[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!

Ask Amy #4: “Can I get safe toys on a budget?”

It’s been a while since I’ve had a reader question, so I am super excited to dive into today’s. This one’s about one of my favourite topics: SEX TOYS!

Our lovely reader asks:

“Hi Amy. I was wondering, what do I need to know when looking for cheap, body-safe sex toys, especially here in the UK?”

A blue dildo and some condoms. For a post about body safe toys on a budget

I love this question so much. First, Letter Writer and everyone else, please know this: it is simply NOT TRUE that affordable body-safe toys don’t exist. This is a complete myth, and it’s a harmful fiction that leads people on a restricted budget to buy unsafe toys under the mistaken notion that they can’t get anything better within their price-range.

You absolutely can. You categorically, 1000% can. And what’s more, you deserve high-quality, safe stuff that you can enjoy without worrying about your health.

So, what to look out for?

Firstly, it’s all about materials.

Good: Silicone. ABS Plastic. Glass (of the borosilicate or “Pyrex” variety.) Stainless steel. Aluminium. Ceramic, as long as it’s treated with a non-toxic glaze. Wood, as long as it’s treated with a non-toxic glaze or sealant.

Bad: TPR. TPE. Rubber. PVC. “Cyberskin” etc. “Sil-a-Gel.” Latex. Anything with “jelly” in the name.

Generally, metal, ceramic and wood toys will be more expensive, while silicone, ABS and glass are easy to find on a budget.

The materials I’ve listed as “good” are perfect because they’re non-toxic (no phthalates or other harmful ingredients,) don’t off-gas or leech chemicals, and are non-porous so they won’t harbour bacteria as long as you wash them thoroughly between every use.

Those I’ve listed as “bad” are variable. Please avoid anything with “jelly” in the name like the plague – these almost certainly contain phthalates, as does PVC. That’s how they get that squishy texture. “Cyberskin” and anything else that is sold as “realistic,” if it’s not silicone, is also to be avoided. TPE/TPR (thermoplastic elastomer/rubber) don’t usually contain phthalates, but are porous as fuck and may be softened with other nasty chemicals. Same goes for latex, which is also a super common allergen and there’s some evidence that prolonged exposure can cause or exacerbate sensitivity. “Sil-a-gel” isn’t even a real thing and it certainly isn’t in any way the same as silicone.

[Note: The ONE exception I’ll make for PVC is the Doxy Original, which uses medical-grade (and therefore phthalate-free) PVC for the head. They claim it’s non-porous and I’m inclined to believe them as they’re such a great, transparent and ethical company – and also my Doxy is still good as new after 2 years – but I haven’t seen any hard scientific evidence. If you’re cautious and want a Doxy, either always use a non-latex condom, or buy the Die Cast, which has a silicone head.]

If you want to read up more on the specifics of these materials and why they’re toxic, I recommend Dangerous Lilly’s brilliant guide.

Also worth adding is that if you don’t know what it’s made of, avoid it, and remember that the sex toy industry is pretty much unregulated – so just because a company claims something is body-safe, doesn’t mean that it is.

It’s NOT all about brands

A lot of the toys you’ll hear recommended come from big-name brands in the business: Doxy. Lelo. Tantus. We-vibe. Hitachi (less so this one in the UK.) These brands and many more are popular for good reason (though Lelo are kinda… ugh, these days,) so if you do ever spot their products on a mega-sale, you’ll most likely be getting something good quality.

But you don’t need big brands or loads of cash for great quality toys!

Go own-brand

As with food, own-brand sex toys can be much cheaper but not compromise much on quality when compared to the big names.

Lovehoney and Bondara are two examples of companies who do some really solid own-brand stuff. Not everything in their lines are safe, unfortunately, but if you follow the materials guide above, you can’t go far wrong.

A quick note about retailers:

Tempting though it is, please please resist the urge to buy your toys from a retailer such as eBay or Amazon. There are loads of knock-offs around on all the major brand toys, some of them quite convincing, so there’s no way to know for sure if you’re getting a genuine product. Dangerous Lilly (she’s amazing!) has written more extensively on this.

I personally really advocate for Lovehoney, because their returns policy is stellar and they really care about their customers. Full disclosure: they are an affiliate partner of mine and if you buy through them with one of my links, I may make a small commission. However, my first concern is always my readers’ happiness and safety, I will never recommend an unsafe toy, and I only partner with companies I strongly believe in.

Some Concrete Suggestions

I thought I’d put together a list of options for various tastes that are body-safe, under £30, and easily available in the UK.

In the interests of full disclosure, Lovehoney links are affiliate links. Other links are not. If you buy from Lovehoney, whether one of the listed items or something else, use code COFFKINK10 to get 10% off your order.

Clitoral Vibrators:

G-spot Vibrators:

Rabbit Vibrators:

Dildos (silicone)

Dildos (other safe materials)

Anal toys:

This list is by no means exhaustive or even really scratching the surface. These are just a few of the categories of toys available and just a very small handful of the options out there. Go forth and get your sexy on, lovely Letter Writer, and I hope this was helpful to you and anyone else shopping for safe toys on a budget.

