Disability, Sex and Adult Toys by and for People with Disabilities

Disclaimer: The following content is for a mature audience due its images and language.

“Why are you of all people writing this article?” some of my friends asked me. Good question. As a native German, I grew up in a small, Catholic town in Bavaria – a very conservative city. Sex was the last thing people would talk about. And if the ‘younger generation’ – I am 34 already – would dare to speak about it, we would blush, feel ashamed and change the subject. Sex has always been a big taboo. “Sex is something you do behind closed doors, not something you talk about in public,” people would say. If one grows up like this, it is hard to break that cycle of shame.  

So why am I writing this article? For one, because I moved to San Francisco and sex is an ever-present conversation or rather sighting here. If I were to blush every time I see a naked person with a sock to cover up their intimate parts, I would be known as burning-face-Karina. But more importantly, I suddenly became disabled and was confronted with many misconceptions around sex and disability, for example, the idea that people with disabilities don’t want to have sex or cannot date non-disabled people.

check this out

Additionally, as a female-identifying and straight person, who lives with an invisible disability, I realized that even though I belong to one marginalized community, I often don’t know much about misconceptions surrounding other intersectional communities or even people with disabilities different from mine. For instance, I was acutely unaware of the fact that some disabled people might not have access to sex at all or even to their own bodies. The simple fact that my disability doesn’t significantly influence my sexual life was enough to neglect the idea that this might not be the case for other disabled people. 

To counter those misconceptions and educate the public about the different barriers people with disabilities might face in terms of sex, it is important to normalize this conversation. So this is why I am writing this article, and why I handed over the microphone to Andrew and Step. They both identify as queer and disabled activists that made it their mission to mainstream sex and disability, by creating sex toys by and for people with disabilities. 

Step, Oakland, CA, USA.

Trinity, Starsi, Princette Puppypus – These are the names of the monsters that make up Step’s current sex toy collection. However, their company Cute Little Fuckers (CLF) doesn’t simply produce sex toys; all of their vibrators are gender-neutral or inclusive, accessible, and just fun to look at. “So now, what does gender-inclusive mean?” you might be wondering. Step’s vibrators are intended to be used by all people whichever gender they identify as. “A lot of times, you go into adult toy stores, and the toys are either pink and look like they are about to explode with flowers or they look like utility tools because they are for men. For us, a big part is that we don’t say that any toys are for anyone – regardless of gender or body type,” Step says. 

And each toy is designed to be used in multiple ways. Princette Puppypus, for example, is a cute purple octopus that can be used by women and men. “It is a functional butt plug. It is also a great external stimulator,” Step adds. Additionally, the monster is designed to easily sit between the fingers, which is beneficial for people who live with disabilities affecting their hand use. Starsi, the red star vibrator, is shaped so it can lie in the palm of the hand, or can it be used entirely hands-free. 

CLF’s third toy is Trinity, a blue vibrator that looks like a worm with ears and teeth. Trinity has two smaller friends attached to them, and they use the pronouns she, he and xe. All of Step’s toys are unique characters with different names, pronouns, and gender identities, and they are featured in comics that raise awareness for sex-positivity. “I was thinking about what fun and creative ways there are to getting people engaged in what we are doing. Comics are a great way to do it. So I always tried to add a fun and silly aspect to our work – but something that’s still very real. That lightness allowed people to engage with it on a deeper level and then laugh about it because it didn’t feel as awkward,” Step explains.

check this out

Step hasn’t always been in the sex toys business. They studied electronic engineering and physics and worked as technical community lead. “It was November 2018 that everything came to an end. At first, I would have excruciating pain in my hands with any fine movement. Then I started losing feeling in my hands, too,” they say. Over the next months, Step went to see multiple doctors, but none could find out the cause of their pain. “One day, I woke up having trouble feeling my feet. And that was when I was like, ‘This is something big.’ I put myself in the emergency room, and after some tests, they said, ’We checked you for all the things that will kill you today, and it’s none of those. We have no idea what it is, but you are not going to die this week.’ And I was like, ‘Cool. Thanks,’” they remember. 

Step’s symptoms worsened to the point where they experienced tingling sensations and sharp pain across their body on a daily basis. It took almost a year until physicians diagnosed them with chronic Lyme disease, a tick-borne, bacterial infection that can lead to symptoms all over the body. “Lyme disease goes in these arcs – sometimes months-long arcs. You start feeling a little better, then worse again. When I am in the lower parts of those cycles, I have days where I don’t use my hands,” Step explains. 

“It went from ‘Oh, my hand works sometimes’ to ‘Wow, I can’t type’ in less than a month. So what am I doing with my life and my time now?” Step has been in the sex-positivity world for a long time, starting an ‘anarchist, activist, queer collective’ called Loud and Queer, which runs events and workshops around body- and sex-positivity. When their life circumstances suddenly changed, Step remembered a conversation they had with their friends. “We were just dissatisfied with the sex toys that are available, and we wished they were more gender-inclusive or more fun and had more personality. That’s when I picked up the torch and said, ‘Let’s go.’ And here we are,” Step describes the beginnings of their company.

check this out

Their friends and family weren’t at all surprised about Step’s idea to enter the sex toy business at all. “At this point, they were used to it with me. I have always been one to push the boundaries. By the time CLF came around, I had already done the work to normalize queer activism and sex-positivity. I am known for that work and for being queer, polyamorous and non-binary,” Step says. 

To make sure their toys would appeal to a wide variety of people, Step researched what their community needs most. “I interviewed a ton of people – everyone, who was down to talk to me about their sex toy use. I really wanted to get a diverse audience. I made sure a number of those people were disabled. I also interviewed different genders, body types and races. From the beginning, the inclusivity aspect was very important to me,” Step says.

