Alex Cowan is a promoter of disability awareness and equality, writer, performer, speaker and spokesperson on sex and disability. In May of this year she posed naked for Good Housekeeping magazine in nothing but her wheelchair as part of a piece on womens’ body positivity from a range of perspectives. She talks to The Havelock Clinic about body image, sex and adjusting to changes in our sex lives over time.
You’ve had to adjust to a change in how your body works over the years, which has given you a unique perspective on how we as women think about our bodies. What advice would you give your younger self about body image in relation to sex?
I once saw a play where two women were talking to each other. They were in their 60s, and were saying that they spent so much time when they were younger thinking they were not attractive, not interesting enough, not sexy enough and now they look back on how they were in their 20s so regretful about how much time they wasted on these thoughts which they can now see were not how they were. They look at their younger self and see how they were attractive, interesting and sexy enough. Don’t waste time thinking that you are less than when you are really not!
So true. We are often fed an idea about this in the media also, which can lead so many of us to have real worries about our bodies, which can then get in the way of us enjoying sex. What’s your experience or advice about this?
Sex is not like in the films! You don’t have to have a perfect body for someone to want to have sex with you. It’s not important to be “beautiful” or have massive tits or a big cock or a flat stomach or perfect pecs at all for someone to desire or lust after you or indeed like or love you. You don’t have to be perfect to be attractive and be loved, and the secret is nobody’s perfect and that’s the fun and interesting bit.
When I developed continence issues I was very resistant and fearful and upset about dealing with them. I thought that nobody would want to have sex with me, that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy sex. I felt depressed about my life. But when I eventually faced my fears after 2 years of crying and agonising and dealt with it by having a suprapubic catheter the reality was so different from what I feared. Reality can be so different from what we fear, so much better, positive, liberating and empowering.
You famously posed for a photoshoot with celebrity photographer Alistair Morrison siting nude in your wheelchair (in the style of the iconic photos of Christine Keeler sitting astride a wooden Arne Jacobsen chair nude) for the Leonard Cheshire Organisation. What inspired you, and what were the effects of doing something likes this on your relationship with your body?
I had the idea to do the photoshoot as I really wanted to turn an iconic image of sexiness on it’s head to raise the question ‘What is sexy? What is attractive?’ in relation to mainstream representations of body types. In truth, in the run up to doing it, I cried when I looked at myself in the mirror. Although I was aware that MS had changed my body a bit I hadn’t really looked at myself naked for some time, and I felt a clash between what I was seeing and how I viewed myself in my mind. It was a difficult time and really had me questioning whether I was still sexually attractive.
The process of the photoshoot was hugely cathartic, turning this on it’s head. I started to really reconnect with the fact that I am a sexy, attractive woman. It was a great process and I’m really pleased I did it. In fact, when I look at it, it boosts my confidence. It reminds me that I am attractive, sexy and have value.
What are your tips for keeping a sex life good over time, in the context of changes that all of our bodies go through, but also for those who might be facing extra challenges?
Firstly, remembering that things you like and want to do with sex and your sexuality can change from year to year, from week to week, from day-to-day and that’s completely normal. Some things will stay the same and some things you might want to change. What’s important is to be clear, consensual and direct about what you would and wouldn’t like. That’s the main key to it, communication.
Communicate with others and with yourself. Explore, experiment but be safe and consensual and if at first you try something and it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean it won’t ever, so try again. Or you might experiment and really know that that is not right for you and that’s okay, don’t do it again and move on.
Sometimes we are limited by our own beliefs, try to explore these openly, so for example don’t think you can’t do something just because you’re disabled, look at how you might be able to do it. Seek help, talk to people in the same situation as you, read things, go to talks or lectures. I have often made the mistake of thinking I can’t do something or that it isn’t the done thing to do XYZ, and then years later I hear about other people doing it and I realise I could have done it and I wish I had.
Try to be as compassionate to yourself as you’d be to a friend who was confiding in you. What would you say to them? Would you tell them it was their fault? That no-one would ever want them again? That it was a big disaster? No? Try and afford yourself the same care and understanding.
What would you tell your younger self about sex?
Never let yourself be pressurised into not using protection and barrier protection by people saying things like “I really don’t like condoms…” Or “.. you are on the pill so you can’t get pregnant so it doesn’t matter…” Or “… I don’t sleep around so it’ll be fine..” etc. Any person who will only have sex with you without protection is not worth having sex with.
It might not go smoothly the first time at all or even the 2nd time or the 3rd!
Sex can be all kinds of things; messy, wonderful, not that brilliant, exciting, confusing, and enjoyable. If you want to have sex, enjoy it and express yourself in a way that feels good for you!
Alex Cowan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Alistair Morrison, in partnership with Leonard Cheshire.
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