This was a review I completed of a one hour documentary special on Channel 4 (UK)
Soon after this programme was advertised I began to receive messages from my friends informing me of its existence so I was eager to see the goods for myself! The reason for the messages and my own anticipation was that this was the very topic I wrote my dissertation about and I am massively interested in the field of sexuality and disability. As the programme began I was sceptical that it might be another documentary focusing on the obscure – or worse a patronising portrayal of young people looking for love. The backing music and narrator’s tone, giving a tongue and cheek feel to the introduction, justified my fears as the viewer meets Leah in a high street sex shop. I was thankfully reassured as this quickly begins to highlight some of the programme’s many recurring themes and challenges. For instance, Leah discusses the lack of sex education she received compared with her sisters because she has brittle bone disease and it was assumed she may not become sexually active. Leah is clearly a very articulate, confident and attractive young girl who enjoys exactly the same things as her peers. At the opposite end of the spectrum is shy John who has learning disability. John lives with his mother and would like the opportunity to lose his virginity like his brothers as he feels left out and lonely. His mother feels she should support John by hiring an escort and compares the experience with learning independent travel or other skills. The documentary follows John’s journey to lose his virginity or as his mother puts it “become a man”. What is clear for all the males involved in the documentary is the prejudice they face in some way or another from not being viewed or feeling like a “real man” because they have a disability. Most people believe everyone has sexual rights but unfortunately due to common misconceptions disabled people are often viewed as unable to attain these rights or have a “normal” sex life. This is wonderfully illustrated by Pete who is trying to fulfill his ambition of becoming a porn star. There is also Carl who has a spinal cord injury and was the only participant who did not have a disability from birth. For me, Carl is a textbook example of what the majority of academic literature on sexuality and disability represents. Carl tries many solutions to regain his full sexual function but what this uncovers – and was highlighted for Leah and John too – is the need for a long term relationship and closeness. As was evident from several of the individuals featured, sex is purchasable but intimacy is not. I would applaud Channel 4 and the escorts and sex therapists shown for allowing viewers to understand what they did and explain it in an educated and sensitive manner. The programme gives a good overview of societal attitudes and also challenges Joe Bloggs’ perceptions by jumping straight in with positions, places and preferences. Although some of the use of language may make you uncomfortable at times, such as “freak” and “normal”, I feel Channel 4 used the hour to explain this complex topic productively. But what I asked myself whilst watching this programme and would urge anyone to ask themselves is: “How would my perceptions change if the person did not have a disability?” More of the same please on our TVs!
Since writing this article there has been a significant increase in programming focusing on dating, sexuality and disability. What instantly comes to mind is reality TV such as FIRST DATES and “The undateables” the titles misleading and perhaps not a fresh as they were in their first or second season but Channel 4 has clearly heard my previous calling of more of the same! My one hope is that such programming does not begin to be formulaic in its approach. It has been around 4 years since writing the original review and I suspect for better or worse “Sex on wheels” is no less enlightening for the untrained eye to view.
I would still recommend it as pivotal watching for any aspiring youth or care workers to watch and consider it very much as a exercise for your value base.
For further information see Channel 4, Sexuality & Disability by Maddie Blackburn or reuest a copy of “Thats a hard conversation to have ” from the University of Stirling.