Serie of articles published on www.scarleteen.com on July 27, 2017.
This is not the be-all-end-all guide to sex and disability because a) it’s not, and b) there just can’t ever be such a thing with any guide to sex. This series, much like your entire sexual life, is a work in progress and an endless, ongoing conversation. We hope this can be a good place for you to get started, and something that starts you on the path of good feelings about sex and your disability.
Sex and disability aren’t often heard in the same sentence, and when they are, there tends to be a lot of sideways glancing and nervous giggling. After all, disabled people aren’t sexual, right?
Wrongity wrong wrong! (Except for the ones who aren’t, but that’s not because they’re disabled.)
Disabled people have bodies, and many people with bodies enjoy being sexual with them, because it feels good, it’s fun, it allows them to get closer to other humans, or they just want to give it a whirl and see what all the fuss is about. Like other people with bodies, you have autonomy, which includes the right to decide if, when, and how you have sex and engage in other activities.
One of the things I hear most frequently from disabled youth is that they’re super interested in sex, but have no idea where to go. They feel like everyone’s going to make fun of them for wanting to explore their sexuality. I call bull on that — wanting to get sexual isn’t weird or gross just because you have a disability, and you can totally have a rewarding, rich, awesome sex life if you’re disabled – no matter what sex looks like to you and how many people are involved. We’re going to explore sex and disability in this ongoing series, because when people do admit that maybe disabled people might like to have sex, they often don’t provide any information about how this whole thing is supposed to work, and that’s no good at all.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts, though, a few things to keep in mind:
Disabled people can and do have sex
Remember that “sex” isn’t just about penises being inside vaginas, though some disabled people do that, too. Human sexuality is incredibly, amazingly diverse, including because humans come in all shapes and sizes. You’re the designer of your sex life, including whatever limits you need as you decide whether you’re ready or not.
Depending on someone’s impairment and level of disability, people may find the use of adaptive tools like wedges, ramps, and more super helpful — and we’ll be talking about those. People with sensory disabilities or paralysis may need to do some experimenting to figure out what looks and feels right for them. Some people with cognitive disabilities that affect their sensory experiences, ability to communicate, and ability to process information may work with their partners on communication and tactics for dealing with awkward moments. Some disabled people find toys and gear like harnesses incredibly helpful for expressing their sexuality. That’s called “adapting,” and there’s nothing unusual about it — nondisabled people adapt their sexual activities to suit their needs, too!
The unfortunate side of this, of course, is that disabled people can also get sexually transmitted infections and some disabled people can get pregnant, too. Safer sex and birth control should definitely be on your agenda. Fortunately, you have an entire website all about these subjects at your very fingertips.
There is nothing wrong with disabled sexuality
Disabled sexuality is very stigmatized in many cultures, and there are a lot of reasons why, some of which start with the belief that disabled people are “innocent” and need to be protected from the big bad world. You may have encountered attitudes suggesting that disabled people who have sex are freaky or weird, and that disabled people only have sex when there’s a fetish involved. That’s not true — lots of disabled people actually have super mundane sex lives, while others are total kinksters, some of whom are even part of the fetish community, but often their fetishes have nothing to do with disability!
Consensual, joyful sexuality isn’t wrong or weird or gross or freaky, even if your body doesn’t always do what you want it to do or your brain likes to fight you and even if other people want to desexualize you because of your impairment. The only people who should be ashamed of themselves are the ones who think they can dictate what your sexuality looks like because they make assumptions about you on the basis of how your body and brain function.
In fact, there’s also something very right about it. Sometimes adaptations that make sex more accessible, fun, and empowering work to your advantage — like being more conscious about communication and taking advantage of props to get comfortable before you get down for sexytimes.
Being disabled doesn’t mean being dateless
You may also have heard that if you’re interested in sex, you’ll be flying solo, because no one will want to date you with your disability. This is grossly untrue!
THIS IS SO VERY UNTRUE.
Lots of disabled people date, both within and outside the disability community. They also get married, raise families with partners, have casual sex, and much, much more. Nondisabled people seem to operate under the belief that they’ve got a lock on this whole dating and relationships thing, and they’re wrong.
