Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"There’s a knowing humour to it which will resonate with disabled viewers … but other people should see the funny side too, and will, one hopes, not be too nervous to laugh along."

It’s the most peculiar thing to ask a stranger, especially one in whom one has no direct interest of that sort, and yet most visibly disabled people have been confronted with it at one time or another: “Can you have sex?” The proper response is, of course, “Being possessed of such a deficit of imagination, can you? But for anyone who still wonders how it all works, and has the good grace not to demand answers from people at random, there is this film.

It screened as part of Newfest 2023, and if that also seems curious to you, you might note that the LGBTQ+ community has long made space for disabled people, partly because some people are both but also because it recognises our outsider status where sex is concerned, and the ways in which, historically, we have had to fight for the opportunity to engage in sexual relationships – indeed, some people still do. One woman here explains how, when she needed the services of a gynaecologist, her mother insisted on accompanying her and was shocked to learn that she was not a virgin, even though she was in her forties at the time. A young man discusses the way that interfering parents prevented him and his girlfriend from consummating their relationship, and how he longs to lose his virginity with someone he likes, as anyone else his age might.

Other difficulties of this type come under the microscope here – practical challenges which most people probably never think about, such as how to go to bed together when both of you need the help of an abled person to get undressed. One man mentions how irritating it is when people step in uninvited to do things for disabled people which they can easily do themselves, diminishing their agency, yet filmmaker Daniel Gonçalves recognises that there’s a flip side to this, as, at intervals, we return to another frustrated individual who is trying unsuccessfully to open a condom packet. There’s a knowing humour to it which will resonate with disabled viewers who have experienced similar difficulties, but other people should see the funny side too, and will, one hopes, not be too nervous to laugh along.

“I bet not many people in this room have been with a disabled person,” says one man, as if he thinks it’s always obvious, when of course it isn’t – if you’ve had more than four or five sexual partners then the chances are that at least one of them was disabled, whether you noticed it or not. Indeed, another contributor’s response to that suggestion is a simple “Hasn’t everyone?” Omnivorous in sexual appetite and by no means missing out because of their own disability, they proceed to rank categories of sexual partner on a scale from cisgender men to disabled people, with the latter being the most imaginative.

There are definite sexual advantages to some kinds of disability, says a man who grins and laughs when explaining that several women have taken an interest in the narrow, tapering stump of his left arm. If you’ve got it, why not flaunt it? But for others, there is a deep wariness about those who fetishise disability. A man with dwarfism reflects on the experience of being an experiment for some men – how it bothered him but he accepted it because he was horny and wanted to fuck. At some point, he says, he got over the teenage phase of wanting people to want his body, and started to want people to want him as a person. It’s a neat summation of an experience which many people go through in one way or another, and it illustrates the kind of insight which people with non-normative bodies often arrive at earlier in life simply as a result of being exposed to aspects of human behaviour which are more effectively concealed in other circumstances.

Although some topics are notably absent, such as the challenges presented by poor health, mental illness or extreme physical fragility, the film manages to address a huge range of issues, and to do so in a colourful and entertaining way. The serious problems (mostly caused by prejudice, some of it intersectional) are not overlooked, but the focus is on self-realisation and pleasure. As one woman talks about how her early encounters with feminism made her feel excluded due to its focus on women achieving liberation through independence, something which will never be possible for her, there is again that focus on how disabled people need to find their own ways of doing things and be much more innovative. This includes political aspects of sexual expression such as redefining beauty, which Gonçalves addresses with dance sequences, one performed naked on a stage and the other scantily clad in a public square.

What is beauty to a blind person? The stuff of endless jokes, too often, and yet one participant here does an elegant job of articulating the way that she finds beauty in the sound of a voice, in touch, in the way somebody smells. It’s the kind of description which may leave you reeling at the thought of what you’ve been missing if you’ve only ever thought in terms of sight. Elsewhere, the film reminds us of the important role which imagination also plays for people with sensory impairments, as we watch a blurred, shadowy scene and hear an audio captioner trying to describe what is evidently pornography in a neutral, professional tone, to hilarious effect.

It’s all framed through poetry, fierce and uncompromising. Sex is, for most people, a vital aspect of what it means to be human. Reclaiming sexuality is an important part of the process of reclaiming humanity in an ableist society. So how do we have sex? As Gonçalves makes clear, enthusiastically and often. If you want to know more than that, ask your mum.

Reviewed on: 13 Oct 2023
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A documentary which aims to break open the conversation around sexual life in the disabled community.

Director: Daniel Gonçalves

Writer: Daniel Gonçalves

Starring: Giovanni Venturini, Lelê Martins, Estela Lapponi, Luca Munhoz, Cida Leite, Amanda Soares, Dudé, Clara Sasse

Year: 2023

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: Brazil

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