Friday, February 2, 2018

Book Review: The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability

(Note: obvious title is obvious- this post will not be "family-friendly" or safe for work.  It is, however, a very important subject and a part of being human, so it needs to be addressed.)

The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain, and Illness, by Miriam Kaufman, Cory Silverberg, and Fran Odette is a reference volume of over 300 pages.  It contains an entire education's worth of sex ed, from myths (chapter 1) to philosophy (chapters 1, 2, 3, and 10), to anatomy and how-tos (chapters 5-9), to safe sex and identifying sexual violence (chapters 4, 12, and 13).  Each chapter is accompanied by quotes from various people with disabilities talking about their experiences.  I don't think I've ever come across such a complete, thoughtful, positive treatment of the subject, particularly when it comes to people with disabilities.  Needless to say, I hope, I consider this book a fantastic resource for any person, especially given the rather lacking sex ed courses I myself went through. 

Please note that this book is written in broad brush strokes, in hopes of being useful to as many kinds of people with disabilities as possible.  It is not, therefore, autism-specific, though at least one of the quotes from people with disabilities was autistic.  Several chapters include sections of specific things to keep in mind for physical disabilities, or chronic fatigue, or other impairments.  There's less emphasis on mental and emotional disabilities or differences.  But, admittedly, it's harder to make broad recommendations for such a diverse group.  They do, at least, have a paragraph here and there about hypersensitivity to touch, which is often applicable to autistic people.

Something important to mention before I go much further, is that one of the first myths this book dispels is the "people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are not sexual" myth.  I have never personally suffered from this myth, but I've always "seemed" normal, so that's probably why.  I do think the authors are right on target with this, though, that people in wheelchairs or who have other obvious disabilities are assumed to be like children, despite having the brains, temperaments, bodies, and libidos of an adult.  This myth is obviously ridiculous when you look at it too hard, but I don't think most people do, because sex is assumed to be only for the young, healthy, and beautiful in US culture.  Never mind that the human species would have died out if that was actually the case...

For me, one of the most important chapters in the book was Chapter 4, which is on communication.  I married my spouse last year, and we have since done some exploration into our sexualities now that it's socially acceptable to do so...  but a major hindrance has been my difficulty talking or thinking about the matter.  Society, especially the church, has preached loudly and clearly that sex should be considered a shameful thing that you're only allowed to do once you get married, and that solo sex (masturbation) is unacceptable.  Nobody wants to talk about it.  Sex ed is perfunctionary at best.  So most of what I've learned on the subject, I've been learning in my 20s.

This book could change all that.  Because, like anything else in a relationship, communication is key.  You need to be able to tell your partner what you like and what you want, and your partner needs to be able to tell you those things, too.  That's difficult for me, between my social conditioning, my sensory issues, and the fact that I become nonverbal when I'm sufficiently involved with sex things.  The end result has been a lot of frustration, overall.  This book has suggestions for that, though.  You can establish hand signals to indicate things like "Yes, this is good," "no, this isn't good," "do more of this," and "stop."

Another notable positive point about this book is that it is relatively LGBTQIA+ friendly.  While the book doesn't go out of its way to make a big deal about it, people of all kinds are represented in the quotations.  The book does simply refer to people who have vaginas as "women" and people who have penises as "men," but I think it probably does that for simplicity's sake, rather than any particular transphobic-ness.

The last thing I found interesting about this book is that it had a number of sections talking about how to deal with being a sexual person while institutionalized, or having attendants or support staff around a lot.  As a whole, the disability community is trying to move away from institutions, but they'll probably remain a (horrifying) thing for a while longer.  So the tips and suggestions in this book are very valuable for frustrated, dehumanized adults in institutions.

Before anyone gets too horrified about all this positivity and talking about sex, please do keep in mind that one of the reasons sexual abuse is such a powerful form of abuse is because no one wants to talk about it or hear about it.  This is particular true for disabled people, who are assumed to not be sexual, desirable, or competent in any fashion.  Look up the statistics for sexual abuse against disabled people, look me in the eye and tell me that isn't a problem.  The solution isn't hushing up the matter, it's making it safer to talk about, so everyone can be safer about sex, more educated about themselves and other people, and make better decisions.

But this book does go into the necessary precautions and safety tips for having a safe sex life: everything from abusers and allergies to STDs and birth control.  I was a bit disappointed that their birth control section really only covered condoms and female condoms, and there are over a dozen different options, with more being researched.  But admittedly, adding hormones to a person's already shaky biology can be a really bad plan, and a lot of the current birth control options are hormone-based.  Additionally, many of these options aren't very disability-friendly.  For people with physical disabilities, even condoms aren't all that accessible, with the exception of one brand of polyurethane condoms that they highlight (and I couldn't find online, sadly).

Read This Book If

You're a parent of a child with a disability, or a person with a disability.  Or heck, a person who might be open-minded enough to date someone with a disability.  This book is chocked full of excellent, sex-positive thoughts, suggestions, educational materials, and even guided exercises.  It combats the detrimental philosophies about disabled people, self-esteem, and sex, in a very enlightened, reasonable, and thoughtful way, while providing the information needed to be safe about this very important subject.  If you're a parent, this is all the stuff to teach your kids as they become old enough/developed enough to have a sex drive and manage themselves.  If you're a person with a disability, or dating someone with a disability, this book has great, thoughtful tips about ways to improve communication and sex, and even ways to try new things.  Don't miss this book.  I'll be adding it to my bookshelf. 

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