One of the biggest barriers for people with disabilities is the assumption that they are not sexual. Not so…
Story and photos by Adam Zivo
Conversations around inclusion and representation typically recognize the unique challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. However, they also tend to ignore the fact that these individuals are desexualized in society, an issue which isn’t trivial for those who simply want to enjoy the same romantic and sexual freedoms available to everyone else. Many people with disabilities see desexualization as a form of erasure that strips them of the fullness of their humanity – and that should be talked about.
To better understand this issue, I spoke with Colin Phillips, a university lecturer at X University and Renison University College. Colin is a seasoned academic who studies homelessness and affordable housing from an urban policy perspective. He also happens to be disabled, as his cerebral palsy renders him unable to walk or speak.
I first remember seeing Colin years ago at Naked Boys Reading, a charitable event that raised money by offering exactly what its title implies. He and I were both readers. When his turn to perform came, his assistant placed him on the stage, where he played a prepared speech off his phone.
It’s rare for disabled bodies to be seen naked in public – even rarer outside a medical or caregiving context. Yet there he was, as unashamed as any other performer. As his speech had been outsourced to his phone, Colin’s performance was narrowed down to his physical presence – to the job of being looked at. Thus his nudity, which was already unlike everyone else’s, had a special intensity to it: look at me; I inhabit a body, too.
His disability was a shell, beneath which there was just another body, as banal as everyone else’s, brimming with its own idiosyncrasies and possibilities.
Years flashed by and we stayed in each other’s orbits through social media. Then we met again when it seemed that he might have testicular cancer. He messaged me about it because I had had the same cancer years before. I went to his place and together we went over the risks – perhaps, like me, he would lose a testicle, but the chance of death was marginal.
“If you get a prosthetic ball, they’re going to tell you to be realistic about your size. A lot of men aren’t,” I told him.
He was relieved. In the end, the cancer scare turned out to be a false alarm, but for a time it seemed that, in yet another respect, our bodies were not so different – perhaps both had betrayed us in the same way.
The question of difference, of being made into an outsider, is something that Colin constantly contends with. He considers his greatest accomplishment to be the relative banality of his life. Absent his disability, he is just another queer kid who escaped southwestern Ontario and metamorphosed into a downtown professional. He told me, “I want to be seen as a potential partner, but I’m not. Things like going to Hanlan’s Point or showering at the gym is partly a political act. I force myself and my body into queer spaces.”
It’s not as though Colin is incapable of sex. He is an in-shape, 38-year-old with a good job and a high libido. Yet his disability trumps that. He told me that his sexual erasure happens in three different ways.
“The first, and the most painful, is when men see me as a friend, but not as a potential partner. I’ve never figured out how to overcome this one. Sadly, there are so many anecdotes that I could tell.”
Colin went on, “The one that hurts the most is when I finally had coffee with someone who I had known for a few years. Similar interests, lifestyles, etc. During our ‘date,’ I could see it – I could see sharing space with him, making love with him. Later, he said that we were not on a date and refused to have a conversation about my disability.”
However, there are nuances to this. Earlier this year, Colin was pursuing someone who eventually told him he wasn’t interested. Though Colin immediately jumped to his disability as an explanation, someone eventually pointed out that the man simply was not looking to be with anyone, disabled or otherwise.
The second form of erasure Colin experiences is the silence he often encounters on dating apps and websites. Ironically, he also occasionally bumps into people who fetishize him for his disability, much as some people fetishize trans lovers. Those people receive an instant block – because to be unilaterally reduced to a fetish fantasy is dehumanizing in its own way.
The third and most subtle form of desexualization occurs with new lovers who, upon sleeping with Colin, show signs of surprise at his body’s normalcy.
How does Colin address his desexualization? He tried oversexualizing himself, hoping that would bridge the gap. Then he took the opposite approach and tried to normalize his life. Neither worked.
He is, of course, not the only one navigating this issue – and I think back to an experience I had in my early 20s, when a prominent disability activist messaged me on Grindr. At first, he oozed confidence, and I thought he would be lovely to meet. Then, when I perused his social media, a different image emerged.
