Chronically Fabulous: Disabled and Sexy are not Mutually Exclusive Terms

Disability, Josie Quinn, Sex

By Josie Quinn

“In much the same way that cisgender men playing transgender women reinforces the erroneous and harmful idea that they are “women in dresses”, having attractive/sexual disabled characters played only by non-disabled actors suggests that sexy disabled people do not exist, that they have simply taken an already attractive actor and given them a CGI prosthetic.”

Considering many of us have spent the last three-quarters of a year mostly stuck at home, I suspect I am not the only one who has spent a large amount of that time binge-watching films and TV box-sets on the myriad streaming services which have popped up over the past few years. Something I began to notice quite quickly was that something was missing from the glamourous, sexy cast members, and from the steamy love scenes, which seems to have become more prevalent in recent years. There were no people with disabilities. There were disabled characters on occasion, but in general they were never involved in any romantic or sexual plotlines.

Rosie Jones - Home | Facebook
Comedian Rosie Jones

I am a wheelchair user myself, and as well as having friends with disabilities, I’ve also ended up talking to a large number of people with disabilities, either through treatment groups, support groups or online message boards. In my experience, disabled people are just as likely to be interested in sex and relationships as anyone else! We are also just as likely to want to feel, and be seen as, sexy or beautiful. I love dressing up to go out, spending time on my make-up and taking advantage of being a wheelchair user by wearing sexy, super high, high-heels; it helps me feel confident. That confidence does get knocked about a bit, however, thanks to some of the harmful stereotypes: whether by the idiot at the bar who, on meeting me for the first time, asked me if things “work down there”, or by the well-meaning older lady at the restaurant on holiday, who said it was wonderful to see what an effort I’d made “considering…”; she trailed off at that point and simply waved her arms up and down, gesturing to me in general, so I’m still unsure whether she meant my disability or the chair itself.

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For anyone who doesn’t personally know somebody with disabilities, their only real point of reference is the limited number of disabled characters shown on screen. This is one of the reasons accurate representation of disability in the media is so important, because the way disabled people are portrayed can reinforce many of the negative stereotypes about disability. In a 2014 poll by The Observer, 44% of Britons said they would not consider having sex with someone who had a physical disability.

Despite 22% of the UK population having some form of disability, the Creative Diversity Network report found that disabled people make up only 7.8% of on-screen contributors to British TV, and GLAAD found that across all US primetime shows, only 2.1% of series regulars (i.e. cast members with recurring roles) had some form of disability. The disparity between these figures makes it all the more important to portray disabled people accurately, and to not fall into stereotypes.  

J from Indy on Twitter: "Although @GameOfThrones bypassed the Penny  storyline, if they were to cast Penny, Francesca Miles (Cherry) from @Hulu  Harlots would be perfect! This powder keg of personality would
Francesca Mills in the BBC/Starz series Harlots

Unfortunately, more often than not, characters with disabilities fall into one of a variety of outdated, sexless tropes. To clarify, when I say ‘sexless’ I am talking only about characters whose sexuality/romantic inclinations are disregarded entirely; I would have no issue whatsoever if there was a disabled character who also identified as asexual and/or aromantic. These characters are usually either: childlike, perpetual innocents (often taken on a platonic “date” or similar by a Prom King/Queen type, either out of pity or genuine friendship, but invariably to show what a saintly person the non-disabled character is); an object of pity, like Bella in Notting Hill; or twisted and bitter due to their disabilities, as with the character of Poison in Netflix’s Bright, or Will in Me Before You. Those last two examples even make specific reference to the impact the disability has had on the character’s sex life/romantic relationships: Poison states that his paraplegia means he is unable to have sex with his wife; and in Me Before You, Will decides that suicide is preferable to being disabled, and that his death will allow the person he loves to live a full life on her own instead of “half a life” with him.

