On Sex, Wheelchairs, and Rape

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Dear Roe, I’m a 26-year-old straight man. I’ve recently met a girl I really like. She’s funny, smart and gorgeous. I met her through mutual friends, so we’ve hung out in groups a few times and have started texting a lot. I’m really interested in her, but she’s in a wheelchair, and I don’t know what that would mean for us sexually. I haven’t felt comfortable asking her about her condition, though I do know she’s paraplegic. What does this mean for going out with someone and eventually having sex?

For going out with someone, it means you should a) be considerate about going to wheelchair-accessible places; b) learn how not to be terrified of addressing disabilities and talking about them respectfully; and c) treat her well, respect her, maintain good hygiene, take an interest in her passions, be punctual, don’t be withholding about compliments or affection, respect her sexual desires and boundaries, don’t play games, don’t be boring with your date activities, be nice to her friends, learn to listen, work on being an interesting individual in your own right so you’re an interesting partner, don’t be flaky, use punctuation in your text messages, don’t mansplain. . .

Oh sorry, did that last one read like “How to date a human being” rather than “How to date a person in a wheelchair”? My apologies, that must have been confusing for you, allow me to clarify: they are actually the same. Shocking, I know.

For now, you’re not even sure if she wants to go out with you, so how about we chill out about obsessing over the potential for sex and focus on enjoying getting to know her? People with disabilities can often face a lot of objectification, fetishizing, and infantilization, as people either obsess over their sexuality, or erase it completely. Both approaches are hugely damaging.

You sound like you’re genuinely interested in this woman as a person, so I’m not trying to blame you for our culture’s discomfort with disability and sexuality, but I would ask you to question why you immediately began mentally problematizing sex you don’t even know you’re going to have.

Sex with people without disabilities can have its own challenges too, but have you ever sat around worrying that sex with an able-bodied woman will be bad? Or do you enjoy the frisson and the excitement that comes with getting to know someone you really like, of flirting with them, of hoping that maybe there’s a chance of you someday getting to enjoy their body?

So why not do that with this woman too? Doesn’t it sound like a lot more fun?

As for sleeping with this woman, without knowing the specifics of her condition, I can’t tell you what sex with her would possibly be like – just as I can’t tell what sex would be like with you, a presumably able-bodied man.

She may have no motor function in the lower half of her body, but full sensory stimulation, allowing her to have and enjoy full penetrative sex. You, meanwhile, could have full motor function but also have some impotency, so penetrative sex may be an issue.

She may have limited or no feeling in below her waist, so she may enjoy different sexual activities or stimulation of other erogenous zones. You may have nipples that are so crazy-sensitive that having them licked or pulled or bitten brings you to orgasm.

She may have trouble achieving orgasm. You may have ejaculation issues – or you may have trouble bringing a woman to orgasm. She may be more comfortable in certain positions. You may be lazy and might always try being on the bottom (don’t do that).

Sex with this woman, like sex with anyone, could have some particulars or challenges that need to be navigated. Or you both may be the best sex the other has ever had – immediately, or (more likely) after you both learn, together. And isn’t that the glorious, hope-filled gamble we take on anyone we sleep with?

But to get to that point, you’re going to have to actually reach a stage with her where you’re both ready and excited to have sex, and that won’t happen if you’re simultaneously obsessing over and terrified of sex with her. Treat her like any woman you’re interested in: enjoy the flirting and becoming closer to her.

When you’ve known her a while and have earned her trust and respect, ask her to tell you about her disability – not so you can get an idea of what sex with her would be like, but so you can understand her life, and her needs and her challenges and her accomplishments.

Be open to being informed and corrected, but also don’t be complacent about learning. Do some reading and research about her condition, look up how to be a good ally and support to people with disabilities.

And if you are ever lucky enough to be in a position where sex with her is a possibility, ask her what she’s comfortable with, what turns her on, what makes her feel good, and whether there are particular things she’d like you to do.

Listen when she tells you. Be communicative, and respectful, and enthusiastic.

You know, just like with anyone else.

***

Dear Roe, I was raped by a boyfriend years ago. I was also suffering from depression at the time and had other things going on too (my father, who was also an abusive, violent bully was diagnosed with a terminal illness), so I didn’t even think of what happened to me as rape, even though it was violent.

It took a long time to come to terms with it. To cope, I stopped feeling anything. All this not feeling anything built up, and I had a complete breakdown. I don’t know how I wasn’t carted off. One day quite aggressively my mother told me to sort myself out or else. I had also confronted my now ex about what happened and he told me I lied and made it up.

This was a turning point. I completely crumbled. It took a further six months for me to get an appointment at the Rape Crisis Centre. Where most people have therapy for five weeks, I was there 15 months. I was also suicidal and made a wonderfully thought-out plan to end my life. I say wonderful without restraint: the idea of ending my life was my only respite. The RCC saved me and I will forever be indebted to them.

However, the worst part of this whole thing has been the reaction of people I told, those I thought cared about me. I’ve lost a lot of friends as a result of this – those I told thought I was dramatic. I know this because they still associate with the man who raped me. They did very soon after I told them what had happened.

I was not an easy person to be around for this time. I was erratic and manic. Angry – so very angry. I’m not now and I’m really making a life for myself now. I moved abroad, quit my job and have had experiences I never thought possible. But something is missing. I want love. I want to meet someone and love them. And I want them to do the same to me.

I’ve slept with guys since, but I haven’t been able to feel anything with them. I don’t come. I feel muted and outside myself during sex, which is quite a violating feeling. As if something is being done to me and I’m not there or fully present. I want to fuck and be fucked because it’s the most glorious act a human can experience. Primal pleasure. And I feel I can’t have that and it makes me so sad.

