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

March 29, 1995|MARK CROMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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."

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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."

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