Sexual Attractiveness and Physical Disabilities

By Ken Tittle, Founder : Mariposa Ministry

In Mariposa peer counseling work, issues of body image, self-esteem, sexual identity, and sexual confidence have been central concerns for many young men and women with disabilities — concerns that impact their lives and particularly their relationships in vital ways. Listen to what one lovely and distinguished woman has written:

“Most definitely, my disability negatively affected my ability to establish romantic relaionships. To me, this loss is the singularly most profound of the many other losses which are a result of my legacy living with polio.

Oh, yes, I had two husbands and a number of boyfriends over the years but those facts belie the underlying reality of a lifetime of romantic exclusion and even ostracism.

Despite being moderately attractive, I was never invited to my high school prom, never went out on a real date, was never invited to any dance in high school, never had a high school boyfriend. (Well, never one who would be seen in public with me.) This same scenario repeated itself in college and grad school.

So . . . I worked on success in other areas. . . knocked myself out to get great grades, took leadership roles in everything and anything extra-curricular, developed my personality, etc. But the deep pain of feeling undesirable did damage big time and even continues to this day.”

Most of us are personally interested in sexual attractiveness, for its importance in our society for making personal contacts, establishing friendships, or even meeting a potential future spouse. Many persons with disabilities have grown up mistakenly feeling they could never be fully desirable to others or truly sexually attractive, being disabled. This has been a painful, insecure area even for many who were tremendously competent and accomplished in many other ways. By the same token, there is tremendous potential here for healing and growth and empowerment. Hopefully this discussion may help some persons with disabilities understand themselves differently and may free them to express their innate sensuality and sexual identity more confidently.

You might say to me, “I don’t care about being sexually attractive. I’m not interested in getting married,” or “I’m not interested in sex,” or “I’m already married,” or “I’m too old for that,” or whatever. Fine, but sexual attractiveness is not only to “hook” a husband or wife or to seduce a sex partner. The sense of being able to feel good about one’s self, and to feel that we create a positive response in other people — that we are attractive to them — is often very important to our self-esteem and confidence.

Beyond that, sexual attractiveness is also important for our ability to influence others: to help them, to persuade them, to gain their support and favor, to convince or encourage them. Sexual attractiveness is empowering for most of the things you might want to do. For example, as a doctor, no matter how well I know my medicine, if I am thoroughly unlovely and unattractive to my patients, I am far less able to help them than if they see me as someone who inspires interest and approval and attraction in them. (We may think that things shouldn’t be like that, but the truth is that they are.)

The business and commercial world clearly recognizes its importance and invests hundreds of millions of dollars in projecting images of sexual attractiveness. We will say more about that later.

For persons with major physical disabilities, sexual attractiveness is also a powerful means to overcome damaging prejudices and negative reactions in able-bodied persons, as well as one path to better self-acceptance and self-confidence).

Sexual attraction is surely as ancient as Adam and Eve, but in these past few decades, the pervasiveness of mass media has changed the ancient rules of the game (and not probably for the better). Visual images have become so cheap and widely distributed that we are saturated with them. Visual and purely physical aspects of sexual attractiveness have become over-emphasized and heavily stereotyped. We all have “ideal” images of sexual attractiveness bombarding us on every side. We can’t escape them. From that comes a tendency to compare ourselves, and to compare others, to the stereotypes. We are grading people according to what they lack in comparison to the stereotypical “ideal.” Somewhere out there, we are told, there must be a “10” in sexual attractivenss, and the rest of us all score lower down on the scale.

Viewed in that perspective, many persons with physical disabilities have special problems with the idea of sexual attractiveness because they suppose that they could never truly be considered attractive to others with their limitations and their unconventional bodies. (How many “points” must one subtract for a major disability?).

