It was early on a Friday morning when I received the very response I had feared when I first decided to join OkCupid. A man with whom I'd been on one date was writing to tell me he had to cancel our plans for that evening. But that wasn't all he had to say. "I don't want to lie to you," he wrote. "I thought you were pretty cool, but your disability isn't something I'll be able to handle in a relationship. I'm sorry, I don't want to bullshit you. But you're incredibly intelligent and nice."
As a young woman who has lived her whole life with diplegic cerebral palsy, I don't fear rejection. What frustrates me is being rejected on the premise of my disability, a neuromuscular disorder that impairs the coordination of my muscles, which gives me the movement of a Weeble wobbling and makes me inclined to fall.
Before our date, we had chatted online and immediately hit it off, sharing our mutual love for animals, comic books, and TED Talks. As our relationship grew via text, he seemed genuine and sweet. By the time I divulged my disability to him, I felt I'd given my humor, wit, and kindness enough time to define me. I made a joke about the upside about my cerebral palsy, claiming that I was a pro at dancing the sprinkler, which he laughed at and joined in by admitting that I was probably a better dancer than he, a "white guy with two left feet."
My sense of humor was the deciding factor: He wanted to meet me in person. On the day of our date, my nerves got the best of my mobility, making me wobble and stumble more than usual. I asked to hold his hand since my trembling legs couldn't keep me balanced. He obliged, but our walk felt stilted. I was an old woman he was helping across the street.
"This is my first date," I told him. I still have the urge to bury my face in my hands when I think back on that moment. I must have seemed inexperienced, naïve, and desperate. But this was not a confession so much as an affirmation. By revealing my lack of dating experience, I confirmed some widespread stereotypes about disabled people—that we are sexually incompetent, asexual, or are too infantile for a mature relationship.
He thought he was sparing my feelings by using my disability as a reason to reject me. But it was my nervousness about the date that had made me act the way I did. Because of it, he didn't see the real me, and it wasn't the real me he rejected. In his eyes, I wasn't a failed date, or even an autonomous human woman. I was an object of pity.
I was used to being stared at. But I watched him notice the not-so-subtle stares, the puzzled glance of a street vendor, the mild shock of an old couple—his status as an able-bodied individual was threatened when we walked hand in hand. How could that escape my attention? I remember looking up at him, seeing that he was staring straight ahead. He was focusing on the discomfort of being associated with me romantically. Walking with me made him into an object of pity, too.
When I made my OkCupid account, I knew I was transgressing the societal taboo of being both physically disabled and desiring sexual intimacy. My physical and sexual disadvantage threatens what is assumed to be the correct, normalized understanding of what is physically and sexually attractive. Regardless, I rebelled against the discrimination by relying on my dating life to oppose the inequality I experience as a disabled individual. My revolt was no easy feat, though. Instead of filling in information about myself, I spent three months fantasizing about creating the profile of someone attractive, desirable, and dateable. Someone who wasn't me. Where would my struggles with body image, physical pain, and clinical depression fit into this perfect person's profile? I chose not to confront the question; I ignored my profile altogether.
But then I traveled to Cancun, Mexico, for spring break. As much as I would have preferred to experience my sexual awakening some other way than through an academic holiday that promotes drunkenness, sloppy gyrating, and hooking up, the overwhelmingly sexual atmosphere awoke my desire and catalyzed my need to articulate it.
Upon my return from Cancun, filled with hope and briefly forgetting the representations imposed on me, I incorporated a casual mention of my disability into my profile. Several weeks passed and I received visits to my page, but no messages. My own efforts to pursue men on the site were fruitless; I'd message guys, but each one failed to reply after looking at my profile.
I am more than those two words: "cerebral palsy." But who was I kidding? OkCupid was never going to fulfill my need for sex and companionship. A disabled individual can't overcome the barrier of being physically profiled; I admit that physical attraction played a role in my own decisions about which profiles to visit and which men to message. Anyone like me, who has been attracted to an individual's body, would claim that I am but human, unable to resist my impulses. But society conditions us to desire a certain body, which we then strive to emulate. Society's perception of the body imposes impossible standards of perfection—a perfection that leaves no place for vulnerabilities like sickness, aging, and most dramatically, disability.
Despite my knowledge of society's alienating influence, I gave into its expectations by deleting the detail of my disability. After I did, I started receiving messages from guys who would note an interest on my profile, send a "hey" or some other generic greeting, and use my picture to objectify me. Sometimes, they didn't even get to the photos—one guy said I had "nice boob," when my chest was never even visible. I appreciated the newfound interest, but for the most part, I didn't find these messages satisfying. Not only did I face the discrimination as a woman on a dating site, but I also faced it knowing I was hiding my disability. Through online conversations and lackluster dates with men in whom I confided about my disability only after we established a rapport, I realized that I wasn't the only disabled one in these encounters.
Their disability, unlike mine, was invisible: It manifested itself in their prejudiced, dismissive attitude towards me.
In fact, I started to recognize a pattern with my dates. When I revealed to them that I was disabled, they accepted me and continued to speak with me. But after the first date, they'd all perform what's called a fadeaway—displaying a sudden inability to maintain communication with me. For example, I met a guy in Koreatown for shaved ice, spending a few hours talking and laughing. We agreed to meet again two days after for dinner. But I received a text message the following day. He couldn't meet me for dinner because he was busy with work, and the next day as well. It was as if they had been "gentlemen" by following through with our dates (and sometimes even promising seconds) out of pity.
Several repeated attempts later, I was resigned, planning to terminate my OkCupid account. It seemed I couldn't overcome their perception of my disability. On the day I was set on deleting my profile, I received an awkward opening message. Little did I know then that the person who wrote the message would later become my boyfriend. Unlike the others, he chose not to see my physical particularities as unattractive, but as what made me special (Yes, he's also corny).
Even though our physical intimacy quickly progressed since the day we met in person, we decided against having sex. Having penetrative sex was harder than I expected it to be; he attempted to finger me one day as I was laying down, but I yelped in response and cradled myself into a fetal position. We were both shocked: My body could endure significant amounts of pain, but I had been defeated with the penetration of an index finger. What little sex-ed I received in high school and teen movies didn't prepare me for what I was about to learn—having cerebral palsy meant having an involuntary chastity belt.
My inverted pelvis problematizes our sex life, but I have come to realize that sex is more than quick thrusting, gyrating hips, and legs spread wide. It's also about pleasuring each other's bodies in personal ways. On days when I am trapped in my own body, we're naked and wrapped up in each other without having to actively use our bodies to satisfy one another. We both experience physical satisfaction be simply being touched: a breath against an ear, a tickle of a grazing eyelash against bare skin, and small kisses on the shoulder can all make us quiver with pleasure. When I asked him what he thought about our sex life, he wrote to me: "Our sex is patient, our walking restrained, and our patience expanded. What's most important isn't what we share. What's most important is that we recognize where the chasm begins so we don't fall in, all the while shouting across it towards understanding."
I am a young woman who happens to have a disability, but that isn't all I am. By writing about my sex life, I am not inviting you to be an audience member of my sexual spectacle. I want to be treated like anyone else, but before I can do that, it's necessary to break down the barriers that separate disabled people from able-bodied ones. When you see me—whether it's on OkCupid or on the street—I want you to see a woman who is capable of desiring and being desired.
Just like anyone else.