Adapted in TC: Answering a not-so-narrow question

Featured in The Record Eagle on February 11, 2018 WRITTEN BY Susan Odgers, local columnist

The Record Eagle newspaper logoThe most common question I’ve been asked by both complete strangers and people I know is “Can you have sex?”

I realize many people are curious about other folks’ sex lives, yet in the 42 years I’ve been paralyzed, I’ve always found this question a bit odd. Aren’t all humans sexual beings?

Initially, when I had my stroke as a teenager, the rehabilitation hospital staff told me that many men with spinal cord injuries, given the choice, would choose to have sex the way they used to over being able to walk again. I remember hoping that my disability would expand, not retract, how I saw myself.

In 1978, the Academy Award-winning film “Coming Home” depicted sexual intimacy between an able-bodied woman and a paraplegic man. I distinctly recall the public conversations surrounding sexuality and disability, including touch, communication and feeling safe as a function of sexual pleasure. Since then, many films, TV shows and books have explored aging, disability and so-called “difference” with respect to sexuality.

Today, as a trained professional teaching human sexuality at the college and university level for over 35 years, I educate my students that human sexuality is relational, recreational and procreational. During the semester, we survey lots of information, discuss values and decision-making, thoughts, feelings and actions as well as rights and responsibilities. In our overly sexualized culture, students are still interested in loving relationships, especially the one they have with themselves.

Therefore, when I’m asked, “Can you have sex?” I wonder what exactly the questioner wants to know and why? Are they asking if I can get pregnant? Date and marry? Receive and give sexual pleasure?

I know I could disregard my privacy (and my husband’s) and just answer their queries. But I’m more likely to refer the person to various sources for general answers such as: the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists assect.org, Katharine Quarmby’s Atlantic article “Disabled and Fighting for a Sex Life,” the site sexualityanddisability.org or Ben Mattlin’s NY Times Modern Love piece “How 30 Blocks Became 30 Years.”

At the start of every semester, my students tour the Dennos Museum Center and select a work of art they consider beautiful. They’re tasked with writing a paper that includes how they define beauty, why they selected the work and research about the artist and piece. Rarely do two people decide on the same item. My students are always surprised by how different and varied their definitions of beauty are from one another. The beauty papers, as well as many other assignments, help them become more conscious, critical thinkers, able to employ a variety of problem-solving strategies to the many challenges they face. Along with my students, I personally complete the course assignments. Even after all of these years, I’m still learning and growing with them.

Regardless of their age or background, most students initially have difficulty identifying themselves as sexual beings. Socialized in this culture, they’ve been taught to believe that sexuality is narrowly defined by a particular age, certain number and type of sexual partners, variety of sexual behaviors or how “sexy” they look. By the end of the semester, they know otherwise.

To be alive is to be a sexual human being.

Contact Susan Odgers at odgersadapted@yahoo.comShe is a 31-year resident of Traverse City and has been using a wheelchair for 41 years. She is a faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State.

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