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I Have a Disability … & a Healthy Sex Life

Dating with a disability or chronic illness can be pretty difficult. When I was dating, it seemed like almost everyone I encountered was uncomfortable around people living with disabilities, outright disgusted by us or fetishized us.

It’s common for able-bodied people to find it difficult to humanize us, let alone want to date us. My girlfriend, an able-bodied person, has taught me that not everyone treats individuals with disabilities as less than. Nonetheless, I still think back on the experiences I’ve had of people making assumptions about me and the lives of others living with disabilities.

It can be disheartening knowing that people are talking about you behind your back, critiquing something that intrinsically makes you yourself. I know I wouldn’t be the same person if I weren’t ill and living with a disability. It is so much a part of my life that at this point I can’t imagine not having a disability. That doesn’t stop it from being really hard at times.

I used to work in retail for a store that can be found all over the country. I was a seasonal associate, there only for the Christmas season to make a bit of money while I found a long-term job. It wasn’t long before my illness, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, caused me to faint during a shift.

The ambulance was called, and I was taken to the hospital. A day or two later when I was back at work, a few of my coworkers asked me questions about POTS while we were putting new toys on the shelves. By that point, I was used to people being curious about it and didn’t mind answering most questions. One guy, who had been quiet until this point, asked if I’d every passed out while “my boyfriend was plowing [me].”

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Too stunned to know what to say, I turned back to my work. The same guy proceeded to say if he had a girlfriend that fainted, he’d make his girlfriend agree to let him finish, “that way it wouldn’t be rape.”

A few of the other guys working nearby laughed and the conversation devolved into jokes they would play on a girl if she fainted near them. I had to walk away and lock myself in the bathroom until I was calm enough to get back to work. After refusing to talk anymore about my health with my coworkers, I was harassed until management told me my assignment with the store was over. While I really needed the money, it was still a huge relief not to go back.

Another man once insinuated that the cane I use for joint pain and balance could double as a portable sex toy, while a woman I used to work with asked me if people with disabilities had sex before talking about how most of us probably just shouldn’t have sex “just in case.” The “in case” implied pregnancy, insinuating that folks with disabilities shouldn’t have biological children even if it was perfectly safe and healthy to do so.

While not all the intrusive questions I’ve been asked about my disability and illness are related to sex, they do tend to be the ones that stand out the most. I’m not sure if it is because I am a rape and abuse survivor, because I’m a lesbian and often feel threatened by the straight men asking the questions or any number of other reasons.

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Now that I’m in a long-term relationship and having sex more often, I’ve gotten to the point in my life when all the strange assumptions people make about our sex life just seem absurd. I am living with a disability and a chronic illness and have a healthy sex life.

There are some days when my pain levels are too high to even think about sex, but most couples aren’t able to have sex all the time even if they’d like to. Between jobs, family and any number of other things, life gets in the way and makes it impossible.

My life is full. My sex life is full — not in spite of having a disability, but in addition to it. Not every person with a disability wants to have sex, while many of them have healthy sex lives like I do. One thing most of us wish is for able-bodied people to stop questioning and speculating about our sex lives. We are people too.

By Kelley O’Brien

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