It’s the question that disabled people hate and dread the most. Sometimes it’s disguised in elaborately delicate wording, writes polio survivor Jim Bellarosa, who has spent over 40 years in a wheelchair. In his short story “the question.” he recalls a singularly awkward conversation he once had with a shy, prim, female biologist he’d taken out on a date.

The Last Taboo: Sex and the Disabled

“According to my biology text,” she blushingly began, “polio wouldn’t interfere with a chimpanzee’s — assuming a chimpanzee could get polio, of course — with a chimpanzee’s reproductive capacity. I mean a male chimpanzee, of course — wouldn’t interfere…” 

Finally, completely lost in her convoluted syntax, the biologist fell silent, awaiting Bellarosa’s response. “That’s delightful news for lady chimpanzees,” he said. “Unfortunately for that species, I don’t gossip in those circles.”

At other times the question is shockingly blunt, reports another man who has been a quadriplegic for over 20 years. He says that he might not mind bantering with lady biologists about the lovemaking skills of hypothetical male chimpanzees with polio, “or if any good-looking woman wanted to come up to me and ask if we could have sex, but what I really hate is having other guys who I never saw before in my life walk up to me in a bar or on the street, look down at me in my wheelchair, and ask, ‘Can you get a hard-on?’ Every time that I meet one of these two-bit pieces of shit, I reply with every low, cutting, foul insult I can think of — and it’s still not enough. It seems like there are only two questions in this world that interest people: ‘Who killed J.F.K.?’ and ‘Can disabled people get it on?’”

Although Bellarosa has apparently been spared the curiosity of boorish strangers in bars, he writes that he found even the most tactful inquiry of a prospective lover “an indignity.” Before he married he was asked variations of “the question” many times, by many women, and always felt hurt by it. “No other question more poignantly reminded me that I was different from other men,” he says, “or made me realize that anyone who’d begun to care considered my most precious ability suspect.”

“It’s a very disturbing question,” agrees Linda Mona, who is studying for her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Georgia State University and uses an electric wheelchair. “Most able-bodied people have no idea how much energy people with disabilities deplete in trying to deal with stuff like this. We’re taught that it’s our job to make people feel comfortable with us, so 500 times a day we have to thank able-bodied people for ‘help’ we didn’t want, need, or ask for, then put up with people who stare at us or strip us of all privacy by asking if we can have sex. The thought behind this question is like the analogy [disability-rights activist] Barbara Waxman draws: People with disabilities are viewed as being like a Barbie doll — if you look between the legs, there’s nothing there.”

Barbara Faye Waxman, the co-editor of a new book with the working title The Third Sex: The Sexual, Reproductive, and Family-Life Rights of Disabled People, who uses a wheelchair, remarks that she’s sick of seeing men and women with disabilities stereo-typed as asexual by both the public and the media. “Oprah Winfrey had one show with disabled people and their partners where she asked a man with a spinal-cord injury who was married to a nondisabled woman, ‘Can you have real ,sex? I mean, down-and-dirty sex?’ Well, what is ‘real’ sex, anyway? If Oprah’s talking about man on top of woman and hard fucking, the answer is maybe. Lots of disabled people can do that,” Waxman says. “But if this spinal-cord-injured man can’t get it up, does she mean that anything else he and his wife might do in bed to express their desire and love for one another isn’t ‘real’ sex? Able-bodied culture has very narrow notions of ‘real’ sex and ‘real’ beauty — and they are the source of the sexual pain, anxiety, and rejection we feel for not looking like other people.”

As degrading the myth that America’s 43 million disabled men and women can’t have sex is, says Waxman, the real problem is even worse — many times they’re not allowed to. Ironically, it’s often the same groups whose professed purpose is to help the handicapped — legislators, medical professionals, and rehabilitation centers — who do the most to oppress them sexually.

“Most of the barriers we face aren’t in our bodies,” Waxman, explains, “but in social and political policies that enforce celibacy. We’re put in the position of trying to prove that we’re human, we’re sexual, and we’re entitled to the same right to love, desire, and orgasm as the majority culture.”

“Sex and the disabled? It’s doubly fraught,” observes Lorenzo W. Milam, a former sexuality-disability columnist and the author of an autobiography, The Cripple Liberation Front Marching Band Blues. “The disabled are not supposed to think of, want, need, or be able to have sex,” Milam says. “It is a contradiction in terms and in comprehension. We’ve become society’s eunuchs.”

The topic is so taboo that it’s not even on the disability-rights agenda, activists say. Instead, it’s only recently that the government recognized that people with mental or physical handicaps have civil rights — with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which took effect in July 1992 — and so far, the pursuit of sexual happiness isn’t one of them.

“Even though our desire to express love and sexuality is even greater than our desire to get on a bus or get a job,” says Waxman, “those of us who move or look different are still being devalued as genderless and sexless.” This stigma even pervades terms like physically challenged, the differently abled, the handicapped, or the disabled — which some activists find objectionable because they define individuals only by their limitations. For this group, the politically correct term is persons with disabilities. Others judge the handicapped or the disabled acceptable (as does Penthouse), or coin their own term, as did Lorenzo Milam with crips, which he believes best embodies “the pith and vigor of our condition” and shocks the rest of society — “the temporarily abled.”

One of the most blatant examples of the sexual obstacles that the disabled face is described in Milam’s autobiography, in which he chronicles the sadistic delight that the staff at “Hopeless Haven”— as he calls the place where he recovered from polio in the 1950s — took in preventing residents from “consummating our cripple love.” Forty years later, he reports, other Dickensian horrors of this so-called hospital — starvation rations of gruel, beatings by nurses and orderlies that left some polio patients permanently maimed, and such excruciatingly painful and medically worthless treatments as electric shock muscle therapy — are mercifully rare. Even in the 1990s, however, the same Victorian attitudes that once drove Milam to “nut madness” at “Hopeless Haven” are still very much alive.

A 1990 survey by The Disability Rag gave a grim look at life inside institutional walls — an experience that nearly 20 percent of their readers have had. “While in a convalescent hospital as a teen,” one respondent wrote, “I saw others literally pulled apart when they tried [to make love]. I never tried.” A number of other readers portrayed a system in which mentally competent adults with purely physical impairments are “protected” from expressing sexuality by paternalistic policy makers. “Contact between clients was against the rules,” reported a former resident of a rehabilitation center. “Males were not allowed in females’ rooms, and vice versa.”

While some readers wrote gratefully of kindhearted staffers who “looked the other way” when they arranged a clandestine tryst, or of times when they briefly “escaped” the relentless supervision to enjoy a furtive erotic interlude, others described the punishments inflicted for breaking the rules. “Sexual behavior — even kissing — results in written ‘behavior reports,’ and every effort is made to prevent future occurrences,” reported one respondent, while another wrote of voyeuristic staffers who spied on couples who sought privacy.

One particularly bizarre extreme of institutional hysteria was recently reported in another publication, Spinal Network Extra, in which a reader wrote about what had happened when a nurse noticed a long, thin object with an electrical cord in her bathroom. “What’s this?” the nurse shrieked in horror. The patient explained that it was her curling iron. “She didn’t believe me,” the woman wrote. “She thought it was a sexual device [and] should be confiscated. Although I was over 18, I shouldn’t be having fun while learning how to be paralyzed.”

Saddest of all was the story of a man and a woman in a chronic-care institution who, after a year of platonic romance, hoped to escape the sexual strictures by renting a hotel room but couldn’t, because no member of the hospital staff would help them get in and out of the bed, claiming they would lose their jobs if they did so. “To make a long and frustrating story short,” the woman continued, her boyfriend died “without knowing the fulfillment of my love.”

Why are staffers at these facilities so obsessed with detecting and outlawing sex? Milam thinks it’s a mix of prurient curiosity and contempt. “It has to do with those embarrassing questions we — or rather, you — have about cripples and sex,” he says. “What does go on, anyway, when paraplegics and triple amputees decide to make it? How does the thalidomide baby conjoin with the four-foot dwarf, or normal, five-foot-ten you, for that matter?”