Sometimes people use this line because they’re hoping to convince you they’re your only hope — like they’re doing you some huge favor by wanting to date you, so you should take them up on it while you’ve got the chance. Those people should sit in the corner and think about their life choices, because what they’re doing is not okay and may even be predatory. Never feel like you have to settle for someone out of fear that no one else is going to come along, because they totally will, and they’re going to be great.
Disability can make you more vulnerable
So, disability and sex, yay!
Being disabled means you face disablism — discrimination on the basis of your disability status (also called “ableism”). That makes you more vulnerable in many settings, including the world of sexuality, because people may view you as an easy target. Disabled people are much more likely to be victims of violent crimes, including sexual assault, than nondisabled people. As you explore your sexuality, you can become even more vulnerable, because we live in a society that doesn’t respect disabled people, their bodies, and their autonomy.
Frustratingly, one of the places that sometimes happens is in medical contexts. While many people associate disabled people with “the medical system,” you may actually spend varying amounts of time in clinical settings — and health care providers can be abusive too, whether it’s a physically abusive nurse or an emotionally manipulative therapist or anything between. Sometimes that abuse can become disabling, whether someone exacerbates an existing disability or makes you feel small and undermines your sense of independence. Health care is an institution, and institutions (including law enforcement, educational settings, and workplaces) tend to abuse people who are vulnerable.
You’re at increased risk of sexual assault, harassment, and other abuse because of society: It is not ever your fault if you are or have been sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted. You deserve to be treated with care and respect, your emotions are valid, and it is not acceptable for the people around you to sweep your experience of trauma under the carpet.
There are lots of resources available to help you. You may find that some sexual assault crisis centers, hotlines, and services are inaccessible and/or disablist, and that’s a reflection on them, not you. You may also find that should you choose to report, school officials, parents, law enforcement, and other parties may not take you as seriously, and that is also a reflection on them, not you. You know yourself, you know your body, and you know when someone has crossed a line.
We’re going to be talking about issues like how to adapt sex and your environment to meet your body where it is, having sex while autistic, sex and mental health, disability and kink, sexual autonomy and consent, and how to deal with rude nondisabled people who should really know better.
How can you use this series?
Like I said up top, this isn’t the be-all-end-all. It’s also not designed to be read in any particular order. You can just read the pieces most relevant to you, or the ones you’re most curious about, in whatever order you want, whenever you want to read them. Plus, you can share the series (so far) with friends and partners who might benefit from it.
As you’re reading, it can be helpful to think about self-assessment and larger conversations. For example, you can have very long conversations or a lot to say to a sexual partner about which props you need, and which work better or worse, for what sexual activities, and how you like to use them. You can also explore your emotional reaction to sex in some settings, or to sex in general!
But there are likely to be situations where you prefer a quicker “basics” conversation; a simple primer on you and your needs, not an at-length conversation. You’re here for a quick makeout, not a long-term relationship. Sometimes, just making sure the other person knows that it’s 100% necessary your lower back is always supported or else and that it works best for them to let you pick the prop is just fine.
Think about your three most important accommodation needs in a sexual context — what we’re calling the “Big Sexy Three.” What does a partner absolutely need to know about you for you to have a safe, fun, and enjoyable time together, whether you’re making out for the first time or in a long-term relationship?
Maybe it’s: “My head needs to be supported at all times, I need you to check in before touching me, and you need to be careful with my ventilator tubing.” Or: “I’m not comfortable on my knees, I prefer to transfer out of my chair on my own, and please look at me when you’re talking so I can read your lips.” Or: “Sometimes I shut down when I’m overstimulated, so I need to take a break if I start getting quiet; I really strongly dislike the sensation of this particular brand of lube, and it’s hard to breathe when I’m on my back.” We made a little shorthand card for you to use — and for you, the “Big Sexy Three” might be a “Big Sexy Two” or a “Big Sexy Five” — that’s okay!
Are you looking for realtime resources on sexual health, including someone to talk to about sexual assault? Take advantage of the message boards as well as our other direct services, like chat and text — or you can shoot us an email if you’re struggling and need help. We’d also like to hear from you about other topics around sex and disability that you’d like to see explored or addressed that we haven’t gotten to yet. The best sexual health — and the best sexual health education, in our long and humble opinion — is collaborative!
Many thanks to contributors and consultants to this series, including Kayla Whaley.