This can be anything from meeting a girl on a night out and getting rejected, to thinking about all the fantasies and kinks I may or may not have. What should I do? How can I feel comfortable in my own body and with my own sexual nature, particularly when it doesn't look like I'll be sharing it with someone anytime soon?

Thanks so much for all the work you do on the site. I recently discovered you guys, and you all are awesome!

Robin Mandell replies:

You're welcome!

What you're asking about here is something a lot of people experience and wonder about whether they have a disability or not. Even if these kinds of uncertainties about our sexualities weren't pretty common, even if what you're talking about was unique to you and a few other people, that wouldn't make it any less important, or any less worth exploring and finding solutions to.

Most of us struggle, in some way or other, to get a sense of our sexual selves, which is made even more tricky by our sexual selves changing over time.

It's also not uncommon for people with disabilities to feel left out of, or behind the curve in, interactions related to sexuality and relationships. Sex has been set up as something that only people with certain kinds of bodies and certain kinds of lives have. This view of sex doesn't work for most people, whether or not they have a disability, but it can be particularly marginalizing to those of us who do.

To give you some context for my answer here, I just wanted to let you know that I, too, have physical disabilities, though not a mobility impairment, and, from my own experience and that of friends who have various disabilities, I know social interactions can be tricky because of other people's fears or preconceived ideas about disability.

Our sense of ourselves as sexual beings can also get tricky because of that tendency to separate ourselves from our bodies that you describe.

I think what you're experiencing is very common. I feel really confident saying that other people feel just as worried about their sexuality, and the future of their sexuality, as you're expressing here. What you're expressing is, I think, made trickier for you by your own feelings about your disability, body and sexuality, and by the things other people have said to you about your body, or that you perceive they feel about your sexuality.

You've mentioned feeling separated from your body; living more in your head. People with physical disabilities often describe that feeling of separateness. It can come from a variety of emotional places and experiences. Sometimes people feel this way because they don't like their body, because their body gives them a lot of pain or discomfort, because they worry about how their body is perceived by others since it doesn't meet the (unrealistic for anyone) standard for desirability set by our society, because they've experienced so much medical and rehabilitation intervention that their body really doesn't feel like their own anymore, and for a whole host of other, interconnected reasons. Does any of that resonate with you? If not, that's okay. Sometimes, people will express feeling this separation of mind and body without really knowing why. Knowing why is one route to helping ourselves, but not the only one.

We can get to be friends with our bodies without fully understanding the reasons we weren't before.

I think a good place for you to start with this might be to think about what parts of your body you do like and connect with. This doesn't have to be anything specifically sexual; it could be something as simple as really appreciating the colour of your eyes or the texture of your hair. Most of us, whether disabled or not, are generally discouraged from exploring this self-appreciation. We're sent subtle and not-so-subtle messages that our bodies don't matter, or we're encouraged not to be vain about our own physical appearance. At the same time, physical appearance is given huge weight in many cultures. When it comes to sex and dating, in particular, physical appearance is, to believe all the primping and fussing people do, paramount. Double standard, much?

If we can't appreciate any characteristics, physical or otherwise, about ourselves, there's something wrong. Our minds, or the tangible things we do, aren't the only things that matter about us. If we're encouraged to be, or to make ourselves, physically desirable to others, then the least we should be able to do is enjoy and appreciate ourselves physically! When I talk about being physically desirable to others, I'm not just talking about sex, but about all the things we do to present ourselves in ways that meet the expectations of family, friends, employers, and so on.

Many people with physical disabilities get bogged down in all the messages, and the realities, of what their bodies can't do. some of these limits are very real, some of them less so. Many times, these limits have more to do with the world around us than with our own bodies. Some of these limits are arbitrarily assigned to us based on other people's biases, or are limitations that don't really matter in the grand scheme of the full richness life has to offer, or are limitations that can be bypassed with a little bit of--or a lot of--creativity.

