Sexuality and disabled people: an enduring taboo

Do disabled people have sex or are, simply, interested in sexuality and in coupledom like the “normal” ones? If we only give a superficial look at the situation, in Italy and abroad, the answer to this question could seem negative. But, actually, things are “quite different”.

Lorella Ronconi

Lorella Ronconi (© Maria Vittoria Peccatori)

We’ll talk about it with Lorella Ronconi, Knight of the Italian Republic for spending her life to establish and protect the disabled people rights, including that to affectivity and sexuality. Lorella,  who is affected by a heavily disabling physical disability, has a solid working background in associations, non-profit organizations, local institutions, where she has put her typically Tuscan stubbornness at the service of the rights of who has no voice, fighting to remove architectonical and cultural barriers that still weigh on the life of millions of disabled people, not just in Italy.

– Hi, Lorella, and thanks for your willingness to have this chat. Would you like to introduce yourself to Move@bility’s friends? 

I’m a Tuscan 54 woman and, even though, since when I was 2, I’ve been living with a chronic genetic disease, I’m still in love with life. Thanks to my parents and to knowledgeable teachers, I was among the first disabled people in Italy who attended “normal” schools. My attitude and openness towards others have always led me to be personally committed to social work. I’m very keen on arts, poetry and web, particularly on social media, that I see as essential tools to overtake cultural barriers which still ghettoize us, disabled people.

– Let’s immediately get to the main subject of this meeting: disabled people and sexuality. Why is this topic still a taboo, in 2016?

At the bottom of the taboo there’s a view of the disabled individual as “sick”, while disability is, above all, a permanent condition (both physical or psychic). Generally, when I deal with this topic in public contexts, I use the following example: when someone is in bed with flu, it’s hard to see him as sexually desirable, so you only take care of him to help him getting over. Well, who sees the combination among disabled people and sexuality as a taboo looks at us, disabled people, as if we’d be permanently in bed with flu: then, woe betide seeing us as sexually desirable or, even less so, active! In the best case, they consider us as eternal children, by nature lacking sexual impulses and desires.

– For disabled women (and we’re well aware of this, since we’re both part of this category), this topic is even more “sensitive”, since it feels the effect of the same cultural legacy that, for centuries, has seen (and, in some cultures, still sees) woman as an “object” and not a “subject”, when it comes to sexual impulses. But is it so, actually?

The different way to look at the two genders is a fact among “able-bodied” people, as you said. Even when we talk about sexuality, we almost automatically think to the disabled man, as if we, the disabled women, didn’t have that need. Media also contribute to empower this opinion: there are still too fee movies, just to give an example, where disability, in all its facets, is described “from a female perspective”. But sexual impulse isn’t linked to the way we walk, see, hear: it’s naturally inside us as human beings, without any difference, apart from the “mechanical” part, among the two sexes, regardless of any disability.

-In your opinion, the advent of the sexual assistant is an effective solution and, if so, is it effective for both sexes? Does it satisfy the natural need for affectivity, besides satisfying instincts (that are natural as well, of course)?

Both for male or female disabled people, sexual assistant, alone, isn’t enough to answer, with a magic wand, all the individuals’ specific needs, even more so in such a delicate field as affectivity and sex. I think we lack a clear project, at a national level, to “design” this professional profile, that, as it is commonly considered, for sure answer more effectively the male “mechanical” needs. For women, it’s a little bit more complex – even at a “mechanical” level- in addition to our greater need for an emotional involvement. We’d need to establish a well-designed professional profile, able to fully answer the “physiological” and emotional needs (these are, for instance, satisfied by the “cuddle-therapy”) of disabled people, both men and women. Prior to the sexual assistant, we must train professional profiles such as care workers, consultants, psychologists and psychiatrists, so that they actually know that disabled people have also sexual and emotional needs to satisfy and can be ready to effectively answer these licit needs. On the contrary, nowadays, too often, the “problem is solved” prescribing bromide pills (which only inhibit libido) or transferring everything, once again, to families, with heavy psychological effects, for parents who have to satisfy their sons “physiological” needs also in such an intimate field and, when ask for help or advice, hardly find people ready to effectively answer their doubts.

– How important is the emotional and sentimental part, in the sexual life of a disabled individual (regardless of the specific gender)? 

It’s fundamental, since love is life, for everyone, including disabled people.

– Let’s try to figure out a scene: two individuals, a disabled and an “able-bodied”, together, in a “very lovely” attitude. In most of cases, people looking at them think they are friends, relatives or, at most, a patient and his/her caregiver/assistant. How can we make those that you effectively defined “dull people” understand that this is absolutely normal?  

We’re in the age of communication, so let’s use it! We need a lot of awareness campaigns also about sexuality, an essential part of the disabled people life, as it is for everyone else. We must “shock”, letting them see first-hand that disability isn’t the opposite of sex and laws of attraction, even towards the “able-bodied”.

– In your opinion, what can we do, under an institutional and cultural perspective, to promote a culture of real acceptance of disability as a condition not to pity, but to see as absolutely normal, overthrowing not only architectonical barriers, but also (and above all) the cultural ones?

Standing up for it, let other people see that we are human beings, not sick pets to take care of. Plus, commit ourselves to see the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (signed by Italy in 2009) and the existing laws about architectonical barriers removal  followed, also allocating an adequate budget. But, above all, we, disabled people, must “act as a network” and go into politics, commit personally, together, to get an outcome. Only in Italy, according to ISTAT data, there are more than 4 million of disabled people, plus their relatives: we must “make noise”. We’re not invisible and we mustn’t be so, even when it comes to advertising and marketing: how long will we have to wait until a disabled testimonial appears in a “cool” brand commercial?

We’re looking forward to that! And maybe… Stay tuned! 

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