This paper traces the development of Mark O’Brien’s sexual and romantic life in his memoir How I became a Human Being. To explore this topic effectively, I will use Tobin Siebers’ disability theory to shed light on the effects of O’brien’s disability on his sexual and romantic life using the ideology of disability. In addition, I will identify and discuss his feelings about love and sex. Finally, yet importantly, I will explore the challenges he faces as a disabled man trying to explore his sexuality.
The Development of O’Brien’s Sexual and Romantic Life
O’Brien became disabled at the age of six after suffering from polio. The disease paralyzed him and confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In addition, he had to use an iron lung to breathe. From an early age, O’Brien is terrified about his sexuality. As he tells us in his memoir, nobody close to him ever mentioned sex or discussed sexuality with him (O’Brien, 34). His parents disapproved of sexuality in general. The attitude he develops about sex is that people should never think about sex. Therefore, he grows up with a deep fear of sex and sexuality. Nevertheless, since he is a human being, he experiences moments of sexual pleasure sometimes during his bed baths. However, these feelings of sexual arousal mortify him and leave him feeling guilty. He cannot discuss orgasms with his attendants because he feels ashamed of having such feelings.
As O’Brien goes through adolescence and finally adulthood, he is still a virgin in his thirties. This is because of his deep inner fear and embarrassment about his sexuality. He feels his sexual feelings are a curse from God and should be avoided. Many of his friends have already started exploring their sexuality, but O’Brien remains adamant. Finally, he discovers that the only things that separate him from his friends exploring their sexuality are the fear of others, fear of his sexuality, and a surpassing dread for his parents (O’Brien, 67).
He is terrified to discuss with Sondra his sexual feelings about seeing a surrogate who would help him overcome the fear of his sexuality. This is because he feels that a person who is not a doctor will be horrified at seeing his deformed body. According to Siebers in his book Disability Theory, ‘the ideology of disability is in its simplest the preference for the able-bodiedness’ (24). He explains that “…it defines the baseline at which humanness is determined, setting the measure of body and mind that gives or defines human status to individual persons’ (Siebers, 24). In this case, O’Brien feels that he is a lesser human being because of his disability, which has changed him into someone who is not able-bodied.
Even when considering seeing a sex surrogate, he gets terrified when he becomes apprehensive of what his mother and God would think of him. When he finally gathers the courage to call the center on sexuality and disability, the terror still overcomes him such that he is so relieved when he is told that the center has closed. However, when he watches a television talk show, he gains little confidence in sex surrogates and decides to try without informing Sondra. His courage is further boosted when he talks to Susan, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy. Later, Susan directs him to Cheryl, the sex surrogate. In this connection, he believes his sexual desires were legitimate.
When Cheryl agrees to be his sex surrogate, O’Brien is initially very nervous. All this self-doubt confronts him because of his disability. He wonders if Cheryl will flee after seeing his deformed body or if she will change her mind after seeing him. During his first session with Cheryl, his shame, terror, and nervousness about his body are evident. He is afraid when she asks to undress him. His feelings of terror also surface when he starts expecting God or his parents to keep him from lying in bed with a naked woman. His confidence is boosted by Cheryl’s positive comments about his body, and for the first time, he learns that sex is just a part of ordinary living and not an activity reserved for Gods and Goddesses (O’Brien, 76).
O’Brien is so happy when Cheryl tells him he deserves to be loved. As Siebers notes in Disability Theory, ‘for the ideology of ability makes us fear disability, requiring that we imagine our bodies are of no consequence while dreaming at the same time, we might perfect them (18). O’Brien imagines that people fear his disability because they find him repulsive. Eventually, he discovers that it is important to him to feel able-bodied.
The next time he meets Cheryl, he appears more relaxed and confident (O’Brien, 132). This time, he is quite relaxed when undressed and feels less afraid and embarrassed. However, he panics the first time they try sexual intercourse because he feels he cannot fit into the act. Actually, this is more of a fear of succeeding or proving himself to be an adult. In fact, low esteem lowers his self-confidence. He is so humiliated that he spends the next few days pondering what is wrong with him. When Cheryl holds him in a mirror, he sees his manhood for the first time since he became disabled. O’Brien is surprised to see how normal he is, and this helps him accept the reality of his sexuality.