He was seemingly obsessed with his disabilities and their relationship to sex, which would not have been an issue had it not come off as deeply insecure. The way he spoke about, and depicted, other men suggested that he saw them not as distinct people with needs and wants of their own, but rather as sex objects who existed to assuage his anxieties.
Under the guise of activism and representation, he produced a photo series of himself in bed with an impossibly attractive man. The photos lacked intimacy and seemed like proof-of-conquest. If his point had been to underline how he was just like any other person, then he succeeded – but mostly insofar as he demonstrated that he, too, could objectify others. I thought of rap music videos I’d seen as a kid, in the 2000s, where women existed as ornamental props.
Yet I also understood where he was coming from – because I also have a disability, rooted in a spinal deformity that, since utero, has dulled and weakened the lower half of my body, leading to side effects that inconvenience me almost every day. I couldn’t orgasm until I was 21, and, even now, my capacity to enjoy sex feels precarious. I understood his insecurity and his need to construct a hypersexual persona to compensate, because I had done the same, albeit with slightly more tact.
I stopped replying to the activist. No, he was too dominated by his body, too preoccupied with litigating his normalcy. He also loved wearing terrible hats. I wondered if he would interpret my ghosting as a rejection of his disability. Would it be better to tell him the truth – that I was not into him as a person?
I asked Colin about the tension between wanting to be seen and acting entitled to other people’s bodies. He replied, “I’m not entitled to anyone’s body – I’ve admittedly not always remembered this and have been pushy on occasion – but I am entitled to be seen and spoken to. It’s really about being in spaces and normalizing my body.”
Colin knows the activist I mentioned, and went on to say that this activist, and others in the disability community who focus on sex, “at best do not represent me, and often do harm.” He noted that his public persona is not defined by his desexualization, because he thinks that would not only be defeatist, but would also further marginalize him from the very community he seeks acceptance from.
“For better or worse, I’m a middle-class, urban queer man who goes to Hanlan’s and posts the occasional locker-room shirtless selfie. I’m also just a guy who teaches qualitative research methods and social policy, and who does stuff around the community. That balance seems to be missing for some folks in the disability community and I think that’s a problem.”
He added, “Have I been far too quick to send a picture to prove something? Absolutely, but I am working on that.”
Though questions of sexual legitimacy, visibility and insecurity are deeply personal, they can sometimes be thrust into the unforgiving limelight of public policy. In the Netherlands, there has been debate about the government’s role in subsidizing sex for the disabled. Though no sex grant exists per se, citizens with disabilities receive funds that they can spend however they’d like – and some spend that money on sex.
This has inspired pushback from those who feel uncomfortable seeing tax dollars spent on sex, as well as those who raise safety concerns. For example, can disabled women trust that they will not be abused by male sex workers?
The latter concerns, however, risk taking an overly paternalistic attitude towards the disabled, stripping them of the right to make their own risk assessments. Medical ethicists have noted that sex and disability have long been seen exclusively through the lens of protecting the vulnerable, but what if a person with a disability tires of being reduced to their vulnerability?
Colin believes that state-subsidized sex is not a good solution. “It would, at least for me, fail to address the underlying problem. If anything, I’d see it as yet another person being paid to know and touch me intimately.” He noted, however, that he is someone who is fully able to pleasure himself, and that those who can’t may have a different relationship to publicly subsidized sex.
There’s no straightforward way to tackle the desexualization of the disabled: there are so many kinds of disabilities, each of which brings its own set of considerations. As Colin acknowledges, his experiences are not universal. How could they be? Each disabled person inhabits a different body, which they navigate in their own way.
However, at the very least, the rest of society can work on acknowledging that people with disabilities want to have sex, and that they deserve opportunities to experience sexual and romantic fulfillment, just like everybody else. To recognize the sexuality of people with disabilities is to recognize them as full-fledged human beings, rather than receptacles of pity.
ADAM ZIVO is IN Magazine’s politics and culture columnist. He is a Toronto-based social entrepreneur, photographer and analyst best known for founding the LoveisLoveisLove campaign.