A New Intimacy

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Wheelchair Users Want to Dispel the Idea That They Can No Longer Have Sex, Marriages and Families

MARK CROMER reports

Andrew Tasker never saw the drop-off.

He remembers cruising about 40 m.p.h. on his Honda CR 500 dirt bike in the open desert, just south of Salton Sea. It was a gorgeous Sunday morning, and Tasker was taking one last ride before packing it up and heading home.

But his carefree cruise ended in a split-second of terror as the ground vanished beneath his bike, the heavy vibration of earth giving way to the deadly smooth embrace of air. As the bike slammed to earth again, Tasker’s spine compacted.

“I heard my back break. My legs instantly went numb,” he says. A few more yards, “Then I biffed on the bike.”

In a matter of seconds, fate had transformed Tasker from a well-toned, able-bodied 28-year-old into a paraplegic. At the hospital, doctors confirmed that Tasker had shattered his spinal cord. Because the cord wasn’t severed completely, Tasker was left with some feeling in his hips and slight movement in his legs, but he is unable to walk.

In the first few days, the severity of his situation began to sink in. He no longer had to worry about whether he would live, but how: Would he be able to live on his own? Would he work again? And had the accident taken his manhood as well as his legs? Could he still have sex? And what kind of a woman could want a man in a wheelchair?

Society views wheelchair users as asexual beings, but as the people sitting in those chairs will tell you, their libidos didn’t necessarily die when their legs stopped working.

If Tasker was hoping for reassuring answers immediately after his accident, he didn’t get them.

“The issue of sex never came up while I was in the hospital,” he says. “No one mentioned it until I started rehab.”

Ellen Stohl can relate to the silence that initially greeted Tasker’s fears. She was 18 in 1983 when a car accident crushed her spine and left her an incomplete quadraplegic. Although she has since become a well-known advocate for the disabled on sexuality issues-a role that led to her groundbreaking appearance in Playboy-Stohl recalls the fears that swept over her as she lay in her hospital bed.

She was haunted by the idea that the intimacy she had saved for Mr. Right now seemed gone forever.

“All I kept thinking was `Oh my God, I’m still a virgin. It’s all over.’ ”

Stohl asked her mother if she would ever be able to have sex, but her mother didn’t have an answer. Her doctor never broached the issue with her. Like Tasker, she finally faced it when she began grueling months of rehabilitation.

Sex education, counseling and therapy have been a part of the rehabilitative process for years, in light of studies that many showed people with disabilities were indeed capable of making love.

“In the past, physically disabled persons were often seen as asexual-without sexual needs, desires or capabilities,” Dr. Julie Madorsky wrote in an essay published in the Western Journal of Medicine in the early 1980s. “This negative stereotype is difficult to sustain in view of the growing literature and research on the subject.”

In her essay, Madorsky cited studies that found that 96% of men who were quadriplegic from spinal cord injuries in the neck were capable of erections and that more than 70% of them could have intercourse. (Women are even more likely to retain their ability to have sex following such injuries, studies have shown.)

Psychologist Melanee Fishwick, who counsels people with disabilities on sexual issues at Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation in Pomona, says the topic remains verboten in much of society.

“Most people are uncomfortable with their sexuality,” says Fishwick, who uses a wheelchair. “If you add discomfort in interacting with a person who is different and then add sexual discomfort to that mix, then it becomes almost synergistic. It becomes very difficult.”

While society slowly starts to recognize that wheelchair users are as much sexual creatures as the able-bodied, counselors like Fishwick work to restore the sexual identity of those who have been severely injured.

Fishwick says a vital first step at Casa Colina is to treat patients as sexual beings as soon as they come through the hospital’s doors.

“Usually, when a person has been in a hospital setting, they’re very comfortable with anyone and everyone coming in and disrobing them, leaving them uncovered and treating them simply as a body,” she says. “We try to give back to them their dignity as an individual and then enhance their awareness as a sexual being.”

Staff members are trained to talk comfortably about sex and will sometimes bring it up, because patients are often afraid to ask.

Some issues can be broken down along gender lines, Fishwick says, noting that men tend to be more hung up on genital function, while women often worry that they’ll no longer be sexually attractive.

