My Sex Life Changed When I Was Paralysed — But It Didn't Disappear

Photo courtesy of Ben Duffy.
Angela Rockwood lies still as her boyfriend reaches to grab her feet. A second later, he's dragging her toward the edge of the bed like rag doll, and pushing her legs up to straddle his torso. If it sounds like they're getting into a sex position, that's because they are — but, no, this isn't porn. They're simulating what sex looks like for them on a typical night for director Ben Duffy's upcoming documentary, Take A Look At This Heart.
All of that dragging around the bed might seem aggressive, but it's necessary. Rockwood is paralysed from the neck down, which means that she can't move her body into sexual positions without her boyfriend's help. She's just one of several subjects in the film — some of them quadriplegic like Rockwood, some paraplegic (meaning that they have control of their upper bodies), and one amputee. The movie delves into the lives of each person, examining what it looks like for them to date, have sex, find love, and build families.
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The take-away message is clear: Just because someone is in a wheelchair, or only has one leg, or can't move their arms, doesn't mean that they can't or don't want to have sex.
"Being a quadriplegic doesn't stop me. Being paralysed doesn't stop me from being in a relationship or being physical, or making love if I'm with the right person," Rockwood says in the film. "Because if I'm with the right person, I don't even feel like I'm paralysed."
Rockwood spoke with Refinery29 about what it's been like for her to date, have sex, and find love while in a wheelchair. Read our conversation below.
How did you get involved with Take A Look At This Heart?
"I met Ben [Duffy] on another project for the disabled community. When I was asking him about what it's like for him, an able-bodied person, diving into this world, he told me about a gentleman who was in a chair and talked to him about sexuality in the disabled community. I said, 'Oh my gosh Ben, you need to do a movie about this.' No one wants to talk about sex in a wheelchair. It’s taboo. They’re too scared.
"He was hesitant at first, but every time I saw him I said, 'You need to do this. We need to get it out there to educate and bring life to this.' It’s been an amazing journey for him. I've seen a transformation — as an abled-bodied man he had his perspective of sexuality and love in the disabled community. Then he saw all types of people in a new light. A mind stretched by new ideas can never return to its original dimensions, you know? He came to my house a month ago and he showed me the film and it was beautiful. Very touching and beautiful. There are no words."
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Why do you think talking about sex as a differently-abled person is so taboo? Why hasn’t anyone done a movie quite like this before?
"People have tried to execute it. There have been one or two directors who’ve talked to me, but maybe someone hasn’t done it because it wasn’t put in their path like it was for Ben or maybe the funding wasn't there. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen.
"We did do a little bit of this work on my show Push Girls, by trying to put the 'real' back in reality. We wanted to show that people who use wheelchairs are still humans and we still yearn for love. I wasn't born with my disability. I was injured in car accident 17 years ago. Before that I was an athlete, a speed demon, and a runner. I loved motorcycles and I loved sex with my husband. What people don’t understand is that you’re this sexual being at your core and then all of a sudden something happens that paralyses you and that doesn’t change who you are overnight. The first thing I thought when I was in the hospital was 'How am I going to make love to my husband?' There’s no book on that."
So you had no resources to teach you what sex would look like for you moving forward?
"In rehab they show you a sex video that's very outdated. It has this Richard Simmons-esque, '80s quality to it and shows positions for an able-bodied man with a quadriplegic woman, or a quadriplegic man with an able-bodied woman. There are no same-sex couples or information for couples where both partners are in a chair.
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"There has been this stereotype, maybe because of media, that being in a chair isn't sexy. If I ask you right now when’s the last time you saw a movie with a disabled man or woman in a loving relationship, you probably couldn't think of anything. There isn’t that image of a woman in a chair being sexy. There wasn’t anything out there that gave you that idea. I think in most people’s minds, if you’re paralyzed they're wondering 'How can they have sex?'"
Right. Like you said, it was the first thing you thought of when you were in the hospital.
"Yeah, that was the very first thing. Sexual intimacy is something that's extremely important to me. I don't see sex as just physical, but also spiritual and emotional. Once you’re paralysed and you’re not as physical as you used to be, you wonder if your partner is going to yearn for what he had before. And you think, how are you going to give him that now that you're paralysed?
"But then you find other ways. I’m paralysed from the neck down, so I don’t have dexterity in my hands. If I can't open my hands up to caress my boyfriend's face, then I’m going to grab his head and caress it with my cheek or forehead or lips. You learn to adapt. And that goes with love making, too. I couldn't do what I did before, but with the help of my partner I’m able to enjoy sex."
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How has dating been for you? Have partners been able to adapt with you?
"Everyone’s journey is different because every body is different. I’m paralysed from the neck down. Ali Stroker, another woman in the documentary, is paraplegic, which means that she has use of her upper body. But why is that any different from having sex with able-bodied women? Each girl is going to make love differently.
"I don’t want to sound cocky or arrogant, but a joke that I always say is 'I don't have a problem with men — when I was walking or now.' For me, dating has never been a problem. I was injured soon after I got married and was married for 12 years. After my divorce, I started dating again. So I have the perspective of being an abled-bodied person dating, being a paralysed person in a marriage, being quadriplegic and dating, and finding a new love.
"I don’t look at my disability as a problem or an issue when I'm dating. I just date and tell the men I meet what’s up. It’s not easy and I do have to do things differently, but I break it down for them and let them know that what you see is what you get. And then in the bedroom, it’s the same thing. I tell them what I need and what I like."
You and your partner must have incredible communication.
"We do! And I think that's also important in able-bodied relationships. Communication is key. In how many relationships out there do people actually ask their partners 'What do you like? How do you like it? Do you like this or do you like that?' I don’t have a problem exploring or telling my partners what works or doesn't. I’m not a paraplegic, so I can't transfer or get on top. That means I have to explain to the person I’m with how we’re going to do it.
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"So my partner has to be someone who has room for growing, understanding, and learning. Someone’s who's willing to be open and to listen to what I need. So yes, the guys I’ve been with have been very easy to listen and learn and we’ve never had a problem. That’s my journey."
What would you want to say to other differently-abled women who may be looking for love or sex?
"You have to love yourself first. You have to be comfortable with yourself first. Women who become disabled, we’re in a society that teaches us that being a woman is being beautiful and sexy and graceful and full of poise. So as soon as you become disabled now you cannot move or walk or sashay. Now you can’t be sexy in the way you’ve been taught. That can depress them and break down self-confidence.
"If you’re quadriplegic, like I am, then you can’t move and people have to do things for you. Some individuals forget who they are, but some people embrace who they are from within and accept themselves — that’s when your world will transform. The taboos that people feel, the hang-ups they have with their bodies, it all starts with loving themselves. It's about seeing a person as who they are from within — their heart. That’s why it’s Look At This Heart."
See behind-the-scenes footage of Take A Look At This Heart on the project's Indiegogo page, and look out for the documentary in upcoming film festivals.
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