O’Brien tries to communicate his romantic feelings to Tracy, who is a friend, but he feels rejected when she does not reciprocate. He feels she cannot notice or love him because of his disability. However, the next time he sees Cheryl, he can succeed in anything he sets out to do, for instance, having sexual intercourse. This success gives him a profound feeling of happiness and the realization that he could give pleasure to someone instead of always being the recipient. Therefore, this stage becomes the highest peak of his sexual maturity. As Siebers says in Disability Theory, overcoming disability is an event that should be celebrated because it is an ability in itself to overcome disability.
O’Brien’s Feelings about Love and Sex
Initially, O’Brien feels that sex is something that should not be talked about or felt. He tries as much as possible to suppress his feelings of sexual desire. Whenever he is aroused sexually, he feels either embarrassed or guilty about it. This is partly due to how his parents bring him up and make him feel repulsed for his sexuality. On the other hand, he does not feel sexually desirable because of his disability, and thus, he imagines that other people feel repulsed sexually by him.
These feelings make him see himself as a lesser human being, as Siebers explains in his Disability Theory. ‘Ability is the baseline by which humanness is determined, the lesser the ability, the lesser the human being’ (26). Therefore, it is no doubt that while in his thirties, O’Brien is still a virgin. Even though he falls in love with Tracy, O’Brien tries to suppress his feelings because, in his imagination, Tracy cannot love someone physically unattractive. Surprisingly, he feels he cannot receive love because of his disability.
When he finally starts seeing Cheryl, O’Brien still feels inferior about being loved sexually by someone. Slowly by slowly, Cheryl works on his low self-esteem by making him believe that he is attractive and loveable. She is patient with him as he struggles through his terror, fear, and shame of his sexuality. She comments positively about his appearance and does not appear repulsed by his looks and sexuality. As Siebers correctly notes in his theory of ability, ‘It affects nearly all our judgments, definitions and values about human beings, but because it is discriminatory and exclusionary, it creates social locations outside the critical of its purview, most notable in this case, the perspective of disability (22).
With time, O’Brien’s feelings about love and sex change positively when he feels desired and loved. Cheryl affirms to him that he deserves to be loved back, an act that makes him very happy. In fact, his happiest moment occurs when he can satisfy Cheryl sexually. At this moment, he transforms from a recipient of pleasure to a giver of pleasure. O’Brien no longer feels his disability, as Siebers notes in Disability Theory. ‘…the ideology of ability decries disability as what we flee in the past and hope to defeat in the future’ (22).
Challenges Faced by O’Brien as a Disabled Man Trying to Explore his Sexuality
O’Brien faces many challenges as a disabled man while trying to explore his sexuality. The first challenge that he faces is fear and terror of his sexuality. From an early age, his parents instilled this fear and terror into him. The fear makes him view his sexuality with guilt and repulsion. Each time he feels sexual arousal, he tries to suppress it or fight it away. Thoughts of guilt and terror about what his parents could think of him or the fact that he could incur the wrath of God in having such thoughts culminated in his being a virgin.
The second challenge O’Brien faces in exploring his sexuality is the presence of low self-esteem and a lack of confidence in his looks and sexuality. He feels that he is quite unattractive because of his disability. Hence, he never tries to overcome this challenge and finds himself a sexual partner until much later in life. He imagines that he is so sexually repulsive that members of the opposite sex, such as Tracy, can never consider him for a sexual partner. His self-confidence improves after consciously overcoming the fear of his looks. Consequently, he can take the big step of looking for a sex surrogate.
The other challenge O’Brien encounters in his quest to explore his sexuality is his physical disability. He is frustrated when he is stuck in the elevator on his way to see Susan and thus opts to have his meetings in places accessible by a wheelchair. He also has to ask his friends for a place to meet with Cheryl because he lacks a good bed in his house. His looks are also a contributing factor, just as Susan tells him it is quite difficult for a disabled person to be loved and find a sexual partner.
Lack of privacy is another challenge. Due to his disability, he has to ask for help from many people to fulfill his quest to explore his sexuality. When meeting with the surrogate, Dixie has to wheel him around and lay him on the bed. He asks to meet up with Cheryl at a friend’s house, and thus all these people are privy to what he is doing. Even the act of getting a sex surrogate has to be done through his therapist, thus leaving him with no privacy.
O’Brien, Mark, and Gillian Kendall. How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence. Madison, Wis.: U of Wisconsin, 2003. Print.
Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: Michigan, 2008. Print.