I don’t feel of myself. I don’t feel very much. There’s a man I know, who I would love to have these experiences with. But he’s at home, our only interactions are WhatsApp messages every few months. I don’t even know if we’d be compatible, but when I speak with him I feel myself.

God I must sound foolish. I think too that I’m afraid of men. I find myself trying to appease them. Some feminist I am, but I guess I do this to feel safe. I don’t know what to do. If you have an idea, I’d be very grateful to you.

My darling sister in arms.

I feel your question so acutely on so many levels. I was also sexually assaulted by a man I knew, and didn’t accept it for about two years, when I had a major depressive episode that lasted about a year.

I didn’t have sex for a very long time, and then had it with men who weren’t very nice to me – a way of both trying to get sex “over and done with”, and also a way of forcing myself to have emotionless sex, because the alternative was to experience sex with all of my complicated emotions about men, and sex, and my assault, and that felt too overwhelming to even contemplate.

I also had friends who I told about the assault and who accused me of exaggerating, who were sympathetic but still socialised with the man who assaulted me, who ignored me completely. I later had an abusive relationship and lost more friends than I thought possible.

When this happens, when people are complicit in or bystanders to abuse and assault by remaining silent, by supporting abusive men, by ignoring your pain or disallowing your emotional process, it can feel like they’re supporting the violence that was inflicted upon you, telling you via your silence that you deserved it.

That your rape was committed by a man you had trusted and loved makes the feelings both more complicated and sadly easier for others to ignore should they choose to. The myth of rape is that it’s committed by strangers down dark alleyways, that rapists look like monsters, that they’re recognisably evil and thus easy to avoid, easy to hate, easy to punish. But most sexual violence is committed by someone the victim knows, that they have some form of relationship with.

Rapists can be popular, and funny, and charming. They can perform acts of kindness. They can be our loving partners, someone’s protective big brother, a helpful neighbour. And because of this, because they’re people and not just ciphers of evil, it can be difficult to reconcile your view of them with what they’ve done.

For survivors, it can take longer to accept that the person they knew inflicted violence upon you. For the rapist’s friends, who never saw this person commit any act of violence, it can be impossible to imagine.

Acceptance of a person’s ability to commit rape often comes too late, or not at all. And survivors are left battling their pain alone.

I was left. You were left. It wasn’t fair. None of it. We didn’t deserve to be hurt, and we deserved to be believed and supported when we were hurt.

So I feel that anger you describe, and can only tell you that it wasn’t you being “difficult”. It was you naturally and justifiably raging against what happened to you; it’s you not giving in this awful cruelty and violence inflicted upon you. It comes from our belief that we deserve something better; that we are worth fighting for.

This is why we battle. This is why we rage. This is anger, and it’s also known as hope.

And this hope and this belief that you deserve better is what I need you to keep feeling. This period of feeling disconnected from sex and love is painful and hard, like all steps in the recovery process.  But your desire to get through it is why you will – even if it doesn’t happen as quickly as you’d like.

I can’t tell you how long it will take you to feel comfortable with sex and men. But it starts with feeling comfortable with yourself, and that comes from being truly kind to yourself.

You don’t say if you’re still in therapy – I hope you are. You’ve been though a lot, even beyond the rape. Anyone would need support, so don’t be afraid to let yourself seek it out. It’s important to have a safe space where you are the sole focus, where you can express yourself and through talking about your emotions and thoughts, can slowly recognise patterns and needs and desires.

As you reconnect with your feelings, also reconnect with your body – dance, exercise, do yoga, get massages, masturbate, eat incredible food. Learn about your needs and pleasures beyond sex with someone else.

Take your time with men, and all relationships. You know the importance of surrounding yourself with people you truly trust, and who love and respect you. Work on developing friendships where you feel safe and supported, with men and women who want the best for you.

Don’t force yourself to have sex with men if you’re not completely interested or enthusiastic. Having disconnected sex may make it harder to envision having great sex, while asserting your boundaries with men and having them respected will slowly make you feel more empowered, and see that there are men who are willing to accept your “no”.

When you’re ready, go on dates with nice men even if you don’t want to be them seriously, or have sex with them. Let them treat you well. See that people want to. Feel that you deserve it.

Keep messaging this man who makes you feel good about yourself, and hopeful – but realise you deserve more than a few messages per month. He’s distant, both figuratively and literally, and so he’s safe. That’s okay. Let that be a relationship that hopefully grows and is an important one. But also let yourself want someone who is present.

Know that everyone wants love, and only a lucky few get it at the exact right time. It may take you a while to find it, and that’s okay – it doesn’t mean you won’t find it, or that it doesn’t exist, it just means you’re not willing to settle.

You may fall in love and not be ready for it. That’s okay too. The experience will allow you to grow, and will show you what you need the next time around.

Look at the new, wonderful, experience-fuelled life you’ve built for yourself. Know that this rape does not define you, that you’ve survived. Know how far you’ve come already. Know it will only get better. Know that you deserve it to.

And know that you’re not alone.

Know that I’ve been through this. Know that countless other women have been through this. Know that even if we’re not beside you for each individual struggle, we’re all on the same battlefield, we’re all moving in the same direction, and we’ll all be waiting to champion you at the end.

Know that you deserve to be happy, and loved. Know that you deserve better than what happened to you.

We all do.


Do you have a question for Roe? You can submit it anonymously at dublininquirer.com/ask-roe

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Author:

Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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