I'm wondering if it would be helpful to you to find, if possible, more ways you can experience your body, whether this would help you feel more rooted in (and perhaps less limited by) your physical self. If you're interested in sports, for example, exploring the world of adaptive sports might help you feel more like you've got a body, as well as a mind, that you enjoy being in and using. You could find out if there are accommodations that would make using your school's gym doable for you. Or, you might decide to explore the option of getting regular massages, not necessarily for health or medical reasons, but for the ability to enjoy your body and get to know it more as something that is part of you. You might choose to give yourself a partial or complete clothing makeover, getting clothes that express who you are, if you don't feel like your current wardrobe does that. Clothing doesn't have to just be functional; even if you're limited in clothing to items that are comfortable, easy for you to put on, and that don't impede your movement, you can still choose to express yourself through the clothing medium.

Whatever it is you choose, and it might be something completely different from what I've suggested here, it should be something that makes you feel good about your body, something that, if it poses a physical challenge, is one you're excited about and enjoy. The simple task of conducting daily life in often not-so-accessible spaces with a mobility impairment can sometimes be frustrating, or a sometimes-amusing comedy of errors. Learning to enjoy your body shouldn't have to trigger that same sense of challenge or overwhelm for you.

Another part of this is to really and truly connect with your sexuality, as it is now, not as you hope it will (and are afraid it won't) be in future.

You're still - and you always have been - a sexual being, even though you don't have a partner right now, and you're not exploring your sexuality in ways that you want to be exploring it. Your sexuality is yours. it doesn't belong to anyone else, and while other people can enrich your experience of your own sexuality, you don't need other people to have a sexuality.

You've mentioned here that you have fantasies. You didn't share whether you masturbate, or whether you explore your sexuality in other ways, such as through reading erotic stories or looking at erotic pictures or videos. All of these are ways of being sexual. If you haven't explored these, consider giving them a try. Not all of them may float your boat, but they'll give you a broader sense of your sexuality. I certainly do get that these solo sexual practices feel lonely when what you want is a partner, but do know that these ways of exploring your sexual self aren't inferior to partnered sex.

There's this idea out there, I think, that fully realized sexuality only comes with partnered sex. At Scarleteen, we don't think that's true. We think that people can have a whole sexuality all on their own, and that, if they choose to find a partner, the sexual self they bring to that partnership, when it happens, can be richer for having been so fully explored on one's own.

I don't know if this plays into your experience at all, but I wanted to mention that I know we folks with disabilities often feel like we need to do whatever we can to fit into what we've often been told is the "normal" world. Our uniqueness as people is sometimes discouraged in misguided attempts to help us fit in better to a world that doesn't always accept us as disabled people. Having a partner, or dating, or having had partnered sexual experiences by a certain age or stage of life can feel like fitting in.

Realistically, twenty-one is not old for never having had a sexual experience, or any sort of significant romantic relationship, whether we're disabled or not. Sure, plenty of people have had sexual experiences before that age, but plenty haven't, and plenty of others have had sexual or dating experiences they didn't actually enjoy or find very fulfilling.

The casual dating scene is not simple, and there are rarely pat answers to help people navigate it. It's also not for everyone. You mentioned being rejected by girls when you're hanging out places. I'm not really sure what you mean by rejected - what context you were in, what you were hoping would come out of your encounters with them, and so on. Regardless of who we are, or what differences we have from what is considered "normal," we're not always going to click with everyone we meet. I know it's easy to feel like not clicking with these girls so far is about you, but, though I don't have any more information on what you've experienced, I can tell you that we know that people going out for a night on the town often have differing ideas for what they're looking for from that experience.

It also may be that the people hanging out at these places just aren't actually your sorts of people.

Part of living in one's head as much as you describe you do often means an introspection and a way of thinking that a lot of people, who don't live in their heads so much, don't always have, or at least don't always bring with them for a night of drinking and socializing.

You've said you're a romantic guy and that that gets you friendzoned. I'm wondering what you mean by romantic. I'm feeling unclear about how that impedes your sexual interactions and sexual options, so I'm going to make a few guesses. If I'm way off the mark, please feel free to let me know and I can have another go at addressing this part of your question.

I think you might be saying that you prefer to move at a slower, more sensual pace when relating to people you're attracted to, and that the people you've been interested in have had a more dualistic approach, either friendship or full-on sexually charged interaction. If this has been the case, that's a lot more about incompatibility than about there being something wrong with your approach. There's no one set way to be sexual. You're looking for something that the people you've encountered thus far aren't looking for. That doesn't make what you're looking for--or what they're looking for--inferior or unusual. It just means that you'll want to be patient in the circles you're in now, or explore different places and groups where you can interact with people who might be more compatible with you as far as pacing goes.

