Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Unexpectedly Inaccessible Vagina Monologues

In true outside of the box things that guys do to spend some time with a girl they like fashion I got talked into going to see a performance of “The Vagina Monologues” at Augsburg College in Minneapolis this past Sunday afternoon. “The Vagina Monologues” is a play created by Eve Ensler that is about female empowerment and individuality and is performed on Valentine’s Day in an effort to bring awareness to and end violence against women. Prior to that I had heard about it, seen small excerpts of it, and had a decent grasp of the gist of it, but it was something that I would have never considered checking out on my own, either in person or on video format, without some considerable coaxing—more likely than not in the from a pretty girl. Otherwise, my life would have seemingly carried on just fine without it. More than anything I figured that the subject matter by itself, let alone the the multiple recitations of the word vagina, would have me squirming uncomfortably in my seat. But, with the right kind of arm twisting, and me being game to try new things, I was soon all set to get my v-word on.

When going to any new venue for the first time questions of accessible parking, building access, and comfortable accessible seating inside immediately spring up. Since the campus music hall was quite literally a hop, skip, and a jump from my apartment building I scouted it out the day before while I was running errands. I quickly assessed that finding accessible parking was going to be an issue. One-way streets limited sidewalk parking options, nearby parking lots required campus parking permits, and most of the spots right by the building labeled for accessibility were “transfer only.” We could have just as easily walked/rolled there from my place but decided to drive and ended up parking “illegally” in a handicapped parking spot that required an Augsburg College permit, hoping they’d be lax about such violations on the weekend. (They were.)

As we approached the building I immediately discovered that there was no automatic accessible door opener, which is always annoying. Then worse, when we got inside the auditorium there was no wheelchair accessible seating. In those situations the three seating options are: 1) Sit all the way up at the front, which sucks because by the time you’re clear of the leg room of the people sitting in the front row you’re practically on the stage. My joke was that if we sat all the way up there that we would practically be able to smell the Vagina Monologues. 2) Sit in the aisles somewhere, but that was an extra challenge for us since there were two wheelchairs in our group of three. So not only would we have maybe blocked too much of the aisle, but one of us would have had to sit slightly separate from the group. 3) Sit at the very back, which in this case actually meant sitting behind the very back row. We decided on a hybrid seating formation by sitting in the back row but with both wheelchairs parked diagonally on each side of the aisle. What I found interesting was what a deterrent our partial aisle blockage created. Many people intending on going down our aisle to get to their seats would see us sitting there, stop dead, start going up the opposite aisle, and then all the way across rows of seats instead. It was an impromptu social experiment of sorts.

Now other than pointing out that some moron brought along her young child to such an adult show, and at one point let her run up and down the aisle making a slight racket (after a while she left the room, the door was closed behind her, and she didn’t return), that is the direction that I thought this post was going to go in. I thought that I was going to be taking the concept of building and auditorium inaccessibility, sprinkle in some past relatable experiences, and analyze the whole thing like I’ve done numerous times over in the past on this blog. Next thing I know, often to my own great surprise, I’ve banged out over a thousand words about the kinds of gloves I’ve worn in the past, or how I make mac and cheese, and wonder if I’m the only one who has found the material interesting. At the least, it’s a perpetual exercise of catharsis.

But all that changed shortly after the show began, when I found myself squirming awkwardly in my seat for a whole different and unexpected reason: out of nowhere I started feeling quite a bit sexually inadequate. The show itself is split almost equally between serious monologues of vagina related issues like female empowerment, loss of virginity, menstruation, birth, rape, etc. and more upbeat topics like alternative labels for vaginas, grooming, reclaiming the “c-word,” lesbian encounters, discussions about both hot and awkward sexual encounters, and demonstrations of various orgasm types. It was the more supercharged sexual stuff that spontaneously stoked some sexual self-consciousness in me.

