Welcome to Sexual Health Week! This year’s theme is sex and disability and we’re so excited to launch our campaign with Enhance the UK and Brook to #ScrewSTIgma. People living with disabilities are often excluded from sexual health services due to stigma or accessibility, and are often not included in sexual health. In the media and across society, those living with disabilities face stigma and dehumanisation. This can mean their sexual health needs are overlooked.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Jay Abdullahi and Kym Oliver, the Triple Cripples, to begin challenging this narrative. Read on as we talk media representation, going to clinic and the sex education revolution.
Who are Triple Cripples?
Triple Cripples is a platform we’ve created to highlight the narratives of disabled black/POC women, femmes and non-binary people. It aims to increase their visibility in the general media - if you look around, you don’t see people like us. When you think of disability, you don’t think of a person of colour. You need to see yourself in the media - otherwise you don’t know who you are and what’s available to you. Media representation is just the beginning, but it affects everything: your education, your personal life, your interpersonal relationships. People think they know about black people, they know about disabled people, they know about women, but they can’t imagine putting all three together. These are the lives that we lead every day. In terms of sexuality, if you don’t have any representation of what sex means for you and your body, you’re just working from nothing and are struggling without support.
What would you like people to know about sex and disability? What would you like the narrative to be?
It happens! We are just as sexual as other people - there is a desexualisation of disabled people, and your disability is seen as having taken away this very human, natural part of you. People presume that everyone disabled is asexual. How could you have any urges beyond being less pitiful? The desexualisation stems from dehumanisation - you’re not a man or a woman, you’re just this thing. How can you be seen as sexual if you’re not seen as human in the first place? Thinking about our particular intersections, we as black women are highly sexualised but as disabled people are desexualised, so where do we end up? It becomes: “I’m attracted to you but I don’t know why. Black skin means that you’re a fetish for me, but you’re also an infant”, so it ends up very muddled. Disabled people are just people, so the full range of sexual expression and activities are happening! We are allowed to express our sexuality in the same variety of ways as anyone else. There’s also a whole industry dedicated to creating apparatus to make sex more accessible for those with disabilities, so it’s accepted that disabled people might be having sex, but that it shouldn’t be visible in the public eye.
What needs to change in sex education? Would those changes help alter attitudes towards sex and disability?
Jay: I’ve been disabled since before my first birthday and I was included in sex education, but I’m not surprised that some kids are excluded - it’s presumed “why would you need to be here?”. We need an overhaul of sex education to make it more inclusive and crucially to include queer identities. We need to make sure we’re including everything and everybody. We need to include the “non-science” part of sex, e.g. someone can have sex with you and not want to marry you.
Kym: We’re holistic human beings, so we need to see our bodies as part of ourselves in a broader sense and give people agency over their bodies. Sex is taught from a procreation point of view, but let’s face it, most people aren’t have sex to procreate. Teaching sex from a pleasure-centered perspective would shift sex education and change attitudes.
Sex should be seen as part of developing a sense of self: knowing your body is part of that holistic growth. Those with feminine gender expressions are taught that they should just be receivers and take what they’re given. If by the time it gets to puberty, you know what you like and what you don’t like, rather than sex just being something where you have to accept something you don’t enjoy. If sex ed had taken a pleasure centered form, it would have been a lot easier for me to see myself as a sexual being as a disabled person, because my sexuality and idea of womanhood wouldn’t be defined by my ability to procreate or viewed from a strictly heteronormative view. When confronted with my disability, I would have just thought, “Ok my body moves in different ways now, but that hasn’t changed anything about me or my idea of myself and my sexuality”.
A lot of sexual health education ends up being scare-mongering or too heavily focused on STIs so I’m really glad you’ve brought up pleasure-centered education. To just touch on STI testing and sexual health check-ups, do you feel sexual health services are accessible as disabled women? How could they improve beyond being more pleasure-centered in their principles?
Jay: I mobilise using a leg brace and two crutches, so I haven’t had any issues accessing those services from that point of view. We can fix up all the buildings we want, but we also need to ensure that everybody working there understands that they need to treat everyone who walks through the door in the same way. If I go to the clinic, have a bad experience and don’t return, I’m potentially putting myself and others at risk.
Kym: It’s so dependent on the type of disability you have. Some clinics aren’t accessible - some have pneumatic lifts but they just don’t work - you don’t know in advance, because you can’t get through because the line is busy or the person on the phone is at a central location and they don’t know what’s happening at a local clinic. It’s so important to have online services, so I can take the test in my own space where I’m comfortable and my carer or someone I trust can help me. But it’s still so important to have the community services too and have both working together in a collaborative way.
We know that #STIsDontDiscriminate and believe everybody deserves a healthy and fulfiling sex life. That’s why we’re teaming up with the official host of Sexual Health Week Brook to donate a free kit to Enhance the UK, for each kit sold on Fettle during #SHW19 between 16th and 22nd September.