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Sex and disability fraught with stigmas and stereotypes

Sexuality and sexual orientation are concepts that have come to the forefront of today’s social and political conversations. Sexual experimentation and achieving understanding of one’s sexuality often blossom in adolescence. In college, especially, figuring out where on that spectrum you might land, whether you are attracted to one gender, all genders, no genders or something in between can be a tricky thing to clarify. 

Not every young person is comfortable exploring their sexuality, as natural as it might be, and might appear more reserved in this experimental time in life. This does not make anyone less worthy of sexual expression. It is a daunting task for many.

Imagine exploring one’s sexuality alongside a chronic illness, a disability and/or being neurodivergent. Expressing one’s sexuality and finding one’s sexual identity might be all the more difficult. This is not because people with disabilities are unable to express their sexuality, but because they must face stigmas and stereotypes in the dating scene. (Photo by Hans Moerman on Unsplash)

Now imagine exploring one’s sexuality alongside a chronic illness, a disability and/or being neurodivergent. Expressing one’s sexuality and finding one’s sexual identity might be all the more difficult. This is not because people with disabilities are unable to express their sexuality, but because they must face stigmas and stereotypes in the dating scene. 

In 2019, Netflix released “Love on the Spectrum,” a reality show that brought on a group of people on the autism spectrum to “find love.” The group entered a speed dating episode where they were able to express what they wanted out of a relationship, what their sexual orientation might be and what experience they might have in the dating scene.

This show was able to educate people about what dating is like for people with autism without undermining or belittling the experiences of those on the show.

I asked Logan Bean, who has both autism and ADHD, whether either of those things affect his sexuality. Bean identifies as demi-sexual, meaning he only experiences sexual attraction toward someone once he has formed an emotional bond with them.

“I find it difficult to be intimate with someone I don’t have a close bond with. That ties into me being demi-sexual and my whole experience with dating apps in general,” Bean said. “People aren’t up front and open with their intentions. I often get ghosted on dating apps and I’ve been told it’s because I don’t ask to hang out quick enough, so I get left in the dust.”

“I did watch ‘Love on the Spectrum,’” Bean said. “I think, yes, it’s good, because they have a lot of different types of people, instead of looking for like the one stereotype of an autistic person.”

The collection of essays titled, “Sex and Disability,” edited by Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, explores the two terms, and shows that both concepts can be “intimately related.” (Image courtesy of Duke University Press)

Some, if not most, shows that portray autism do not cast people with autism or have writers involved who are autistic. “Atypical,” a Netflix original series, is one of these shows. Sam, the main character, played by Kier Gilchrist, is based on some common stereotypes about people with autism. It’s important to note that Gilchrist is allistic (a person without autism) in real life.

When “Love on the Spectrum” came out, it provided a platform for people who actually have autism to speak on matters of the human condition, such as dating.

“Romantic Relationships and Autism” published by Amaze, is an information packet that prides itself in working directly with people with autism. Bean soon realized that this particular packet, however, was not actually written by someone with autism.

The information packet lists some difficulties people with autism might face when dating. The first bullet point reads: Understanding what behaviours are appropriate in various settings, such as when on a date.”

“The thing with that, is for me it’s not about not understanding what is and isn’t appropriate in certain social settings; it’s not giving a shit,” Bean said, “because those social rules are stupid.”

“When you follow [social rules], that can be a form of ‘masking,’ and masking for autistics is often traumatic. Because when you’re aware that something like a rule exists for no reason with no logical explanation, like, it becomes so much harder to follow,” Bean said.

“Allistic people make these points based off of their observations of autistic people, not through the lens of people who are actually experiencing it. This one bullet comes from the frustration of watching an autistic person blatantly ignore social rules, because you want them to follow [social rules] so bad. Like, ‘oh,  so the only reason they’re not following them is because they must not understand what those rules are. Because if they knew what those rules are they would be like the rest of us and just blindly follow them,’ and that’s not what it is,” Bean said.

Bean quickly ruled out the “Romantic Relationship and Autism” packet as a reputable source since the main discourse was not written through the lens of someone with autism.

“Any experience that someone with autism has is an autistic experience, including dating,” Bean said. “It is a neurotype, not a disease.”

The collection of essays titled, “Sex and Disability,” edited by Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, explores the two terms, and shows that both concepts can be “intimately related.”

The book publisher’s synopsis reads: “The major texts in sexuality studies, including queer theory, rarely mention disability, and foundational texts in disability studies do not discuss sex in much detail. From multiple perspectives — including literary analysis, ethnography, and autobiography — [the authors] consider how sex and disability come together and how disabled people negotiate sex and sexual identities in ableist and heteronormative culture.”

