“Let’s talk about sex,” the old saying goes. Despite its forwardness, the phrase hardly covers all possible identities — or how those identities can affect one’s sexuality. People with disabilities are not always included in dialogues about sex and sexuality. But just like many others far and wide, they have sex, too.
Christina Battista is the President of the National Participant Network, a Director for the Lend-a-Hand Therapeutic Riding Foundation and a member of the Independent Living Council for the State of Rhode Island. In addition, she is a motivational speaker that travels to conferences and schools to discuss topics related to disability. I met with Christina in Providence for a conversation about the relationship between sexuality and disability.
Gabriella Corvese: What was your sexual education like in school?
Christina Battista: Mine was just like everybody else’s. I took sex ed in seventh grade and didn’t do anything that was abnormal from anyone else. It was all the same.
GC: Would you have liked a different or more specific type of education?
CB: No, because if I had done that, it would’ve been excluding me. I wanted to be as “normal” as everyone else.
GC: Do you think there are adequate resources for information on sexuality and disability?
CB: I feel like for sexual intercourse and relationships in general, there aren’t enough references or resources in the school setting. But as an adult, I see it a little bit differently. Computers are widely available with internet, so you can find things out that way. I’ve learned a lot of things I didn’t know when I was younger, things that I never even thought about because I never felt like I had a disability. There were just things I did differently, so I never really looked for other places for information. But as an adult, learning about these different things has been interesting and different to read about. Especially when coming to Brown and talking to classes here!
GC: It’s interesting that you mentioned Brown, which is considered to be a safer space than other places to talk about issues surrounding sexuality. What sort of places do you think need work in opening this dialogue?
CB: Definitely the medical profession, especially for females. I don’t think gynecologists even know how to approach the situation. And regular medical doctors. I think maybe when I was about 17 or 18, my orthopedic doctor maybe brought up once the topic of having a baby. And that was it. Nobody else ever approached that conversation at all. It wasn’t until I became sexually active that I brought that up to my gynecologist. There definitely need to be more conversations, whether it’s in the doctor’s office or maybe even in independent living sections if that’s something someone wants to know more about.
GC: What have you found in terms of attitudes from medical professionals on sexuality and disability?
CB: As far as the medical profession goes, I don’t think doctors really know how to even approach conversations with individuals that have limitations. They don’t know if they want to explore the idea of having sex. A lot of people think that if you’re disabled, you’re not a sexual being — which is the farthest thing from true. I just think there are a lot of unknown realities about it.
GC: A very common concept in culture is the idea of love — or lust — at first sight. Given the prominent attitudes about people with physical disabilities as well as how they’re often portrayed in the media, how do you think that point of view affects people with physical disabilities?
CB: I’ll tell you what I think in terms of the love and lust thing. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but I believe in lust at first sight. I think when a person presents a physical disability, there’s always going to be the look and then the look again, as if to say, “no, I don’t quite understand what I’m seeing.” I think it’s harder for a person with a physical disability to really find “genuine love” because sometimes people can be taken advantage of. In a lot of different ways, not just sexually — financially, too. But I think love is possible for everyone as long as you find the right person.
GC: Can you talk a little about how you met your husband?
CB: I met my husband on Yahoo Personals. And really, it just started out as us talking. When I saw his profile, it was two months after he sent me an icebreaker, so our relationship built up by emailing one another. Then it progressed to talking on the phone. The first time we talked on the phone was for two hours, which was awesome since he got to know my personality and vice versa. After talking for several months — since I didn’t just want to meet him right away, given my situation — we decided to meet. Once we got closer to the meeting point, I told him about my situation. And he was okay with it. He goes, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t make me not want to meet you.” Which really made me happy to hear! So we met and became friends, and it just blossomed from there. It went from friendship to a relationship. We’ve been together for seven years and married for two.
GC: In addition to personal care assistants, your husband sometimes serves as an aide as well. How does that affect your relationship?
CB: It depends on what setting we’re in. It’s really a hard question to answer because I make it so it doesn’t affect our relationship in any way. So personal care assistants help me three days a week and my mom helps me on others. And those days are the days my husband doesn’t have to help me, so it gives him a break. He doesn’t always feel like he has to take care of me physically. It makes our relationship healthier because he’s not always my caretaker, physically trying to provide from me. But there’s never a struggle about it. Let’s say if we were arguing: “if you want me to get you dressed, then you’re just going to give into this argument.” There’s never any of that. He’s really great. Actually, one of the first times he started helping me, that was one day my personal care assistant called up. And he said, “I can help you get ready!” Before that, it never even crossed my mind that he would actually help me do this. So he was really the one who embraced it.
GC: How does having a physical disability affect having casual sex versus having sex in a committed relationship?
CB: Personally, I can say it didn’t affect me because I did have friends with “benefits” before I met my husband. But I also see my friends with disabilities who are a little more cautious for safety reasons, intimacy reasons, not wanting to get hurt. And I think when you’re a person with a disability — whether it’s physical, cognitive, emotional, any kind of disability — you have to put some guards up at first before you get to know somebody. As far as casual sex, it’s a little more restrictive than it is for able-bodied people.
GC: Another common notion about people with disabilities is that their disability is something to be overcome. In terms of sex, how is disability integrated rather than put aside?
CB: Just like anything else, you incorporate it. For me, my husband knows what I can and can’t do, so he and I both kind of play on that. And just like any other person, there are things people are good at and not good at. You figure out as you go along what does and doesn’t work. For a person that’s a partner of somebody that has a disability, it takes patience and understanding and somebody that’s willing to take time to get to know the person on every level. My husband is very easygoing, but I’m sure at some points he might have said to himself, “wow, what am I getting myself into?” But as we’ve been together so long, he says he doesn’t think of me any different. He says he can’t picture my life without me, and I can’t picture mine without him. He’s amazing, he really is.
GC: I hope I can find someone like that.
CB: You will! Trust me, there was a time where I didn’t think I was going to find anybody. I think a lot of people feel like that.
GC: My last question is a bit more general: what do you think is the biggest misconception about sex and disability?
CB: The fact that a person, mainly with a physical disability, is seen as a person that will never have sex or a relationship because of their disability. Which is the furthest thing from the truth.
By Gabriella Corvese, Contributor
All Images via Google Images