Yesterday was another packed day at the Southbank’s Unlimited Festival. I decided to sample Unlimited Voices, a series of panel discussions and debates on subjects relating to disability and art.
The talk I went to was called Talking Dirty: Disability and Desire. I didn’t choose it specially – it was just the topic that was starting off the afternoon session.
The panel consisted of five leading disabled artists all of whom talked frankly and honestly about disability and sexuality. I felt quietly blown away. Grown-up conversations about disability and sex are hard to come by and the media’s attempts to touch on the subject tend to be weak and laden with assumptions and stereotypes.
I’ve never heard a conversation between other disabled people about their experience of relationships and sex. In fact I wasn’t even aware that conversations like this were missing from my life at all. But as I sat in the St Paul’s Roof Pavilion at the top of the Southbank Centre, that changed. I was listening to artist Caroline Bowditch explain how she felt she knew her body in a much more detailed and intimate way than many non-disabled people who never really have to pay attention to theirs in the same way.
I can’t remember everything the panellists said but one of them, Penny Pepper, made a comment that really stuck in my mind.
She was reminding the others that as artists and performers their confidence around sexuality wasn’t necessarily reflective of the experience of everyone with a disability. She went on to say something along the lines of:
‘Deep down many disabled people feel that a non-disabled person would rather be having sex with another non-disabled person than someone with a disability.’
This comment hit me hard, I immediately recognised the feeling Penny Pepper was describing. However accepting I am of Tourettes, my body and myself, when it comes to thinking about sex and relationships I know that unspoken preconceptions do lurk in my mind and undermine my confidence.
Because I’ve never had a conversation about sex with other disabled people before I’ve never unearthed or explored these preconceptions. The session may not have been one I’d picked specifically, but I’m very glad I went because it’s cracked open my thinking in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.
It’s definitely an area of life that needs to be talked about more IMO, both for people with disabilities and those without. I’m sure that fear stops non-disabled people from having relationships with disabled people simply because they don’t know what to do. Could you hurt someone with a physical disability? How do people with learning difficulties cope? What happens if someone has an epileptic (or tourettes) seizure during intimacy? I’m sure there are thousands of questions like this in people’s minds which stop them from approaching a person with a disability for a date, and more awareness would certainly make a difference.