Special's Ryan O’Connell: 'All I ever wanted was to be sexualised - but society never saw me that way'

The Netflix comedy's creator, writer and star tackles the desexualisation of the disabled community in the Attitude Sex & Sexuality issue.


Words: Thomas Stichbury

Ryan O’Connell, creator and star of Netflix’s Special, hits the spot as he opens up about portraying gay sex in a frank, unfiltered and, yes, sometimes incredibly fumbly light.

Rewriting the script when it comes to on-screen representations of disability, the Emmy-nominated comedy drama – which returns for a second and final (sob!) season next month – follows a young gay disabled man named Ryan who, like real-life Ryan, was born with cerebral palsy as he goes after the life he wants.

Appearing in the Attitude Sex & Sexuality issue, out now to download and to order globally, O’Connell dives beneath the sheets and explains why he really wanted to nail the show’s more intimate scenes.

“I remember when I first started have sex when I was 17 – not to brag! – there was no point of reference and there was nowhere to turn to and I just didn’t know how anything happened, and so I was really going in like, ‘I guess we’ll see what happens!’” he begins.

“When it comes to gay sex, I feel like we’ve only really seen it either in the context of shame and secretiveness, or it’s been show as porn-y, you know, f***ing like rabbits, very sensual, whatever, and to me, unless I’ve been having sex wrong, it’s never been like that. Or it’s been like some variation of that, but never completely one thing. It was really important to me to use this opportunity of having this show to not shy away from it.”

The 34-year-old writer adds that the scenes are also a televisual flipping of the bird as he addresses society’s tendency to desexualise the disabled community.

“It really did a number on me personally, growing up with no role models or no positive depictions of disability. It was like tumbleweeds out there, and as a gay man all I ever wanted was to be sexualised,” he says.

“It sounds so crass and base, but it’s true, I wanted to be seen as desirable, I wanted people to want to have sex with me. I wanted what everybody wants, but also, not only did I want what everybody wants, but I had to deal with society never seeing me that way. So, of course, I internalised that and felt that way about myself. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable in my desirability and for me to feel like I was even attractive.”

“I feel like my sexuality as a disabled gay man has been, kind of, castrated by society, and I feel like, by me doing these sex scenes, it’s me being like, ‘I dare you to erase me, bitch. I dare you to turn the channel, you’re gonna look at this body, honey, and you’re gonna feel things about it, you can’t get rid of me, honey, here I am.’ So, I think I get off on that trolling aspect of it, and you know, taking up as much space as I f***ing want.”

In an upcoming episode from season two [spoiler alert] of Special, we see Ryan go on a date with a dashing actor named Mark before being fetishized for his disability: Mark is turned on by Ryan’s scars and the fact that he used to wear leg braces.

O’Connell reflects on the relatability of writing about having the kind of sex that, when you’re in a bad place, you feel you ‘deserve’.

“It had happened to a friend of mine and I know that it happens in the disabled community. It was something I was very interested in, and I think in terms of the scene with Ryan and Mark, it was really important to me that, that scene, that experience was clearly consensual.

"Like, Mark asked for his consent and Ryan gives it to him, so this is not a story about necessarily sexual assault: It’s about having bad sex that you don’t have enough self-esteem to say no to, which I really relate to.”

O’Connell continues: “When I was younger, I just felt happy to be there. It was like, wow, someone wants to see me naked, well, I don’t really like them and this situation’s making me feel a little uncomfortable, but OK, might as well, I’m so grateful for any kind of scrap being fed my way. I really wanted to showcase that kind of sex because I think a lot of people can relate to it.

"Again, it’s sex that is clearly consensual, but it’s sex that you wouldn’t be having if you liked yourself more or had more of an agency."

Read the full interview in the Attitude Sex & Sexuality issue, out now.

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