Dating is hard.
Dating as a young woman with a disability comes with its own challenges.
There are as many different experiences as there are people living with disabilities. Some good, some bad.
But within the community, between friends, and now, even within larger groups, conversations about romance and sexuality are happening.
Through those conversations, and in speaking out to the larger community, women with disabilities can help break down misinformation and misconceptions when it comes to navigating their sexuality. And express confidence in who they are.
Whether it is about how to talk to potential partners about hopes and desires, or needs and concerns; from the physical aspects of safe intimacy to understanding gender expression; from self acceptance to naughty foreplay.
As part of the disabled community, I reached out to several other young women to talk about their stories. I let their words speak for themselves. Because of the sensitive nature of the conversations, we are using their first names only.
Jung — Self-acceptance
"I am a mom, wife, a former engineer, an aspiring social worker," says Jung.
"I am currently in my last week of completing my last practicum toward my bachelor of social work at the University of Calgary, and a proud Canadian."
Jung was born in South Korea and moved to Canada at the age of seven.
"I have congenital scoliosis and spina bifida," says Jung. "So I do have scars from different surgeries and I also walk with a cane. It's not really anything different, it was just being comfortable showing those scars. More about the mental comfort, which is more of a self-image thing."
Dating was difficult.
"It was difficult because I almost felt like I couldn't have a sexual side … when I hit puberty and started getting interested in boys. And it was a cultural thing, too. Because I thought, 'I have a disability and boys won't like me.'"
"Sometimes I would like to count myself out," says Jung. "I have a lot of great guy friends but I would put them in the friend zone."
She says that was most likely her own fear of being rejected.
"I would assume. And I would just put myself there and I wouldn't give anyone really a chance. So there was some work I had to do. I think I was just scared of facing rejection, so I didn't put myself in those positions."
"In a way," says Jung, "I wrote myself off, and it can be very dangerous when you internalize these things."
But her experiences evolved.
"When I got older, I got more comfortable with myself. I was also in a long-term relationship, and I found that I wanted to be single and just enjoy myself. And that was OK, too," she says.
"I never really dated much, but in the three long-term relationships I have been in in my life, being honest has always been very important to me. I have been fortunate to find partners who have always been comfortable with my open communication and needs."
This need for communication was key in her intimate life.
"Being honest, even if it is uncomfortable, it is, in my opinion, vitally important to the health of a relationship. I think this leads to a strengthened sense of trust between partners, "Jung says.
Now a wife and mother, Jung looks back on her journey.
"Even though I have struggled most of my life with an identity defined by disability, I have finally arrived at a place where I am comfortable with the person that I am today," she says.
Ari — Vital conversations
Ari is working toward a degree in psychology.
"I am a believer that we create our own destiny, and that loving ourselves along the journey is vital," she says.
When it comes to physical intimacy, she needs a partner who is fully aware of her disability.
"Because of my condition … having an intimate relationship could be something that could potentially kill me," she says.
Under certain physical conditions, Ari says, her body can go into anaphylaxis, something she can avoid with pre-planning and pre-medication.
Her experience with sexuality has required a lot of understanding. And that hasn't always happened.
"So there's a lot of discussions that have to happen around certain things. I have been in situations in the past where I've been breaking into hives and going into flushing and the person hasn't stopped. So their self-gratification becomes more important in my life and that's been a problem."
This leads to a necessary balance, when it comes to sex.
"They need to ask me what we need to do to prepare for that. I want to be spontaneous like every other girl … but there has to be planning there to be premeditation. And I have to be cautious," says Ari.
She says these conversations can be difficult but emphasizes their importance. She also suggests people who are in intimate relationships with people living with disabilities do some homework.
"Having someone who has done their research, even if it's just knowing about disability rights, just knowing about that kind of stuff, can be a better ally," Ari says.
And this helps.
"Because when the disabled person has to do it all, it can be very exhausting. I don't mind explaining things to people, but there comes a point. There is a little burnout from having to talk about things so much."
And for people living with disabilities, Ari recommends being open, upfront and direct about what you need from physical and emotional intimacy.
"I think it's important to have a foundation and to be able to build a deeper connection. A lot of the time in the past I have felt like I had to have the physical part to keep the relationship going. And now, there is not always emphasis on it, and there is a deeper connection. It's good to have someone that understands. To me, that's almost more intimate."
Tarra — Agency and voice
Tarra describes herself as a "creative," an advocate and a writer.
She's also candid. Very candid.
"If I could have sex every day, I would! And I am 47 years old," she says with a laugh.
For Tarra, regardless of age, whether people are neuro-typical, or have an intellectual or developmental difference, everyone needs to be taught that sexual desires — and what she calls "animal instincts" — are normal.
"I don't want anyone to feel marginalized. I want people to feel like they have a place where they belong and that they have a voice," she says.