Others contend that doctors find their sexuality threatening because, as one activist explains, “Not every disabled person can have sex in the missionary position.” Advising disabled clients on their erotic options definitely makes counselors uncomfortable. One survey showed that while 80 percent claimed to be willing to do so, only 16 percent actually had. Another survey found that fewer than one out of five patients in rehabilitation were given any information on alternative lovemaking positions, or on specialized sexual techniques and devices designed for the disabled.

Ironically, in some cases attendants or hospital staffers may be quite open-minded about any erotic variation that their handicapped clients might wish to explore, but are inhibited by some state laws intended to protect “vulnerable adults” from sexual abuse by caregivers, reports John Scaliest, a quadriplegic and the president of the Midwest Consortium on Sexuality and Disability. “I know of a case here in Minnesota,” he says, “where a severely disabled man with cerebral palsy wants to use a vibrator for self-pleasure but needs someone to set it up for him. The residential facility he lives in would like to help but can’t, because the law is so vaguely drafted that if even one person at this place considers masturbation wrong and makes a complaint, they could be prosecuted — even though he is over 21 and intellectually competent.”

It’s also possible that attendants could run afoul of these laws if they helped a client put on a condom or insert a diaphragm — tasks some disabled people can’t manage alone — to prepare for a sexual encounter. Most institutions prefer to err on the side of caution — even if it means depriving disabled people of their sexual freedom, notes Robert Joseph, a sexuality specialist for United Cerebral Palsy in New York. “Residential facilities are often so concerned about unwanted pregnancies and venereal diseases that they lose sight of the fact that people with disabilities have the same capacity to judge sexual risks as other adults and are just as entitled to take them, if they choose.”

Laws against “unnatural sex acts” may not seem to discriminate against the physically impaired, but they do, says Barbara Waxman. Some paraplegics and quadriplegics, for example, are unable to have intercourse because friction to their genitals can cause autonomic dysreflexia, a dangerous and even potentially fatal elevation in blood pressure, so many seek sexual satisfaction by performing oral sex on their partners — an act that’s illegal in 24 states, with penalties of up to 20 years in jail. Though these statutes are rarely enforced, Waxman argues that they could inhibit rehab counselors from suggesting oral sex as an alternative route to sexual bliss for fear of being prosecuted for conspiracy to commit a felony (sodomy).

Even when counselors do opt to reveal such secrets as how to get an erection if you have no sensation in your penis or how to masturbate if you can’t move your arms, they often dole out this information very selectively, remarks Pam Boyle, M.S., a sexuality consultant for the Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, New York. “If you’re a handsome, young guy who just broke his neck in a diving accident,” Boyle says, “and people can imagine you a year from now wheeling around in Levi’s 501 jeans flirting with women, you’d probably get plenty of sex information, but if you are a 59-year-old widow whose leg was amputated after complications of diabetes, there are many hospitals where you’d never hear about sex at all, because the staff doesn’t view you as sexually desirable.”

Even the people who would seem to best fit such stereotypes of desirability — those with spinal-cord injuries, who are usually young men who’ve been hurt in macho motorcycle crashes or sports accidents — are often sexually shortchanged by rehabilitation centers. Despite study after study showing how urgent a priority resuming a full sex life is to these people — survivors of such injuries typically say that their first concern is whether they will die, their second is whether they will still be able to have sex — centers frequently focus on forms of rehabilitation they consider more acceptable, such as vocational therapy. A recent survey found that only 52 percent of men and 35 percent of women with spinal-cord injuries received any sex information during their recovery — even though the average rehab patient is 28 years old.

Worst still is the quality of the sex education — most patients are simply handed a pamphlet or shown a video, with only 26 percent given individual counseling. These materials, experts readily admit, are often outdated and male-oriented, frequently showing disabled males having sex with able-bodied women. “The videos we have are from 1973, and they’re obsolete,” says Marca L. Sipski, M.D., the associate medical director of the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, New Jersey. “One video shows a disabled hippie with a beard down to his navel making love. Fortunately, we just got funding to develop some new videos, so we’ll finally have something that our patients — many of whom weren’t even born when these videos were made — could relate to.” Patients at Kessler, unlike most of the survey’s respondents, are offered a wide variety of sex-counseling services.