There have been a few films recently which have featured a disabled character who is either clearly meant to be sexy or is shown to have a romantic/sexual relationship, such as Sofia Boutella in Kingsman, Dwayne Johnson in Skyscraper, and Sebastian Stan in the Avengers series. Whilst this is definitely a step forward, none of these actors are actually disabled. And in much the same way that cisgender men playing transgender women reinforces the erroneous and harmful idea that they are “women in dresses”, having attractive/sexual disabled characters played only by non-disabled actors suggests that sexy disabled people do not exist, that they have simply taken an already attractive actor and given them a CGI prosthetic.

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Personally, I can only recall a handful of examples of disabled characters, who are played by actors with disabilities, being shown as sexually active, and perhaps less who are portrayed as objects of desire. The best example of both of these that I can think of is the character of Cherry Dorrington (played by Francesca Mills) in the BBC/Starz series Harlots. Cherry is curvaceous, glamourous, confident and unashamedly sexy; she wears the same stunning corsets, gowns and make-up as the rest of the cast. She also happens to have dwarfism.

Mom Poses As Cinderella With a Glass Arm in Powerful Photo Shoot | Mom.com
Be the Spark Cosplay: Mandy Pursley as Cinderella with glass arm

Thankfully, more and more artists with disabilities are now emerging to show the world that disability can be beautiful, glamourous, sexy and that disabled people can (and do!) have sex. Models like Jillian Mercado, who uses an electric wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy, and has modelled across the world, posing for magazines like Glamour and Cosmopolitan; drag queens like Yvie Oddly, my fellow member of the EDS club, who uses the joint hypermobility symptom of her condition to contort her body into weird and wonderful positions, and won her season of RuPaul’s Drag Race; stand-up comedians like Rosie Jones, an out and proud lesbian with cerebral palsy, who shies away from neither her sexuality nor her disability in her material; cosplayers like Mandy Pursley, better known online as Be The Spark Cosplay, who reimagines classic characters by incorporating her disability, like Cinderella with a glass prosthetic arm instead of a slipper.

So, although it is clear we still have some way to go, disabled representation has definitely come a long way in the past decade, and I look forward to watching it continue.

Josie Quinn (she/her) is in her early thirties. She is a proud bisexual, disabled wheelchair-user and self-professed total geek! She worked as a Legal Executive before becoming too ‘Chronically Fabulous’ to continue, having been diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Osteoporosis, CFS, Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD. In her spare time she’s an avid reader (sci-fi, fantasy & graphic novels especially), amateur cosplayer and burgeoning tattoo addict. Twitter.com/Bendy_NotBroken … Instagram.com/BendyNotBroken

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Chronically Fabulous: The Critical Role of D&D in an Isolated World

By Josie Quinn: “In a year of isolation and fear, Dungeons & Dragons has not only kept me connected with the outside world, but given all of us the much needed chance to escape our current reality, even if only for a few hours.”

Giving Shame the Finger!

Louise Clare Dalton. “Let’s talk about shame baby, let’s talk about it and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the … oh wait. Hon, let’s not kid ourselves, there isn’t much ‘good’ to speak of when it comes to the shame surrounding sexuality and queerness.

Postcards From Lesbainia: Sleep with as Many Women as You Can

Hayley Sherman, Lesbian, Sex

By Hayley Sherman

That’s right: you heard it here first. Sex is a good thing. Okay, that’s hardly news, so let me back up a bit.

woman lying on white bed

When I told my partner the title of this month’s post, she threw a sock at my head. I guess I was lucky there wasn’t a brick in it. I have a very good reason for the suggestion, though, and I’m standing by it.

You see, as queer women, we sometimes have a rough ride—there’s self-acceptance, homophobia, coming out, finding and keeping a partner, having to deal with the fact that all of our TV heroes get killed off as soon as we get attached to them—but we do have an advantage over our straight sisters and brothers that serves our mental health in a number of positive ways—sex!

That’s right: you heard it here first. Sex is a good thing.

Okay, that’s hardly news, so let me back up a bit.

