[Guest Blog] Sex & Physical Disability by Alannah Murray

Part of the point of this “new voices in sex writing” pitch call that I put out months ago was to lift up and amplify marginalised voices. You may remember an incredible piece by my metamour Pippin a few months ago – well, I think this piece by Alannah Murray, also about sex and physical disability, is a perfect follow-on to that. I’m so proud to be publishing it and sharing it with you all today. Check out Alannah’s site and follow her on the Twitter!

Without further ado, over to Alannah…

Amsterdam lit up at night. For a post on sex and disability by Alannah Murray

Sex and Physical Disability by Alannah Murray

Hey everyone! I’m one of the incredibly grateful people chosen to guest blog for
Coffee and Kink! My name is Alannah. I’m 22, from Ireland, and I’m a postgraduate
researcher working towards a MA Research degree. I developed an auto-immune disease as a child which has blessed me with a slick power assisted wheelchair. You should see it on a dance floor!

Because of my physical disability, I see the world a little bit different than most (and I don’t just mean everyone being taller than me!) I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the fashion industry and advertising, and how advertising affects public perception of disability. I’ve been a vocal advocate of disabled people for the past few years, but I was also a college student for four years – a time where you go out, make all your mistakes, and then venture out into the world. My generation also witnessed the birth of apps like Tinder and Bumble.

So, today I want to tell you all about my experience of being a young physically disabled
person, the funny ways able-bodied people have affected my experience of sex and my body, and what I hope to see for the future of the emerging sexual liberation movement.

The misconceptions around physical disability and sex range from mundane to hilarious.

You find the latter a lot in online dating. Like most people my age, I decided to give Tinder a go when it first got popular. I made sure to use plenty of pictures of myself where my wheelchair was visible, and I had wheelchair puns in my bio. Let it be known now that I adore my body for what it is, and I’ve learned how best to use it. It’s surprising how many people on Tinder have a curiosity about having sex with a disabled person. I’ve had multiple people ask me if they can have sex with me IN my wheelchair which to me just sounds like a logistical nightmare – and looking to get injured. Someone else asked if they could turn my wheelchair into a sex swing; I wanted to let him try purely based on me wondering if it could be done. Others made cruder comments about what an ideal height I was at in my wheelchair, asking me if I was “still functional”. That is a sure-fire way to make sure I will not be having sex with you, ever.

My point is, my experience of disability has been fetishised when it comes to online dating; and yet, in wider society, disabled people aren’t seen as sexual beings. Take disabled bathrooms. I know people have sex in them, regularly. I see you sneaking out together, you aren’t slick. BUT, people would never expect to see a disabled person in that situation. I think if I left that bathroom with someone else in tow people would assume that I just needed a hand in there, that whoever I was with was “incredible for doing what you do”.

Little would they know it would be ME they were doing. It would be the perfect ruse, really. You also never find condom machines in disabled bathrooms. So, able bodied people appropriate disabled spaces to express their own sexuality but don’t expect disabled people to do the same. Society has sanitised and infantilised disabled people so much that people don’t know how to handle it when they express themselves sexually. When they put themselves in those spaces, when they demand to be equals in sexuality with able-bodied peers.

Part of embracing my body is learning every inch of it.

I grew up never seeing my body in magazines or on a runway. I grew up hating how parts of my body jutted out more than others. I hated all the evidence of medical procedures strewn across my body that you’d never see in editorials. It was always someone else’s body, whether it was a doctor or a physiotherapist, or even my parents. I never felt like I was in control of it. So, as I got older and I started working to tune in to my body, I decided it was time to invest in it. It was time to enjoy it and treat it kindly after all it had been put through. That meant doing what any responsible body owner would do when they want to treat themselves; I went sex toy shopping.

Sex toy shopping was… an interesting experience initially.

I didn’t really know what I was looking for, and I was embarrassed. I was 18 at the time I think when I wandered in to my first shop. It was a haven of lace and I think I fell in love with every bra set in there. The toys were down the back, and normally in these situations a staff member would come over and ask you what you’re looking for or something like that. My experience was a little different. The staff were looking between themselves, as if to debate whether to approach me. It was more like trying to figure out how you were gonna lure an escaped pet into the house. Eventually one came over and asked if there was anything they could do, but they were obviously uncertain; maybe even uncomfortable.

I ended up buying a small bullet vibrator which absolutely wasn’t gonna do anything for me, but I was so eager to leave that I just bought it and proverbially ran. I tried to not let it sully my experience because I think it’s important to be in tune with every part of your body and what it needs. It was a long time before I tried shopping in person again though, and my life has been a lot of online trial and error. Plus, shopping online isn’t ideal because I still live with my parents and they love opening my  post. I normally dread when I need to upgrade; thankfully I’m sorted for the moment.

