Paola Tommasello isn’t all about sex. She’s about ‘love ability’, a transformative movement to shatter the physical and social barriers that keep people with disabilities from a satisfying sex life. The 35-year-old knows the conundrum well: her arthritis makes certain movements extremely painful and sometimes impossible. Yet she doesn’t let it stand in the way of sex.
“Many think that having a disability, no matter if mental or physical, means not having sexual desires,” she explains. “In Italy, talking about sex is a huge taboo. In the disability world, it’s even bigger, because you have to overcome two barriers: the disability obstacles and the cultural blocks.”
When Paola started working as a psychologist and sex therapist, she quickly understood the struggle many people have in addressing basic issues—how to express and act on sexual desires, and how to build healthy sexual relationships. Particularly for individuals who can’t move properly or even touch themselves.
“Everybody thinks that penetration is the ultimate way to reach pleasure,” Paola says. “But even the talk can be a sex trigger. You have to experiment and have someone able to show you how to do it.” A few years ago, she started looking for other people who shared her understanding. Eventually she found Love Ability, a growing grassroots campaign to legalize and train sex assistants who can coach people with disabilities.
Max Ulivieri launched the movement in 2010 by co-authoring a book of the same name. The 46-year-old describes his physique as a Picasso painting: “Something you cannot understand at first sight, but extremely beautiful in its whole.” His rare neurological disorder, called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, attacked part of his muscles, and he needs a wheelchair to move around.
“I was tired of explaining that people like me have a right to sex,” he says. “I’m happily married to a ‘normal’ woman, but rarely do people with mental or physical illness have the self-confidence to think about sex as something they can actually do with a potential partner, instead of just repressing it.”
That’s where a sex assistant can help. People with disabilities may feel ugly, rejected, or sexually unattractive, and less inclined to explore and enjoy their sexual desires. In some European countries, like the Netherlands, sex educators help patients practice both mental and physical techniques for finding pleasure.
Max says he would love to train an Italian sex assistant who could help patients with everything but intercourse. An assistant, for instance, could teach someone who has struggled to masturbate or never tried before due to a lack of privacy. “A sex assistant can touch you to show how to do it for the first time,” he says.
By legalizing sex assistants, Max and his colleagues hope to create alternatives to paid sex and the murky world of family involvement that have been all too common in the disabled community. In the last two years, the team has drawn up guidelines for proper courses, and started selecting potential candidates for Italy’s first hands-on sex assistants. Courses are designed for people with backgrounds in psycho- logical, medical, or social assistance—although none of the participants can put their lessons to use until Italian policymakers adopt the law.
Anna, who didn’t want to use her last name, is one of the candidates who completed Love Ability’s tests. She acknowledges that the role of a sex educator is complicated, and often easily confused with a traditional sex worker. “We are here to educate on how to overcome what keeps a person away from sex and love,” she says, “not to become sex objects.”
Love Ability’s proponents say adopting a law and a clear set of rules will help differentiate between the two. The Italian Parliament initially welcomed the draft law in April 2014, but it was never brought to a debate.
While formal laws move slowly, nonphysical sex therapy can still do a lot for patients, Paola says. She recalls working with a couple a few years ago. The man and woman were in love, but both were in wheelchairs and unable to express this affection through intercourse. “I thought there was nothing to do for them, since neither had strength in their arms. But then I got the idea: they could use their hands and sex toys,” Paola says. “That was like a wonderful shock for them. Along with acknowledging that eroticism and sex have millions of different shades, so that even a caress can produce pleasure, this couple didn’t have to say goodbye to the most natural [pleasure] in the world.”