To wit, in the show’s first segment all the ladies, the monologue-ers if you will, went over a variety of things that their vaginas would say if they could talk, and the sexual oratory included things like “yes,” “more,” “harder,” “faster,” “don’t stop,” “this way not that way,” “that’s the spot,” “yummy,” “yes, please,” “f—k me!,” “oh s—t!,” etc. Then later on in what was easily the most fun and entertaining segment of the performance one of the monologue-ers does a solid five minute, enthusiastic, and borderline graphic oral demonstration of the various types of female orgasms, and the applicable moans they induce, along with physical demonstrations of the multiple sexual positions that apply, such as the “rapid fire,” “the diva” (i.e. missionary position where one leg kicks straight up in the air at the magic point), “the barker,” the “triple-multiple Big O”, etc. Everyone in the audience went nuts, but much more so it was the ladies who were clapping, whistling, cheering, whooping, and hollering, with one catching the implied “O” spirit more than anyone and she yelled out, “Yeah, you go girl!” Presumably, plenty of the ladies in the audience were living momentarily, vicariously through the monologue-er and/or instantaneously fantasizing/reflecting on their own sexual experiences. Because really, what woman doesn’t want a marathon session with sexy sculpted gentlemen giving them “the diva”?

But I couldn’t help but sit there and think, “Well I can’t do that anymore, or that, or that…” and it was suddenly very sobering. Because when you are a spinal cord injury quadriplegic who is paralyzed from the chest down, having physical, full body, multi-positional, all over the room sexual activity is just not in the cards, despite the extreme want for it. Moreover, by definition of this disability there is a certain amount of sexual dysfunction involved as well. It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating, it’s difficult to deal with at times, etc., but it’s just another unfortunate aspect of this particular lifestyle. It is what it is.

Other than some very limited horsing around that I did with my then girlfriend in the hospital after my SCI, which is really hard to do when a hospital bed is involved and nurses and family can come in at any moment (i.e. frustrating!), my first true exposure to post-SCI sex and sexuality issues wouldn’t come until I was almost discharged from rehab from Craig Hospital. All residents that were within their last two weeks of rehab were put into this extra daily class that was sort of a “here’s all the other SCI related things that didn’t come up in PT or OT that you need to know before you go home” unit. One very uncomfortable day was all about post-SCI sex. First, we talked generals about dealing with the mechanics of post-SCI sex: the realistic levels of sexual dysfunction and impotence, the difficulties/frustrations of achieving/maintaining erections for men, the inability for women’s bodies to produce natural sexual lubricant, about the lack of sexual sensitivity/pleasure, that orgasms can result in autonomic dysreflexia, that male ejaculate can possibly be differently colored due to the body’s lack of regular expulsion, etc. Then we watched an educational film that can best be described as cripple porn, that showed a handful of couples in various disability combinations (e.g. SCI guy and able-bodied wife, a couple that both have SCI) doing fairly graphic couple sex stuff. (FYI not a recommended watch. Nope.) Then third, the guys and the girls went to separate rooms to talk shop in more of an open, candid, and comfortable setting.

In my room it was me—an eighteen year old with a girlfriend—a late twenties paraplegic who was engaged to a very cute and supportive blond, a forty-something para who was married with three young kids, and the token quad who was “in the know” about SCI sex and alternative SCI sexual techniques. After he asked if we had any questions thus far about the lecture or video, which we didn’t because it was awkward, one by one he started pulling things out of this small black magic sex satchel. He started off by saying that if you were lucky enough to achieve/maintain an erection then more power to you. But for those who struggled, the alternative options included Viagra (or Cialis, et al), which doesn’t always work for SCI folks; a vacuum pump a la the Swedish pump that Austin Powers tried to deny “wasn’t his bag, baby”; an electro stimulant, which seemed more like a cattle prod for your junk than anything; using vibrators or dildos in lieu of the impotent/flaccid penis (if that’s the case); and most invasive of all, a surgical procedure that places small balloons in the spongy material of the penis shaft so that when you want to achieve an erection you use an external pump to fill up the balloons. Once he took us through the paces he finally said something like, “Honestly, talking about half this stuff freaks me out a little but I have lay out all the options for you” and we all let out a collective sigh because we were all thinking the same thing. But the point is that many quads have to jump through some wild hoops just to be able to have sex, and that can make people feel unattractive, unsatisfying, and asexual.

