Sex is everywhere in pop culture, but there are still limits to whom society deems sexy. Disabled people’s sexualities are routinely stigmatized—an obvious manifestation of ableism—as discussions about sex and sexual health exclude disabled bodies. In media, the reluctance to depict sexually engaged disabled characters reinforces the stigma, perpetuating the false idea that disabled people can’t or don’t enjoy sex. Though some progress has been made (a 2021 Aerie intimate apparel campaign featured disabled and chronically ill models; shows such as Special, The L Word: Generation Q, and Sex Education have included disabled actors in sex scenes), disabled sex representation is lacking. One medium is filling this gap: romance novels. Authors such as Helen Hoang, Talia Hibbert, and Chloe Liese write sexy and exciting love stories with physically disabled, chronically ill, and autistic protagonists.
In Hibbert’s Get a Life, Chloe Brown, a near-death experience pushes web designer Chloe Brown to start “living her life again.” After experiencing chronic pain due to fibromyalgia, Chloe finds that her friends abandon her, turning her into a sheltered version of herself. She writes a seven-item list of steps to take toward her resolution to get a life. To achieve her goal, Chloe recruits her building’s superintendent—who also happens to be a tortured artist—Redford “Red” Morgan, offering him a free website in exchange. As they make their way through Chloe’s list, Chloe and Red fall for each other and ease into sexual intimacy. Red works through his assumptions about Chloe and her illness. Conflicted about lusting for Chloe during one of her flare-ups, he concludes that “maybe poor health wasn’t something that should de-sex a person. Definitely couldn’t de-sex Chloe.” Chloe and Red learn together how pleasure and pain can coexist.
Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient series features autistic protagonists in each of the three books. Two are women who explore their desires with caring partners after years of unsatisfying sexual encounters. In The Kiss Quotient, autistic Stella Lane hires escort Michael Larsen, assuming that her dislike for sex is due to lack of practice. Unlike Stella’s previous partners, Michael is patient and considerate, meeting her halfway and helping her find what works for her. The sequel’s hero is Michael’s autistic cousin Khai. Much to Khai’s chagrin, Vietnamese single mother Esme moves in with him for the summer as the result of a matchmaking attempt on Khai’s mother’s part. Khai is hyposensitive to touch, and the novel explores how this affects his sexual encounters with Esme:
She edged closer to him. “I can touch everywhere else?”He nodded once. “Yes, as long as—”“No light touch, I know.”
In the final installment of the series, The Heart Principle, Khai’s brother Quan is uncomfortable in his skin after treatment for his testicular cancer requires a radical inguinal orchiectomy. Undiagnosed, autistic Anna is in an open relationship with her long-term boyfriend. Despite finding little enjoyment in intimacy, she sets out to have casual sex. Anna and Quan meet on a dating app and agree to a one-night stand. Their first attempts at hooking up are unsuccessful, but their arrangement becomes more serious and emotional after each try. Anna learns that she is autistic and has been masking her entire life, including during her sexual relationships. When being intimate with Quan, she for the first time feels comfortable voicing what she does and does not want.
The authors refrain from framing disabled sex as lacking or limited, focusing on what makes the sexual encounters pleasurable for the parties involved.
In Chloe Liese’s Bergman Brothers series, characters with various disabilities fall in love and in lust. In the first installment, Only When It’s Us, college student Ryder Bergman hasn’t spoken since losing his hearing right after high school. He gets paired up in a class project with hotheaded soccer star Willa. Their complicated friendship evolves into a passionate romance. During one of their first times having sex, Ryder is hesitant to be rough with Willa, afraid he will not hear her cues to stop. Instead of dismissing his concern, Willa finds a solution to make her partner comfortable. In the latest installment, With You Forever, the eldest Bergman brother, Axel, and family friend Rooney enter a marriage of convenience to access Axel’s inheritance. In return for her assistance, autistic loner Axel puts Rooney up during the holiday break while she figures out what’s next for her. Rooney has ulcerative colitis, and a flare-up has forced her to take leave from law school. Axel is recovering from a back injury. As they become intimate, they open up about their desires and disabilities. Rooney confesses to feeling self-conscious about her weight loss and her bloated and tender stomach. However, none of this stops them from having great sex.
The works of these three authors feature clear sexual communication and depict what sex can be like for people with a variety of disabilities. The authors refrain from framing disabled sex as lacking or limited, focusing instead on what makes these sexual encounters pleasurable for the parties involved. These series are part of a new wave of romance novels that demonstrate that disability is not incompatible with romance and sexuality, allowing their protagonists to experience the love and eroticism that ableist perceptions deem them incapable of or inadequate for. Hopefully, the publishing industry will continue delivering romance novels that include people who are often denied starring roles in the genre.