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Sex and Disability

Impacts of Disability on Sex

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Updated June 08, 2009

Disability means different things to different people. If you’re reading this and live with a disability (or are close with someone who does) you probably already know how common myths about disability and sex can make being sexual or finding a sexual partner more difficult.

If you don’t have a disability it may surprised you to hear that the biggest obstacles to exploring sex when you live with a disability are not specifically related to the disability.

The guy who has a spinal cord injury and can’t get an erection still has a thousand ways to have sex and feel sexy. The bigger problem is finding someone to have sex with since most people (regardless of disability) don’t see someone with a disability as a potential sexual partner.

There’s an old rehab saying: disability is a social disease. It reflects the reality for most people who live with a disability that while the impact of a disability can be difficult and annoying, what’s most painful is living in a world that ignores you and frankly acts as if you’d be better off dead. Try feeling sexy when that’s the message you get every time you leave the house.

Talking about disability and sex can be hard because neither is a simple concept and both are intimately tied to our sense of self and how we interact with others. Even though it’s a bit artificial, you can start thinking about sex and disability by looking at the different ways disability can impact and interact with sex.

Physical Disability and Sex

Physical disability can impact your sex life in many ways. If you live with a physical disability, particularly a mobility disability it can impact:
  • the way you engage in sexual activities, the kinds of activities you do, and how long you can do them for,
  • the way sex feels, including changes in orgasm, arousal, and the feeling of release after sex play,
  • your access to sexual partners, particular out in public where most spaces are not fully accessible and meeting people and flirting can be difficult or impossible depending on your disability.

When thinking about physical disability and sex one of the biggest barriers is a lack of imagination and creative sexual problem solving. If you believe that the only way to have sex involves an erect penis and well-lubricated vagina, you may be out of luck. When you realize that sex is so much more than intercourse, greater opportunities and fewer obstacles present themselves.

Social Impact of Disability on Sex

If you aren’t tired of me saying this yet I’ll repeat it one more time, what makes living with a disability and having good sex difficult has a lot more to do with society than it does with the person living with a disability. Barbara Waxman, a great disability activist often argued that what kept people with disabilities down was the mistaken belief that their sexual alienation was some internal fault. In truth if you live with a disability that somehow marks you as different (in the way you talk, move, hear, smell, etc…) you are treated differently by non-disabled people. And by different I mean like a freak or a child; in either case not like a sexual being.

There are so many ways that individuals, institutions, and social systems make the life of a person with a disability more difficult when it comes to sex, but here are some of the big ones:

  • lack of access to sex education,
  • fewer opportunities to seek out and enjoy sexual entertainment,
  • even if you can physically get into a social space like a club or bar, the social norms about how to meet people, flirt, and pick up exclude most people with disabilities who may need more time, quiet, and focus in order to make a connection,
  • having to meet social expectations, particularly around gender, when it comes to sexual activity can impact the chances of finding a sexual partner in the first place and then having mutually satisfying sex.

These obstacles can be the hardest to contend with as they are systemic and need to be addressed by society as a whole, not just individuals.

Psychological Impacts of Disability

If you are someone who acquired a disability (as opposed to being born with a disability there’s a psychological adjustment process in addition to a physical one. For some people this process includes “coming out” as having disability and integrating the disability into their identity. How you think and feel about yourself and your disability (or yourself as a disabled person) will have many impacts on how you think and feel about yourself as a sexual person. Here are a few examples:
  • disability can impact how you feel about your body and think about yourself as you move physically through the world an interact with others,
  • disability can have an impact on your sense of yourself as masculine and feminine,
  • disability, and how people react to it, can affect your feelings of being independent and autonomous and this can influence how sexy or sexual you feel.

In a much bigger sense, because disability is generally seen as a bad thing, something you’d never want, when you begin to identify yourself as living with a disability there can be all sorts of negative psychological impacts that make it difficult to take the kinds of risks involved in exploring your sexuality.

These are just a few examples of how disability can impact the way someone experiences sex. From the perspective of a sexuality educator what is important is to acknowledge the social systems that make it difficult to sexually express yourself if you live with a disability while at the same time always remembering that sexuality (and disability) are unique experiences and identities that fit and feel different on every individual.

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