Now that being said, it is not by any means to suggest that quads can’t have healthy, active, successful, mutually pleasurable sex lives, even involving sessions that include some mind blowing stuff. But by the same token it does, unfortunately, have it’s limits. Again, because the whole body isn’t involved and the mechanics are a little different. For example, unrelated things going on with the body (e.g. bladder issues) can spoil the fun at inopportune times. Without that direct nerve/sensory/passion/emotional connection between the brain and the penis it means that even hot and heavy make out/foreplay sessions may not result in an erection the way it does with able-bodied guys, which in turn can lead to embarrassing and sympathetic “Hey it happens to other guys too” territory or unintentionally leaves the impression that you’re not turned on by the girl. Clearly, locations where you can have sex are limited, so by default that takes away some of the excitement and spontaneity of the act. All in all it requires a partner who is patient, understanding, and open minded.

The other relatable perspective quickly worth mentioning is the feeling, depending on how much you choose to dwell on it, that you won’t and don’t stack up in the overall sexy, exciting, satisfying, performance category with other able-bodied guys. An unfair comparison from jump street to be sure, but one that naturally exists nonetheless. But the bottom line notion is that everyone wants to fully satisfy their mate, or that should be one of the primary goals in my opinion, and it’s real hard to not feel like the aforementioned limits prevent that for quads. Moreover, even if things are really, really, satisfactorily great in that department with your girlfriend/wife the very realistic reality that you will doubtfully be the best she’s ever had can be difficult to deal with as well.

So cutting back the to the show, all those interrelating thoughts and issues hit me out of nowhere mid-performance and it was unexpectedly quite a bummer. And being there with someone that I was attracted to somehow seemed to heighten those uncomfortable moments and inadequate feelings from my perspective. All of that being said, as we left the show I felt thoroughly entertained and I was real glad that I checked it out, but at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder if the subject matter of the “The Vagina Monologues” was just as inaccessible as the venue that hosted it.


  1. Well I guess that’s truly a matter of perspective isn’t it? From an able-bodied perspective, if I can reasonably surmise that the anonymous commenter is able-bodied, reading about disability sex issues is sure to illicit some awkward and uncomfortable reactions because the topic is way outside the box from normal able-bodied sexual societal norms. But from my perspective, the perspective of someone who lives with a spinal cord injury, the subject matter that you refer to as “a little strong” (which comes across cynical) revolves around a very real and very serious aspect of my daily life, as well as millions of others’, and as such I have very strong thoughts, feelings, emotions, and opinions on the matter. And from what I’ve seen so far, what this post exhibits is the most open, candid, honest, and detailed discussion of the topic from the perspective of someone with SCI in the blogosphere, with the point being to offer a little enlightenment, and even some education, about those of us with SCI who have to deal with alternative sex lives and sexuality issues. It can be a struggle to say the least. It’s a topic I always planned to write about at some point and now was the most applicable time for it.

    When I started this blog almost 2 years ago I did so knowing that I had a unique perspective to share on a variety of disability topics, specifically SCI of course, and the hope was that people would find my insight on said topics interesting and by extension that they would learn a few new things about a common but unique disability. I also told myself that I was going to be as honest, objective, etc. as possible without pulling any punches. Therefore, if this post or anything else related that I write about results in uncomfortable reactions, or opinions that it’s too strong, then I won’t apologize for it either.

    That being said, I do respect your opinion and I appreciate the fact that you took the time to give this post, which was easily the most honest and openly vulnerable thing that I’ve ever written in my life, a solid read and that it stirred some thoughts in you on the matter.

    Also noteworthy how many others have had good things to say about it and appreciate my level of honesty.

  2. It should be pointed out that the person who left the comment above stepped forward and explained that the "a little strong" comment was not a reference to the subject matter of the post, as I clearly took it to mean, but something else altogether. We apologized to each other for both the misunderstanding and my somewhat biting response. Because it was a misunderstanding I felt inclined to delete both comments, but instead decided to explain the situation to save face, if you will, and leave my reply up anyway because I think it has bigger picture application, merit, and validity, and essentially became an extension of the post itself. But no hard feelings between me and the commenter and I ask that everyone treat my reply as a stand alone commentary.

