Josh Hepple is an aspiring solicitor with three law degrees. He specialises in international gay criminal law, has worked with numerous esteemed firms, and volunteers his free time with human rights organisations such as Amnesty International. As someone with severe cerebral palsy, who requires assistance 24/7, he also offers disability equality training to companies. Hobbies include riding ponies.

He’s an accomplished freelance writer too, focusing on international anti-homosexuality laws and more recently on prejudice against disabled people. Establishing himself as a commentator wasn’t easy though. Despite possessing extensive first-hand expertise in both areas, for a long time his pitches were largely ignored. But in December last year, The Guardian commissioned him to discuss his Grindr experiences as a gay, disabled man. “I have a good sex life and really enjoy challenging men’s conceptions of disability,” he wrote, recounting the rewarding, liberating encounters he’s had since downloading the app 18 months ago — about 60 of them.

In the end, all it took for Josh to have his freelance writing published was to say that he led a healthy sex life, one that’s no different to that of many non-disabled gay men. Now everyone wants to hear from him.

“After the article came out, I was perceived as a sex maniac rather than a lawyer,” he says. “I often write a lot more about criminalisation laws than sex and I’m about to receive my fourth law degree, but instead I’m seen as the disabled guy who has sex.”

Disability and sex. It’s an emotive topic, shrouded in myth and misconception. It still invokes a voyeuristic curiosity among the non-disabled population; when the mainstream media does cover the subject, it often straddles the contentious border between sensitive exploration and sensationalist exploitation.

It’s not that Josh isn’t happy talking about his sex life — candid Grindr tales are a conversational staple for many gay men and he is no exception — his bemusement lies with the sudden fascination, because until relatively recently the subject was largely ignored. This silence has allowed archaic misconceptions and salacious myths to flourish: that disabled people can’t have relationships, intimacy or sex without paying for it, that long-term partners morph into carers, that they can’t have sex at all.

Deconstructing these narratives has, in part, already begun in the media, an obvious example being the dubiously named Channel 4 documentary, Sex on Wheels, which was praised for its realistic portrayal of sex and disability, if not its title.

To completely dispel the myths and stigma, more of the same is needed. For decades society has constructed crude liturgies around disability, sex and relationships. As a result, disabled people are still infantalised, patronised, desexualised, asexualised, fetishised or ignored entirely. Sometimes they’re even feared.

Josh Hepple

“People have a lot of nerves around my involuntary movements,” says Josh. “I am healthy but people aren’t exposed to different bodies. People in wheelchairs appear not to be healthy, so there’s the question of whether or not they are safe to have sex with. Apps allow me to introduce myself before people see my movements, something I’ve found very powerful.”

In a blog post written for the Yorkshire Bears’ website, Gary Lee, a 27-year-old creative writer and proud nerd, spoke of the need for disabled people to encourage those outside the community to see them as the “rampant sexual beings we are”. Achieving this will require more coverage in the mainstream media, something he sees as crucial to unravelling the taboos and misconceptions around sex and disability. Increased representation breeds normalisation, the precursor to acceptance.

“The more people see disabled people as actors, as models, as athletes…it becomes easier to imagine that they would have the same impulses or needs as ‘ordinary’ people,” says Gary. The assumption that disabled people lack the same sexual desires as the non-disabled community is in part locked in the notion of eternal child syndrome. They’re viewed as perpetual children, who’ll never be self-sufficient or possess adult needs. Their sexual needs are rarely considered, making it impossible for some to lead an active, healthy sex life.

“When it’s people who require slightly heavy-handed care, or are less able to make those decisions themselves, [their sexual needs] never really get considered,” adds Gary. “You get a situation where people just aren’t able to access the kinds of social settings or situations where they’d be able to explore themselves in any capacity.”

As a wheelchair user himself he’s been exposed to the effects of eternal child syndrome, with many in his family — particularly the older generation — ensnared by it. Discussing his sex life causes an awkwardness they’d rather avoid, while opportunities to explore his sexuality as a young gay man were scarce. It wasn’t much better in the dating world, with many guys on the scene rejecting his suitability as a partner through fear of morphing into a pseudo-carer.

Gary’s experiences with apps mirror those of Josh. As well as making meeting other gay guys more accessible, they allow him to break the ice before preconceptions about his disability take over.

“There’s no instant reaction about my disability, so people get to find out who I am as the person,” he explains.

There’s still negativity, as anyone who doesn’t fit into the Grindr white masc4masc aesthetic tends to find, but generally apps have proved an empowering asset. And while it would be easy to assume that the well-established emphasis on body ideals among gay men will manifest itself as ableism, Gary has encountered the opposite.

“I’ve actually had more positive experiences since I came out and started dating guys than I did when I was trying to date in the straight world,” he says, although quickly pointing out that this is only his personal experience. “I’ve had less complications and less rejections on the gay scene. You hear horror stories about how image-obsessed the gay scene is and how much stock it puts in physical values, but I had a lot of friends and family around me who were very supportive and I found my own ways to negotiate that. Once you have a few good experiences you gain a little bit more confidence and you go out on the scene and it gets a little bit easier.”

