Henrietta Bollinger: Disabled dating and the shit she is tired of hearing

Photo Credit: Roxy Coervers at Paradox Photography

Writer and disability advocate Henrietta Bollinger (She/They) recently shared her experience on dating while disabled for Stuff podcast, What’s Wrong With You. So Nak-Ed reached out to Bollinger to get her thoughts on all things dating, relationships, sex, and the best pick-up line they’ve ever received.

What’s Wrong With You is a podcast produced by Stuff that explores the physical and social barriers that disabled people live with every day, and a world that’s not always accessible. WWWU is presented by Stuff digital producer Olivia Shivas and Paralympian Rebecca Dubber, and produced by entrepreneur Grace Stratton. As disabled women, they created the podcast to challenge the prevailing narrative around how disabled people are perceived and portrayed.

In Episode 4, Why are you so obsessed with my sex life? Disability and dating, The girls sat down with writer and disability advocate Henrietta Bollinger, who shared her experience on navigating the world of dating as part of the disabled community.

So, Henrietta sat down with Nak-Ed to expand on her interview and give us a little more insight into the complicated world of dating.

Q&A with HenriettaHenrietta Bollinger

So! You’re quite an advocate in the space for disability awareness, do you ever get people approaching you looking for advice on how to approach relations and dating when disabled?

I am! I’ve worked for various organisations in disability advocacy and I write about disability a lot. Relationships, dating and sexuality is an area I keep returning to because I don’t think they are talked about enough. I have spoken about it on the podcast Bang! as well as on What’s Wrong With You? I have written about it too.

Most of the conversations I have about relationships and dating are with other disabled people. To me, those conversations are the important ones because those are about how we as disabled people can get the most out of life, they’re not just non-disabled people’s curiosity, like – ‘“how does it work?” 

The conversations about sexuality that I enjoy go both ways. For example, where a friend, disabled or non-disabled is talking to me about some area of their sexuality that they are exploring as well as hearing about mine. It is a real privilege to have that kind of exchange. The more open about it I am the more I come across those conversations.

I undertook some research just out of uni about disabled people’s experience of Sex Ed. One interviewee asked me to share my own experience. I regret not being more prepared for that at the time so have been trying to get better at sharing since then.

The thing about sex though is that it often involves other people so there is a line there and a need to protect partner privacy and boundaries.  With me also getting ready for dates usually involves my support workers helping with dressing or transport so there are more people involved than there might be without disability. So it is always a balance.

You mentioned on the podcast about not wanting someone to ‘look past your disability’ when in a relationship, why is that important to you?

There is this idea in society that being disabled is “a bad thing” and something we should want to get away from. But it isn’t disabled people that need to change, the world around us should change to become easier for us to live and love in.

I want to be able to show my whole self to partners and be a proud disabled person.  I also want partners to be aware that there are complicated things about being disabled in the world that I am dealing with ableism every day.

Sometimes seeing that is part of being in my life. Not that I expect other people to carry it but with any relationship, friendship, sexual or romantic it is easier if people have thought about how the world works for me. For example, dates need to be accessible, people might assume my partner is a support worker or carer of mine rather than a lover,  that I have support workers, that there are things I can’t do. And in return, I would want to know what they need from me!

What is a question you’re sick of hearing when it comes to disability and dating?

Can you have sex? I feel like both disabled and non-people get caught up about this. I’d love if we assumed that disabled people can and then they can get on with figuring out how and what they like.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received when it comes to dating and relationships?

Two things. I remember worrying aloud to an early partner that I was inexperienced and they reminded me that it is a new thing and a different thing with every person. That was lovely of them because we had never been together before. That put us on an equal footing in terms of exploring what this was meant to be for us.

I also remember realising that good sex could be funny. Before I had sex I got very in my head wondering what it would be like and taking the whole idea very seriously. But it should be joyous and it is weird, you can laugh.

Do you think dating apps could be altered to be more user-friendly to those in the disabled community, if so, how?

For sure. It would depend on the person and their accessibility needs. I’m sure that image-heavy apps are tricky for blind people to access for example. It would be great for app designers to consult the disabled community.    

Personally, I don’t have trouble using standard apps apart from occasionally swiping the wrong way in my uncoordinated moments. For me, being able to Google places for dates and filter them on the basis of accurate accessibility information would be great.

In the podcast you mention disability allows you ‘experience your body differently’ when it comes to intimacy – Can you expand on that for those who may not understand or get to experience this?

As disabled people, we actually get a lot of practice talking about our bodies and how they work. But this usually happens in health and medical settings or other places where we are trying to get practical, everyday needs met.

It can be hard to shift our thinking from a practical context like showering or dressing which is unsexy and boring to something fun and sensual when some of the practical elements like needing someone to help you move or undress are the same.

It is about seeing the way we communicate about our bodies as a skill we have and taking that from general everyday life into talking about pleasure, desire and what we want.

I also mean that we often have to talk about our bodies and show our bodies to people we might not choose to, like doctors, or support workers.

Sexual expression is an opportunity to invite people we want to see our bodies and to enjoy them ourselves.  

Nak-Ed has quite a younger audience, many of who are just starting on their sexual and mental journeys – What is your advice for people looking to get more confident when it comes to dating and relationships while disabled?

All bodies are good bodies. Enjoy your body.  Explore what pleasure is for you. Buy a vibrator.  I also know that I’m lucky to only have had really safe and caring dating and sexual experiences.

One of the problems is that when young people feel excluded from sexuality and Sex Ed they might not listen to those parts of it that are about staying safe. If you don’t think it’s going to happen for you then it doesn’t feel relevant. That can put people in dangerous situations.

So, take safe risks. Only have dates in places that are properly accessible to you – where you can physically leave easily and on your own. Tell someone, a friend a family member a support worker where you are going. Use protection. Have fun!

Quickfire questions:

What is the best date you’ve ever been on?

I haven’t been on it yet – I have had some very cute times along the way.

What is the worst way someone has tried to pick you up on a dating app?

One poor person wanted me to come over but they hadn’t thought about the fact their house had stairs. And I didn’t want to do all the accessibility problem solving on my own. So that didn’t work out.

What is your quickest way to build up self-confidence before a date?

Gin. Or dancing to Motown.

What is your go-to pick-up line OR the best one you’ve heard?

I got told my eyes “shouldn’t be legal” the other day. That was cute.




You can check out Henrietta’s writing over on Amplify by clicking here.