‘Why won’t you have sex with me?’ A real look at disability and relationships
Louise Bruton’s Dublin Fringe Festival show examines our ignorance and prejudices, andtakes a real look at disability, sex and relationships
Louise Bruton: ‘We all have our dry spells. We all get heartbroken . . . all the emotional things, they’re all similar to everybody else.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
Louise Bruton is on her way to buy Buckfast ahead of a visit to a friend’s festival on Inishturk island. Standard. Bruton is a writer and journalist who rose to prominence with her website Legless In Dublin (leglessindublin.com) detailing accessibility issues and reviews of venues and events. As a wheelchair user, she has managed to harness a way of communicating that undercuts preconceptions, prejudices and presumptions.
Bruton is blunt and hilarious. A pinned tweet on her Twitter account is a series of photos of her hugging and dancing with Grace Jones.
But there are also rage-inducing snippets of the reality of being a wheelchair user. Sample line: “Last one on the train in Heuston. Not a staff member or ramp in sight. Doors have been closed again. Guess I live here now.” Hard to stomach, but so necessary. Bruton calls this ridiculousness out.
It’s a meditation on disability, sex, relationships, and the misconceptions of non-disabled people hold about the sex lives of disabled people
Her latest project is a show for the Dublin Fringe Festival, excellently titled Why Won’t You Have Sex With Me?, which plays September 8th-11th at the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, Dublin. It’s a meditation on disability, sex, relationships, and the misconceptions of non-disabled people hold about the sex lives of disabled people.
In the show, she’ll talk to the audience - “there will be a lot of interaction with visuals” - and it will also deal with sex and relationships in general.
Bruton hopes that people might leave the show checking themselves a little, wondering if they’ve ever been that person who has figuratively (or literally) “patted someone on the head, or spoken about them in front of them.”
The Fringe show is also inspired by how the media attempts to tap into the “issue” of sex and disability.
A while ago, after the Guardian ran a piece about disabled people and sex – something Bruton identifies as an “evergreen”, annual story – a couple of journalists from Irish outlets contacted her asking if she would be up for discussing the “stigma” associated with having sex with a disabled person.
We all have our dry spells. We all get heartbroken . . . all the emotional things, they’re all similar to everybody else
“That came in as a very loaded question,” Bruton says, “assuming that there is a stigma. And if there is a stigma, I’m unaware of it. I think it’s pretty unfair to blame anything going on in your love life purely on the fact of a disability. I think that kind of erases everything else about you.”
Bruton sees that story as just another entry point for discussing other people’s relationships and sex lives. Those kinds of articles, she thinks, feel like they use disability as leverage for voyeurism, “I just think it’s a really lazy way to be kind of a pervert about it!”
“We all go through the feast or famine spells when it comes to sex and dating. That’s something that applies to everyone. In the week those journalists contacted me - what if I was going through the famine time? Do I tell them that? ‘Nothing’s happening for me right now, I’m in the famine stages!’ It’s challenging that, pointing out how ridiculous those articles are. They’re done on an annual basis. There’s no evidence to support that our love lives are any different just because we’re disabled.”
“The way this is framed in the media,” Bruton says, “is that if you’re disabled and you’re not having sex, you’re going to die alone, and if you’re disabled and you are having sex, then you’re some sort of a freak or a fetishist.
“You’re put in these two categories, whereas I’m like ‘we’re the same as everybody else’. We all have our dry spells. We all get heartbroken . . . all the emotional things, they’re all similar to everybody else. The elements that do make it different or difficult, have been created by non-disabled people.
“That is the physical structure of society, where we don’t get into every single pub with everybody else in it, or nightclubs that everybody else is in. There’s also the fact that non-disabled people have a very wrong and archaic view of disabled people. They’re looking at us as if we’re completely different, whereas we go through the exact emotions as everybody else.”
Bruton is the type of person who is up the front at gigs, and when she arrives at parties, the energy in the room fizzes. Her busy social life creates the opportunity for a lot of encounters.
