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‘Everything Still Works Down There’: Uncovering the Sex Lives of Disabled People

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"People with disabilities are perfectly capable of having sex, having romantic relationships, and having one-night-stands."

When you Google documentary filmmaker Alexander Freeman, you'll find an attractive and impressive young artist. This writer, director, producer, and editor has been awarded Best Screenplay at the 2013 BOSIFEST in Serbia and his films have been chosen for Official Selection at the 2013 10th European Film Festival. Alexander was also born with cerebral palsy. His excellent 2013 feature documentary, The Last Taboo, probes inside the compelling lives of six individuals with various physical disabilities and shares their stories about finding intimacy, love, and sexuality. Nerve spoke with Alexander about the making of his film, his first ever sexual encounter, and challenges of being seen as sexy.

The Last Taboo is an extraordinarily moving film. What made you want make this documentary? Did you have a specific underlying issue with your sexuality?
I actually get this question a lot. At the time I was thinking about making The Last Taboo, I was struggling with my own sexuality. And I was very frustrated because I felt like no one was really seeing me in that way. I was feeling like a lot of people were doubting me. I felt like a lot of people were afraid of taking that first step and seeing what was possible. So in the summer of 2008, I met this girl who I was getting very close with and we went through a lot together. I think she saw that part of me that really hadn’t been discovered yet. 

Was she able-bodied?
Yes, she was.

In the documentary you say, "In order to understand yourself, you have to be able to experience the touch of another person." How old were you when you were first touched like that?
I was 21. So, I was in the middle of kind of a really weird transition in my life because I was transferring to a new school, and so she said that she wanted to come up and visit me at my school. She was really the first that really explored my sexuality. We were very close in a way that I hadn’t got close to anyone before. So it really got me thinking about how people with disabilities are not seen as sexual. I realized it was a really big problem. I became determined to open people’s minds up to the idea of getting involved with people with disability after my own experience.

It put this idea in my head and between 2008 and 2010 it’s all I thought about. I decided to make a documentary that would really give voice to many people so that the world could know that not only is it possible, but that people with disabilities are sexy and are real and deserve to have the same sexual and romantic relationships as anybody else. During that time I didn’t have the resources to make the film that I wanted, so in 2011 I transferred to another school, a film school. That’s where I got a lot of the resources and that’s where I was able to make the film that I had been thinking about for the last couple of years. 

Everything still works down there.

You interviewed a lot of people with a lot of different disabilities. What would you say was the overarching challenge of those you spoke to — was it to be seen as sexual, was it purely physical challenges?
That’s a good question. I think the challenge is actually with able-bodied people. Because I think that it really has little to do with the disability of the person. I think it’s that we are constantly getting barraged by the images and the messages in the media and we are told what we should find attractive. Constantly. So I think that a lot of people have a certain image of what a person should look like and what a certain person should feel like. I think that people don’t normally associate people with disabilities as sexual because it doesn’t quite match up to what they have in their minds.

So, really the challenge is getting able-bodied people to forget about every single thing they’ve been told by their friends or by the media and getting them to take a moment and say, “You know what? I’m going to see where this goes and I’m going to step outside of my comfort zone. I’m going to allow myself to go out with this person.”

So, you're saying able-bodied people have to change.
I think more able-bodied people have to ask that question to themselves and be open to having relationships with people who might not line up with the guidelines that they have in their minds. It has nothing to do with the person’s physical ability or challenges at all. People with disabilities are perfectly capable of having sex and perfectly capable of having romantic relationships and perfectly capable of having one-night-stands. We are capable of all of that. It’s just the challenge is getting people to acknowledge that and say, “Yeah, you know, why not?” 

Did any of the people that you interviewed have a sexual relationship with their aids? Did any make use of sex surrogates — like in that movie The Sessions?
Yeah! They did. There were two girls in the film, Erin and Lauren. Erin was actually the partner of Lauren but she was also Lauren’s aid. I didn’t get to interview any surrogates, although I am going to make a new film dealing with that. So, Erin was both the partner and aid of Lauren. There’s actually a part in the film where they talk about, “Is it okay for an aid to help someone with masturbation?” But, you know, there must be lines that are drawn so that it’s clear when the person is aiding the person or when they are doing – other things. 

