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Sexuality and Disability Myths and Facts

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Updated December 15, 2006

There are many common myths about sexuality and disability. Most start with the biggest myth of all, which is that people with disabilities are all the same, and that you can talk about them as one single group. This is completely false. There is no one thing that can be said about people living with disabilities, they don’t all have the same experience or the same perspective. But many people with disabilities are treated the same by the non-disabled world. And it is these attitudes, the physical, emotional, and psychological barriers that are the greatest obstacle to full sexual expression.

Myth: People with disabilities and chronic illnesses are not sexual:

Fact: All humans are sexual, regardless of how we express our sexuality. People with disabilities are denied sexual rights in part to keep them outside of mainstream society, and probably in part because people with disabilities are treated as if they are children, and children are also excluded from having any sexual rights. People living with disabilities are as sexual and express their sexuality in ways as diverse as everyone else, although we don’t get to see this as much because mainstream culture only shows us one image of sexual expression.

Myth: People with disabilities and chronic illnesses are not desirable:

Fact: What turns us on sexually is unique to each individual. We are raised to think that sex is for the young and beautiful, that if you don't resemble a twenty-three-year-old supermodel, no one will want you or if you can’t produce multiple G-spot orgasms on cue or perform like a stud, you're not worth going to bed with. But none of us meet these standards, and desire is enflamed by an unpredictable mix of things (looks, personality, values, timing, etc). We only see the supermodel scenario so over time we come to believe it, and question whether anyone would ever find us attractive or worth loving.

Myth: There is a right way and a wrong way to have sex:

Fact: We are raised being told many lies about sex and this is the biggest one. The truth is there are no rules as to what sex is (although I’d like to suggest the fact that it be between consenting adults is a good simple one). Sex doesn’t have to look like, sound like, or smell like anything other than that which is turning the people on who are involved. Some people say sex should be spontaneous, and that can be hard if you have a disability. But the fact is that we all plan for sex more or less.

Myth: People with disabilities and chronic conditions can't have "real" sex:

Fact:It follows that if there’s a right way to have sex, and you can’t have it, then you can’t have real sex. It’s true that not all of us can run down the beach, roll in the sand with music swelling in the background, and have a sexual romp without ever mussing our hair. It’s also true that not all of us want to do that. Most of us have awkward uncomfortable sex, most of us masturbate much more than we have sex with other people, and most of us don’t talk about it. So we pretend that there’s a “real” kind of sex, and if you don’t look the part, you can’t play the game. This is simply false.

Myth: People with disabilities are a bad choice for romantic partners:

Fact: Relationships are hard and full of compromise, and a good relationship involves equal compromise and work from the people in it. People who partner with people with disabilities are often told how “noble” they are, as if being non-disabled makes you a great catch, and having a disability makes you nothing but a liability. The fact is that living with a disability doesn’t mean you can contribute less to a relationship. You may do less of the heavy lifting, but how important is that in a relationship? Also, if you live long enough, you will eventually be in a relationship with someone with a disability.

Myth: Disabled people have more important things than sex to worry about:

Fact:We all value sex differently, and for some people it’s the most important thing in their life. If you live with a disability or chronic illness you will likely have people around you telling you that you've got more important things to deal with that sex is a luxury you can't afford. This is ties in with the myth that people with disabilities are childlike and need to be told how to prioritize their lives. This attitude is held by many non-disabled people, and even some disabled activists claim that talking about interpersonal issues and disability is bad because it “fragments the cause.”

Myth: People with disabilities are not sexually adventurous:

Fact: Living with a disability does not necessarily impact your sexual tastes or choices (even though it can impact who you get to have sex with). It is assumed that people with disabilities are sexually passive and non-initiators. People don't believe that someone who uses a wheelchair might want to be tied up and spanked, or that a man with no legs gets off dressing up as a ballerina. These are false assumptions, but they fit in with the general myth that all anyone wants is to be just like everyone else, so if you’re different already, surely you must want to be sexually conservative, right? Wrong!

Myth: People in institutions shouldn't have sex:

Fact: One of the greatest barriers to developing a positive sexuality is a lack of privacy. This is nowhere more evident than in institutions like rehab hospitals, hospices, group homes, and nursing homes. Most institutions systematically deny residents the right to be sexual. No locks on doors, no privacy, the right of staff to treat people as objects to be carted around, talked about and controlled, are just a few of the ways that institutions make it clear that sexuality is not acceptable. Sexual rights are human rights, and people living in institutions have the right to be sexual on their own terms.

Myth: Sex is private

Fact: If you use attendant services, live in an institution, or aren’t able to monitor your own body responses, privacy is a very different thing. We’re told that sex is a private thing, but one of the most common sexual fantasies is about having sex in a public place. Having privacy can make having sex easier, but if we aren’t able to lock our doors or we have to request private time, we still have the right to be sexual, and to expect those around us to facilitate that by giving us as much privacy as we ask for.

Myth: People with disabilities don't get sexually assaulted.

Fact: If you aren't seen as sexually desirable in our culture, you won't get sexually assaulted, right? Wrong. People with physical disabilities are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault, statistics suggest between 2 to 10 times more likely. This abuse ranges from pervasive power abuses by medical and rehabilitation staff to rape and other forms of sexual assault, forced confinement, physical abuse, and more. Supports for disclosure of the abuse, legal action, and counseling are scarce for people with disabilities. This is especially true in institutions.

Myth: People with disabilities don't need sex education.

Fact: We’re all sexual, and we all need education. Sexual ignorance is an enormous obstacle for all of us when trying to figure ourselves out sexually. Our situation is made worse when we are systematically denied access to the little bit of sex education most people get. Some people say that the reason non-disabled people deny people with disabilities access to sex education is because they believe that it will encourage them to want sex, and that will open up a can of worms.
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