Over the years with Mariposa we have seen two major problems, especially for people who have grown up with their disabilities:

Often they feel inferior, whether or not they are able to admit it openly. The typical statement perhaps would be, “Why would anyone choose me when there are so many able-bodied persons out there to choose from?” It seems obvious to them that an able-bodied person would always be more desirable, “all other things being equal.” Or to put it another way, it seems obvious to them that they would be more desirable, more attractive, if they were not disabled than as they are now. We have learned what a struggle it is to learn — to accept — that this “obvious” truth isn’t necessarily true.

Secondly, they often feel unlovely. There are many typical statements that reflect this deep-seated feeling: “Who’s going to look at me with my disability?” “I can’t wear skirts with legs like mine” (or “with braces,” etc.). “I could never wear a bathing suit with my body.” “Why should I try to dress up and look good? No one will see anything but my disability anyway.” “Pretty? Me? From the neck up, maybe.”

How does this happen? Who tells us it what it takes to be sexually attractive? Where do we learn that persons with disabilities can’t really be sexually attractive (especially because it isn’t true)?

Far too often, disabled young people learn to doubt their sexual attractiveness partly from their own families. If the family looks at their disabled child and fears he or she will never be able to be sexually attractive because of the disability, they cannot help but communicate that to the child in myriad ways.

But it’s a lie. It is “The Lie” about sexual attractiveness that equates sexual attractiveness with stereotypical and flawless physical “beauty.”

Who is lying to us? The Lie is really a massive commercial conceit. We are everywhere presented with images of “sexually attractive.” A physically attractive model who embodies the stereotypical characteristics of the current “ideal,” is “perfected” with carefully crafted make-up, hair arranged precisely, and posed in the approved ways with careful lighting and props. Of dozens of photos, two or three are selected as closest to the image. Those photos are then computer retouched to finish the process. This “sexual attractiveness” does not exist in the world. Even the super-model is only the raw material for these images. They are lies, to support The Lie.

What is the purpose of The Lie? It has no sexual purpose, or even any personal purpose. The only purpose to make money. We are sold unattainable images of sexual attractiveness to make us feel lacking and needy, and then we are told that we can remedy our deficiency and become more sexually attractive if we buy the right hair spray, soft drink, automobile, designer jeans, etc. etc.

The Lie about what it is to be sexually attractive is successful. It sells products and influences decisions while it wounds people — many, many people, and not only persons with disabilities. Because people believe it, The Lie enriches businesses while it impoverishes our society. Part of my reason for being here is to call people with disabilities to reject The Lie and live out the deeper truth of every person’s unique value and worth, not just for the good of disabled persons, but because the whole society needs it.

It is incredibly dangerous to believe The Lie about sexual attractiveness. Someone who feels incapable of being attractive and desirable for others has grave difficulties trying to achieve healthy intimate relationships with anyone. This is often true for persons with disabilities:

We have seen them jump headfirst into the first relationship that comes along. We have seen them drive potential friends and suitors away by pressing much too hard in their insecurities.

We have seen them stay with unhealthy and even abusive relationships, for fear that no one better would ever want them. They may put up with humiliation and belittling treatment because down inside they share that abased image of themselves. Just as tragically, we have seen people mistrust and reject sincere advances of friendship — and even run off worthy suitors — by refusing to believe that anyone could genuinely be sexually attracted to them or romantically interested in them.

We have seen people expose themselves to sexual abuse or fall into superficial, exploitative sexual liaisons because they don’t believe there could ever be any more meaningful intimacy for them. We have seen women with disabilities find ways to get pregnant without any commitment because they wanted to experience pregnancy and motherhood but were convinced no one would ever want to marry them.

We have seen disabled persons carry their insecurities with them right into marriage, or stay in free union and reject marriage, convinced down deep inside that they are less desirable or less complete than someone able bodied, always fearing rejection, or unable to feel free and confident and attractive even in their marital bed.

In addition to all of that, there is no counting how many friendships never came to pass because the disabled person didn’t do, or didn’t know how to do, the little things that might have helped someone overcome the barriers that kept him or her from drawing close. It is terribly destructive to believe the lies that say you can’t truly be attractive.

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