The Last Taboo: A Documentary (2013) from Alexander Freeman on Vimeo.

But what do you think?
My opinion on that is that it’s a difficult issue, because on one hand the person is working for the other person with a disability. But there are certain ethical questions about that. My opinion is that if it’s okay with the aid and the person with the disability, then I don’t see anything wrong with it. My other feeling is, look, if there are certain things the person with the disability can’t do or that they need help with, then I would say that it’s fine to help out with things like that. I think your average able-bodied person [not just aids] should also consider this question of “Is this person sexual?” I think that people should take the first step and find out what is possible. Find out if they need help with that. I think more able-bodied people need to just go for it. 

What about more recent depictions in the media. Do you think the prominence of RJ Mitte from Breaking Bad doing huge modeling campaigns has impacted the image of people with disabilities?
I do think that the presence of RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad is a wonderful first step to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream media and I was very impressed when I learned that RJ Mitte really does have cerebral palsy, but we need to see more characters like this.  

Since making the film, have you felt better about your sexuality? Have you had more sexual experiences since the woman in 2008?
Yes [laughs]. I have. After the making the film, I just felt a great release unlike anything I have felt before. It felt very freeing to put this documentary out there. As a result of making the documentary, I actually had another experience with a woman very recently. We actually met because she saw the documentary and contacted me.

You need to ask yourself, "Is this person sexual?"

Oh wow.
You know, it’s something that I was kind of hoping would happen [laughs]. I didn’t actually think it would happen. It was kind of surreal. So she contacted me and I had more sex because of it. But this one was different because it was much more than one experience. We kind of got into a brief relationship. She saw another side to me that the first woman didn’t. It went way deeper than my first experience. I was not thinking that that would happen at all.

Now I know what it’s like to be with a woman and now I know what it’s like to be in a relationship and that was something that I was really looking for. Unfortunately, we are not together anymore. But I really feel because of that it really validated myself. It really gave me the confidence that I needed. So I think as a result of this experience, I know what to do and what not to do now.

What types of things do you know how to do? Do you find certain types of sexual positions work best for you? 
I definitely think doing it in my chair is great because it gives me stability and a lot more control over my body.  Lying on my side and doing it from behind my partner is good. Also I've found that the shower works really well because my partner is able to be on top of me.

Are there any tools that people with disabilities use in the bedroom that we might not know about?
No, personally I haven't used any tools.

But you feel totally confident now.
I feel completely confident more than I ever have before. She was also able-bodied. They were both able-bodied. Did you hear that?

Yes! Two able-bodied women.
I really want to thank her and the girl who gave me my first experience. I really want to thank them so much because they saw who I was. They saw what I could do. They saw the potential. I think that most people need to do the exact same thing. I really think most people need to say, “Look I don’t care that you have a disability. You are sexy, and you are fun, and you are a great guy or a great girl. I don’t care. I’m going to go out with you. I am going to explore this side to you.” That’s what more people need to do. 

That’s so great to hear. Are you trying to meet anyone new? Online dating, maybe?
Yeah. I’m hoping to meet someone new. I’m not normally a fan of online dating. I was hoping that I’ll have more [laughs] experiences and more opportunities like this.

Hey, some other girls might go on your website and see your picture and contact you again.
Hopefully. She actually said in the email, “I love your documentary. By the way, you’re really cute.” That made me feel wonderful. I’m hoping more people will take more initiative.  

The Last Taboo was co-produced by Anne Scotina, Andrew Graham, Alexander Freeman, and Gabriella Iarrobio. The Last Taboo was awarded Best Screenplay at the 2013 BOSIFEST in Serbia and was chosen for Official Selection at the 201310th European Film Festival: Integration You and Me in Poland. The Last Taboo is also being distributed by Community Channel, a United Kingdom based channel covering 98 percent of homes in the United Kingdom. His work can be found on alexanderjamesfreeman.com and outcastproductions.biz.