Disability and Sexuality 101, or, Do disabled people have sex?

Of course! That is, some of us do, but there’s nothing about disability that means we don’t ever have sex. As with any other group in society, some of us are sexual and some of us are asexual. Some of us are celibate, some of us are in steady sexual relationships, some of us like a one night stand. Which is to say, we’re far from being a sexual monolith! (… as it were.)

The reason PWD aren’t considered as sexual – particularly “visibly” disabled PWD – is that the idea of “the perfect body” as the only sexual body dominates popular discourse. Additionally, we have the stereotypes of PWD as pathetic or stoic, far removed from the sexual. Not to mention the fact that disabled people tend to be shoved away from the general public. This idea is not due to some inherent aspect of disability that negates sexuality, it’s just bigotry. The lack of recognition for PWDs’ sexuality has meant, less so in recent years, that a lot of PWD aren’t given appropriate sex education. Without proper sex ed, it’s harder to take charge of one’s own sexual life and body. This lack of information has its role in enabling the high rates of abuse against PWD. There is a lot of horrific policing of the bodies and sexuality of disabled women in particular, as you’ll read about on this blog in less 101-type discussions.

When those PWD who are sexual are seen as such, it’s often to the exclusion of many modes of sexuality. Remember, disabled people, like non-disabled people, have all sorts of sexualities that can change throughout life. We can be queer and straight, poly and mono, kinky and vanilla (which is not to say that all of those are exclusively sexual identities, either). Not everyone is into or can have PIV intercourse, and all kinds of sexual activity are as legitimate as the participants consider them to be. And, of course, implicit in the question ‘Do disabled people have sex?’ is the question ‘Do disabled people have partnered sex?’ As such, that’s the question I’ve been answering, but it’s best not to forget that masturbation is fun, too!

There’s another myth that PWD only have sex with other PWD. This is based on the assumption that no one “normal” would want to have sex with someone who doesn’t fit into rigid norms. Sex isn’t just for young, white, abled, straight couples, no matter what TV tells you. Of course, the idea that sex with disabled people isn’t ideal means that it’s sometimes harder for disabled people to find sexual partners. To which I say, people with that kind of bigoted attitude are missing out on some really great sex.

Disability often influences a person’s sex life, as it does many other aspects of life. (Not to mention framing disability as this overarching barrier to sex obscures the fact that, you know, other factors have their role in how and if a person is sexual.) Pain or fatigue or physical features, for instance, can have an impact, but that doesn’t mean PWD are never sexual. Because there are so many different types of disability – and some people have multiple disabilities – there are lots of different changes PWD and their partners might make to make sex possible, easier or just more fun. This could include clear communication when a partner has an anxiety disorder, assessing which positions are most comfortable with a particular body shape, adapting sex toys for people with limited motor control and a whole range of things.

Disabled people’s sexualities exist, and are quite as varied and wonderful as those of non-disabled people.

By 25 October, 2009.    101, bodies, sexuality  ,  



37 Comments

  1. As a kinky queer person with disabilities, I have to say that one of the big challenges I face is playing with able bodied people who are afraid of “breaking” me or who think that I don’t know my limits. And I definitely understand that fear, but it kind of plays into the whole “people with disabilities are fragile” trope which can sometimes be a huge barrier to sexuality, especially alternative sexuality. And it can be really disempowering to be told that someone else knows my body and my limits better than I do.

    Which is why I feel like I have to give a shout out to The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability, because it’s a really great resource I like sharing with temporarily able bodied folks because it addresses a broad spectrum of issues related to this topic. (Although I would recommend buying it from your local independent bookstore, rather than That Large Corporation I linked to; most indies will happily send stuff via mail order, incidentally!)
    .-= meloukhia´s last blog ..Where Are All the People With Disabilities? =-.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    It all comes back to the idea that certain bodies “can’t possibly” be sexual cuz they don’t meet the norm. It’s tossed at trans folk, folk of different sizes and especially PWD.

    My partner may injure easily, they may have to walk with a cane quite a bit and they may have serious chronic pain issues, yes. But none of that means that my partner ceases to be a sexual being. There are times when sex isn’t very feasible and that’s fine. There are times like that with TAB/M folk too. It just drives me up a wall that people find it impossible that I could find my partner desirable because of their disabilities.

  3. My local sex shop has brought in speakers who include, without any stumbling, sexuality and disability in their talks about sex. From things like “And, if your partner can’t use their legs” to “How to use a sex toy if you can’t hold it”, to having Sign Language ‘terps brought it. It’s awesome, because these are people I feel I can ask questions of. (And, they never assume that the only disabilities are the ones you can “see” immediately.)
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..I don’t even have a title that expresses the degree of contempt I have =-.

  4. I’m in a long-term (previously long-distance) heterosexual monogamous relationship. We are both boring as fuck. Ahem. Total homebodies, our interests aren’t terribly exciting, and so forth. And yeah, that applies in the bedroom too. We have our own variety — but to the “liberated” abled set it would look, well, bland, I’m sure. That’s nice and all, but we happen to like it — a lot. It makes us very happy. And that’s what matters.

    PWD are of all sorts when it comes to sexuality. And we face these strange and sometimes-contradicting pressures.

