Come on Already!
A frustrated 18-year-old boy screams from the far reaches of my psyche. The poor kid. Paralyzed in 1973. Still a virgin.
And I was so ready. If you’ve never been an adolescent boy, you have no idea how overriding the anticipation of that first time can be. And I’d been rehearsing for years!
I had fallen out of a tree from 25 feet, broke T12 and L1, compressing my spinal cord. In the emergency room, I was poked and prodded — IVs installed, a tube up my nose (“just swallow”), a scary long needle probing my belly for internal bleeding. Then I was told they would insert a tube up my penis.
That sounded really unpleasant — but I didn’t feel a thing. And I was relieved. Such was my state of denial (my primary coping mechanism) that the longterm ramifications of that absence of sensation didn’t even occur. Thirty-nine years later, that highly sexual kid still craves the sensation of feeling the most sensitive part of his body inside the silky warmth of his lover. He feels very ripped off.
There have been times when dealing with my unresolved adolescent curiosity has been even more difficult than not being able to walk. Wheels have been a fine substitute for legs, but there is no replacement for penile sensation. I hadn’t simply lost an intense sensory experience and a reliable ejaculatory response; I was denied a key rite of passage into manhood.
Not all bad, as it turned out. It wasn’t an ending, it was the beginning of a process — because I was not willing to not have a sex life.
The Wrong Advice
My sexual experience up to the point of being injured was nominal to be sure, but I was already undeniably tuned into my sensual nature. I had no doubt about my talents as a good kisser. That was a modest foundation of sexual confidence, something to build on.
Obviously, at the age of 18, I had a great deal to learn about sex, not to mention relationships. But I had no point of reference for another way to think about it. Sex equals intercourse, right? — not the word I had in mind at 18, of course. To me sex was an athletic, multi-position undertaking, capped by the kind of earth-rocking, consciousness-shifting climaxes I’d been having since I was 13.
How in the world would I please a partner? If “porn-star-athletic intercourse” was a requirement, and I couldn’t do it, then how could I meet a lover’s needs — once I was through demonstrating the excellence of my kissing, that is?
My fears didn’t stop simply with performance pressure expectations. If I couldn’t provide the necessary scale of pleasure, then who would make a commitment to me? I felt disentitled to a vision of a life of partnership, marriage, and family.
I was already at a disadvantage. My notions of love and romance were skewed from the get-go, bred by Tony and Maria (what, you never saw West Side Story?!), 1960s-pop-love-songs, gaps my dear mother managed to leave in my need for love, and my big brother’s not so well hidden collection of Playboy magazines.
No one had any guidance for poor, misguided, horny 18-year-old Gary. There was no class in rehab, no counseling, no nothing. When I asked my physiatrist if I could make babies, he offered only a sad shake of the head and a final “no.” Man, did he ever miss the point. I was asking him if I could have great sex!
His dour response to my crucial question made my process of sexual adjustment much more difficult. Any time I would feel myself even vaguely on the verge of something orgasmic, his naysaying voice crept in, shutting down the process. (He was, in fact, wrong physiologically — my body eventually got to what I had been convinced was impossible. Years later.)
No one can tell you what your body is capable of. Everyone has to find out for themselves. Period.
Creating Sensual Space
It wasn’t until several years after my injury that the right partner finally came along. You know, chemistry. We loved being together, we had common interests, aligned values. We had fun and laughed — and of course the kissing was fantastic.
My first adult relationship was with the first woman I could talk with about not knowing how sex worked for me. She was the one who was game to explore it, and savor the process. She was the first I was willing to expose my atrophied legs to. She was the perfect partner for me to get on a healthy path of sexual learning, adjustment, and discovery (although she ultimately broke my heart. Such is the journey of love.)
The early lessons were poignant and immediately liberating. I learned — with incredible relief — that genital intercourse is not every woman’s first preference. I learned that many women find men in too much of a rush for intercourse, and that women wanted to spend a lot more time with foreplay — activities I was perfectly capable of and most enjoyed giving and receiving. And although it seemed gross to me as a teenager, I developed a taste, if you will, for oral sex.
Above all, I learned that the ability to create what I call “sensual space” is the essence of great sex. The capacity to be sensual is where the really sexy and erotic stuff happens between adults engaged in whatever safe and consensual activities they choose.
Here I was, afraid my options were so limited, but the range of possibilities actually proved to be immense. When you define sex only in terms of intense sensation, then you’re unlikely to discover the wide-ranging power of subtlety. The more I learned to relax, to put my attention fully on my body — to feel — then even the most delicate sensations became extremely powerful. What’s not possible suddenly didn’t matter so much.
Exactly because of what I can’t feel, I want to feel everything I can. Paralysis has motivated me to seek out every working nerve ending on my body, and every way that someone who cares enough to please me can sensually light them up. (This should be required learning for everyone, by the way. Huge fun.)
Then it naturally follows that if I want to find everything that feels good to me, then I want to do the same for my partner. I think this expanded awareness made me a better lover, and I’m proud to report (with the utter lack of modesty that is unavoidable here) that I’ve gotten some pretty decent reviews.
A very slow, sensual style of sexuality is not only wonderfully erotic, it allows me to physically relax — very deeply. Being a full-time, very active wheelchair user is stressful. A more gentle style of lovemaking is healing and rejuvenating — and it deepens the love and appreciation I feel for my partner.
Gary Karp is the author of Life On Wheels and Disability & the Art of Kissing and speaks publicly about spinal cord injury and sex. Reach him through www.ModernDisability.com.
MY NEW TOP 10 LIST
Not that intercourse isn’t an option (thank you Pfizer!). Without sensation, it’s just not at the top of my list. I’m not built for porn star sex. So be it. But there is a lot more to intercourse than intense sensation — much less ramming away at high speed. Two people joining their bodies is a very intimate thing to share. And when the position allows, I find it very visually stimulating. And it pleases my partner. Why give all that up just because I’m not fully feeling my genitals?
Thinking about what sex is “supposed to be” shuts us off from all it can be. Accepting my body is how the possibilities emerge. My nervous system is what it is. I’m wired the way I’m wired. With this perspective, my sexuality gradually evolved from something I thought I had lost to experiencing a new normal. For me. Dwelling on what it should be only costs me more than I’ve already lost. And I’ve lost enough, thank you.
I think of it as editing the order of my top 10 list. Intercourse slipped down a few notches. My new number one is having my nipples licked — softly, wet and warm. I enjoy the same treatment in the spot inside my elbow (a really lovely erogenous zone), and in that place where my leg meets my torso (which I can feel normally). It’s about being willing to redefine, letting things be what they are. That’s where the full range of erotic possibilities reside.
What of my impatient 18-year-old virgin? Funny thing. When I have affirming, sensual partnership in my life, he goes quiet. Having had the experiences I’ve had with the good women I’ll always treasure, I know without any doubt that I’m capable of loving and being loved within the context of accepting who I am.
My heart will always feel for that unsatisfied, horny 18-year-old. There will still be moments when I’m in there screaming with him that it’s not fair and I deserved to have my share of youthful coital orgasm. But he doesn’t have a clue how great sex and real relationship works. Thanks to this unique exercise of sex and paralysis, I do.