Twenty years ago, I and two colleagues wrote a book called The Sexual Politics of Disability, based on conversations with 44 disabled people about their gender, sexuality, self-image and experience of sex and love. Recently, we revisited some of the original participants and what we found was that there had been some profound changes for the better, and also for the worse.
One of the good things that has happened is that taboos around disabled people and sex had gradually eased and younger people, in particular, seem to be more inclusive and relaxed about differences. One of our subjects was a woman who gets around in a wheelchair. She describes herself as into the ‘festish scene ’ and said she felt very much welcomed – her wheelchair was just another interesting accoutrement.
The Paralympian movement was also felt to have changed attitudes to disabled people in general, although it did project an image of youth and the body beautiful which not all disabled people can aspire to. All the people we revisited were 20 years older, mostly in their early 50s, so they were generally more confident and assured about their sexuality, although three people said that they did not have a life partner and were not looking.
And it’s good news that disabled people have a much higher profile on TV and the media, although programmes like Channel 4’s Undateables were not liked. Our respondents said that programmes like this implied that disabled people in romantic situations were something different and weird. They felt that disabled people who date should be part of mainstream media, not a side show. Internet dating had also expanded the dating scene and, although it can be brutal, everyone who goes on a dating app can expect to be prejudged, not just people with disabilities. In some ways, this makes it easier because people are pre-selecting and they know what to expect. We didn’t find a great deal of interest in so-called devotees – able-bodied people who seek out amputees for romance. This really is a niche area and it’s not for everyone.
However, there have been backwards steps since we first started looking at sex and the disabled in 1996. Today, the impact of austerity has been particularly hard on disabled people who have found their benefits and allowances cut. Some of the people we talked to were struggling to live comfortably with reduced care and support and romance was out of the questions. For example, one respondent involved in the project said: “Social services – it’s gone backwards, so how can you possibly have a sex life if you can’t even be clean and washed and feel sexy?
“It’s pie in the sky now when you’ve got somebody coming to your house for three one-hour visits a day – food in, food out, and that’s it.
“It’s not going to be ‘do you want support to go out, flirt with someone?’ If you’re fighting just to get your arsed wiped how do you even begin that dialogue with social services to talk about positioning for sex?”
Austerity and cutbacks mean that their options for dating and finding a life partner had closed down.
Disability affects 10 per cent of working age adults and it is crucial that men and women with disabilities have opportunities to find intimacy and create committed relationships. Disabled people have human rights too and need a basic standard of living which includes socialising and the possibility of meeting someone and enjoying a rewarding sexual life.