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Sex and the Disabled: It's Still a Taboo Topic

Lifestyles: New Mobility magazine tries to help disabled people find independence on their own terms. When it offered explicit sexual advice, though, it drew wildly mixed reactions.

March 31, 1997|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barry Corbet and Larry Flynt have at least three things in common. Both use wheelchairs. Both are in the magazine business. And both have been accused of peddling filth.

The difference is that Flynt's Hustler is a sleazy flesh-fest aimed directly at several hundred thousand subscribers' prurience. And Corbet edits a 30,000-circulation magazine about "disability lifestyle, culture and resources."

So when the February issue of New Mobility arrived in mailboxes with a nude woman on the cover and steamy copy inside, it was enough to raise eyebrows and more.

"I felt like I was reading a smut magazine and quickly threw it away," wrote one man, who described himself as a partial quadriplegic.

"You had a good clean informative magazine at one time," a Michigan woman wrote. "It's too bad when perversion raises its ugly head."

An Illinois couple called it "an insult to our intelligence and morality . . . a disgrace to the dignity of handicapped persons."

At least 32 readers canceled subscriptions and four advertisers pulled contracts as a result of the "Sex, Wheels and Relationships" issue.

But Corbet says the Malibu-based publication has received equal praise: "Some people feel decidedly grateful for the information."

The cover in question features a close-up of a close-eyed couple. Superimposed against the backdrop of their fuzzy nuzzling is a woman with her blond hair tossed back lustily, her arm cradling ample breasts. The shot is standard pinup fare, except that the woman sits in a wheelchair, and her long legs have atrophied.

Inside the magazine, the fare is equally explicit.

One article, written by "a woman who loves to make love," describes the joys of sex with disabled men--and with one paraplegic in particular:

"Ours was a relationship filled with lust, giving and receiving pleasure as long as possible. . . . Time stood still and every part of our bodies became erotic. How positively glorious! Some of the other disabled guys I've been with have shared this style that makes sex so much more fun and adventurous."

Another article describes the exploits of a disabled man who moves to Venice, Calif., and spends a summer seducing young men in his beachfront apartment.

There is a detailed and graphic advice column, more erotic photos, and a story about photographer Ralph Steinmeyer, who returned safe from Vietnam at 22 only to be hit by a car two months later, becoming quadriplegic.

"It seems," says writer Mike Ervin, "he's dedicated his professional life to recording endless perspectives on the phenomenon of the female orgasm."

The monthly's goal is always to offer people with disabilities suggestions for "seeking independence on their own terms," says publisher Sam Maddox: "A disability is part of the natural fabric of life, and that's all we're trying to get across. . . . It could be pretty boring if you stuck to the medical model of 'Here's what you need in life to get by.' We think some of our competitors are pretty boring in that sense."

With that in mind, the magazine routinely flashes attitude, using the terms "gimp" and "crip" as disabled people sometimes do--to deflate the oppressive aura of saintliness that politically correct euphemizing sometimes conveys.

Many articles and advertisements depict "crips" water-skiing, kayaking, fishing, bowling, rock climbing, golfing or playing brutal games of wheelchair football--underscoring the fact that "disabled" doesn't mean "inactive."

Yet, although the magazine routinely discusses sex in its columns and features, the subject remains largely taboo, says editor Corbet.

"So many of us feel asexual, or are made by society to feel asexual, that I felt it took a fairly graphic portrayal in words and in pictures to get the point across," says the retired cameraman, who became paraplegic in 1968 when the helicopter from which he was shooting ski scenes crashed.

New Mobility attempted its first special issue on love, sex and relationships a year ago.

As Corbet wrote in the February issue, "This year, we've leaned more toward sex than relationships, and included enough kinks and bends to offend almost anybody."

Folks were, indeed, offended.

But, Corbet says, "to me the eloquence of the supporters outweighs the [vehemence] of the denigrators."

For example, a Colorado woman wrote of finally connecting with the "dream man" of her youth seven years after he became disabled: "We both experience levels of ecstasy neither of us knew existed, and have entered realms of intimacy, connection and devotion beyond what you dream about in your wildest fantasies."

She thanked the magazine for inspiring in her lover the realization "that there is more to life than what he had settled for following his injury."

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