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Talking About Sex and Disability With Cartoonist A. Andrews

Having 'The Talk' isn't easy. A new comic book guide is changing that.

by Gretchen Brown
July 9, 2020 | Love

Disabled people have sex.

But their sexuality isn't always visible. Largely left out of sex education and rarely represented in TV, movies and books, conversations about sex and disability can be awkward and tense.

A. Andrews, a queer, parapalegic cartoonist based in Minneapolis, is changing that.

In their comic book, A Quick and Easy Guide to Sex and Disability, they write about sex, gender identity and communication in a way that's practical and honest, illustrated by bodies of all shapes, sizes, colors and abilities.

It isn't quite a how-to guide to sex. It's more of a book about communication, how to figure out what works and what doesn't.

"Communicating your needs, expectations and anxieties isn't easy — for anyone," Andrews writes.

"But talking about sex with partners, peers and health professionals can feel particularly difficult when you're disabled."

Rewire talked with Andrews about writing and drawing the book, education as justice and starting tough conversations.

a page from "A Quick and Easy Guide to Sex and Disability"
Credit: Oni Press

The book is written through your first person point of view. Why did you decide to take that approach? 

I wanted it to feel really conversational and approachable. I think a lot of disability texts and conversations surrounding disability can be really kind of sterile and stiff. I just wanted to pull back from that and have a more real conversation. I also didn't really want to come with this authoritarian kind of voice. I wanted to not really host it, but be at the table.

Your Autostraddle webcomic is written with a similar tone. What inspires your style and voice as a cartoonist? 

My background is actually in art therapy. I did a lot of community work as my day job. I've always been into comics and art-making on my own, but I think I got really into writing personal narratives out of what I was doing in my day-to-day job. I'm asking people to share pieces of their life with me or with a group or with their community. And so I think I wanted to be a little bit more intentional in my exploration of doing that. 

Talking about identity is always personal, and sometimes we put the general out there or the generic, and then you sort of become this talking piece for a really large group of people. And that really overwhelmed me.

Disability is such a huge umbrella that it felt the most authentic and the most impactful to just speak from my own experiences and my own place in the community, and hope that it resonates and helps people to join that conversation and talk about it from their point of view.

A page from A Quick and Easy Guide to Sex and Disability. REWIRE PBS Love Disability
Credit: Oni Press

You mention in the book that there are multiple types of disabilities and that they all present differently and intersect and lead to different worldviews. Was it challenging to reflect all these identities and make a book that spoke to all of them, and how were you able to do that? 

Well, yes and no. I think the "quick and easy" part of the book definitely made it a challenge. Having a community under an umbrella that's just massive, there's always going to be an instance where maybe a topic you really wanted wasn't approached or talked about in full. 

The book really focuses a lot on communication as the major overarching theme. That is mainly because it applies to everyone, and everybody can take at least a tiny sliver of information from that and apply it to their practice. 

The reality is that I experience disability in one way that might be polar opposite from someone else's experience. And so I wanted to give validation and honor that, but also not overstep my position, not speak to something that I really just have no idea how I would navigate that specific identity or experience. So I just tried to be open about what I felt like I could confidently relay to my community.

At the beginning of the book, you mention that disabled folks are less likely to receive adequate sex education and sexual health information and more likely to experience trauma. Do you view this book as a form of justice work?

I really hope that it's used as some sort of justice work. In the grand scheme of what's needed, it's a very, very small piece. But those small pieces tend to be elevated and magnified in this way when there's really nothing that's accessible. I think my goal with it was to find a really simplified way of speaking to something that might be a little more niche. 

I think that disabled people are looking for this content and hopefully finding it in some kind of realm of the internet or somewhere in the world with all the other people who are doing that work. But I don't think that non-disabled people are even looking for it. 

I think that a lot of people think that sex isn't really something on the table for people within the disability community. And so it's not really super important. (This book is) bright, it's colorful, it's drawn and it's cheap. You know, I wanted it to just exist in this really easy, palatable kind of experience. 

a page from sex and disability by a Andrews. rewire pbs love disability
Credit: Oni Press

Your cartoons represent bodies and identities that I'm not really used to seeing in books about sex education.

Drawing the bodies was both the easiest and the hardest part. Obviously it's a cartoon, but I didn't want them to be cartoony. I wanted people's bodies to feel like a reflection of how people's bodies might exist in the world.

And so I very much aimed to have bodies at different sizes, have bodies with different disabilities, have somebody that looks like they may or may not be disabled. It was really important to me to flip the script, but also to show that fine line of like, you're not being cartooned, this isn't a silly version of anyone. It's equally not an exploitative version of anyone.

I didn't want to censor folks' bodies, because I think that we hide disabled bodies, we act like they don't exist. So I definitely wanted them to be front and center and exist, but I also didn't want to exploit them and put them in any kind of compromising or sensational positions, or have questionable content or voyeurism around bodies.

The central point of the book is that talking about sex is really hard. That seems like something that could resonate for anybody reading it.

I think that sex is hard for anyone to talk about. I think it's something that we as a society raise people to feel really shamey and weird about. But I think with that added layer of a disability identity, you know, disabled people are sort of treated like their needs are extra. 

If you have a need and you express that need as a disabled person, you're sort of treated like that's additional, like an excess need. Whereas we don't really talk about the fact that all people need things. 

And so I think that in a sex conversation, talking about your needs or your boundaries or your body with a potential partner just feels like you're asking your partner to work for you. It's this extra piece that feels really hard to ask someone. 

And so I really wanted to make sure that that was known and felt that everybody's got these boundaries, and you may or may not know what they are. Everybody has things that they need or want, or don't know if they want or don't know if they need, and just figuring out better ways to navigate conversations. It's just gonna lead to having the sex that you want. 

I can't give you a magical toy, but I can give you the tools to talk about what you need. 

Is there a takeaway that you want readers to have? 

Definitely that it is the beginning of a conversation and not the conversation. I hope that it's a very useful resource, and I definitely think that it packs a lot of information into a tiny amount of space, but there is that reality that it's introductory and it's basic and it's simplified, and there's more work. There are more things out there than the things I write in a 70-page book.

I always wanted something like this when I was younger. I hope this is something that just becomes easy to find, easy to see, and that can lead you into those bigger conversations and into finding things that really work for you.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brownis an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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