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Sexy and I Know It

How two disabled people are reminding us that intimacy is for every body

Merissa Nathan Gerson
August 20, 2015
Courtesy of Rachelle Friedman
Courtesy of Rachelle Friedman
Courtesy of Rachelle Friedman
Courtesy of Rachelle Friedman

In July, the Americans with Disability Act celebrated its 25th birthday. But a quarter of a century later, the disabled sexual revolution is still in the throes of action—a movement of progress that is currently being led by two amazing Jewish people.

Meet Rachelle Friedman, 29, was raised as in a Conservative Jewish household in Virginia Beach, and now lives outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. In 2010, Friedman suffered a severe spinal cord injury after being pushed into a pool at her bachelorette party, which left her quadriplegic. But wheelchair and all, she made a decision not to lose sight of her own beauty, sexuality, and desirability.

Friedman, who is married and a new mother to a baby girl, has made waves through her #whatmakesmesexy campaign, in which she poses in nothing but lingerie and a catheter bag.

“The pictures were to make a point, to make a statement, to give people a different image on sexuality and disability,” she said. “When someone visualizes a quadriplegic what does that look like to someone? Does that look sexy? I had my catheter bag on—because that is part of the disability. I wanted to let other women in my situation know they can be sexy and beautiful.”

Friedman’s photo shoot is on the same wavelength as the efforts of Andrew Morrison-Gurza, a queer, Jewish, 31-year-old disability consultant from Toronto and the face of the brand, #deliciouslydisabled. Along with disability advocate Stella Palikarova, Morrison-Gurza co-hosted the world’s first disabled orgy last week in Toronto. But this sex party sounds more devious than what it really is: an act of tikkun olam.

“A lot of the social spaces were not physically accessible for us, making it difficult for people with disabilities to socialize, to meet other singles, to date,” said Palikarova.

Like Friedman, Morrison-Gurza’s #deliciouslydisabled campaign and parties also challenge the stigma that people with paralysis and other disabilities aren’t sexy, have no sex drive, and can’t be sexual beings. Because it simply isn’t true.

“I say good for you,” Morrison-Gurza said, when asked about Friedman’s photo shoot. “I think that’s such a cool picture because that’s the reality of disability, I think what she’s doing is fantastic.”

The feelings are mutual. When asked about Morrison-Gurza’s group sex party, she said, “I think it is a good thing. Since there is such a stigma—putting sexuality with disability, giving people a safe space to explore that. It’s an opportunity for people to talk about it. It gets people thinking. It gets people knowing that people like us want that, that we are still human beings, that we are still sexual.”

Yet Morrison-Gurza said he got a lot of backlash for organizing a disabled orgy. “We just wanted to have a party where sex and disability were celebrated,” Morrison-Gurza told me. “People were saying, ‘Wow this party is weird and gross and you shouldn’t do it.’ You can talk about sex and disability all day. As soon as you want to do something real with sex and disability, people rebut.”

The event sold-out, accommodating more than 120 people, with over 20 of them in wheelchairs or mobility devices. At the orgy, there were specific and clear rules of consent, personal care assistant volunteers, and handicap access to all entrances and restrooms.

Sexuality may go dormant for many people with disabilities, and not because they are incapable of experiencing pleasure; it’s just not the same kind of pleasure they knew before or that able-bodied people are used to seeking. For some it requires innovation, and a shift in expectations while doing the hard work necessary to overcome the stigmas placed on their bodies by others. Friedman is still able to enjoy intimacy with her husband, but the feelings now, are different.

“Everything you do together, everything you don’t do together,” she said. “After the accident those things have to change. So we can’t play tennis anymore—I didn’t have a tennis wheelchair. Same thing with sexuality—things had to change, but that didn’t mean they had to stop.”

Friedman cites the vagus nerve, which remains intact despite the severance of spinal cord injuries, and also the mental, emotional, and other physical elements to sex and sexuality besides the basic known factors of orgasm and intercourse.

“I see what people say,” Friedman said. “People still say things like ‘she can’t be intimate’ or ‘I can’t believe he stayed with her.’ They don’t mean to be mean but it is a blow.”

“If you fill in deliciousness and delectability with disability,” says Morrison-Gurza, who has partnered with Palikarova in order to expand and develop his #deliciouslydisabled brand including more parties, “it creates a whole language we can talk about disability that we don’t talk about right now.”

“I wanted to show the general public that we are still people,” adds Friedman, “still showing sexuality. People with disability—we are wives, we are mothers, we are just regular people—more than just a disability.”

Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.

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