Who are these sexual know-it-alls? "Love Bites" columnists Mitch Tepper and Lizzi McNeff may look like the people next door, but they're also qualified sex counselors and researchers--and wheelchair users--whose skills and personal experience have informed NM readers for nearly a decade.
Will the Real Lizzi Please Sit Down?
I was first introduced to Lizzi through a mutual friend and colleague, Dr. Beverly Whipple. Lizzi had volunteered to participate in a research study being conducted on orgasm in women with complete SCI, but she did not meet the inclusion criteria--to this day she still teases Whipple that her cervix was rejected. From the moment we met there was an instant connection, a kinship in our mutual interest in sexuality. In case you're wondering, we are not boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife, or sister and brother, but we are lovers in the platonic sense.
"Love Bites" authors Lizzi McNeff and Mitch Tepper, both wheelchair users, are pioneers in bringing sexuality information to their peers.
Lizzi was born in Newport, Ore., to an Irish Catholic dad and a Native American mixed mom (Nez Perce). Owning her Native American heritage is perhaps where Lizzi gets her pioneering spirit. In 1981 Lizzi was a rodeo princess and a cowgirl when she broke her neck in a car accident. Lizzi's road to sexuality educator started in college, post-injury, when she took a human sexuality class and found herself faking an orgasm on paper.
Young at heart and mind as well as spirit, Lizzi is a diehard advocate and educator. In 1992, when we first met, she insisted that we pitch the idea of a monthly column in New Mobility. Where did the idea come from? "The topic of sexuality was so ignored in my own rehabilitation process. The only one who discussed it was my urologist--he was comfortable, but I wasn't." Hence, with the help of then-editor Barry Corbet, "Love Bites" was born.
What the reader of "Love Bites" would never know about this sexuality educator and advocate is that she is actually a bit shy, even secretive. It wasn't until a meeting in Miami nearly three years ago that I met her full-grown 20-something beautiful daughter. Lizzi's also a grandma, an auntie to three, and a godmother and mentor to many, as well as a loyal and dedicated friend.
When she's not writing her "Love Bites" column, Lizzi is busy doing research. She has conducted groundbreaking research on personal assistance services and abuse experienced by women and men with disabilities and is working on a Department of Justice grant to provide technical assistance to help CILs develop their capacity to address abuse issues. With both a master's in public administration and a master's in health administration, Lizzi is currently working on her Ph.D. in education curriculum and instruction and will be submitting her dissertation proposal this month.
In her personal life, Lizzie combines her spiritual journey--she is now the Rev. Lizzi McNeff through the Universal Life Church--with her abuse work, being involved with faith-based communities dealing openly with domestic violence and abuse among people with disabilities. Lizzi was a champion of domestic-violence victims long before she was a woman with a disability, though. She was doing domestic violence work when she was working as a teenage volunteer for a reproductive health clinic in Toledo, Ore.
Lizzi has used different personas to explore her sexy side in a healthy
manner: Sophia is a sex kitten who purrs a lot. Talik Lane is a classy country girl. Contressa can be found lying on a chaise lounge-"Oh dahling!"-surrounded by big burly bisexual security guards.
Being raised with a Catholic mentality (sex is shameful and sexual pleasure deserving of punishment), over the years Lizzi used different personas to explore her sexy side in a healthy manner: Puthy Galore actually likes to be called just Puthy. Evyt is fun with a red beehive and cat's-eye glasses, loves to be a "slut"--meaning she loves to have fun. Evon, her bleached blonde sister, wears short skirts, low cut tops, black fake furs. Sophia is a sex kitten who purrs a lot. Talik Lane likes horses, is a classy country girl with high standards--but can be pretty flirtatious. Contressa can be found lying on a chaise lounge--"Oh dahling!"--surrounded by big burly bisexual security guards. And LIA is an acronym for Lizzie in Action--a name an attorney friend gave her. LIA represents Lizzi coming out of the shy side--owning all of Lizzi. Keeping up with so many different personas was OK, she says, but now they all finally fit into one.
