One of my favorite movie sex scenes is Jon Voight going down on Jane Fonda in Coming Home. A paraplegic Vietnam vet, Voight gives Fonda’s tightly wound character an incredible orgasm; she confesses it’s her first. Granted, any woman could become orgasmic after a night with Jon Voight, but I loved the idea that a paraplegic could make a better lover than a fully mobile but less sensitive man.
In real life, sex for disabled people is rarely that ecstatic. Visibly disabled people are the only American minority more stigmatized than the obese—and though certain skills may become stronger as a result of the disability, it’s hard to live with constant stares. My friend Josie, 23, is a drop-dead-gorgeous brunette who has walked with crutches ever since a car accident at age 15. The first time I saw her, at a bar, she was wearing a short skirt and boots, casually leaning on her crutches and showing off her legs. I noticed most of the men around me were checking her out. She reminded me of the women in photos by Helmut Newton or Romain Slocombe, posed in back braces or traction, sexy and placid in their distress.
“It’s easier for me to meet guys than to date guys,” she told me over drinks one afternoon. “People always have an opening question—‘What happened?’—but dating is harder. I went out with one guy who told me that when he first met me, he thought I couldn’t have sex. I said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. You can have sex with a dead girl, you can have sex with me.’ It was so stupid.”
She doesn’t have a hard time meeting guys—cops with a rescuer complex, for example, tend to be drawn to her, and men always look at her twice. She frequently hits on men from her car. “I’ve met people in traffic jams and light stops. One time I met someone on I-95. I showed him my phone number with my hand and then we talked on our cell phones. We’ve actually been in touch for a year, but we haven’t seen each other again and I haven’t told him. I like meeting guys in my car because I feel like I trick them.”
Josie says she feels more comfortable making out or being in bed than walking down the street, because her crutches aren’t in the way. But as much as she enjoys sex, she’s never had an orgasm, and doesn’t know whether it’s because of her injury. None of Josie’s doctors spoke to her about sexual functioning after her accident, and she has yet to visit a sex therapist. As a result, she feels more comfortable with casual sex than relationship sex. “Guys always assume that I don’t like sex if I don’t have an orgasm. Which isn’t true. So it’s not even something I talk about. That’s why random sex is easier for me, because the girl isn’t expected to come.”
For those with invisible disabilities, it can be more complicated. Do they date on disabled-only Websites like specialsinglesonline.com? Do they mention their disability in their personal ads? Michele, 36, is a grassroots organizer whose multiple sclerosis was diagnosed three years ago. She has no outward symptoms, but has cognitive dysfunction and fatigue. When she put an ad on Match.com, she told respondents about her MS early on, in e-mail. “I’m very out about it. It was a good bullshit detector,” she says. “Even without a disability, I wouldn’t want someone who would run off when the going got tough.”
One guy seemed taken aback when she told him, but he showed up on the date having done copious research, and even asked her what medications she was taking. “I was somewhere between charmed and horrified,” Michele said. “But beyond that, it was just like any other dating experience. We didn’t have chemistry.”
She’s now living with a guy, and they’ve spoken about the worst-case scenarios, in which she becomes immobilized or goes blind. He’s been supportive. “I knew right away he was a good caretaker. He does that in his own family, so he’s comfortable with it.”
For Josie, on the other hand, it may be hard to meet someone until she begins to feel more comfortable with herself. “I always get really jealous in relationships, and it’s because there’s something about me that’s not as good as every other woman out there,” she confesses. “And I don’t want some guy who has a fetish for girls on crutches.” She knows her attitude doesn’t help, but it’s hard for her to see beyond past experience. “I can’t get so jealous,” she sighs, “because what am I going to do? Break everyone else’s legs?”