Being diagnosed with a degenerative disease is enough to make you want to quit, but sex is one of the reasons I want to live.
Finding out you’re disabled, or have a lifelong incurable illness, is transformative. I was thirty 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 that there were more resources for disabled people coming to terms with their conditions, and more realistic portrayals of those with disabilities on screen.
There’s been a growing backlash towards able-bodied actors portraying disabled characters (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 disabled characters are often incredibly limited, reduced to disappointing sob stories, or focusing on the inevitable deaths of those with chronic conditions. And, most importantly, we’re rarely shown disabled people having sex, as if being ill precludes all physical activity, especially fucking.
In some ways, movies can’t be totally blamed for portraying disabled characters as sexless, or barren, or devoid of love. Society often suggests that those living with conditions which affect their physical wellbeing 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 way 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 quick 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 that disabled people could not only fuck, 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 that 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 that disabled people 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 with watching Jennifer Aniston fall in love again and again, there should also be room in for disabled actors to showcase moments from their own lives onscreen. After all, disabled people fall in love, have sex, and live full lives wherever 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 an able-bodied Hollywood actor portraying a character with physical or invisible impairments onscreen. 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. Disabled people 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 disabled people’s sex lives. But as awareness increases, and there’s a growing call for disabled actors to play their onscreen 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.