It’s not just toy shopping that can be daunting either.

Trying on lingerie is quite hit and miss for wheelchair users like myself. A lot of dressing rooms aren’t equipped for disabled patrons, whether it be sizes or grab rails. The amount of times I’ve just had to try and ignore gaps in curtains or having my chair poking out of a dressing cubicle is unbelievable. I’ve learned not to be shy over the years, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with having a compromised shopping experience because people don’t expect variety in their dressing rooms. However, it’s not all bad!

Retailers seem to be catching up in terms of access; albeit in small doses. In larger retailers
you normally get one singular accessible dressing room… Heaven forbid there’s more
than one disabled person in your shop at any given time, right? Customer service has also
gotten vastly better in terms of lingerie shopping. My favourite experience is lingerie
powerhouse Victoria’s Secret. They recently open a 3-floor store in Dublin and let me tell
you, I’m convinced it is heaven on earth! The staff are incredibly professional and thoughtful, and it reminds me that attitudes towards disability and sexuality are changing. With more brands like Aerie lingerie using disabled models and disability being featured more within modelling through the likes of Aaron Philip and Jillian Mercado, disabled people are becoming more visible; but people’s attitudes still need to change, especially when it comes to sex.

Which brings me to my next point – What my trip to Amsterdam taught me about people’s attitudes towards sex.

I went to Amsterdam last year with one of my best friends. I was having a tough time in
college, she was getting divorced, it seemed like the perfect way to get both our minds off it. There are a lot of reasons people go to Amsterdam. Mine were more culture based – there were lots of museums and stuff I wanted to see – but that didn’t mean we weren’t going to also sample some of the more NSFW culture points.

Funnily enough when we were lost trying to find our hotel we ended up in the red-light district by accident. I think it’s a great testament for how normalised sex work is in Amsterdam, nobody was really paying attention apart from some stag parties. People were completely unbothered. Why would they be, I suppose. I for one found my friends reaction hilarious – she wanted to walk a little quicker because that wasn’t something she’d been around before. Traditional family and everything.

After two days in Amsterdam we decided our last night would be our ‘party night’ where we would go to a café and ramble down to see what trouble we could get into in the Red-Light District. It was surprisingly picturesque, and the neon really added to it. The paths were accessible too which made navigating around a little easier. However, that was where the access stopped. For those who were “window shopping” as I heard people referring to it, there was a step down into the rooms and they were quite tiny. So, if you were in Amsterdam with a physical disability looking for a good time, you were out of luck.

It was the same with the clubs. Some of them were up multiple stairs, or down multiple stairs. There was one that had steps at the front and the security said they were more than willing to help carry me in. I didn’t because of the financial barrier (it was 45 Euros for 8 shows if I remember correctly, and I was just completely smash broke). I just didn’t understand the logic of being inaccessible. This was one of the biggest draws Amsterdam had for tourism, and it was almost completely off limits to an entire demographic of people. It also wasn’t my wider experience of Amsterdam – everywhere else had been great and most places only had one step in, with some friendly local or random passerby more than happy to help you navigate it. It occurred to me that it was as much of a social barrier as it was an architectural one. They weren’t designed to be accessible because obviously it wasn’t expected that disabled people would be occupying those spaces. It wasn’t for them, essentially.

As a 22-year-old queer person who is also disabled, watching the sexual liberation movement take off has been a double-edged sword.

While I am obviously ecstatic to see more people be open about the need for representation and consent, I wish there was more of an emphasis on access for disabled people. I want to be able to access spaces that will allow me to be my most open self, where I can go and be myself without worrying I’m taking up too much space in my wheelchair. When we have diversity panels discussing sex, I want to see more disabled people present to discuss what sexual liberation means for them. It is important that we stop disassociating disabled people from conversations about sex; we have sex, and these spaces are ours too.

We could benefit from disability being seen clearly in lingerie advertising, not in a fetishising way but in an empowering way; acknowledge that disabled people want to, and have a right to, be sexy. Advertising and advocates alike need to catch up and recognize that diversity comes in all shapes, sizes and abilities. Sexual education needs to be more diverse to include disability, and it needs to be accessible to EVERYONE.

Viva la sexuality!

If you’re interested in keeping up with me, my twitter account is @Wheelie_Healthy and you can check out my (frequently inactive) blog. You can also follow our insta (@Wheelie_Happy) where you’ll find my previous work and my contact details if you want to get in touch for anything!