Skip To Content

    I’m Chronically Sick, And These Are My Best Tips For A Vibrant Sex Life

    Just because I can’t have sex the way I used to doesn’t mean I can’t have it at all.

    I first fell sick in 2013, and then I fell really sick in 2015. Scores of doctors couldn’t explain what was wrong (unless you count “too emotional” as a valid medical diagnosis), and so I slowly began to come to terms with my new reality — my new normal, if you will (chronic illness, if you won’t).

    Here are some things I’ve learned and unlearned along the way:

    1. Let go of the “before."

    An image of the twilight sky
    N-Photo Magazine / N-Photo Magazine / Future via Getty Images

    There’s a certain whenever/wherever quality to sex fantasies — a bathroom stall, a hammock, a swimming pool...the world is your oyster, right? Even if these extreme settings were never for you, there might be a memory, image, or fantasy of sex in your mind that isn’t possible for you today. If fact, if, like me, you live with chronic illness, chances are you’ve divided all aspects of your life into a “before” and “after” (or, if you’ve always lived with it, an “if only” and “in reality”).

    This is the hardest advice I have to offer, so I’m putting it up top: Let go of the before, the alternate timeline, the “other” you waiting in the wings. You’re here now, and if sex and pleasure are what you’re after, it’s via this body (hard truth: the only body) that you can experience it. But you can experience it.

    2. Pillows are lifesavers.

    An image of a pillow on an orange background
    Michael Moeller / Getty Images / EyeEm

    I have chronic neck pain, a dislocated jaw, and a tendency toward dizziness. This means that my life — from work to travel to Netflix— involves a constant negotiation with pillows. And a very surreal discovery has been that propping two under my head during sex doesn’t disrupt the rhythm, make me look weak, or turn anyone off. Who’d have thought?

    3. Communication is always key.

    An art collage of a woman's body with a flower-print background
    Igor Ustynskyy / Getty Images

    This is a pretty general sex tip — and one that’s at the heart of every consent conversation — but if you don’t verbalize what you want or need, you’re unlikely to receive it. Personally, I’ve found that the only way for me to have these conversations is to push past shame — shame about my body, my desires, and, now, my illness. Illness is not shameful (I have to keep repeating this to myself every hour of every day), and it’s absolutely okay (and good!) to talk to your partners about it.

    4. How much you reveal — and when — is completely up to you. There are no rules.

    An image of a heart-shaped cloud above an ocean
    Tom Merton / Getty Images

    Whether I’m meeting a new friend for tea or seeing a potential sexual partner, I feel much better if they already know what my body’s limits are. My chat histories and sent emails are filled with lengthy explanations that often begin with, “I feel like you should know” and end with either a general heads-up about my energy levels (if it’s after 9 p.m., I’ll likely be asleep) or a specific ask (like meeting at a restaurant with high-backed chairs). I usually end up including information that no one asked for but that helps me feel more in control. Because illness is so unpredictable, managing expectations — both mine and someone else’s — is a useful way for me to navigate relationships.

    But that’s just me! You might prefer to see how you actually feel around someone before offering up intimate bodily details, or maybe you want to let an encounter unfold and see where it takes you. Your illness is your business, and if, how, and when you choose to talk about it is precisely that: your choice.

    5. Pleasure and care are not opposites.

    An image of a couple on the bed, embracing
    Oleg Breslavtsev / Getty Images

    Disability justice writer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes hanging out with their partner in bed, “spooning, reading...making out and napping.” They go on to write: “We aren’t trying to cram ourselves into an able-bodied vision of what sexy or a relationship is; it’s totally okay for us to rest, chill, care for ourselves and each other. Our care needs are not some gross secret walled off from date night.”

    The idea that if you need care, you don’t deserve pleasure (or that experiences of care and pleasure can’t overlap) is something I’m trying to unlearn all the time. Leah’s work really helps. So does reminding myself that someone's need for care hasn't ever made me fancy them less.

    6. Sex toys are your friends, not your enemies.

    An image of a sex toy on a red background with roses
    Laia Divols Escude / Getty Images / EyeEm

    You know on Grace and Frankie when they design a vibrator that older women with arthritis can use easily? Also, you know how it’s not only older people who live with arthritis and wrist pain? Over the past year, I’ve developed carpal tunnel syndrome (yup, another symptom), which makes doing many things, including writing this list, a challenge. But thankfully, when it comes to sex, there are a lot more toys on the market than when I first fell ill. From tiny finger vibrators to those you can strap on, there’s probably something out there that can help facilitate more pain-free pleasure for you and your partners.

    7. Taking breaks can be sexy too.

    8. Remember, “peak performance” is a (capitalist) myth.

    An image of a half-naked woman on a bed
    Igor Ustynskyy / Getty Images

    I went to the internet (where else?) for this one: “Peak performance is a state in which a person performs to the maximum of their ability.” In this worldview, the body and mind are tools, means toward usefulness and productivity. That the phrase is used interchangeably to describe employees, machines, athletes, and sexual prowess indicates that the “ability” part of its definition has less to do with diverse people and varying capacities than it does with an external system teaching us to value an arbitrary “peak.” So that ultimately, of course, we may be of use to that very same system.

    Or, put a different way: Pleasure isn’t about performance, so it’s okay to uninvite capitalism from your sex life.

    9. And most importantly, never forget that all sex is real sex.

    An image of two women embracing in bed
    Filadendron / Getty Images

    In her book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, adrienne maree brown writes, “I believe that we are in an imagination battle, and almost everything about how we orient toward our bodies is shaped by fearful imaginations.” When it comes to sex, these fraught imaginings often center on what “counts.” For example: Is it still sex without penetration, without orgasm, without agility, without, without, without?

    Because sex has been so narrowly defined by dominant power structures, what we bring to the bedroom can often feel less than. But if we expand our sexual imaginations (work that the queer community has been doing for…ever), it turns out that when no one else has the power to do the counting, everything, in fact, “counts.” And what opens up, Maree Brown writes, is “a beautiful pattern of pleasure shifting the ground beneath us, inside us, and transforming what is possible between us.”

    The good and bad news is that this process of transformation is endless — good because there’s always room for change, and bad because who among us hasn’t been silently screaming for a silver bullet “cure”? What it means for me to be a sexual person in the world is constantly being transformed, not only by illness but also by everything and everyone I meet and read and interact with.

    So if you have any tips from your own sexual journey with chronic illness, please put them in the comments below! I’d love to grow further with you.

    BuzzFeed Daily

    Keep up with the latest daily buzz with the BuzzFeed Daily newsletter!

    Newsletter signup form