Quite remarkable, in view of the “no kissing” rules reported in The Disability Rag’s 1990 survey, is the latest trend at a few highly advanced rehab centers — they not only allow patients to have sex, but actively encourage them to do so. This year Kessler built what it discreetly describes as “an independent living room” that patients and their lovers can use for a night of erotic experimentation. Such so-called privacy rooms aren’t always all that private, charges Sandra Cole, Ph.D., a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Michigan Medical Center. “Sometimes they’re placed in a geographically conspicuous location for the convenience of the staff, or patients have to sign up at the nurses’ station, which could create an embarrassing, high-pressure situation where people feel that everybody at the hospital knows they’re in there having sex.”

Others applaud the trend, but don’t think it goes far enough. “Where are the whores in candy-striped buses?” asks Lorenzo Milam. Many activists argue that what disabled people need isn’t a room in the hospital where they can make love once in a while, but massive changes in public attitudes and policies so they can take whatever sexual liberties they want — at home, where the majority of disabled people live, or in hospitals — without being “neutered by able-bodied society.”

Barbara Waxman suspects a sinister motive for the silence on sex and the policies to discourage it. “They’re afraid we’ll breed and produce more of ourselves,” she says. “If you don’t believe that the eugenics movement is alive and well in America, listen to the radio host who asked people to debate the ‘right’ of [TV newscaster] Bree Walker-Lampley to have children. [Walker-Lampley and her children have ectrodactylism, a hereditary, genetic condition that causes fused bones in the hands and feet.] Or watch A Private Matter [a 1992 made-for-cable docudrama about a woman’s 1962 struggle to abort a fetus that would be born without arms or legs because she took thalidomide during her pregnancy]. I’m pro-choice, but I consider the argument that we should fight to keep abortion legal so we don’t have ‘monster babies’ offensive. It’s another way of saying science has the cure for disabilities — eradicating the people who have them.”

That’s a medical attitude all too familiar to another disabled feminist, who has spina bifida, a condition in which the spine is open or malformed at birth, causing mild to severe nerve damage — in her case, resulting in weakness of the legs and bladder problems. She says, “As a teenager I visited a well-known pediatric neurologist and asked, ‘Can I have normal sexual relations? Can I conceive a child?’ His reply was, ‘Your vagina works well enough to please a man, but certainly you should never produce somebody else like yourself.’”

This activist believes that doctors fear and hate the disabled so much, they deliberately devise humiliating rituals to stifle their patients’ sexuality. At teaching hospitals and rehabilitation centers, she says, it’s not uncommon for disabled children — or even teenagers — to be stripped naked and displayed to groups of medical students during rounds. “Girls and boys are prodded, poked, and practically dissected without ever even being introduced to these doctors,” she says. “The result is that any emerging sense of sexuality they may have is distorted by a ritual that says they’re objects and diseases, not desirable, sexual people.”

Not so surprisingly, the medical community gives a more benign explanation of why it often seems oblivious or actively hostile to the sexuality of those with physical impairments-simple ignorance. In one survey of staffers who work with the disabled, barely half had any training in sexual health, with eight percent of those who had describing their knowledge as either “minimal” or “outdated.” Physicians outside the very specialized field of rehabilitation medicine — such as the gynecologist who inquired in utter bewilderment, “What for? What would you do with that?” when a woman with spina bifida asked for birth control — often have never taken a single course in any aspect of sexuality or how it relates to various handicaps. Even within the field, only about half of the doctors have received such training, says Nathan Zasler, M.D., the chairman of the National Task Force on Sexuality and Disability for the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine. “Unlike A.D.L. programs [activities of daily living, where disabled people learn self-care, hygiene, and toileting], which don’t vary too much from facility to facility,” he explains, “sex-therapy services can range from none to appropriate, intensive intervention. Although most well-respected centers do offer some services now, there’s no recognized standard of practice for sexual rehabilitation.”