Remember: we all deserve pleasure, and we all deserve SAFE toys, no matter what our financial situation.

Love,
Amy xx

Remember: I’ll answer your question on the blog, too! Just email coffeeandkink69 (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll help if I can.

The image featured in this post was offered for use under Creative Commons Licensing.

Ask Amy #2: “First Visit to a Sex Shop”

I love today’s question because I remember being in this reader’s position not all that many years ago. Sex shops can feel intimidating when you’ve never been in one before. We’ve all been the nervous first-timer at some point.

A selection of my sex toy collection. For a post about visiting a sex shop for the first time“How do I behave at a sex shop!?”

“Hi Amy,
Hope you don’t think this is a stupid question! I’m a 35 year old mother of one living in London. I’m recently single after coming out of a 12 year marriage. My ex husband was super vanilla but now that I’m on my own I want to try using sex toys. I’ve heard that it’s much better to go to a shop rather than buy online so that you can see and feel the toys before choosing one, but my secret is I’ve never been in a sex shop before! I don’t know what to expect or how to behave. Can I ask questions? Will the staff think it’s really weird that I’m a mum in my mid 30s who hasn’t ever used a vibrator before? Any advice would be really helpful.”
– Nervous Newbie

Hey Nervous! What a great question. It’s not at all weird. Loads of people have never been to a sex shop and are nervous at the idea. Firstly, congratulations on deciding you want to explore your sexuality more after finding yourself single. That’s a great gift you can give yourself which will improve both your solo sex life and any partnered sex you might have in the future.

Visiting a sex shop really doesn’t need to be scary. Promise! There’s just a few things you need to know to make your visit as smooth and – yes – enjoyable as possible.

First, research and pick a reputable store. As you’re in London, I can’t recommend better than the utterly wonderful Sh! Women’s Store. There’s also Coco De Mer, which is a real treat to visit but extremely high-end – basically the Prada of sex shops, with price tags to match. Any woman-owned and run, independent sex shop is likely to be better than a mainstream chain store. It’s honestly worth traveling to get to a really good store and there are a few in the major cities throughout the country. (If you must go to a chain store, Simply Pleasure isn’t bad but sadly they sell a lot of toxic and porous toys in amongst the good stuff, so do your research first.)

What you’ll find at a good store is a friendly, welcoming and non-judgemental environment. The staff typically choose to work in these shops because they’re sex positive and passionate about sexual pleasure and health. I’ve never met a sex shop worker for whom it was “just a retail gig.” I absolutely promise you the staff won’t think you’re weird for having never bought toys before, so feel free to say “I’m new to toys and looking for something to start with.”

So, ask questions! Ask for advice! (Not “what’s your favourite?” which is not only invasive but also a redundant question as all bodies are different. Think more along the lines of, “what’s a good anal toy for a beginner?” “I like strong vibrations with variable patterns, what do you recommend?” “I’m looking for an insertable toy that’s not too rigid.”)

On that note: think about what you might like to get before you go in. Are you more interested in vaginal penetration, clitoral stimulation, or a mix? What about anal? Think about what you want to experiment with, what your body likes and doesn’t like, and – very important – how much you want to spend. If you can afford it, it’s worth spending a bit more to get a really good toy that’s well-made, body safe and from a reputable manufacturer.

Please read up on materials and get something that’s body-safe and non porous. Dangerous Lilly has a tonne of valuable advice on safe toys. It’s okay not to know exactly what you’re looking for (that’s partly why you ask for advice!) but having at least a general knowledge of how your pleasure works is a good starting point. (I think I need to do a whole post on picking out your first sex toy.)

Don’t be afraid to pick things up and play with them (in your hand, not your pants, obviously!) The vast majority of shops will have a sample of each toy out of the box so you can feel it, test the vibrations for strength, see how you like the materials against your skin etc. Play as much as you like. Take your time. A good retailer won’t hurry you.

As far as any other etiquette, it’s all super obvious. Don’t hit on the staff – they probably love the job but they’re also at work and no-one wants to field unwanted come-ons at work. Don’t ask the staff personal questions about their own sex life or toy use. Keep your clothes on. Don’t test anything out on your genitals. Don’t be weird or judgy about toys or sex acts that aren’t your thing. (Think, for example, “I don’t think what would do it for me,” rather than “ewwww, why would anyone do that?”) Honestly, it’s no more complicated than being respectful, polite and behaving in ways that are generally acceptable in a public space, albeit one where it’s totally okay – encouraged! – to have frank conversations about sexuality.

One final pro tip: if you’re nervous, try going at a time when it’s likely to be quieter. Mornings are typically quieter than afternoons/evenings, and weekdays are quieter than weekends. This way the staff are likely to have more time to devote to you and you won’t feel so self-conscious examining the toys in front of other shoppers.

Good luck and please check back for an upcoming post on some more specifics of choosing your first toy!

Dear readers! If you’d like me to answer your question, get in touch and I’ll tackle your issue on the blog – completely anonymously of course.

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