Q: I'm writing on behalf of a 19-year-old guy with cerebral palsy.
As you may know, CP is a brain affliction resulting from insufficient oxygen at birth, and it causes the part of the brain responsible for motor function to work incorrectly. Troubles for people with CP include muscle spasticity, weakness or painful contraction, and, in some cases, a life spent in a wheelchair.
My buddy is, like any 19-year-old, interested in finding out more about his sexuality. He has watched his peers develop sexually, but hasn't had the opportunity to do so himself. Intimacy aside, are there any services that you know of that could help him to experience sex for the first time? I don't mean to buy the guy a hooker or anything like that, but I wondered if there are people who would assist him and a girl (disabled or otherwise) into bed.
Thanks, and keep up the great column. I've been a reader for years... —Friend In Deed
A: "Your reader shouldn't make assumptions about what having sex or being sexual means to his friend," says Cory Silverberg, co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability. What if your friend doesn't want to get into bed with a girl, but head into a dungeon with one? Or two?
"Just like we do with everyone," says Cory, "we tend to assume folks with disabilities are straight and just want to have penile-vaginal intercourse and some oral sex. We're almost always wrong. So the first thing he should do is ask his friend what he's interested in."
Cory also suggests that you ask your friend if he's having sex with himself, since masturbation is the easiest way for a person to explore his sexuality. "Mobility disabilities can make masturbation tricky," says Cory, "but never impossible. Privacy and motor control can be challenging, but there are many workarounds."
If your friend has or finds a partner and needs physical assistance during sex, you might want to help him find an attendant, a person who works with physically disabled people, who is comfortable positioning him and a partner in bed, assisting with condoms, and cleaning up. "In my experience," says Cory, "attendants who are queer tend to be more comfortable talking about sex and making that kind of assistance part of their job description, but that doesn't rule out straight ones."
So if your friend has plenty of sex with himself and has a good idea what he'd like to do, but doesn't have a partner to do it with, what do you do then? "I don't have any new suggestions here," says Cory. "He should get out there, use online and virtual spaces, join a social group related to something he's passionate about — all of these are good ways to meet people. Paying for sex is also an option, but avoid the escort ads and try to get a referral from someone you know and trust."
Q: I was in a chat room today and a guy asked if he could see my belly button. Of course, my fetish alarm went off. Turns out this guy is 19, disabled, and feels like a total social and sexual outcast. Because of his physical problems and his fetish, he said he felt like he'd never have a normal relationship. I couldn't lie to the kid, so I told him, "Most people are assholes — and this comes from an able-bodied vanilla girl, so, yeah, your life's gonna be tough."
Then I thought there must be some kind of Internet group out there for disabled fetishists. It might also make him feel more normal, and he may be able to arrange an amazing you-can-fetishize-my-disability-if-I-can-jerk-off-in-your-belly-button relationship. I'm torn up thinking about this kid and want to do something for him. —Trying To Help A Kid Out
A: "Your reader probably feels like she is doing a good thing," says Cory, "but she should tone down the condescension [about fetishes and disability]." Cory feels strongly that people with disabilities shouldn't be told they must look exclusively to disability fetishists for partners. "But there are people who have a specific sexual preference for people with disabilities," says Cory, "and they identify themselves as devotees and in most cases the disabilities they prefer are people missing limbs and people in wheelchairs."
Ascot World (ascotworld.com), according to Cory, "is still one of the biggest and best devotee sites and offers links to discussion groups, which, if this guy is interested, are one place to look for people."
Now before angry able-bodied folks take offense on behalf of the disabled and write angry letters about creepy devotees, please wrap your able-bodied heads around this: If you believe in equal treatment for people with disabilities, then that extends to sex. We all want to be objectified from time to time, and a disabled person has just as much right to healthy objectification as any other person. There's really not much difference between a leg man and a lack-of-leg man.
"But a lot of devotees don't think of themselves as fetishists," adds Cory. "They compare their interests to someone who likes red hair or big boobs, more of a preference or something they have an emotional connection to rather than something they absolutely need to get off."
Q: Please help me. I'm 38 and have no boyfriend or friends to go out with. I have been in a wheelchair for 10 years with a hereditary condition. I have low self-esteem, which does not help. I don't know how to fix it. If I do ever go somewhere on my own, I never find people that want to talk, and my life is so boring. —Dying Out Here
A: "The effects of the social isolation people with disabilities face can include depression," says Cory, "and from this brief note, that's my first concern." Cory thinks you might benefit from seeing someone — le shrink — about your general mental health before you start looking for a boyfriend. "The reader wants to 'fix' the problem, but the truth is that there isn't any quick or easy fix, especially when it comes to self-esteem. But taking some action to change your situation can make you feel more positive about yourself and what you have to offer others."
Once you've sought some help for your depression, Cory suggests you "find some volunteer work that is accessible [or] join a social group or club"— basically follow the standard-issue advice for any lonely person, able-bodied or not. You also might want to check out these disability dating websites: dawn-disabled-dating.com, disableddatingclub.com, enablelove.com, lovebyrd.com, and specialsinglesonline.com.
Cory also wanted me to pass on these resources: Independent Living USA (ilusa.com); info on seeing a sexual surrogate (pacificnews.org/marko/sex-surrogate.html); some practical suggestions from Outsiders, a UK disability-rights group (outsiders.org.uk/practical-suggestions); and Queers on Wheels (queersonwheels.com). Cory also writes for, and maintains, a sex and disability resources page at About.com.
Finally, all three authors of The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability — Miriam Kaufman, Fran Odette, and Cory Silverberg — are happy to help others with suggestions and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cory also takes questions this week on the Savage Lovecast, my weekly Podcast, which you can download at thestranger.com/savage.
Confidential to California: Thanks for that.Send letters to email@example.com