You sound, from what you've written here, like a pretty social person. As someone who has multiple physical disabilities herself, I know from experience that in many social spaces people are primarily interested in interacting with us based around our disabilities. If this has been the case for you, know that I know that this is uber-awkward and discouraging, and can make it hard to establish friendships (or relationships) based on mutual interests. it can make it hard to be friends with someone beyond a certain point let alone have them see you, or have you see them, as a potential sexual partner.

Have you ever explicitly asked someone to go on a date? I ask that because sometimes people who are very romantic tend to want to let things just unfold naturally, and won't always be explicit about what they're looking for. The idea of very specifically saying "Hey, can we get a movie some time." Or, in a different context: "I'd really like to kiss you. may I?" can feel foreign to romantic types. It can also really suck to put oneself out there and risk rejection. But you can make your romantic or sexual interest clear without also having to get or be sexual before the time feels right to you: someone else can know it's that kind of relationship you're interested in early, even right from the start, if you express that to them with words.

We don't always get what we're looking for, though, unless we're willing to take some risks. And of course, some people will decide to want us as a friend because they want us as a friend: often when someone decides that, it's less about us doing the right things or not, and more about the way they just feel about us as people.

I hear you voicing that because you don't have a sexual partner, or anyone to explore your fantasies and kinks with, that your sexuality is on hold right now. our sexualities are always with us, always part of us, no matter whether we're acting on them or not.

Fantasies are things we get to have, get to enjoy, regardless of whether or not we have anyone to act them out with. Many people don't want to act out their fantasies, and prefer to enjoy them in fantasy-land. Other people find that their fantasies are more enjoyable in fantasy-world, and that they lose a lot of their charm and magic when they try to enact them in real life. Does this make not having the opportunity to choose whether you want to act out your fantasies any easier? Nope, I don't imagine it does. You still get to enjoy your fantasies if you want, though; sexual thoughts aren't any less important than sexual activities with others. The arousal we feel and the enjoyment we get from fantasies isn't any less real, and, like I said above, sometimes we can eventually get what we desire if we're willing to take a few risks and are prepared for a few potential flops.

Sexuality encompasses your entire physical self plus your entire emotional and intellectual selves too. Sexuality isn't just about the body parts that people generally think of as sexy, thighs, butts, genitals, breasts and the like. Sexuality also isn't about whether you can or can't do the entire range of sexual activities that are out there; most people won't want to do every sexual activity known to humankind. You haven't mentioned here whether you have any fears or concerns about your disability holding you back from physical sexual activities, whether you've been told, subtly or not, that sex isn't something people with disabilities can expect to happen for them. If you have been told this, if you do have that fear, or it ever comes up, know that there is no one way to engage in sex with a partner, and that adapting or altering things is not about adapting just for disability, but simply about choosing other sexual activities or other ways of doing them based on people's individual needs and wants.

What do you want your sexual life to look like? I think that if you can make a picture of what you want your sexual life to be, you can then start to take steps towards making that happen for you. Of course, if that picture includes having a partner, it's not going to be as easy as snapping your fingers and having the perfect partner appear. Sadly, it just doesn't work like that---for any of us, disability or not.

But what imagining your sexual life can give you is a blueprint for what you're looking for, and a space to give yourself emotional permission to want the things you want.

You don't have to figure that out alone, though. We would, for starters, be happy to talk about any of this with you at our message boards. You might also consider confiding in a trusted friend, someone whom you know likes and respects you deeply, someone who will be honest, but also gentle and supportive of you.

Your school likely has a free or low-cost counseling service for students. A good counselor will give you the time and space to explore your feelings without judgments or expectations.

Mostly, what is important here is, I think, for you to get to know and appreciate your body for what it can give you and what it does do for you, recognize and celebrate your sexuality for what it is, and expand your realm of possibilities for finding potential partners. Here's a handful of books and online resources that will, I think, give you tools and ideas to help you do just that.

I'm wishing you the very best of luck with this journey.

written 04 Dec 2013 . updated 28 Jan 2014

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