Sometimes, however, the real problem isn’t that information is being withheld, but that it simply doesn’t exist. “It’s scary that we don’t know what nerve pathway causes women to lubricate during sexual arousal because no one has done the research,” says Dr. Sipski of the Kessler Institute. “The attitude is that if a woman doesn’t lubricate after a spinal-cord injury, well, there’s always K-Y jelly. There are hundreds of articles on new techniques which allow males with spinal-cord injuries to father children, but none on how women could be helped to achieve optimal sexual fulfillment after injury, because researchers — who are mostly male — assume that since women can still play a passive sexual role and get pregnant, there’s no need for further investigation. Instead, most studies that are done merely validate that women with spinal-cord injuries are interested in sex.”

Dr. Cole of the University of Michigan detects some encouraging signs that prejudices and taboos are evaporating. In the past two years, she’s seen an explosion of both professional- and consumer-oriented material about the subject, including the first books about pregnancy written by, and targeted to, disabled women and materials on previously ignored topics, such as sex after head injuries.

Last year a mainstream publisher, Harmony Books, became the first to offer a sex manual by a disabled man and his wife, Enabling Romance: A Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships for the Disabled. Illustrated with graphic sketches, including one of a nude woman with a catheter taped to her leg sitting in a wheelchair as she uses a vibrator and another of a man with crutches receiving oral sex from a woman, the book offers matter-of-fact suggestions. One woman says that her lover lacks muscle tone so “I get a good grip on his bottom and help him in his thrusting motions,” while a man gives several positions for making love in a wheelchair.

Other disabled people think it’s crucial for them to continue speaking out about their sexual capacities. “If you asked 20 women what their orgasms feel like, you’d get 20 different answers, but if you asked 20 guys, they’d all tell you it is a big explosion of ejaculation, because that’s what the able-bodied world teaches them,” comments John Scaliest

“Men need to go beyond the idea that sex is getting into someone’s pants, whipping out a seven-inch penis, and pumping 40 strokes per minute until there’s that big explosion. All this emphasis on the big O gives a false message that disabled people can’t perform and please a partner, when, actually, able-bodied people could learn about sex from us.”

Another disabled man, Ed Hooper, informally surveyed his able-bodied friends about what they really thought about the sexuality of disabled men, and was horrified when all but one of them was too embarrassed to respond. In The Disability Rag, Hooper quotes the friend who was willing to give his honest opinion. “Uh, I guess I always felt you’re paralyzed and, uh, well, you have no sex life…. Uh, I don’t think you’ve gotten, uh, less masculine or anything. It’s, uh, just something that doesn’t work.” These words made Hooper, a married man, see that his best friend — and probably most of society — didn’t realize “it was my neck that I’d broken — not my libido.”

Many handicapped people share Hooper’s pain and frustration at being viewed as “sexually dead.” While some activists like to joke that what the disability community should do is arrange a lurid and well-publicized sex scandal on the Jerry Lewis telethon, others are devising their own consciousness-raising tactics.

Ben Mattlin, a Los Angeles-based journalist with muscular dystrophy, says that he’s often been angered by people who automatically assume that his able-bodied wife is either his sister or his nurse when they go out together, or “even praise her as a saint for accepting a presumably celibate life.” To subtly counteract such misperceptions, he often has her sit in his lap as he rides in his wheelchair. He reports that at least one person has gotten the message. “One time this street guy saw us riding this way, did a double take, and finally shouted after me, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not going to get some pussy tonight, man!’”

Another message that Mattlin feels the able-bodied have failed to get is that there are lots of different disabilities, and their impact on sexual function varies. “As soon as people see someone in a wheelchair,” he says, “they think you’re spinal-cord-injured and that you are paralyzed, have no sensation, and nothing works. I’ve even had doctors ask me if I can get erections. Of course I can — my disability affects strength, not my sexual desire or sensation. If I want to hug my wife, for example, I’d need to get her involved in the embrace by asking her to come close and help me wrap my arms around her. At times I’ve felt insecure about not being more physically dominating in bed, or wondered if it’s ‘normal’ for a man to take so much pleasure in being passive and asking my wife to do things for me sexually — but it is almost a philosophical question, because I don’t think any of us ever gets to do everything we might fantasize.”

