I Beg Your Pardon? Dealing with Rude Nondisableds

sex and disability graphic

Many people with evident physical impairments — like those that require the use of mobility devices — encounter rude questions from nondisabled people on the regular. Those with chronic illnesses and other impairments that might not always be immediately obvious certainly come in for their share as well. Sometimes it feels like we should be selling tickets to the freak show.

Ridiculous and wildly inappropriate questions come from family, friends, complete strangers, and even medical professionals who should know better.

They may want to know: "What's wrong with you?" "How did you get like that?" "Are you going to get better?" "How do you [ordinary daily task]?" But when it comes to sexuality, many nondisabled people are extremely curious — and rude.

Some seem to think asking for intimate details about your sex life is totally okay. They want to know mechanics and details like: "How do you have sex in a wheelchair?" "Can you...?" If you're LGBQ, they ramp it up even more. The good old "but how do lesbians have sex?" question goes on steroids when one or both partners is disabled. It doesn't seem to occur to them that they're being pretty rude — how would they like it if we went around asking them intimate personal questions?

You have the right to privacy, and to be treated with respect and dignity. That includes the right to decline to discuss private medical information with people, and to pass on an opportunity to talk about whether and how you have sex. The only people who truly need information about your sex life are your sexual partners — in intimate personal communication with each other about how to have joyful, delightful sex — and your doctor, when it's medically relevant. ("I'm thinking about getting pregnant," "I'm having vaginal pain," or "I'm worried I might have an STI.")

It can be hard to figure out how to deal with people asking invasive questions, particularly if you live in a culture where you're taught to be polite to others, especially elders, and it's an important part of your values.

It may feel uncomfortable or even wrong to assert yourself, so let's start with the soft approach, one endorsed by none other than Miss Manners: The "pardon me?"

"Hey, can you, you know...get it up?"

"Pardon me?"

People ask rude questions for all kinds of reasons — genuine curiosity, confusion, a mistaken attempt at conveying interest, or, yeah, rudeness. A (sometimes rather pointed) "pardon me?" is an answer that's both perfectly polite and unobjectionable while also putting people on blast that what they're saying probably isn't very appropriate. By reflecting the question back on the asker this way, you're forcing them to rethink whether that question is such a good idea.


Circus History Sidebar

Historically, some circuses would scour institutions for good prospects to use in sideshow attractions and "adopt" them. This model was pretty exploitative, though some (self identified) freaks have said they preferred working to support themselves and being able to interact with members of the public to moldering in institutions. Today, disabled people in the circus community are autonomous, empowered adults who love their jobs. The practice of exhibiting people as "freaks" at a sideshow is outlawed in some areas, and it's falling out of fashion.


If they decide to keep pressing the point, it's okay to say: "That's none of your business," "I don't feel comfortable discussing personal matters with you," "I don't think this is relevant to the conversation," or just, "You're being rude, please stop." Sometimes rephrasing the question and tossing it back at them can also send a pretty clear signal that ends this line of conversation — "How do you have sex in a wheelchair?" "Uh, how do you have sex without one?"

It's okay to be curious — I'm curious about all kinds of things! — but it's not okay to use actual living humans like a reference textbook.

There are resources available to nondisabled people who are interested in learning more about disability and sexuality that don't involve querying every disabled person they meet about their personal lives. (Like this one, for example!) Sometimes nondisabled people feel awkward or uncomfortable and it's not your job to put them at ease, but redirecting the conversation somewhere else can demonstrate that you have interests beyond your disability; shift the conversation to books, cooking, music, film and television, something in the news, or other topical subjects.

Don't be afraid to ask for a bailout, either. Your friends should be able to back you up when you're trapped in the corner with someone who's quizzing you about whether it's awkward to have sex when you wear an insulin pump. If you're out with friends, consider arranging a discreet signal that means "come help me!" so you can escape these kinds of conversations. Your nondisabled friends should also know that it's okay (and welcome) to intervene even without being asked if they see a disabled person being asked invasive personal questions, and encourage them to push back on speculation about the sex lives of disabled people even when we aren't in the room.

Many people think it's okay to ask rude questions because no one has told them not to, or they think the rules don't apply to them. Letting them know it's not okay isn't just good for you, it's good for society.