Discovering Your Sexual Self

by Dr. Linda R. Mona

Self-concept refers to how individuals see themselves in the world. For example, people refer to themselves as male, female, smart, not so smart, attractive, unattractive, sexy, undesirable and so on.

We learn who we are by the messages we receive from our families, friends, church, culture, educators and the media about how to see ourselves, messages that tell us how people should behave if they want to fit into society.

Individuals begin to describe themselves in these terms during school years, specifically first through sixth grades. Based upon experiences we have with others and within our daily activities, we may change certain self-perceptions, but the ways in which we define ourselves usually follow us throughout life into adulthood.

As people with disabilities, we learn from society that we are child-like, fragile and non-sexual human beings. Many of us who grow up with disabilities learn from an early age that people with disabilities are not "sexy." Fashion models and TV and film stars rarely, if ever, have disabilities. We see few people with disabilities in everyday life, which reinforces the idea that having a disability is not a "normal" experience.

Acquiring a disability later in life is a completely different experience. People may have viewed themselves all of their lives as sexy and desirable, yet when they become disabled, this image of themselves shifts. Having a disability changes not only the way newly disabled people interact with the world, but also how they view themselves.

Mental health professionals have had many discussions about which experience is worse: growing up with a disability or acquiring one later in life. Some have said that when you have a disability all your life, you often learn early on that people do not see you as sexy, so you abandon the idea altogether that you have the potential to be a sexually desirable person. Whereas people who obtain a disability later in life, who have known themselves as sexual human beings, are now faced with a very different image of themselves and may have few tools with which to cope in this situation.

In terms of their life experiences and self-perceptions, people with disabilities vary as much as people without disabilities. Therefore, it is not surprising that mental health professionals have differing takes on this subject. The discussion really should focus on how people deal with these issues and proceed on in life as sexual individuals.

While we have begun to see more people with disabilities in the media, we still have far to go. In a recent review of persons with disabilities in films, it was still found that the majority of media portrays disabled people as unattractive, non-sexual, broken people. With these stereotypes continuing to be fed to society, it is not surprising that people with and without disabilities have misperceptions about sexuality and disability.

So, how do people begin to know themselves for who they are? Many people with both long-standing and recently acquired disabilities have found success with the following.

Talk About It
By talking with other people with disabilities and learning about the ways in which they have developed sexual relationships with themselves and others, as well as how they have engaged in sexual activity, you can save yourself a lot of time. Who knows? Other people may have found the solution you're looking for.

Do a Reality Check
Given that self-concept is developed from information we receive from others, it is not surprising that when others find us attractive, we in turn feel attractive, as well. It may be that you have never felt sexy because of your disability; hearing someone tell you that you are sexy might sound like words in a foreign language. However, you need to take the opportunity to see yourself through the eyes of others. Use this experience as an experiment in thinking of yourself as a sexual person, and begin to challenge past ideas about feeling non-sexual.

Investigate Your Sexiness
Many people have said that because their disability has not "allowed" them to feel sexy, they really don't remember how to recognize the feeling. Some disabled people have experienced success with regaining a positive self-image of themselves as sexual beings by reading erotic books, playing with sex toys, watching erotic films and paying attention to what makes them feel good. Even though most books and films do not include people with disabilities, they can give us ideas about feeling sexy and what may turn us on.

Discovering yourself and what feels right to you is a life-long process, one that does not have a final conclusion. Keep an open mind while learning about yourself and begin your journey to knowing the sexual person that you are!