Another activist, Carrie Killoran, who has multiple sclerosis, concluded that she had no need to hold hands with her husband on street corners to show off her sexuality because by simply going out by herself — pregnant and in a wheelchair — she was already “a one-woman consciousness-raising show.” Writing for the Project on Women and Disability in Boston, she reports, “An able-bodied friend of mine said that she felt uncomfortable when her pregnancy started to show, because it was such an obvious announcement about her sex life. What a curiosity a pregnant woman… in a wheelchair is to people! Most women are taught to camouflage their ‘bad’ features — big hips or crooked teeth…. Here is a woman flaunting her imperfection — and flaunting the fact that someone found her sexy.”

Penthouse spoke with several spinal-cord-injured men who were eager to explain an aspect of their disability that’s particularly puzzling to the non-disabled — how they can get an erection when they have no sensation at all in their penis. They say the explanation is simple: There are actually two kinds of erections — psychogenic erections are caused by brain signals created by sexy thoughts, sights, or situations flowing down the spinal cord to the nerves of the penis, and reflex erections originate in the pelvic area as an automatic response to friction to the penis, stimulation of the anus, or tugging on the catheters some men with spinal-cord injuries need for urination.

Since reflex erections don’t require erotic messages to be transmitted from the brain — a process that’s not always possible after a spinal-cord injury — researchers report that between 50 and 95 percent of males with spinal-cord injuries can have them, depending on the location and severity of the damage to the nervous system. Far fewer males had psychogenic erections — up to 26 percent of paraplegics and no quadriplegics.

For men who are impotent due to a spinal-cord injury, multiple sclerosis, or other causes, there are several new techniques to help them achieve erections. Most external aids for erection have a plastic tube that the man inserts his penis into, a vacuum pump that draws air from the tube, causing the penis to engorge with blood, and a silicone ring he slides on to the base of the penis to keep it stiff.

Another innovation, which sounds almost like a man’s ultimate fantasy, is a drug called papaverine, which, when injected into the penis, creates an erection that lasts two, four, or even 24 hours. It’s gained notoriety due to its inventor’s very unorthodox way of announcing his discovery: British neurologist Giles Brindley described the drug to a group of urologists, then told them that he had injected himself right before his talk. He moved away from the podium — with his erect penis on display — so the astonished audience of male and female doctors could admire the results for themselves.

This hands-on demonstration was apparently quite convincing — a Spinal Network report notes that this drug is now extremely popular with paraplegics, despite the lack of Food and Drug Administration approval and warnings that it might cause infections, scarring, or even death in rare cases. One delighted user said, “The only side effect I’ve had is the first time I used it. I got a crick in my neck from looking at it for four hours.” Another said, “The only thing that would make me stop using it is if it was going to make it fall off.”

Some disabled activists are far less thrilled, complaining that the new erection technologies — which do nothing to restore sensation to the penis — are simply another approach that doctors have devised to impose able-bodied sexual norms on disabled people. Men with spinal-cord injuries suspect that their able-bodied buddies might question the value of an erection that’s not accompanied by sensation.

In his essay Hooper reports, “By using my penis for giving pleasure, even though I was ‘feeling’ nothing with it, I could receive pleasure nonetheless [in] areas of my body where I do have feeling — my shoulders, neck, lips, ears…. The excitement builds to a level of intense pleasure, then subsides toward contentment. Yes, it’s like an orgasm — not with the intensity brought on by ejaculation, though the loss of control is similar. It’s in no way ‘merely’ a mental phenomenon. Sexual pleasure is now a physical and mental meld.”

Puzzled by the concept of a male orgasm without ejaculation? Dr. Sipski of the Kessler Institute says it’s not only possible, but widely reported in many research studies. While the ability to ejaculate varies widely in males with spinal-cord injuries — with only four percent of men with “complete” (affecting both sides of the body) quadriplegia able to do so and 70 percent of those with “incomplete” paraplegia — about half of those men reach a climax. “Some feel it in their genitals, and others experience the sensation along the line of their injury, which can become an intensely erogenous zone,” Dr. Sipski explains. “Some of these men will have an orgasm in their shoulders or even in their neck.”