“Women traditionally are less focused on one part of their body than men,” Fishwick says. “So therefore it’s a little easier to generalize the response to other parts of their bodies.”

Sexual healing happens over time and usually with experimentation, Fishwick explains:

“If you think about when you were an adolescent, when you were first discovering your sexuality, how awkward and uncomfortable you felt. To make changes in your sexual functioning after a spinal cord injury, you start to feel the same kind of awkwardness.”

A young man like Tasker has to deal with rolling up to a woman in a social setting and asking her out. If he gets past the kissing phase, things only get more complex.

“Usually we don’t talk about sex. We get into a romantic situation and come on to each other and kiss and touch,” Fishwick says. “We don’t talk about `Well now, when we get in the bedroom, I am going to need you to assist me with this or that or I’ll need to do this before we start.’ For a young man to describe to a woman `I may have difficulty in controlling my urine’ or `I may have a bowel accident during sex,’ to have to start revealing these very, very personal things, these are huge barriers that one has to overcome.”

Mike Smith knows what it’s like to deal with such hurdles. The burly 30-year-old was just 19 when the truck he was driving rolled over in the desert, an accident that severed his spine and left him paralyzed below mid-torso. Although now happily married to his able-bodied wife, Tess, Smith says reclaiming his sexual identity was a long, tough road.

During his first week in the hospital, Smith began asking what his future sex life would be like. The answers weren’t encouraging.

“I was told I wouldn’t be able to father children, or to have a natural erection,” he says.

The other shoe dropped when he was in rehabilitation. The girl he had been dating since high school came to visit him, then broke up with him as he accompanied her out to her car. “She dropped the bomb on me in the parking lot,” he says. “I could have killed her.”

Stung, Smith focused on getting in better physical shape so he could regain his independence, deciding that he would cross whatever sexual bridges were in his path once he again found someone he wanted to share himself with.

As he gradually moved on with his life, Smith began dating again. He discovered there were plenty of bridges to cross.

“When I knew it was that time, when I knew it was going to go further than just friendship . . . I would always make sure they knew what was going on with my body. So there were no surprises,” he says. “That would go along with the leg bag I wear. If they ever saw that, I would want to make sure it wasn’t a surprise.”

Despite the awkwardness of having to mix romance with a discussion of body functions, Smith says he never had a woman back out on him. He suspects that wheelchair users don’t strike out much more often than able-bodied people do, only that it might be more depressing for a chair-user.

“I think a lot of people in chairs blow things out of proportion,” he says. “Hey, able-bodied people get turned down too. That’s life. But a lot of people in chairs end up with chips on their shoulders.”

Meanwhile, Tess had to handle curious friends and concerned family members. She says that her family has been very supportive of their marriage, but recalls that friends cautioned her against getting into something she couldn’t handle and breaking his heart. Some friends peppered her with questions like, “So how do you guys do it?”

But Tess says she’s had no regrets since they tied the knot in October. It’s her second marriage. She describes her sex life with her first husband, who is able-bodied, as a dysfunctional wreck.

“With Mike it’s great, because we are more open with each other. There’s more communication and more emotion,” she says. “There’s a lot more attraction. The chair doesn’t matter to me. Mike is Mike and I love him for who he is.”

Like Smith, Tasker says he has so far managed to flow with the challenges. Sporting long hair and a slight beard, Tasker still seems to exude the casualness of Southern California as he cruises around in his custom pickup.

He still frequents the watering holes where he hung out with friends before the accident. And he still gets out on the dance floor to tear it up when a favorite tune starts blaring from the “juke.”

“Well, I’m sure it looks a little weird,” he concedes with a broad smile. “But I don’t care. In fact, I think I’m a little braver now than when I was able-bodied. You get a whole new perspective on life after something like this happens to you. You don’t care too much about what other people think anymore.”

Tasker has dated several women, on occasion becoming intimate. Like Smith, Tasker had to explain a few things first. To his relief, all has gone well-so far.

“I haven’t been shot down yet,” he says.

Someday, he says, “I’d like to have it all. Marriage. The works. But I think that’s going to be a little more difficult. To be honest, when you’re in a chair, you have luggage. You have to find a girl who can overlook the chair and see the person in it.”

This article was first published in the Los Angeles Times.

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