Finding out you’re disabled or have a lifelong incurable illness is transformative. I was 30 when I found out I had multiple sclerosis, but had probably been living with the condition unknowingly for a lot longer. Following two major relapses within the space of four months, my body totally changed, and tasks I once found easy became challenging at best, impossible at worst. And I know I’m not alone in wishing there were more resources for people with disabilities coming to terms with their conditions and more realistic portrayals of those with disabilities on screen.
There’s been a growing backlash against actors who are able-bodied portraying characters who are disabled (from Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking to Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger). While in some situations, this may be unavoidable, it’s undeniable that the stories of characters with disabilities are often incredibly limited, reduced to disappointing sob stories or focused on the inevitable deaths of those with chronic conditions. And most important, we’re rarely shown people with disabilities having sex, as if being ill precludes all physical activity, especially sex.
In some ways, movies can’t be totally blamed for portraying characters with disabilities as sexless or barren or devoid of love. Society often suggests that those living with conditions that affect their physical well-being have lost interest in sex. Following my own diagnosis, a therapist suggested that my dissatisfaction with my sex life was a direct result of my own inadequacies as a sick person and that I was simply expecting too much. Instead of encouraging me to explore my sexuality at a time when my body desperately needed therapeutic attention, this particular therapist told me that the sexual side of a relationship dwindled anyway and that companionship was far more important. But does a couple’s sex life always have to melt like ice in a gin and tonic, inevitably and a little too quickly for my liking?
Personally, I refused to believe that sex was doomed and that all couples had to succumb to the stereotypical, long-term relationship-bed death that plagues multiple discussions on Reddit. For me, believing people with disabilities could not only have sex but be great at it too was a huge part in fighting for my life. Being diagnosed with a degenerative disease at any moment in your life is enough to make you want to quit, but sex is one of the reasons I want to live. I don’t care if that sounds shallow. Being disabled shouldn’t mean missing out on what everyone else experiences. Frankly, multiple sclerosis means I have very little to lose, so why would I give up on sex if I care about it?
I know I’m not alone in believing people with disabilities should be allowed to enjoy and explore their sexuality in whatever format that takes (ability levels change, but that’s why some goddess invented vibrators, and sensual touch can be every bit as erotic as penetration). An important part of enjoying sexuality is seeing yourself represented in the movies and television shows you love.
While I have zero problem watching Jennifer Aniston fall in love again and again, there should also be room for actors with disabilities to showcase moments from their own lives on screen. After all, people with disabilities fall in love, have sex and live full lives whenever possible and ultimately have the same desires and needs as every other human being on the planet.
While actors take on a variety of roles throughout their careers, I personally don’t want a Hollywood actor who’s able-bodied portraying a character with physical or invisible impairments on screen. This stems from the fact that those with disabilities are made to feel invisible on a daily basis because of their differing needs and ability levels. People with disabilities should be able to tell their own stories and raise awareness about their sex lives in the entertainment industry and in their everyday lives.
Perhaps movies have an excuse for failing to show realistic portrayals of the sex lives of people with disabilities. But as awareness increases and there’s a growing call for actors with disabilities to play their on-screen counterparts, there’s a very real need to show that sex isn’t just possible with a disability, but can be transformative, life-affirming and downright essential.