When Flirtation is a False Alarm

By Mark E. Smith

I was flipping through the television channels late one night, and came across an episode of the cartoon for grown-ups, Family Guy. What caught my attention was that there were two characters using wheelchairs in a night club, and the one character said to the other, “Get out there and dance with the ladies…. They love us guys in wheelchairs because we’re nonthreatening.”

There was a lot of truth to the character’s statement – but it also ties into an underlying mythology that surrounds those with disabilities in such mainstream dating scenes, that we’re flirtation magnets.

It’s interesting how often I hear those who are able-bodied note that those with disabilities attract all of the attention at bars and clubs from the opposite sex. And, it can prove strikingly true. In fact, you may have witnessed or experienced this phenomenon for yourself, where those with disabilities who possess outgoing, self-confident personalities have no problem getting others to seemingly flirt with them. And, if one with a disability is so inclined, one can often have a “hot one” dancing with him or her in no time, with some seemingly romantic advances involved. And, it, indeed, all ties back into what the character on Family Guy noted: Those with disabilities can come across so nonthreatening that strangers of the opposite sex in bars and clubs are quick to warm up to them in ways that they might not warm up to other strangers, where those with disabilities can seemingly get a lot of action, as the hip kids say.

Yet, what many observers don’t realize is that the dynamic that’s occurring is almost always an illusion, that the individual with the disability truly isn’t getting any sustainable action at all. Rather, individuals often simply act overtly friendly, sometimes flirtatious, but with very innocent motives, toward those with disabilities. Indeed, a woman in a bar might sit on a gentleman’s lap who uses a wheelchair, but she usually does so simply because she’s so comfortable and trusting of him – a striking contrast of intentions compared to if an able-bodied woman were to cozy up to an able-bodied man in such a way, where both may interpret it as a true physical advance. And, this is where the social confusion of mixed messages comes in for casual observers, as well as those with disabilities: The rules, in general, apply differently in such scenes for those with disabilities versus those without.

See, when two able-bodied individuals are flirting with each other in a bar all evening, it’s safe to assume that there’s a real mutual, romantic attraction, and they very well may end up “going home together.” Such a scenario is a sure sign of the courting rituals in our modern culture – or, more aptly, “hook-up culture” – that most people easily identify. Therefore, when most observe an individual flirting with someone with a disability, they apply this same “mainstream” standard, and assume that it’s the same courting ritual that they’ve experienced – that is, if someone appears overtly flirtatious toward one with a disability, they’re looking for more than a friendship, and romance and physical intimacy could likely occur.

Where misinterpretation comes in is that many people don’t realize that the “flirting dynamic” toward those with disabilities by those who are able-bodied is typically much different in such social settings than flirtation between those who are both able-bodied. Again, the reason why many are drawn to those with disabilities in a “pick-up scene” is because of the perceived nonthreatening nature of the individual with the disability. For example, if a woman is seeking a nonthreatening experience, she’ll often choose to give her attention to a man with a disability over able-bodied guys cruising a bar or club. This reality is based on the fact that, for better and for worse, men with disabilities in our culture simply aren’t perceived as sexually-aggressive, and many women in social scenes can find them as a sort of unintentional safety net, where women can seemingly flirt and have a great time without fearing the sexual expectations that they presume that able-bodied men have. (Of course, men with disabilities are just as sexual as most men – and not all able-bodied men are sexually aggressive, either! – but social stigmas and stereotypes prevent some from recognizing these facts.) This dynamic applies equally to women with disabilities, as well, where a man may act more chivalrous toward her out of kindness – or, dare I say, to appear sweeter to his real love interest – which can be misinterpreted by one with a disability as true flirtation.

And, it’s in the realm of nonthreatening interactions and mixed messages where disability-related mythology comes in. To the uninformed observer, an able-bodied person engaging with someone who has a disability in a club or bar – as with a woman sitting on a gentleman’s lap who uses a wheelchair –can unquestionably appear to be involved in a courting ritual. However, such appearances are usually deceiving. Based on remaining stereotypes and stigmas in our culture, it’s a monumental leap for most able-bodied individuals to go from being overtly friendly with a stranger who has a disability in a bar or club to having actual physical intimacy with him or her in one night. There are typically far too many implied unknowns for an able-bodied individual to engage in any sort of physical intimacy with one who has a disability after simply meeting him or her at a bar or club. Again, a woman, for example, who’s seeking nonthreatening company – or, possibly, simply to feel better about herself – in a bar or a club isn’t looking to go home with the guy with the disability who she’s socialized with for a few hours. Based societal views toward disability, it’s typically too big of intellectual leap for her to make in such a short amount of time – from the bar to the bedroom with one who has a disability – and, in most cases, actual physical intimacy isn’t even in her mind, where if questioned on her intentions, she’d sincerely tell you that she was simply being nice and having fun. In this way, observers – and those with disabilities, themselves – often confuse such scenarios as courting rituals, when they’re truly nothing more than one person being dramatically friendly and playful with another.

Whenever I encounter this dynamic, where a woman has seemingly flirted with me, and my friends are like, Dude, that chick was all over you!, I’m quick to honestly explain that, no, she wasn’t all over me, that she was simply was being friendly and playful – a very different experience than most of my able-bodied pals have known when women flirt with them, where the intentions are totally different. More so, as I’ve matured, I’ve become honest with myself, recognizing the profound difference between a woman simply being nice and playful – or, patronizing with her flirtation – and those who are truly interested in getting to know me as a person. And, I’ve developed very little tolerance for such antics as patronizing flirtation – I can read it for what it is, nonsense. I’d rather have a meaningful, quiet conversation with a woman as friends than have an intoxicated, overtly flirtatious woman put her hands on me for show in a bar (though, I’ve certainly done it in the past – out of bravado, insecurity, and immaturity).

Yet, I have friends with disabilities who buy into the whole illusion, using such skewed dynamics in bars and clubs to bolster their own egos – and, as I tell them, it’s pathetic and degrading to both people. If the able-bodied person tries to use one with a disability as a sort of safety net or patronized flirtation to make themselves feel better, and the person with the disability plays along to get whatever he or she can get, both people are playing each other – and someone is bound to lose in the end (usually the one with the disability who’s hoping to score, but ends up going home alone, without so much as a phone number!).

Now, I’m not saying that those with and without disabilities can’t fall in love or just “hook up” with each other – it happens all of the time. However, it’s vital to recognize that the courting rituals at the shallow end of the dating pool are different for those with and without disabilities – and we owe it to ourselves, as those with disabilities, not to misinterpret friendliness and misguided flirtation as a greater interest than it usually is. Be aware that the rules are different in such superficial social scenes for those with disabilities versus those without, know the dynamics, and don’t let anyone be fooled by them – especially yourself.

As I tell my buddies with disabilities, You have a terrific chance toward dating women who you interact with every day, where there’s a real understanding and connection. However, when it comes to “getting lucky” via random, overly-flirtatious chicks sitting on your lap in bars and clubs, not so much!