"Experiencing a disability--granted it is traumatic--has been a good thing for me," she says. "I lived in the fast lane and needed to slow down. Disability has taught me to look beyond face value and how to live my life with integrity. It has given me the opportunity to look at things from a different perspective and to get a greater understanding of my life's experiences."
Mitch Tepper: Crank Up the Orgasmatron
Mitch and I instantly clicked when we met almost 15 years ago. We've found out we have a lot in common throughout the years. However, it was disability and sexuality that brought the two of us together. That, plus he l-o-v-e-s women, I l-o-v-e men, and we are both intrigued by the topic of sexuality.
He was raised by a stay-at-home mom and a father who worked to support his family, and he worked in his father's ice cream shop as a teen, relishing all the attention he got from the girlies. Legend has it Mitch was born flirting with the female nurse.
A 1982 diving accident resulted in a cervical spinal cord injury. It was in rehab that his quest, curiosity and thirst for knowledge about the intersection of sexuality and disability started. A male role model in rehab showed him a picture he had taken of his naked girlfriend. Mitch started asking questions and, although many were not necessarily answered by professional staff in rehab, he did get a jump-start on Sexuality and Disability 101. A sexual relationship with a friend sparkled while he was in rehab (lots of sexual experimentation) and the rest is history--he's been a leader and activist in the field ever since.
"The friction model of orgasm--just apply friction to the right part--is too limiting. People who don't have disabilities can learn from our sexual experiences."
Mitch truly is a qualitative academic at heart, although his earlier background is in business. He completed his master's in public health while at Yale and his Ph.D. in human sexuality at the University of Pennsylvania. Both his thesis and dissertation focused on experiences of people with disabilities and sexuality. He worked with Dr. Bev Whipple, renowned researcher and sexuality expert, addressing issues of fertility for people with spinal cord injuries.
After becoming frustrated with the medical model of fertility/infertility treatment, he tested his knowledge when he and his wife decided they wanted to try and get pregnant. They succeeded, and their lives changed forever. Jeremy's birth (a real miracle baby) and Mitch's desire to teach him--and also study other religions regarding sexuality and pleasure--combined to motivate him to learn more about his own religion, Judaism, as well.
Mitch has been actively involved with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists for many years, wearing a multitude of different hats. He has been a board member with three other sexuality organizations. He is most proud of sitting on the National Advisory Council to the National Center of Primary Care at the Morehouse School of Medicine, led by former surgeon general Dr. David Satcher.
Mitch's presence on these boards adds to them a perspective gained through his research and advocacy, and he feels his talks on pleasure and orgasm are influencing the larger nondisabled population. "It's possible to achieve pleasure and orgasm in other ways besides genital stimulation," he says. "The friction model of orgasm--just apply friction to the right part--is too limiting. It's more about love and connection. People who don't have disabilities can learn from our sexual experiences." People are also learning from his Web-based disability and sexuality site--sexualhealth.com--which has grown from a personal dream with a disability focus to a resource to over 100,000 unique visitors a month.
Not only has Mitch contributed to Web-based distribution and dissemination of information about sexuality and disability, he has contributed to the academic literature as well. He and I both wrote chapters in a text about sexuality, disability, and chronic illness, and he has published many articles in scholarly peer-reviewed journals. Most recently, he has been commissioned to co-edit a four-volume set--Sexual Health by Praeger--that includes articles by more than 50 sex experts..
What more can I say about my beloved comrade, colleague, and co-conspirator? He's a devoted husband, father, and friend. He's committed. Passionate. A risk-taker.
The field of sexuality is challenging and controversial, and when one adds a disability component, it can be a political roller coaster ride. Mitch has handled the ride with dignity, aplomb, and integrity--it's been tough on occasion as not everyone wants to address the issues of disability, let alone disability and the right to healthy sexual expression--and he is a respected expert in the field. He is, in my eyes and in the eyes of those who know and love him, a champion to be honored, a man who has dedicated his life to advancing the sexual rights of people with disabilities.