“People will come up to me anyway, because I’m in a wheelchair, and they’ll be like, ‘what happened you?’ And I don’t really want to go into my entire personal history and tell them, because it’s none of their business. I know a lot of my male friends who are in wheelchairs, a lot of people come up to them and very specifically ask them does their penis work.
There’s a manipulative attitude that people have towards disabled people
“I didn’t realise how bad it was for guys. That’s just not what you ask anybody. That is such a juvenile thing, firstly, and it’s just really rude as well.
“It seems to be that men are put on the spot in a much more invasive way,” she says. “People I know who are disabled and are in relationships, they have mentioned times where they’ve felt unsure if their partner is comfortable with them being disabled, and that has gone on for years.”
Bruton says that there seems to be a general feeling that disabled people “should ‘take what you can get’” when it comes to sex and relationships.
“There’s a manipulative attitude that people have towards disabled people – ‘you’re lucky to be getting anyone at all’ – and if you’ve any relationship issues, it’s like ‘you should be glad they’re going out with you’. It might create this fear that they [disabled people] mightn’t have many options so they might have to ‘settle’. Nobody should ever feel that settling is an option.”
A non-disabled person Bruton interviewed as research for the show said that if they ended a relationship with a disabled person, they would be afraid it would be because of the disability, and not a personality clash. “There’s a lot of double takes going on in people’s minds,” Bruton says, “you really are questioning how things are being perceived by other people.”
The superficiality of online dating causes issues, Bruton says. “Because the way that dating has changed – because online dating is such a big part of it now – there is a superficial element to dating now more than ever. You’re basing things on three photos and one sentence that describes your entire life.
“I’m hesitant in the online world . . . I don’t shy away from having my wheelchair in photos. The guys are immediately like ‘why are you in a wheelchair? What happened you?’ There’s no way to brush that off politely. I’ve tried.
“In real life you can say ‘oh I’ll tell you another time!’, but in a message on your phone, they find that rude, or don’t know what to say next.”
If you’re so concerned with taking advantage of someone with a disability, you should be concerned about taking advantage of all other people
As part of the making of the show, Bruton interviewed non-disabled people about disabled people, sex and dating. One word kept repeating. “The word ‘vulnerable’ came up a lot,” Bruton explains. “This is mostly men who said this. Men felt that if they were to date or have sex with a woman with a disability or a man with a disability, they would somehow be taking advantage of a vulnerable person.
“So that goes back to that old-fashioned idea of disability that we weren’t in the same schools, we were sent away to homes to live and be looked after. That idea stuck with people…
“We’re no more vulnerable than the next person. Of course there are different levels to disability. But generally, if you’re so concerned with taking advantage of someone with a disability, you should be concerned about taking advantage of all other people. There’s a lot of hypocrisy with it.”
Something that has been said to Bruton has been the idea that, “‘it takes a very special person to go out with someone who has a disability’.
“The way I interpret that, is that means you have to be a carer almost, instead of being a boyfriend or a girlfriend. I think that’s at the back of people’s minds – they think they’re going to have to look after the person, rather than just spending time with them.”
I think a lot of people see relationships as a status thing
Regarding her own experiences, a not exactly infrequent one is strangers inviting themselves to discuss aspects of her personal life with her – asking if a friend is a boyfriend, or manufacturing a love story out of nowhere. “A lot of people go straight into asking if you’re in a relationship. I think a lot of people see relationships as a status thing, that you can only be truly accepted if you’re loved in that way.”
When Bruton was on crutches before using a wheelchair, she sometimes experienced guys freaking out and backing away when they realised she didn’t just have a sprained ankle or a sports injury. “Maybe they thought I was lying to them or something. Like I was tricking them. That was the vibe I got, that I had lied to them to get their attention.”
At this point, she realises there is an advantage to being able to identify such shallowness from the get-go. It’s like an extra layer of insight to character judgement that non-disabled people may not have, “It’s a really key indicator. Someone else, it could take them a few months to find out if they’re an asshole or not, but I can find out in a second.”
Why Won’t You Have Sex With Me?, written and performed by Louise Bruton, is at the Cube at Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar, from September 8th-11th. Tickets: €15 (concession: €13) from fringefest.com