A Love Letter to Maeve and Isaac from Sex Education

Throughout my time at school, the sex education that we received just simply never applied to me. The messages were very much tailored towards people without limited mobility, for example. I would ask questions about how it could all be made more accessible sometimes, when I was feeling brave, yet always got the same answer: I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know. Looking back, I realise that nobody had prepared themselves for this. Being a wheelchair user gave other people permission to perceive me with an innocence that they wouldn’t attach to everyone else my age, I suppose. Besides, it didn’t feel important for them to get educated or provide any relevant information because they couldn’t imagine someone else wanting to explore with me, either. Instead, they would generally choose to make jokes about my dating life, which isn’t really possible to shake off. At this point, it’s alarmingly easy to become consumed with the narrative that disabled bodies are inherently undesirable and expecting otherwise is naïve. I used to cry a lot about that. There is something especially cruel about having these needs whilst simultaneously being told by society at large that they don’t deserve to be fulfilled. But I could still sit in the classes and listen to my peers be taught about the importance of their own pleasure, though. Anything for the pretence of inclusivity.

So, with all of this, I’m not ashamed to say that I cried when I first watched the sex scene between Maeve and Isaac on Sex Education. Whilst I understand that the pairing itself is a somewhat controversial one, this arguably makes George Robinson’s character even more important. I mean, how refreshing is it for a disabled person not to be portrayed as entirely innocent and pure? We are complex and unlikeable at times, too. Even before any sex was involved, I had never seen representation that felt so real. I had never seen someone like me, a wheelchair user, being treated like an adult by other people before. Isaac exists unapologetically loudly in the lives of everyone around him, which is so incredibly validating to watch, as someone who’s spent so many years feeling invisible within these stories.

“talk to your partner about what makes sex enjoyable and accessible for you. disabled people deserve and can have great sex.” in black text on a pink background.
You’re welcome. You can follow Intimately on Instagram here.

Moving on, the sexual tension between these characters led to a quietly intimate conversation about what would be most comfortable and pleasurable for them both. This communication is rarely present in any media portrayals of sex, which gives the false impression that it isn’t necessary for a good time. Talk to each other, people. But these questions were handled with great care – they weren’t there to satisfy morbid curiosities or create shock value. In that moment, it was just about two people wanting to enjoy themselves and respect each other’s boundaries. Really, is there anything sexier than that?

Perhaps my favourite part of this, though, came when Maeve told her best friend afterwards. There were no questions about the mechanics at all, which I had been expecting. Bracing myself to feel weird and awkward. To my pleasant surprise, it was just immediately accepted. Because it doesn’t matter. A wild revelation, I know, but these experiences are no less valid because they exist outside of the conventional.

In short, this is why multi-faceted media representations of disabled people are invaluable. Not only do they show that we are capable and deserving of love beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, but they also challenge everyone else to do better and get creative when it comes to intimacy. I have always thought that conventional is boring, anyway. I would like to thank the writers at Netflix for breaking down these barriers, which I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do alone.

PS: I also wrote a vulnerable piece for Scope about what it means to be a disabled person in a relationship and all the effort that it’s taken to believe I’m deserving, which you can read here.

Reminder: Being Disabled is Sexy

Recently, I read something by a chronically ill woman, explaining how her health issues (and the associated caregiving) had taken away the passion in her marriage. Instead, she was watching her husband clearly view her body differently, consumed by the fear that she was powerless to stop it. For me, the most heartbreaking part of this story was that she seemed to understand the shift in his behaviour, as if nothing about her could be desirable anymore. My first instinct was just to say “get a new husband”, but it’s never that simple, unfortunately. See, I have spent a lifetime alongside these struggles and I’m not sure that they can ever be entirely overcome. With that said, there is nothing more empowering than feeling good about yourself when the rest of the world refuses to be inclusive about their beauty standards. Like, sometimes we need to live in order to spite the people that feel uncomfortable about such levels of confidence.

I started being kinder to myself when I came to the realisation that disabled people are conditioned to feel shit about themselves, in every aspect of their lives, but most especially relating to their intimate relationships. For example: we are surrounded by a very loud discourse that either considers us to be completely asexual or questions whether or not we’re simply being exploited whenever anyone shows even the slightest amount of interest. Of course, these are both important discussions to have, but the suggestion that they are applicable to disabled people as one homogeneous group is very deeply damaging.

When I was at university, one of my greatest joys came from writing an essay about how disabled people should have access to inclusive sex education. I had been really anxious about this at the time, since it didn’t entirely follow the guidelines we’d been given, but I was passionate enough to put any academic concerns aside. After reading it, my lecturer remarked that I had taught him something and gave me the highest grade in class, which is something that I’ll forever be proud of. I mean, the statutory curriculum makes no mention of how to support pupils with physical disabilities. When updating these guidelines, the PSHE Association acknowledged that this group has voiced feeling invisible throughout any relevant classes, without offering any solutions as to how this might be accommodated for. The sources for this information can be found here and here, though it’s clear that not much has changed, at least within the public domain. Looking back, I firmly believe that this lack of representation triggered something in my brain saying “this information does not — and will never — apply to you”. More than that, though, it also sent a subtle message to my non-disabled peers that they were never likely to date anyone with varying levels of ability. So, the cycle continues. This creates an almost morbid fascination around how we have sex — or even if we can at all. Let me say this: the answer looks different for everyone and every experience is valid, even the ones that don’t fit into your ableist and/or homophobic opinions about what really counts.

The point, I suppose, is that we don’t owe you an explanation. You are not entitled to that information. We allowed to have autonomy over our own bodies, thanks. Also, we deserve to explore our sexuality without being made to feel like it’s a scandalous event. The rest is, frankly, none of your business.

A screenshot of a Tweet by nix et alia, which reads “so i went to a sexual health clinic today in my powerchair & i swear to god. 

the woman was already trying to direct me out of the door before i opened my mouth to say i had an appointment. then she stops & goes ‘YOU have an appt HERE?’ 

yes my good binch: crips have sex too *face blowing a kiss emoji*”
I’ll just leave this here. Enjoy.

If having sex when you’re disabled is still a complex conversation, then it’s relatively easy to understand how these same points can be connected to pregnancy. As an example: a few years ago, Tanni Grey-Thompson was heavily pregnant when someone came up to her in the street and declared that the idea of her having sex was disgusting. With this, here are a few reminders: disabled people have every right to experience parenthood as others do, if that’s something they want. Disabled people’s bodies are remarkable — and you don’t get a voice in what’s appropriate to do with them. Disabled people can be (and are) wonderful parents. Go and read a book or watch a documentary, you’ll find plenty of examples.

Okay, I’m almost done ranting now, but I do have a request. In the UK, disabled people often risk losing their benefits and financial stability if they move in with a partner, which is unfair beyond all words. We deserve to experience love (every aspect of it) fully and completely, you know? The fight towards equality is far from over yet, but it would mean so much to me if you signed the petition for change here. xxx

Rachael, you are going to be the most incredible mother. I will forever fight in your corner.