Part 1 of Disabled sex Sex and disability: what can we learn?
By Jill Clark – The Sunday Times – When he first saw Anne it was in 30C Kenyan heat and he was drawn to her tall, slender frame, her smile and that flicker in her eyes. Norman made her laugh with a bad joke after noticing her callipers. Though his humour was a little off-colour they talked all night, and by sunrise this encounter — 10 years ago at a charity-work barbecue in Machakos, Kenya — was the start of a traditional courtship between two very different people: a black disabled teacher from western Kenya and a white ex-miner from Newcastle.
They were living 300 miles apart, volunteering in disadvantaged schools. With no telephones, they would send each other love letters, and when they were together, they slept in separate rooms. Once married, their romance would see Anne Wafula Strike become a Paralympian wheelchair-racer, a model, a motivational speaker and, perhaps most significantly, a mother.
Anne developed polio as a baby after being given an out-of-date immunisation. This affected the development of her legs, which meant she had to use crutches and eventually a wheelchair. The couple now live in Harlow, Essex, with their eight-year-old son, Timothy. Norman sees Anne as many things — inspiring, strong, bossy, sexy, but never as disabled. He’s proud of his wife for all she’s achieved and now recognises that flicker in her eyes when they first met as the look of determination. “She went into a wheelchair after a difficult pregnancy,” he says. “She took up wheelchair-racing to get rid of her tummy fat and then turned pro. She’s an incredible woman.”
Anne won five gold medals at the Disability Sport England Eastern championships in 2003 and became the first-ever wheelchair-racer from East Africa to compete in the 2004 Athens Paralympics (where she was awarded a special gold medal for her achievement); in 2004 she was also voted Kenyan Sports Personality of the Year. And she models for VisABLE, an agency representing disabled models and actors.
Norman, 57, now a secondary-school supply teacher, believes it’s their disparate backgrounds that make their relationship work. She’s a Christian and teetotal; he likes a drink and a smoke. She went to university; he went into coal-mining.
Anne, 39, agrees: “The secret to our passion is capitalising on our strengths and differences; we’d never want to change each other. Love can move mountains. I love him for who he is, not what he is. He could lose a leg, an eye — it would still be the same. We know what real love is.”
Norman’s light-heartedness is a good foil for Anne’s determination and eases her pain when her health is bad. “When things are really hard, he cracks a joke and then they don’t seem so bad.”
But it wasn’t always easy. As a teenager Anne wanted to wear miniskirts and high heels but was conscious of her thin legs being disproportionate to her 6ft frame. She only caught the eye of the opposite sex when she was sitting down. “And in Africa, being a woman and disabled is so difficult. Women aren’t equal, and those with disabilities aren’t expected to marry.” Later, when she was going out with Norman, African women would assume that he was only dating her out of sympathy and would throw themselves at him, thinking they were in with a chance. “If it had been just sympathy, it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has.”
Anne knows that their bond is a solid one.
“We’re fully committed to each other, and our marriage is a bed of roses. It has beautiful red petals and, like all relationships, thorns that prick.” But she has had to learn to be confident. “I learnt to love myself before I could be loved by someone else,” she says. Today she likes to feel sexy and admired by her husband, to dress well, to be surprised and taken out for meals. And this confidence transfers to the bedroom. “Sex for us is meaningful and passionate. We’re upfront and totally honest about it with each other. It’s sacred and not to be taken for granted.”
Anne is aware that such trust and intimacy are qualities that more able-bodied couples often struggle to achieve, and she believes that her physical limitations may actually be an advantage in her love life.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Lesley Childs, a campaigner for disability rights who died aged 56, having suffered from juvenile arthritis since her youth. “Disabled people make the best lovers,” she said, “because we’re experienced at asking for what we want in a nice way. We have to become ingenious at finding ways around problems and barriers.”
So can disabled couples teach others anything about relationships and sex? The experts certainly seem to think so.
The sex therapist Dr Tuppy Owens says that many disabled people struggle for years to find a partner, so they treasure their relationships and enjoy them when they eventually find one. There’s pressure on the able-bodied to spend their energies having unnecessary cosmetic surgery, whereas the disabled are encouraged to accept their bodies and feel comfortable with themselves: this can give confidence and lead to experimentation in all areas of life.
“Take someone with cerebral palsy,” Tuppy says. “They may have jerky body movements in bed, so rather than focusing on orgasm and intercourse, they focus on other sensual pleasures you get from being in bed with another body.”
Zoe Partington-Sollinger, 37, is a conceptual artist who works with disabled artists. Partially sighted herself, with three young children, she thinks those with impairments are often naturally creative at finding solutions to overcome their disabilities. “We think about things in different ways, on a different level,” she says. “The way disabled people fundamentally approach life is different. Relationships have more value and meaning; they’re about enjoying yourself and treating people with respect and dignity.”
The actress and disability campaigner Julie Fernandez, 34, who has brittle-bone disease, agrees: “Disabled people have to be more creative during sex because their energy levels fluctuate. So they do it at times of the day when they feel at their best.”
She adds that her own disability can be of help in sex. “My condition means that I’m double-jointed, which is handy in the bedroom. I can use yoga positions and stick my legs behind my head,” she laughs.
The American photographer David Steinberg has had an intimate glimpse into the lives of the disabled, as he has dedicated the past decade to photographing them during sexual intercourse. “Probably the most significant thing I’ve learnt is that people can be wonderfully sexual in many ways. And that being fulfilled sexually is not particular to any one sexual act or sexual way of being. I’ve seen looks of unmistakable ecstasy on the faces of people who many would consider severely limited in what they can do sexually. And looks of profound love from people who cannot perform sexually in ways that most people consider absolutely essential to sexual happiness.”
David’s erotic photography began when he was encouraged to photograph disabled couples by sexual-rights activists in the States. He was approached by nine volunteers wanting to pose for him, whose disabilities included severe obesity and chronic pain, paralysis and cerebral palsy.
“Taking sexual non-fetishised images of people with disabilities can educate the public,” he says. “It’s a wonderful experience seeing yourself in a magical sexual place. My subjects are relaxed, and I have no expectations of what’s supposed to happen.”
His work has been displayed online at the sex-and-relationships website loversguide.com, and at sexologists’ exhibitions in America.
His prints will also be featured in the book The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability.
The disability counsellor Shital Shah has found that relationships where disability has always been a factor have a higher chance of success than those where disability comes later in life. “We all have our flaws. It’s just that disabled people’s flaws are bloody obvious,” she says. “It’s common for couples who develop a disability to fall apart — ‘in sickness and in health’ goes out of the window. But for couples where it’s always been there it’s often genuine love. It’s less superficial — it’s about acceptance.”
The author Mathilde Madden touches on a more uncomfortable truth about disability: the fact that the able-bodied are sometimes turned on by it. Her novel Equal Opportunities is about a woman who wants to have sex with wheelchair-bound men. “I met people known in the disabled community as ‘devos’, short for devotees. People are attracted to lots of things in a potential bedmate, some acceptable and mainstream, some more offbeat — like not being able to walk.”
In the case of Michelle, 36, it was Andy Smith’s bare feet that first caught her attention as he sat typing at a computer. “I have a thing for feet,” she says. “His are very nice. I didn’t know at the time that one of them was false. I just thought they were beautiful.”