Feeling like a sexual being, particularly with a physically disabling condition, can be something that society tries to rob you of. Relatives and carers may see sexuality as one of the last things to worry about with any given condition and those with disabilities can be left confused and uneducated about their bodies.
But denying perfectly natural sexual feelings can lead to frustration, loss of self worth and lack of confidence. Where there may not be the presence of a partner, sex therapists and surrogates can help delicately over come the personal issues associated with relationships and sexual discovery. While sex therapists work on the psychological and emotional problems a client may have concerning sex, a sex surrogate combines this while also working physically with the clients body. As vital an experience this has been for many disabled people, surrogacy has also proven to be a minefield of moral debate and a legal grey area. As the current UK law stands, sex work is legal as long as it is between two consensual adults and it is done privately. However, the socially ingrained image conjured up at the mere mention of a sex worker seems to be one of a vulnerable young woman. This then leads onto a whole separate, and rightly important, debate about women’s rights. But sex work is not a black and white issue, and where the system can be abused in horrifying ways, the good that can come of it when used responsibly is unmatched. It can empower and emotionally reward the workers (both female AND male) who CHOOSE this profession and it is no over statement to say that the work they do can essentially change their clients’ lives.
The hit 2012 film The Sessions starring Helen Hunt brought to life the thought provoking true story of the late poet-writer-activist Mark O’Brien. Originally an article written by him in the Eighties, it chronicles his emotional and physical journey with a surrogate. Mark contracted polio at a young age and was severely disabled from it, spending a large chunk of his life in an iron lung, a large machine encompassing his whole body to aid with breathing. He had sex for the first time at the age of 36. Because of his disability and his families’ Catholic moral code he was left with the assumption ‘that people should emulate the asexuality of Barbie and Ken.’
Finally feeling able to confront his inner demons, after just his first talk with a sex therapist, Mark felt that he ‘could take charge of [his] sexuality and cease thinking of it as something alien.’ After much deliberation, overcoming life long reservations about his body and the unfamiliarity of the opposite sex, he eventually has sessions with a surrogate. He learns that ‘sex is a part of ordinary living, not an activity reserved for gods, goddesses and rock stars,’ and emotionally recalls after his first sexual experience: ‘For the first time, I felt glad to be a man.’ His surrogate uses a variety of techniques and exercises with him in order to explore and feel secure in his body such as simple body massage. One of the most moving parts of the article is when his surrogate strokes his hair and tells him that it feels nice. Mark is emotionally mature enough to realise that his surrogate is not a full relationship replacement and usually they limit the sessions they have with a client so this type of bond does not form. Yet her simple words give Mark a kind of boost that he’d never experienced before, and he interestingly feels that, ‘having at least one attractive feature helped me to feel more confident.’
His story shows just how beneficial this work can be and through the surrogates, clients can learn that being confident, sensual and sexual doesn’t necessarily have to come from other people’s perceived perceptions. It instead could be regarded as an internal attitude shift and a gradual acceptance of self, but of course nobody is saying that comes easy. Insecurities are an inevitable part of human nature time to time, but the niche practices of Naturists (or Nudists) are in a different league of acceptance.
Maybe we could all take a leaf out of their free hanging book and learn to flaunt our form, no matter what shape it’s in. It may sound extreme, and perhaps not for everyone, but it has been suggested that more people with disabilities could learn to embrace the naked way of life. Not only does it help people get used to their bodies in a non-sexualised atmosphere, it can even be more practical and enjoyable whilst partaking in activities such as swimming which require awkward changing rituals. Naturists are a friendly and never judgmental bunch, occasionally misunderstood; they are always willing to show new people what they’re all about.
At the risk of sounding too flowery, sensuality can start with just being in tune to the world around you. Appreciating touch, sights and smells in everyday life can all help with getting to know your body, and far from being afraid of it, understand its power. As Mark discovered, sexual exploration is not a luxury and is just as fundamental and natural as eating or breathing. Knowing your own personal wants, needs and boundaries is essential before even considering a partner. And once those things are established, it can be hard to resist someone with that much self-respect.
Read more about the late Mark O’Brien’s film via the link below.
· TLC-trust.org.uk – Designed to connect disabled people to responsible sex workers, they have profiles of many surrogates from around the country, a forum and further links related to disability and sex.