For Step, CLF is not a business, but rather a piece of a larger queer, disability and sex-positivity movement. “These are all topics that demand more attention. They are so important and touch so many lives. We need to support each other as a community in order to look out for each other and make sure we are all taken care of because we are so easily marginalized in society,” they add. They hope that in five years from now, CLF generates enough financial income to pour parts of it back into their community to allow more queer and disabled people to create a movement. 

“One thing I would like to add is if you are disabled, trans, non-binary, or in another marginalized community, and if you think this toy would make you feel good in a way you haven’t felt for a long time, and if it’s too expensive for you, email me, and we figure something out.”

Step, a person with shoulder-long brownish hair and red and blonde colored parts are holding their three sex toys while not wearing anything on his upper body.
Step sees their business as a piece of a larger queer and disability movement

 

Listen to the interview about sex and disability on ABILITY Magazine’s podcast.

 

Fifteen percent of the world’s population is considered disabled. People with disabilities are one of the largest minorities that exist. Nevertheless, they still face many access barriers, one of which is access to sex. As opposed to the non-disabled population, people with disabilities may not be able to freely choose when and with whom they want to have sex, especially for people with disabilities affecting their mobility. In some European countries, such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, professional sexual assistants have a legally accepted status. Many advocates, including Andrew, would like to see this in Canada as well.

Andrew, Toronto, Canada.

Andrew is a disability consultant and activist educating the public about sex and disability. Additionally, they live with cerebral palsy, identify as queer and call themselves ‘a big goof.’ Andrew says their initial motivation for their activism was rather selfish. “I am queer, and I am a male-identifying person who is into men. I realized as a disabled person who is into men, I wasn’t really able to connect with my LGBTQ+ community, and I wasn’t able to get into the spaces they go. I initially started to talk about sex because I wanted to be included. I wanted to be where all the good-looking dudes were. If I start talking about this, maybe they start seeing me as a viable option, and maybe I would also get laid more,” Andrew laughs. 

Andrew likes to be provocative with their work, often posting pictures with little or no clothing on social media. They feel that this grabs people’s attention, which they use to spread awareness on topics like ableism, inclusion, but foremost, sex and disability. “The key misconception I stumbled across were people thinking we don’t want to have sex and that we should be focusing on other aspects of disability, like access to ramps. And I would always say, ‘I can focus on that too, but access to sexuality is also a human right and should be discussed,’” Andrew says. “People assume we can’t be dominant at all. That’s not true. If you take sex out of the equation, all these misconceptions prove one thing: We are afraid to talk about disabled people because we don’t have enough education.”

Andrew counter these false assumptions about disabled people’s sex life by showing that they are a sexual being. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that they speak openly about their relationship with multiple sex workers. With Andrew’s particular disability – spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy – their access to their own body is limited. Therefore, they found the help of professionals to be beneficial to overcome this barrier. “One of the things I enjoy and why I am so open about it is because it allows you to look at consent in a different way. When you work with a sex worker, their job is to find out exactly what you want,” Andrew explains. For them, it was freeing to lay out their needs very clearly before the first interaction. 

Andrew sits in his wheelchair, with a serious face and a nude upper body with black tattoos including a rainbow unicorn and the letters 'queer cripple'
Andrew thinks that access to sex should be funded by the government (Photo by Alejandro Santiago)

“My sex worker gave me back my sex life. But sex work shouldn’t be the only way disabled people can have sex. And it shouldn’t be assumed that the only way we see our bodies is through the eyes of sex work. He shouldn’t be put on a pedestal above me, nor should I be put on a pedestal above him. We are having an equal experience,” they say. They think that access to sex should be funded by the government. “With my level of disability to totally relax is very rare. So to have that body comfort is rare and the government should fund,” they state. Andrew has long-term arrangements with their sex workers because as a disabled person, they say, a lot of trust is needed when having sex. “Now, we are in such a groove; it’s like seeing a friend.”

Due to Andrew being so outspoken about their lived experience, their sister asked them why they don’t use sex toys. “I explained that they don’t work with my hands. I can’t hold them. They aren’t beneficial for me. And she was like: ‘Why don’t we make one?’” Andrew says. And Handi was born. Handi is a sex toy business tailored to the needs of people with disabilities, but specifically with limited hand use. Their first prototype, the ‘cuddleplus,’ is a hands-free huggable sex toy that can be controlled with the chin, and it is made for all gender expressions. 

“The idea came from talking with disabled people, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and really figuring out what would work for people with disabilities. Additionally, Handi worked with Judith Glover, who holds the world’s first PhD in sex toy design. According to Andrew, their research showed that 56 percent of people they talked to had trouble self-pleasuring, and 63 percent had hand disabilities. So they designed a toy without small buttons that is as hands-free as possible. The ‘cuddleplus’ is planned to be released in May 2021. 

Besides this, Andrew has more big plans for the future. “In ten years, I would love for the company to thrive and have many toys on the market. Additionally, it would be great to focus on different angles, like sexual education to bring sex and disability out of the shadows and make it something that is an accepted mainstream discussion.”

Through different pathways, Step and Andrew became activists for people with a variety of disabilities. They both try to satisfy one of people’s most dominant, and least talked about needs in the world: sex. And like many people with disabilities, they find creative ways to bridge the gap for disabled people between wanting to have sex and actually being enabled to do so. 

“We want to be something that transcends sex toys and opens up conversations to prove that disabled people deserve to be accepted in society!” – Andrew.

by Karina Ulrike Sturm

DURING THESE UNCERTAIN AND STRESSFUL TIMES, ABILITY Magazine is providing FREE Premium Memberships that include all Content, Digital Flip Page ABILITY Magazine, PDF versions, plus online interactive ABILITY Crossword Puzzles.  SIGN UP HERE FOR YOUR FREE MEMBERSHIP

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: