We Talked To People Living With Disabilities About Sex, And Here's What They Had To Say
"Assuming a disabled person is nonsexual or undesirable to any able-bodied or nondisabled person is suggesting that disabled people are automatically excluded from the full range of the human experience."
When Jade Theriault was a first-year in college, one of the staffers in her residency program for folx with disabilities was an eccentric female who liked asking Theriault a lot of personal questions. Some of these questions bordered on TMI.
For many folx in the US living with disabilities like Jade, sex education isn't always up to par or sometimes isn't given at all.
What are some other struggles that individuals with disabilities face when it comes to sex education and sexual freedom? Let's dig a little deeper, take a closer look, and see how folx can potentially deal with them and enhance their sex lives.
One major challenge is society's misconceptions. Trista Marie McGovern — who is a queer writer with disabilities, model, photographer, and advocate — finds that the biggest challenge people with disabilities face with their sex lives is rooted in society's perception and actually having to educate those around them about disability and sexuality.
What other misconceptions do people have? There are plenty. Society also tends to think that people living with disabilities only have sexual relationships with other folx living with disabilities, explains Holly Wood, a clinical sexologist with San Francisco Intimacy and Sex Therapy Centers. This way of thinking identifies someone as having a disability first and as a person — or sexual being — second.
Another misconception is that individuals with disabilities are always asexual. They're often not seen and/or treated as children. And in turn, they are thought to not have sex lives or sex drives at all. "Society often infantilizes disabled people so it is hard for us to be seen as sexual," says Sweeney.
Wood explains that another prevalent myth is that folx in wheelchairs, and folx with spinal cord injuries (SCI) specifically, can’t feel their genitals or experience orgasm.
And beyond the oh, so many misconceptions, there is also the fact that those with disabilities can often be fetishized. This is something that Theriault has run into again and again. "In any marginalized group — black, gay — they fetishize you. I've been on a few people's bucket lists. You only want to sleep with me because I'm in a wheelchair. In that case, you're using me for your weird, fetish thing and I'm using you to have sex."
Next, let's talk about shame. The perception one has about themselves and society's perception can result in their feeling shame about their sexuality. In turn, shame can play a huge role in limiting sexual liberation for those with disabilities due to societal barriers and internalized ableism, explains McGovern.
Beyond shame, as sex is usually an intimate act that happens behind closed doors, privacy issues may also come up for folx with disabilities. For example, one might have professional help, such as an assistant, come by to help with daily tasks or live-in help.
Now that we've gone over the long list of (just some of the) misconceptions and barriers people tend to have about those with disabilities and their sex lives, let's talk about some ways one can go about enhancing their sex lives.
Some folx with disabilities may experience physical limitations that impact sexual functioning. Think loss or change in physical sensations, difficulty controlling certain muscles, and inability to achieve or maintain an erection. But this doesn't mean that they can't experience sexual pleasure or even orgasm, says Wood.
To work through any physical challenges that may arise in sex, there are a number of things that people living with disabilities can do to make sex more physically comfortable. Plus, this can also make certain erogenous zones more easily accessible. "You can switch up positions, like having one person on top of another lying down, having sex in a spooning position, or sex in a chair or wheelchair," says Wood.
Also consider incorporating “sex furniture” or positioning products, says Wood. For example, the IntimateRider was designed by a person with C6-C7 quadriplegia to facilitate positions for sexual activities and to aid with thrusting and sexual movement.
There is also a wide range of sex toys that can help if you have limited mobility with your hand, says Wood. For instance, massager wands with long handles to expand reach, and toys and cuffs designed to assist with hand dexterity, weakness, or mobility issues.
All in all, it's really about developing a "new normal" when it comes to sex. And for that to happen, one must explore both individually or with a partner, through experimentation.
Working with a pro, such as with a sex therapist or intimacy coach, could also be helpful. A sex therapist, as Wood explains, can address the many different emotional components of sexuality — think self-esteem, assertiveness, and positive self-talk — as well as collaborate with partners and family around sexual and fertility issues. They can also help address trauma and grief around sex and sexuality.
No matter what struggles you encounter sexually, the goal is to always be connected to what's going on with your body and your mind, and to do the hard work to move past any hurdles.