An Interview With Dr Tuppy Owens; Human capabilities and supporting disabled people with their sexual lives

Dr Tuppy Owens has long been a part of disabled peoples communities supporting everyone’s right to a sexual life. This interview with the pioneer of The Outsiders Club shares some of the frank work which she has been involved in and the issues which she thinks about.  The disabled community is more often than not disabled by societal attitudes more than anything else.


Dr Tuppy Owens
Dr Tuppy Owens

Human sexuality has evolved to provide us with the unique capacity to enjoy pleasure on many levels – from long term intimate relationships and erotic play with the person we love, to all kinds of other fun including self-pleasuring. Females even evolved to have larger breasts and males larger penises. It would be great to think that we could all be making the most of our delightful opportunities.


That disabled people are so often left out is both sad and unnecessary. I have always believed that if a person cannot see, or cannot hear, or cannot walk – in fact, whatever their impairment – they can still enjoy sexual pleasure.


All professionals agree that it is essential that disabled people be encouraged to enjoy whatever they can in life, and it is now becoming widely recognized that this includes their sexuality.


It is particularly inhumane to deny disabled people sexual pleasures in their live, when other pleasures have been taken away from them, and I am shocked every time I hear such complaints from disabled people.


When I started to work with the disabled members of Outsiders, they were delighted with my openness, encouraging them to find what they craved. This, sadly, gave me a ‘bad reputation’ which as taken decades to shake off. It is thus a gift from heaven that Jessica Kingsley Publishers have commissioned me to write this book in my own style of sexual candidness…


The above is taken from the preface of Tuppy Owens’ book ‘Supporting Disabled People With Their Sexual Lives; A clear guide for health and social care professionals‘ (ISBN: 978 1 84905 396 9). I have started to work with her to develop social events for the Outsiders community in Edinburgh as I like the tireless and unapologetic way she champions the sexual lives of people.



Here is an interview with Dr Tuppy Owens:


Tuppy Owens has been recognised for her work on various fronts:

Winner of the Innovation Award of Sexual Health and Human Rights UNESCO 2015
Finalist (Lifetime Achievement) in the Directory of Social Change Awards 2015
Winner of Lifetime Achievement Award from the European Lifestyles Awards 2015


Knowing some small part of the difficulty of getting out and about, and doing many things in life that some take for granted helps me be able to understand why there is a necessity to try and do something for those who don’t have provision in their life. Edinburgh, where I live, has many good things, but for people who need level access (i.e. entrance into a building which doesn’t involve steps or stairs) it can be a very isolating landscape.



When we are isolated – by whatever means – we don’t get the opportunity to form the relationships which we want, nor answer the needs we might have, including the needs of our sexuality. In is in this context that people like Tuppy Owens facilitate important connections for people in a disconnected world.


CeDR Disability Conference


I first started thinking about this as an issue when taking part in a Disability Studies Conference at Lancaster University which took place from 6th – 8th September 2016 .


I was doing a poster presentation and had been offered a sponsored place to attend and take part. The people at Lancaster are doing an excellent job of opening the doors wide to everyone to take part in knowledge production…


Anyway, one of the keynote addresses was by a guy called Don Kulick, Professor of Anthropology at Uppsala University in Sweden. His presentation was called ‘Fucked: sex, disability and the ethics of engagement’, and along with so many of what was shared there, was deeply profound and addressed an important issue which needed attention across society. Here is his abstract:


“Twenty years after the groundbreaking book The Sexual Politics of Disability astonishingly little social science research there is still on the sexual lives of people with disabilities. My talk will discuss some of the reasons for that lack, and will present findings from Loneliness and its Opposite a recent comparative study of sexuality and disability in Sweden and Denmark (Kulick and Rydström 2015). I will discuss how the sexual lives of adults with significant disabilities are facilitated in Denmark, and how they are impeded in Sweden. I will argue that access to sexuality for disabled people is not a right; it is an issue of fundamental social justice.”


It was blistering and got under my skin because I could empathize and understand the perspectives he was communicating. I related to the Human Capabilities view of Martha Nussbaum, someone who has deeply impacted on the way I view the world, and I related to the need for sexual agency in my own life.


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So Nussbaum suggests: “When thinking about fundamental rights, I would argue that the best way of thinking about what it means to secure them to people is to think in terms of capabilities”. As a practical matter she has brought together a list which she describes as open-ended and which no doubt will undergo further modification in the light of criticism. To get the conversation going, here is the list of the Central Human Capabilities:


1. Life:  Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.

2. Bodily Health:  Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.

3. Bodily Integrity:  Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.

4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought:  Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.

5. Emotions:  Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)

6. Practical Reason:  Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)

7. Affiliation:

A:  Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political

B:  Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin.

8.  Other Species: Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
9.  Play: Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

10.  Control over One’s Environment:

A. Political:  Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.

B. Material:  Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.


Loneliness and its Opposite

So, impressed by what Don Kulick expressed about thinking through Bodily Integrity, being able to move freely from place to place and having opportunities for sexual satisfaction, I got hold of his book ‘Loneliness and its Opposite’ which he co-authored with Prof Jens Rydstrom of Lund University, Sweden.


After more thinking, I got in touch with Dr Tuppy Owens to see what was to be done to lend a hand to facilitating social events in the Edinburgh and Manchester areas. To finish off, here is some info from the back of Loneliness and its Opposite:


“Few people these days would oppose making the public realm of space, social services, and jobs accessible to women and men with disabilities. But what about access to the private realm of desire and sexuality ? How can one also facilitate access to that, in ways that respect the integrity of disabled adults, and also of those people who work with and care for them ?


Loneliness and Its Opposite documents how two countries generally imagined to be progressive engage with these questions in very different ways. Denmark and Sweden are both liberal welfare state, but they diverge dramatically when it comes to sexuality and disability. In Denmark, the erotic lives of people with disabilities are acknowledged and facilitated. In Sweden, they are denied and blocked. Why do these differences exist, and how do both facilitation and hindrance play out in practice ?


Loneliness and Its Opposite charts complex boundaries between private and public, love and sex, work and intimacy, and affection and abuse. It shows how providing disabled adults with access to sexual lives is not just crucial for a life with dignity. It is an issue of fundamental social justice with far reaching consequences for everyone….


This all said, is sex alone enough ?

All considerable food for thought about what part we are playing !