  3. To be honest, it would have given you more credibility with the topic if there had been SOMETHING in the post about women with disabilities. If there is even a monologue about us (which is what I was searching for when I found this post) you seem like you would have howled somehow.

    Protip: sucks to be a guy with SCI in regard to sex, I'm sure, but what about a gal with SCI (or any other disability)? Do you think abled people care about our sexuality any more than they do yours (they talk about your issues more, btw)? And then you have to mansplain your experience. The play is about women. It says so right on the tin.

  4. I am a man with a disability and therefore have zero insight into or knowledge about women with disabilities, so why would I have the audacity to even attempt to dip into that pool? So accusing me of having a lack of credibility in this post because of it is completely off base. This was a post about my specific male based thoughts, feelings, insights, and experiences with SCI sex and sexuality, not a both sides of the coin research paper on sex with disabilities in general. Had I dared to write about sex issues of women with SCI, or sexuality issues of folks with other disabilities, I would have completely lacked credibility. So I consider that unfair cryticism at the least. Also noteworthy that your lack of credibility stance is strong considering you yourself posted your comment anonymously. People that hide behind their biting comments, or claim to speak on behalf of others with disabilities when they might not have one themselves, immediately lack credibility to me.

    The second question in your condescending second paragraph confuses me. So I guess my response is that if I chose topics on this blog that were based on if able-bodied people cared about it more than I did then I wouldn't have anything to write about. The purpose of this blog is to provide candid insight to a variety of topics vis a vis the SCI lifestyle that in some ways isn't covered elsewhere on the internet.

    As for your mansplain comment, if that is your assessment of this post then you missed the point. I very clearly described the Vagina Monologues as a play for women. I used the play's sexual content as an application/conduit/segway to discuss SCI sexual issues from my male perspective. At no point did I mansplain or manbash the VMs. This post was about SCI sex perspective, not the VMs themselves.

    And I was thoroughly entertained and even howled at parts. But overall it made me feel sexually underwhelmed. That was the point. But thank you for reading it and posting a comment.

  5. You were writing as a MAN, first and foremost, this was clear enough. No one is asking you to write "a research paper", I'm asking for you to acknowledge that the story of women with disabilities belonged in the play. But you actually seem like you would have been furious with at inclusion. Angry howled, not funny howled.

    I'm sorry you seem to have gotten the mistaken impression I'm able-bodied. You only had the one anon comment, and for some reason I thought you only allowed those.

    Hope this convinces you -- if there is one thing I can't stand it is being called abled.

  6. The Vagina Monologues performance that I saw did not include any content about women with disabilities or their stories, so the inclusion/disinclusion of that topic never crossed my mind. The girl that I went with claimed that the show we attended was the worst production that she'd ever seen and that they cut a bunch of stuff out. So maybe they cut that material out? I don't know any differently. But you raise a good point: if they don't include the story of women with disabilities' sexuality already then why don't they? And would I be furious if they included it? Hell no. It would have given me much more material to connect to since it touches my world. I think you've mistaken me for some kind of anti-feminist jerk--I am not.

    Regardless, how my post that very specifically covered my male insight into SCI sex and sexuality turned into a debate about women's sexuality as a whole and my "fury" over unacknowledging the story of women with disabilities in the VMs still confuses me. I never did anything near to suggest that latter didn't belong.

  7. Hi Sean,

    I think this post was insightful and powerful. Anyone taking it as anything other than your opinion/thoughts should start their own blog. I do not have any physical disability, but my uncle was a quad, and I think everyone should be able to read your perspective and learn something. I applaud your candidness, and your respectful responses to these commenters.

    Also, who argues with a lawyer? ;)

  8. That's very nice of you to say, thank you. And ha ha.

  9. Shawn, thanks for the insightful post. I'm an OT and I think that it's often best for me to provide resources written by people "in the know" and yours is a great example. Also, thanks for being brave enough to talk about a topic that almost all people shy or uncomfortable.

  10. Thanks. It was a little hard to write and a lot harder to post it live for the world to see. But a topic rarely covered and worthwhile to share even if it did put me way out there. So I'm glad and proud that I ultimately did, and it is very cool knowing that people appreciate it, are learning something, and are using it as a resource. Made my day...

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