The hidden sex lives of disabled people – End the Awkward

Alice is a disability rights activist and journalist. As part of our End the Awkward campaign, she shares her views on the media’s portrayal of sex and disability.

Content note: this blog references offensive disablist language and contains discussions about sex.

Disabled people don’t have sex, do they? It certainly seems that way as our sex lives are so rarely represented in the media, if at all.

Have you ever seen a disabled person having sex in a film, TV program, or a mainstream porno? Me neither.

We are a generation which loves to talk about sex, so why aren’t disabled people part of the conversation? Why are our sex lives are being hidden? And why are we being desexualised? We are consistently portrayed as people who never get our leg over and this couldn’t be further from the truth.

However, things have started to change with Maltesers recent ad campaign. The brand launched three disability-themed adverts which premiered on the opening night of the Paralympic Games, and one in-particular really stood out to me.

A text description of the advert is available at the end of this blog post.

Three women are sat around chatting about sex and one (who is a wheelchair user) talks about getting frisky with her boyfriend who didn’t complain when her hand started spasming! Funnily enough Storme Toolis who plays the part is thought to be the only disabled actor to ever have had a sex scene on UK TV.

It is hard to put into words just how happy I was to see this advert, it reminded me of the conversations I have had with friends leaving them in stitches when sharing my sex stories.

Disability in the bedroom

I have spasms and seizures, and I have them when I’m in bed. This can make sex both awkward and absolutely hilarious, not too different from non-disabled sex right?

In the past I’ve had to explain to a partner that my legs weren’t shaking because I’d had an orgasm – they were going into a spasm.

I’ve also come round from seizures before and not remembered who the person on top of me was. You can’t really get much more awkward then that, especially when you’re in a long term relationship!

Disability certainly keeps sex interesting and there are also some perks. Having so many seizures during sex forces me and my partner to have regular breaks which means it usually lasts much longer then it would without them. And telling people I’m disabled early on is also a great dickhead-filter, especially when online dating. You’d be amazed at how many people have stopped talking to me once they discovered I was disabled, but this has meant I’ve only ever met up with open minded people who I know I can trust to get into bed with.

Having barriers in the bedroom also means disabled people have to be more creative and our sex lives are often far from vanilla, trust me. Look at Scope’s A to Z of sex and disability if you want to find out more!

End the awkward

Maltesers are paving the way to end the awkwardness around sex and disability, but there is a long way to go yet. This is evident from some of the online comments left on the advert such as: “Retards who have sex are disgusting.” And: “I don’t really understand how disabled ‘people’ can be sexual beings without having souls.”

These attitudes need to be challenged, and the best way to do that is for more brands and broadcasters to follow in Maltesers footsteps. The more disabled people’s sex lives are accurately represented, the better perceptions will become. I hope one day I can turn on my TV and see disabled characters (played by disabled actors) having sex and for it not be out of the ordinary.

Beyond the bedroom

But this goes beyond sex, Scope’s 2016 Disability In The Media Study found that 80 percent of disabled people felt underrepresented by TV and the media on the whole.

It seems like this is only addressed for a few weeks every four years when the Paralympics comes around and this needs to change. We are the world’s largest minority group and we need representation every day of the year.

So decision makers, please don’t stop broadcasting about disability just because the games are over, let’s keep it on the box, and while you’re at it why not start representing disabled people’s sex lives too?

Read more End the Awkward blogs, or get involved in the campaign by submitting your awkward story.

Video description: Three women sat outside around a picnic bench. The person telling the story is a wheelchair user and she is holding a bag of Maltesers in her hand. As she tells the story she shakes the bag and chocolates spill over the table. Her friends looked shocked at first but then everyone laughs. Text reads: “Look on the light side”.

“He’s really fit but it’s a shame that he speaks like that” – End the Awkward

James Sutliff is a Personal Trainer. In 2008, he developed a rare neurological disorder known as dystonia. His speech became slurred and the feeling in his hands deteriorated.

As part of End the Awkward, James told us the awkward moments he’s found himself in and how he thinks we can avoid these cringe worthy situations.

Attitudes and awkwardness

It’s hard to comprehend because physically to look at me, my disability is quite silent. I don’t generally ‘look like a disabled person’. I’m not in a wheelchair, I don’t have a missing limb. So people are often shocked. They think I’m taking the p***.

I think a lot of people can be quite nervous, it can be embarrassing on either end, because the person who’s speaking to me wants to understand what I’m saying but can’t and I feel awkward so I don’t want to carry on talking. It happens quite a lot.

I don’t think it’s that people can’t be bothered to listen all the time. It’s just maybe a little bit of embarrassment on their part, feeling nervous around not knowing how to approach it.

Some people are great. I like it if people just say “sorry mate can you say that again?” But being polite, as people generally are, they’ll just nod their head or whatever.

James, a young disabled man, lifts weights in a gym

How people can be less awkward

I do get quite a bit of female attention, probably because I work out and stuff. When they approach me and talk to me, they soon realise that I have dystonia and there have been a few instances where people make comments that are not very nice.

I was in a nightclub with my wife and this woman approached me. She was obviously quite physically attracted to me and then I started talking. She quickly finished her conversation and rejoined her friend. She obviously cottoned on that my wife was with me in the club and said to her “He’s really fit but it’s a shame he speaks like that”. That was it, she was in trouble. My wife gave her a really bad telling off!

James, a young disabled man, lifts weights in a gym

What not to do

You do get people staring. I don’t think they realise that they’re doing it but sometimes when I clock them I feel like saying “Stop it! If you want to know what’s wrong, come and ask!”

Children are great though because they basically have no boundaries. They’ll say “Why do you speak like that?” and I love that because they’re so honest. They’re just curious. And we’ll say, “Well it’s because of this” and they just go “Oh, okay then”.

I think as a nation we’re overly polite. But what people don’t realise is they’re actually being ruder by sitting and staring or nudging and whispering with their friend next to them.

Be open, have a sense of humour and don’t ignore me. Just talk to me and remember, I’m the same person I was before.

For more tips on sex and dating, check out the films and stories on our website.

You can also read the rest of our End the Awkward blogs, or get involved in the campaign by submitting your awkward story.