Tarra's own journey was a difficult one.
"It was just hard for me because I was undiagnosed till I was an adult," she says.
Tarra was diagnosed with autism and ADHD. She says that before the diagnosis, she faced a lot of challenges she couldn't explain. And she was forced to be something she wasn't.
"It made it harder for me because I didn't know how to react to situations. I didn't have tact. I didn't have those soft skills. So sometimes people didn't like me, even though I was trying to be something else." says Tarra.
"I had marriages that didn't work, and I definitely hit rock bottom at times, but you always have to have hope," she says.
She hopes that her journey can be useful for other people with similar challenges.
"My biggest piece of advice for anyone is to talk to someone like me. I've been around and I've seen a lot of things. But most importantly, just be yourself. And if you have a dirty mind like me, that's not going to change," she says with a laugh.
Banu — Be who you are
Banu is studying to be a medical office assistant. She sometimes finds it hard to work and socialize because of her mobility issues and chronic health conditions.
"It's definitely hard to get to know people sometimes because of my health issues. I feel like I can't go on a hike — I don't want to feel like I want to slow anybody down. And there are definitely tougher moments."
Banu is single and spends her spare time volunteering and going to the movies with her friends, and obsessing over Loki.
She also identifies as asexual.
"I am in the grey area where I experience some sexuality toward some people but not a whole lot," Banu says.
This, in addition to her mobility issues, made it hard to figure out where she "fiit in."
Banu says she felt pressured in high school to push herself to like people.
"Like I was this broken thing that I had to fix."
But that changed.
"I figured out what asexuality was through sex ed. And I just kind of figured, 'yeah, that was me."
She then found a community.
"And being part of the LGBTQ community, having my friends go through some of the same things, was like, 'you're not broken, this is who you are.'"
Still, there can be difficult moments.
"I was talking to a guy on the dating site. And he was saying he was studying this and told me asexuality was not a real thing. It made me laugh but at the same time it was very odd," Banu says.
"And then there are some guys that are like, you know, we will only do what you're comfortable with and really understanding."
"Something I knew growing up and through my experiences: just because you are overweight, or you have a disability or whatever your sexuality is, doesn't mean you have to settle. Go after what you like. Also, sexuality is fluid. So you don't have to label yourself one thing and stay the same. You can be whatever you are.
Banu says that through having access to information, and more importantly her friends and community, she was able to feel better about who she was as a person. She think it's important for people with disabilities to be involved in discussions around sex and sexuality
"It provides comfort. Because you might not know there are other people like you who think the same way. I know I felt really closed off, especially in school. It's important to have these discussions, especially in school, whether it's with their disability or about something with their sexuality. Whatever it is would just make us feel more welcome." Banu says.
Raven — Communicating is huge
"I do my best to help others and bring awareness of inequality in marginalized spaces that I occupy. I am exploring the ways I relate to concepts like gender, sexuality and relationship structure in the societal rules we are influenced by. I do it all while being dressed like a human rainbow," says Raven.
Raven identifies as queer non-binary. They are also neurodivergent.
"I have had partners tell me they don't believe in labels, or they don't see a diagnosis, and to me that felt very ableist. Because I'm like, 'No you have to accept that this is my diagnosis,'" says Raven.
For Raven, the exploration of sexuality is about learning.
"For me, it is because I feel safer when I know what is going on. I love to research everything. I like learning about everything, and being able to make more informed choices when I know more about my sexuality and how to be safe."
Raven says talking is key.
"Everybody is different. And I think communicating with your partner is huge," says Raven.
"For me, it makes me feel comfortable when my partner checks in with me. 'Yes, touching is OK.' It's important for my partner to know how I would like to create the space."
They say that people with disabilities shouldn't fear being honest about their concerns.
"It's OK to say when you're uncomfortable. And you're not a burden. You're not going to wreck it."
Raven also says it is important to know that you have value.
"Someone is making you feel bad about your disability? They are not worth your time. You are amazing. There is someone out there who is amazing. Someone who will be there for you, and take care of you, and you don't have to feel like a burden," Raven says.
An ongoing journey
Everybody's story is unique to their own experiences.
These women were able to share their stories, good and bad. The whole idea is that this piece helps open the door to more discussions and to continue the conversation. It is far from the first but with hope and open minds it is definitely not the last.
Speaking with these women about their different experiences, I couldn't help but think about how sharing these stories has helped me.
I see a reflection of a universal experience in each element — from uncertainty, to discovering self-acceptance, and being comfortable in your own skin.
Such conversations can be awkward, and the sharing difficult. But for many women living with disabilities, it's a place to start in hopes for continued discussions and finding voice.
If you or someone you know has questions and would like more information about starting their own discussion, you can find other resources and support through the Centre for Sexuality – Calgary.