Sexuality consultant Robert Joseph says that there is a wide range of other physical problems that men and women with some disabilities may consider erotically inhibiting. Among them are involuntary muscle spasms; fear of bowel or bladder accidents during sex; impaired coordination, strength, and endurance; and pain or numbness. Such difficulties are so common that a British survey found that over 50 percent of the disabled say they are currently having problems with sex.

While there are a huge array of erotic techniques to counter any such constraints, Lorenzo Milam thinks they fail to address what he considers the most important source of sexual problems — the poor self-image many handicapped people develop “when we try to compete in the sexual sweepstakes. It’s what we think we see in the mirror that makes our passion so fraught, so scary,” not minor, or even major, physical impairments. “Many of us believe there is a monster staring back at us, even though our friends and would-be lovers see something completely different.”

Activists say that similar self-esteem problems explain why some disabled women put up with able-bodied men who view them as “the fetish of the week,” an especially vulnerable target who can’t easily escape their abusive attentions. At one clinic for disabled women, an employee reports that they frequently receive obscene phone calls or letters requesting names and addresses of female amputees. So common are such power-hungry perverts that a disabled divorcee says, “I’m automatically suspicious of any man who seems to be attracted to me because of my disability.” Another woman finds that her impairment is actually a social asset, since “it screens out shallow men who are only looking for a mindless Barbie doll to have on their arm, while leaving the good men who want a meaningful relationship with a woman.

“Any man who is just looking for a quick fuck or a one-night stand is not going to find it with a disabled woman,” emphasizes this feminist. “For us, sex can’t be a spur-of-the-moment impulse to make love in a car or on a table, because a disability requires us to move more slowly and deliberately into intimacy.

“We need to be very frank and explicit in planning out every aspect of sex with our partner,” she continues, “which often inspires us to think more creatively about how best to find pleasure together. Though some able-bodied people may think that real sex has to be spontaneous, disabled people know better, since we’ve already discovered that the deepest and richest intimacy comes from honest, uninhibited communication — both in and out of bed — a skill that many of the able-bodied never learn.”

John Scaliest is another person who feels that being disabled has enriched his erotic repertoire and experience. “Not only do I give my wife, who is able-bodied, enough kinds of pleasure so she can have an orgasm any time she wants to,” he says, “but I’m open to pleasures able-bodied men deny themselves because my view of sex is expanded beyond the stereo-typed role of the missionary position. I wonder, for example, how many able-bodied men allow their partners to suck or titillate their nipples — which is just as exciting for us as it is for women, since we have the same number of nerve endings there.” Scaliest reports that he often reaches a sexual peak when his wife caresses him this way, and he knows many other ways to give and receive erotic bliss.

Perhaps the ultimate answer to the question of whether or not people with disabilities can enjoy sex is offered by another disabled man who adds, “Hormones know no handicap.” Activists enthusiastically concur. “Able-bodied men and women can achieve their sexual goals in silence, but we’re willing to take risks — in the safe-sex sense of the word — and cross the barrier of shame, because we’re sexually honest, joyful, and creative,” points out Barbara Waxman, who would like men and women with disabilities to affirm that they’re sources of love and desire by choosing other disabled people as lovers and spouses.

Waxman adds, “Although I’m not trying to sell able-bodied people on the concept of disabled people as sex partners, we’re good — very, very good.”

If we’re honest, almost all of us have probably thought about the limits (or not) of disabled intimacy. Obviously simply the term “disabled” exists on a very broad spectrum, before even considering the brain morass that would be human sexuality. Back before the previous administration, though, one might have thought that basic civility might have prevented random people from asking “the question” of a total stranger. … Political and cultural realities aside, everyone has sex on the brain, to phrase it in perhaps a more basic way, so we should all understand and admit that. Even the venerable Harvard Law School has a “Project” on working to benefit the disabled. Many, many places exist on the internet with scholarly-sounding names for you to satisfy your curiosity. Bottom line, we just need to treat everyone — literally everyone — as we’d like them to treat us. Novel concept, right? … If that involves too much mental gymnastics to process, we do have a more simple version. Try not to be an ass.

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