SEX & DISABILITY:
BY ELLIOTT HOLOHAN
The COVID-19 pandemic has had impact on the sex lives of thousands of Australians. For those living with disability, it’s been particularly hard, as it has been for the sex workers they rely on.
At the best of times, navigating sex with a physical disability can present new and difficult challenges. Add a global pandemic to this equation and your work is cut out for you.
Ange McReynolds, 41, has severe cerebral palsy. She lives in a group home in Sydney’s Allambie Heights and has used a wheelchair all her life.
Before the pandemic, Ange would see a sex worker once a month.
Now, she sees no-one.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has absolutely limited my ability to build intimate relations because I used to see an escort and now they can’t come inside my supportive accommodation, because my accommodation is only allowing essential services to come in,” Ange said through her AAC device.
PRE COVID-19 BARRIERS
Married couple Clare and Geoff White, both have cerebral palsy. Their diagnosis affects their mobility and both have used the aid of a wheelchair for over 20 years.
They believe there are specific misconceptions society has about their capacity to have sex.
“You can’t do it,” Clare said.
“Or you don’t do it and are not interested,” Geoff said.
Sex and disability experts believe that a lack of sex education is a key factor in limiting individuals with disability access to spheres of intimacy.
STABILISE director, Victoria Chipperfield, says there are education chasms.
Ms Chipperfield’s organisation works toward enabling people with disabilities access to education and tools to empower sexual expression.
“I had a client who was in his 50s and didn’t know how babies were made,” Victoria said.
“Education is such an important part. The education department of special schools was providing sex education to the level of a five year old.”
“This is a public discourse that needs to be had, where we have a bloody hard look at ourselves and how we treat people with a disability and how we exclude them rather than include,” Victoria said.
Sex coach, Georgia Grace emphasises that sex and disability has been deemed taboo in public conversation.
GEORGIA GRACE: SEX COACH
Ange McReynolds recounts her own experience of trying to navigate sex and cerebral palsy, with the limited disability sex education she received.
“I had sex education at school, but it was not enough education about sex and disability because the sex education was very general,” Ange said.
“I think the real sex education is by having sex, because as women, we need to use our muscles. We need to learn how to do pelvic floor exercises to have an excellent sex life and learn to love our bodies. At school they didn’t teach us about it.”
Ange turned to a friend when she was 30, for advice on sex and at 32, decided to see an escort, “because they could move my body to [the] right position,” she said.
“I think people are surprised that we are married or in general that people with disabilities can get married. People think disability automatically relates with asexuality.”
SEX – AN IMPORTANT WELLBEING CODE?
Rachel Wotton, has been a sex work provider for over two decades. She co-founded the not for profit organisation Touching Base, which helps to connect people with disabilities to sex workers.
Pandemic restrictions to group homes have limited Rachel’s interaction with many of her clients with disability.
“Ironically, COVID-19 has really shone the spotlight on how important everyone in society takes touch and connectivity,” Rachel said.
She said she was disappointed to not be able to visit clients in these accommodation settings.
“I’m not able to go into a lot of disability group homes or supported accommodation. They’re the ones that I miss seeing, because I do know that I have a positive impact on their wellbeing, their anxiety, how they treat the staff – their behaviour does change. It does have a positive impact on their quality of life.”
Researchers in Spain conducted a study into the Quality of Life (QoL) of adults living with cerebral palsy. The research found that engagement in sexual relationships was one of the most important factors in achieving a better QoL among adults with cerebral palsy.
“We talk about how we get endorphins, and most of the time, it’s a half hour of… good exercise. Well some people can’t go for a jog for half an hour. The other way that people forget about that I like to remind of is through orgasm. We have really good hormones and endorphins that run through us.” Rachel Wotton said.
Ange McReynolds agrees.
“Sex is an important part of wellbeing because its human nature and it makes everybody happy to have endorphins,” she said.
“Even if it’s not about orgasming, it’s about that meaningful touch… that skin to skin contact.”
SEX & DISABILITY – NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
Victoria Chipperfield says that it is essential to recognise the sexual needs and esteem of all individuals within society. Irrespective of disability.
“When we talk about sexuality for people with disability, something terrible has happened where we have lost our humanity.”
“At the end of the day… they’ve got the same needs as everybody else. And we just have to recognise that.” Chipperfield said.
Georgia Grace extends traditional definitions of sex, encompassing all nuances of intimacy as a necessary and invaluable part of human experience.
“I think when we speak about sex, we still have that idea that sex is naked bodies penetrating each other. And sex is way more than that. Sex is everything that you do to build arousal, sex is foreplay, it’s intercourse, it’s the way you look, it’s the way you engage.
“It’s the way you feel. It’s what you do. And it’s what you don’t do.”
“It’s emotional, psychological, relational, a whole range of things. So I think pleasure, intimacy, connection and relationships are a human right.” Georgia Grace said.
Rachel Wotton believes everyone else in society seems to think it’s reasonable and necessary to have meaningful touch.
“How can you deny people with disability this right?” she said.
For Ange and many others in group care homes, sex workers are off the cards for the foreseeable future.
‘Absolutely sex work should be an essential service. Somebody needs to tell the NSW government that sex work should be an essential service for people with disabilities. Its human rights!’ Ange said.