Dr Tuppy Owens talks about her controversial charity Outsiders, helping disabled people meet their emotional and sexual needs. Photography by Belinda Mason.
Thirty years ago, one of my clients was losing his sight. Nigel was distributing my book around his PR world. He was dashing, with flash cars, a beautiful girlfriend and seductive self-confidence. Going blind was my biggest fear so I vowed not to desert him.
‘We have tried to create an environment where society’s more noxious values are discarded and we look beneath the surface to find the true person.’
When he came out of the Royal National Institute for Blind People’s rehab – which taught newly blind people practical skills they would need, such as how to sort out your clothing by colour – Nigel was alone: no girlfriend, no job, no car. I took him to parties to introduce him to new women and we had a laugh, me describing them in advance. Slowly, he got a life. I thought, what fun, so why not start a club for people in a similar position to Nigel? That is how Outsiders was born.
It’s satisfying work. We have members who cannot speak, hear, walk, see or move, and they still find someone to love. When someone gets stuck, we set about finding ways to open their hearts, use new skills and perhaps change their goals. It’s not the good-looking, successful, fit and wealthy people who make the best partners, but the people who listen, are loving, considerate and good fun.
Through Outsiders, we have tried to create an environment where society’s more noxious values are discarded and we look beneath the surface to find the true person.
Why is it hard for disabled people to find a partner?
Some people reading this may be realising they have never really thought of disabled people being sexual before, or thinking of a disabled friend, and wondering how they are feeling deep inside. So I’d like to put Outsiders in context.
Despite society being more open-minded and aware these days, there is still a lot of pressure on both men and women to choose a partner who is deemed good-looking, fit and successful by their family and friends. For example, how often have you heard someone say, ‘I don’t think he/she is good enough for you’, meaning not that they lack honesty or kindness, for example, but that they’re unemployed or suffer a mental health problem. In other words, partners are still seen, to some extent, as a status symbol or proof of identity, rather than as someone who makes the other happy.
‘Partners are still seen, to some extent, as a status symbol or proof of identity, rather than as someone who makes the other happy.’
With social expectations still constructing men as providers and protectors, it is more socially acceptable for men to choose a disabled partner. Meanwhile, it is more common for women who become disabled to be heavily protected by their families and support workers, and seen as being too vulnerable to go out and find a lover. For these reasons the club suffers from a gender imbalance, so disabled men tend to have more difficulty than disabled women finding a partner. Some disabled men say their support staff actively discourage them from approaching women, or interfere and break up new friendships. Do the support workers want to protect the women from their disabled client? The phenomenon is hard to understand, but we are now finding that there are more women joining Outsiders, so perhaps things are changing – or our existence is changing things.
As if this is not enough, many disabled people found they could not relate to sex education in school because it did not include their particular problems. Many disabled youngsters are abused by family members or staff. Sex for disabled people is often ignored by the medical profession, and many disabled people find that they are never touched in an affectionate way. One blind man who joined Outsiders, aged 72, told us he’d never even been cuddled.
Finding a solution
We run workshops to help members get over these hurdles: V-Group for women – ‘V’ because many disabled women find it difficult to ‘spread their legs’ – and Pick-Up Artistry for men. We search for other groups to provide personal support and guidance, social events and any help we can get because, being unfunded, there is a limit to what volunteers can manage while running a national charity.
‘Many disabled people decide that they would like to use a sex worker to help them discover their sexual potential.’
Many disabled people decide that they would like to use a sex worker to help them discover their sexual potential. MS, Spina Bifida and spinal injury, for example, play havoc with the genital nerves. The disabled person might also want a ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’ experience, knowing they will be accepted and enjoy great sex. I started the TLC website to provide disabled men and women with advice and contact with responsible sex workers.
Perhaps surprisingly, TLC has not brought controversy. It has been commended by British philosopher and author AC Grayling, and performance artist, porn director and ex-sex worker Annie Sprinkle says it almost makes her want to go back into sex work. However, it’s possible that TLC is not controversial because of prejudices – perhaps people think that there is something kinky and perverse about both disabled people and sex work.
What has Outsiders achieved?
The stories of some of the people who’ve been helped through Outsiders are amazing.
Lesley had Juvenile Arthritis, which means you don’t grow very tall and have limited lung capacity. Lesley joined Outsiders on her 40th birthday, a virgin, and made up for lost time, having sex with as many of our male members as she could. She said that disabled people make the best lovers because they are accomplished at asking for things and using ingenuity to overcome difficulties.
‘She said that disabled people make the best lovers because they are accomplished at asking for things and using ingenuity to overcome difficulties.’
Sarah was born with cerebral palsy and a speech impairment, so most people cannot understand her. She was successful at forming relationships by email, but as soon as the guys found they could not talk to her on the phone, they backed off. Not to be deterred, Sarah attended every event near her home town, and eventually ended up running the events with the help of her personal assistants. When we started running events combined with another area, she got to know the organiser for that area, Steve. Sarah and Steve are now an item.
Eric joined Outsiders because he felt at sea in life. He made friends with Michael, a man with cerebral palsy, who suggested Eric play his guitar as a music therapist, and Eric now has a money-making occupation. He made friends with some other members and realised he was like them, having Asperger syndrome. He made friends with an autistic woman, Julie, and they fell in love. They would have dates in a field, eating home-made sandwiches, he would play guitar and bring her music to sing.
Paul had a social phobia and had never touched a woman. He came on an outing and we decided to go for a walk over the downs. Susan was in the group – a woman who had no sight and used a cane. I suggested that Paul lead Susan by the arm, and they managed fine: concentrating on guiding Susan, Paul forgot his phobia.
John joined Outsiders with hopes of finding a super-intelligent male partner. John was unable to speak because of cerebral palsy. He hitched up with a man who was happy to go to bed with him, which solved one problem, because John was unable to masturbate as he had no control over his arms. As soon as they were in bed, John would ejaculate, such was his frustration. But having orgasmed, John was relaxed and could soon start again, and after the second orgasm he was so relaxed that he could speak normally – just for a few minutes, his speech was perfect.
Outsiders needs to become sustainable so that it can carry on once I peg it. That would probably mean hiring permanent employees, training and supporting them. Making the leap from voluntary to paid staff has to be gradual.
‘One quadriplegic man is having his head massaged by a tantric sex worker who will be literally making love to his head.’
I hope the conference we’re putting on at the Royal Society of Medicine will become annual and help to support Outsiders. It’s certainly quite remarkable in that we have two performances by sex workers with their clients. One quadriplegic man, who cannot feel anything below his neck and cannot reach up to touch his head, is having his head massaged by a tantric sex worker who will be literally making love to his head. In the other performance, a sex worker will be stripping in front of a deaf-blind man, while his friend interprets in finger language.
I don’t know of any groups like Outsiders outside of the UK. If you want to start a similar club abroad, read our website – everything we’ve ever done is written about there.
The key is to be resilient – to keep going, and keep trying all kinds of new things to see what works. Our membership keeps growing and all the time there are more people – disabled and able-bodied – who know about us. That is why I write articles like this one.
For further information
Outsiders: a dynamic club for disabled people determined to enjoy their lives to the full
TLC Trust: Connecting disabled men & women to responsible sex workers and body workers
This article appeared in Filament Magazine Issue 3, December 2009.