This is a concept that is rarely brought up among “cishet” audiences, meaning audiences that are both cisgender and heterosexual. By allowing people who have disabilities to give firsthand accounts of their dating and sex lives, a wider audience would be able to see that every human has mostly the same needs — to be loved, to have sex, to be desired.

The book description continues. “Queering disability studies, while also expanding the purview of queer and sexuality studies, these essays shake up notions about who and what is sexy and sexualizable, what counts as sex, and what desire is. At the same time, they challenge conceptions of disability in the dominant culture, queer studies, and disability studies.”

According to information published on Disability Horizons, a publication founded in 2011 to give those in the disabled community a place to voice themselves as they choose, people with disabilities need to explore their likes and dislikes and how to look at sex in “a different way” when learning about their sexuality and sex life.

Disability Horizons features an article titled, “Disability and relationships: a different way of looking at sex” by Alex Cownan. The articles dispels many myths about people with disabilities. “Having a disability doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy sex. It just means that you need to look at sex in a different way, and maybe use a different set of tools and ways of having sex. That, in itself, can be a lot of fun, as well as challenging and frustrating, but equally fulfilling,” Cownan writes. 

Cownan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her late 20s. She and her husband married a few years after her diagnosis. The two experimented while also keeping in mind her needs. This is something that should be done with anyone, but especially when rediscovering sex after a diagnosis.

Listed in the article are suggestions on how to “discover and connect with your body,” ways to be open with your partner about desires, and working around your disability.

Cownan’s article includes the following list of top tips on disability and sex:

  • Be creative and experiment.
  • Don’t give up after an initial disappointment.
  • Redefine what sex and intimacy mean for you.
  • Be aware of your needs and ways to communicate them.
  • Remember that we all like and need different things.
  • Develop a new self-awareness/self-acceptance of your body.
  • Communicate as clearly and openly as possible.
  • Connect and give each other pleasure and enjoyment.

Cownan writes: “Consider an enabler, such as a sex therapist or sex worker. They can be extremely valuable in helping to show you what is possible when you need some ideas. Make sure you only use experienced, accredited people.”

NMSU counselor and outreach facilitator Vanessa Paz graduated from NMSU with a master’s degree in counseling in 2014. Paz conceded her experience counseling students with disabilities is “marginal,” and indicated some students with disabilities may be hesitant to seek counseling. “I believe there can be personal and physical barriers to feeling comfortable accessing services; for example, the need for confidential translation services if your provider does not know [sign language], lacking ease of access to the building, or hesitance to trust a provider after negative experiences in the past,” Paz said.

“It is the responsibility of the providers to find a way to make services accessible, and it is encouraged that someone voice their concerns if they feel their needs are not appropriately met,” Paz added. 

“Experiencing social prejudices may be out of one’s immediate control, but acceptance of one’s true self can be a source of empowerment.”

NMSU provides counseling services at the Aggie Health and Wellness Center for free, but students might not be aware of this if they are not looking for it.

“When exploring an individual’s personal concerns or interests, anything related to their life, identity and experience can come up. Naturally, this can include sexuality,” Paz said. “For many college students, they are in a stage of developing who they understand themselves to be, who they want to become, and who they want to surround them. Perhaps these are their first experiences of independence to learn and explore new ways of thinking, feeling or expressing themselves. Counselors are guides that follow the individual needs of each client, and each client’s process moves at their personal pace.”

When speaking about sexuality specifically, Paz said, “Each person has their own levels of comfort when discussing sex and sexuality; mental health providers try to meet their client at their level. Sometimes it starts with learning the basics about relationships, autonomy and sexual health. I have worked with students exploring their first experiences with relationships and exploring their sexuality — there can be a lot to process in the beginning. I try to emphasize that sexuality is part of being human, knowing your sexual self and needs can be a process that changes throughout your life, and you deserve to give yourself patience, acceptance and compassion along the way.

“A person with a disability can often struggle with additional stigmas and stereotypes that can become internalized as well. This could inhibit a person from letting themselves explore their true interests and needs. In actuality, they are no exception to being human. Experiencing social prejudices may be out of one’s immediate control, but acceptance of one’s true self can be a source of empowerment,” Paz said.

Many students might not be aware on-campus counseling services include sex and sexuality counseling. “When discussing sex in counseling, we try to stay as clinical and straight forward as possible. With that said, I often use whatever language my client feels most comfortable using,” Paz said. 

Verbiage and communication appear to be key when dealing with dating and sex with, well, anyone. People with different abilities and neurodivergence are still just people. While understanding sex and sexuality may seem like a larger-than-life task, exploration, comfortability and consent provide a good starting point, no matter where one lands on the sexuality spectrum.

For more information on counseling services at NMSU, visit the Aggie Health and Wellness Center website and click on the Counseling Services tab.

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