Back before Covid-19 got its spiky claws into the world, I was quite active. I was running regularly, cycling, eating well. Then the country came to a standstill and my personal lockdown was sponsored by Mr Kipling and The Codfather chippie around the corner. I work from home, but pre-lockdown I would get out and cycle to the library or into town quite often. With nowhere to go, stuck indoors, the most exercise I did was the lift-point-press-repeat of the remote control. Consequently, I’m now a flab monster of epic proportions. I’m not just a little wider; I’m all the way chunky. My partner and I used to enjoy taking a bath together; now we can barely fit in the bathroom at the same time. No lie, someone actually asked me when it’s due the other day! But I’m still feeling pretty okay about myself. I like my body. I can’t help it. I always have and I always will, whether it’s fat or thin. And why shouldn’t I? Aren’t we supposed to love our bodies?

She had been heavier in the past, so her breasts hung low, although they were small, and they were marked with silvery lines. Her stomach was a soft pouch that was once far fuller, and I loved to run my fingers over it.

Well, no, not if all we’ve got to measure them against are images of flawless, mostly photoshopped, ‘perfect’ women in the media that are presented to us as normal. But this is where our big queer advantage comes in. If you’ve slept with any number of women, and seen more than a few naked female bodies you will have experienced first-hand what I wish all women knew: that we don’t look anything like that (most of us don’t anyway) and it’s pretty much okay to be any damn shape, size, colour, height or weight you damn well please.

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The first woman I ever slept with had tan lines that made her look like she was wearing a white t-shirt and shorts, although she was naked. She had been heavier in the past, so her breasts hung low, although they were small, and they were marked with silvery lines. Her stomach was a soft pouch that was once far fuller, and I loved to run my fingers over it. Another partner’s incredible breasts rested on the surface of her bulbous stomach when she sat up in bed and disappeared between her armpits when we made love; she had the most beautiful thighs I have ever seen. Another was sharp ribs and a xylophone spine. Another’s mottled, orange-peel bum still makes me smile. Scars, tattoos, veins, piercings, moles, birthmarks, skin tags, acne, stray hairs; none of us is ‘perfect’.

And I know we’re not supposed to talk about such things, but I’m officially lifting the fanny stigma too and telling you that I have never seen a symmetrical vagina. I have seen everything from discreetly enveloped folds to explosive, dramatic waves, and I have never seen two the same colour or the same shape. The perfect vagina is a myth that’s sold to us to sell products and make us feel like shit. Yours is absolutely fine. No two women’s bodies are the same, and we are so blessed as queer women to have this inside information. We don’t have to take the word of magazines and the internet about how other women look naked or semi-naked; we know from our own experience. And we definitely don’t need to listen to bullshit about how we should look. Why should we look a certain way when we’re all so different?

blonde-haitred Barbie doll photo

That’s the incredible, wonderful thing about our bodies – in fact, it’s where the true beauty lies; every inch tells the unique story of our lives. What could be more beautiful than that? Mine can’t look like yours because I’ve lived a completely different life to you, and I’m proud to wear it. Mine doesn’t look like the women in the magazines because my story hasn’t centred around the ambition of making my body ‘beautiful’ enough to qualify for these magazines. It hasn’t been a 24/7 regime of working out, colonics and drinking green goo; it’s been a seesaw with fitness on one side and over-indulgence on the other; currently playing is the story of my lockdown laziness: the plumper breasts and fuller belly; it tells other stories too: a slightly older tale of physical strength that’s still visible on my shoulders and back; it tells of my writer’s bum and the tattoo I had when I was nineteen to show my only ever boyfriend that I was braver than him; it whispers about the childhood bully who once pushed me over and called me ‘Ribena’ because of the long birthmark on my leg that looks like a map of the British Isles; and it proudly sings songs of survival with scars self-inflicted as a fucked-up young woman, struggling to cope with life, who didn’t understand the concept of forever. This is me. It’s my story. Your body is your story. It can only be your story; no one else’s.

So, yes, sleep with lots of women. Go out and hear as many stories as you can – each one so different but with the same ending – that we’re all incredible exactly as we are.

Hayley Sherman is a writer, ghostwriter, blogger and editor who just wants everyone to be nice to each other. Her blog smiles in the face of adversity, licks the cheek of the oppressor and generally reflects on her denial about being a middle-aged lesbian. hayleyshermanwriter.com.

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