Sex and Physical Disabilities
There is really only one thing that you need to know about sex and physical disability…
People with physical disabilities have sex, too.
Beyond that, it’s pretty much impossible to generalize.
The term "physical disability" covers a huge range of conditions – from spina bifida to blindness to epilepsy, just to name a few. Some people are born with a physical disability; others acquire one later in life. In fact, most people, if they live long enough, will experience a disability of some kind before they die. Disabilities can be so mild that they don’t have any effect on day-to-day life, or so severe that they require full-time care and assistance.
So there are very few things that apply to all people with physical disabilities. In fact, the main thing they have in common is that they have to deal with other people’s stereotypes and prejudices.
One common stereotype is that people with physical disabilities just aren't sexual. Media images of people with disabilities often present them as pathetic or child-like. Even images that are supposed to be more positive can have the same effect – "saintly" or "heroic" doesn’t always fit well with "just plain horny."
Of course, some people with physical disabilities, just like some people without disabilities, may choose to be celibate for part or all of their lives. And some conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome may reduce interest in sex, at least temporarily. But there isn’t anything about having a disability that magically prevents someone from having sexual feelings. People with physical disabilities feel desire and lust just like anyone else. They are sexual just like anyone else.
The other common myth is that, if people with physical disabilities do have sexual feelings, then they must go around in a permanent state of sexual frustration, either because they "can’t have sex" or because nobody could possibly want to have sex with someone with a disability.
Many people with disabilities get thoroughly tired of being asked questions along the lines of "Um, can you do IT?" – with "IT," of course, meaning vaginal sex.
For starters, people with physical disabilities are just as likely as anybody else to be lesbian or gay, so vaginal sex may not be something they are interested in. And many people (with and without disabilities) find that vaginal sex isn’t necessarily the best or most pleasurable form of sexual intimacy anyway.
In some cases, a particular disability might mean that vaginal sex is difficult or unsatisfactory for a particular person. For example, spinal cord injuries or diabetic neuropathy might mean that someone has reduced sensation in their genitals, or that a male ’s ability to get erections might be affected. But of course, as all good SRCP readers should already know, there’s a lot more to sex than just vaginal sex. If you're new to the website, then click here to find out what we're talking about.
Some disabilities may mean that you need to make practical adjustments to partnered sex, but these are usually pretty simple – as long as you can communicate well and have a bit of imagination (and if you don’t have those, you probably shouldn’t be having sex with anyone else in the first place). Someone with a hearing impairment might want to make sure that the lights stay on during sex so that they can lip-read or sign to their partner. Joint or back problems might make certain positions uncomfortable or tiring. In many cases, the most important thing is simply making your partner aware of how you function. For example, letting them know that the side effects of some medications can make it harder to reach orgasm, or warning them if you sometimes have seizures or muscle spasms.
To learn more about how sex can be affected by specific physical disabilities, read Sex and Specific Physical Disabilities.
Of course, people with physical disabilities have to practice safer sex and birth control just like anyone else. This should be obvious, but it doesn't seem to occur to some people that anyone with a disability might get pregnant or a sexually transmitted infection. In a few cases, a particular disability may affect your choice of safer sex or birth control methods. For example, some doctors feel that birth control pills should not be prescribed to females who have poor circulation or mobility, as they may have a higher-than-average risk of developing blood clots that break loose and block arteries or veins. Many people with spina bifida are allergic to latex, so they need to use non-latex condoms for safer sex.
Having a physical disability can sometimes make it harder to find a sexual partner. It can be difficult to socialize and meet people if social events are held in inaccessible buildings. Prejudice can also be an issue, especially in the teenage years – when dating often seems to be more about finding someone who’s popular rather than finding someone you actually want to be with. And sadly, even in adulthood, there are some people without disabilities who can’t imagine anyone with a disability as a possible partner. That’s their loss.
But there are plenty of people out there who don’t have that problem. Contrary to the media images we're fed, being attractive and sexy has nothing to do with having a "perfect" body or being "normal." If you fall for someone's gorgeous grin and silly sense of humor, the fact that they use a wheelchair to get around may turn out to be a minor detail.
In a way, having a physical disability can actually become a positive advantage when it comes to sex. It means that you need to learn how to communicate and be up-front about what works for you and what doesn’t. Having to change and adapt the standard “script” means you have to be flexible and creative. And you have to focus on what actually feels best for you and your partner, instead of getting hung up on what’s "normal" or how you’re "supposed" to have sex.
And those are the real secrets of great sex for anybody – whether they have a disability or not.
Adapted with permission from an article by Clare Sainsbury. The original article, “No Big Deal: Sex & Disability,” can be found on www.scarleteen.com.