After an accident which broke his back in two places — along with his ankles and left arm — writer and freelance journalist Charles Donovan was left with a permanent disability. When he walks he uses a cane, his gait is uneven and there are visible scars on his back where he’s had surgery. While he can’t say whether gay men are any more or less accepting of the disabled community than their straight counterparts, he’s certainly been exposed to isolated incidents.

“The clearest experience of rejection I’ve had was rather an odd situation where I was swimming in the sea,” says Charles, recalling the time he spent on a Portuguese gay beach last summer.

“A very attractive man swam up to me and started coming on to me. I was very attracted back and we started kissing. Then I started getting cold and decided to get out of the water. I can swim, I’m not disabled when I swim, but as soon as I’m walking it becomes very obvious.

“As we emerged from the water, he could not get away quick enough.”

As far as ableism goes, it’s as clear-cut an incident as he’s likely to encounter. Other experiences of rejection have been more ambiguous and left Charles trying to work out just how big a part his disability played. He suspects that the negative spiral around the issue becomes a contrived coping mechanism.

“It’s tempting to fall into a potential mind trap,” he says. “In one fell swoop they’re the baddie because ‘they hate disabled people’ and I don’t have to worry that it might be to do with my facial features or my lack of sexual allure or something else. It can all be pinned on my disability.

“It’s tempting, there’s almost a safety in it. In some ways it might feel less hurtful than thinking ‘oh my God, they just didn’t like me’. It could be just someone not fancying me and that’s something we all have to come to terms with.”

Before his accident, Charles says he was a sexually confident guy. But he now experiences apprehension about his body, while fears around how sexual partners perceive his disability have left him with performance anxiety. Over time, he’s learnt to accept his body, to reject the social stigma he’s absorbed and regain his self-esteem.

“I feel confident and I’m happy with how my body looks,” he says. “I discovered that even at the worst point I could get happy with my body quite quickly. I’m perfectly happy with the way it is now, give or take a scar or two.”

Historically, the media in all its guises has largely refrained from exploring the subject of sex and disability. One minor aspect of the topic that has been given more than its fair share of coverage, however, is the experience of disabled people with sex workers. In recent years, everyone from VICE and The Guardian to the Daily Mail has published articles on the subject, ethically suspect documentaries have been made, Academy Award-nominated Hollywood movies have been lauded. Just last month, Germany’s Green Party came out in favour of funding sex workers for the elderly and disabled, sparking a controversy that even reached the British press.

Although some of the arguments have been made with good intentions — some disabled people do require assistance to lead an active sex life — the intense focus on such a minor aspect has exacerbated a pernicious and patronising myth: that the disabled community disproportionately solicits sex workers.

Diversity and inclusion manager Toby Milton says: “I haven’t met many people who have paid for sex. I don’t think that idea is true.

“It can exist, but out of all my friends who are disabled only one of them has actually paid for sex. I don’t think that’s because he was disabled, I think that’s because he was out, drunk and horny.”

Toby Mildon (left) with boyfriend Chris

Toby, 35, continues: “If you were to ask a thousand men and a thousand non-disabled men whether they used a sex-worker I don’t think you would see much, if any, difference.”

Toby met his boyfriend, Chris Watkins, at work after they were partnered on a project together. Although he’s in a happy relationship now, Toby’s experiences on the dating scene weren’t enjoyable, not least because the way society conditioned him and the impact this had on his self-esteem.

“Part of the issue I found, before I met Chris, was that I wasn’t confident in myself and in my own body image and my ability to be a good partner to somebody,” says Toby. “I think there’s an element of helping disabled people be successful in a relationship. Disability and sex and the body is still very much a taboo. There’s a lot of fear around it, so what happens is people don’t actually talk about it.

“Disabled people are still very much asexualised and that’s almost an institutional thing.”

Sometimes the institutional double standards manifest as a subtle omission. Whenever Chris went to his GP, as a young gay, non-disabled teenager, doctors would ask him if he was leading a healthy sex life and offered him condoms. Toby was never extended the same courtesy. The assumption: as a disabled teenager, why would he need them?

Other situations have presented a more blatant expectation of asexuality: Toby requires a bed that can be raised and lowered, but social services are only prepared to offer him a single.

Chris says: “It’s the assumption that people wouldn’t have a sex life. I find that if I refer to my boyfriend ‘who is a wheelchair user’ suddenly it becomes surprising and interesting.

“Probably the most awkward I felt has been Toby’s birthday last year: we went out for a dinner at a nice restaurant. Towards the end of the dinner some well-meaning person from another table came over — I’d never met them before — and gave me a big hug. They wanted to say what a wonderful person they thought I was.

“You’ve kinda gotta shrug it off and take it in the spirit that it was intended, but that wasn’t nice really,” he continues. “That’s the kind of stigma.

“It was meant with the best of intentions, but what comes across is: ‘why on earth would you want to go out with someone with a disability,’ and ‘you must be a really good person’.”

This incident represents society’s attitude in a microcosm. By disregarding the community’s needs and ignoring their lives altogether, myths have been allowed to prevail and stereotypes compounded. It’s society that disables, not the disability itself.

“I’m only disabled because society has not adapted enough,” says Josh. “That’s where the prejudice and stigma come from. It’s society that perpetuates many of the myths that exist around disability and sex.”

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