    I remember growing up my single biggest body image issue was this idea that no one would ever be interested in me — sexually, romantically, intimately in any way — because of my condition (I did not ID as disabled at the time). Single. Biggest. Issue. I felt pathetic, pitiable, slightly repulsive, burdensome, all the rest. Who would ever do what I needed to have done differently because of my disability — much less do it without sighs of “do I have to” and resentfulness? The idea that someone might actually love me, and enjoy me, that just wasn’t a possibility. Ever. It was a given, a very strict, hard-set rule: people like me were not potential partners. Not for sex (one-night stand or otherwise), and not for ice cream and a stroll through the mall holding hands. Not for sharing a bank account. Not for anything.

    The best way to put it is that I felt, as a PWD, that I was inflicting myself on others. There was no such thing as mutual enjoyability, because I had no enjoyability to offer.

    This stuff is extremely damaging, in such a HUGE variety of ways.

  5. Inclusive sex shops are so terrific. And I’ve noted that the good ones seem to be queer/woman owned. I have to give a shout out to Good Vibrations in San Francisco/Berkeley, because they also have really inclusive classes (or, at least, the classes I have gone to have been inclusive), and they are really responsive to suggestions or recommendations. I went to a particularly great one led by Madame Cleo Dubois a few years ago which was inclusive and BDSM-centered and made me squee with happiness.
    .-= meloukhia´s last blog ..On the Reclamation of “Fat” =-.

  6. Come As You Are is the best. Sex shop. Ever.

    There’s a lot of good resources on disability, very disability and trans-friendly (as far as I can tell and as far as I have heard on the latter issue; I realize I can’t make a conclusive statement on that).

    I’ve bought from both them and Good Vibrations, but I always like to plug Come As You Are because they very explicitly address disability, something you almost never, ever see. (See this page for an actual list of articles on the topic — not just one or two!)

    (Edit: Oh, and hadn’t even realized, as I looked at the sidebar, that just 20 minutes ago they tweeted us! LOL. Hi! *waves* We like you here!!)

  7. Thank you for writing this! I particularly appreciate the points about how disabled people are supposed to hide their sexuality, or only be sexual with other disabled people.
    I hope you don’t mind me sharing a link, especially since this essay was written three years ago, but it touches on a lot of the same issues:
    http://sirensmag.com/2006/05/sexy-with-a-disability/

  8. Oh, wow, that guide at Come As You Are is amazing! I may have to switch sex shop loyalties.

  9. CAYA is brilliant. I bought my first toy from them about a month ago (because I live relatively locally), and they were really nice and super-helpful. It’s a very friendly space. And yeah, they’re really welcoming & understanding toward PWD (or at least, their literature is. As someone TAB/M, I can’t speak firsthand on that).

    @Anna Would that be Venus Envy? I meant to pay them a visit when I was living in Nova Scotia, but, sadly, I never got a chance. I’ve heard wonderful things about them, though.
    .-= Dorian´s last blog ..Writer’s Block: Yes, offense taken =-.

  10. I don’t really have much to say about this post, but I wanted to thank you for a) including asexuality and saying that not all disabled people must have sex or be interested in sex and b) not calling the way disabled people are stereotyped “asexual”. Not being marginalised in these types of discussions makes a nice change! 🙂
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..So I keep running into ableism at uni =-.

  11. I was *just* thinking about this. On The Office this week Pam was flipping out about Michael dating her Mom and indignantly asked Oscar “What if it were your Mom??” And he said, “My Mother’s in a wheelchar!” and looked offended.

    And I, at home, was like, “Um, so the fuck what?”

    I am TAB and I’ve never been with someone sexually who had a disability, but when I was first having sex I read a book called The Guide to Getting it On, and it had a chapter about having sex with people with various physical disabilities that was really interesting, and I appreciated that they had it in a general sex guide, though I’m sure having books devoted to just that topic are good too.

  12. Thank you for your commments, everyone.

    Kaz, well, that was my aim! I know a lot of feminist and disability activist discussion around sex is quite alienating to asexual people, and I want FWD/Forward to not perpetuate that. But you really don’t need to thank me for doing the basically decent thing.

  13. Yes! Venus Envy is the best. I love them to pieces. They’re wheelchair accessible, carry a variety of books about sexuality and disability (including the one recommended up thread), and have staff members who work with kids with disabilities to talk about sexuality and self-esteem. And their biggest concern when someone in a wheelchair hits something is the person in the wheelchair, not the inanimate object that probably didn’t notice.

  14. I’m asexual, but really like discussions about sex, even if I’m fairly…naive about the subject. (A bit like the author of Why I’m a Sex-Positive Asexual) So, I’m loving this post and this thread. Carry on 🙂
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..*Squeak!* It’s open thread time! =-.

  15. Last night while awake in the middle of night due to a painful knee, I was thinking “gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we had a thread about sex and disability?!”. Then I logged on and found this. Thank you!!!!

  16. We are both boring as fuck. Ahem. Total homebodies, our interests aren’t terribly exciting, and so forth. And yeah, that applies in the bedroom too. We have our own variety — but to the “liberated” abled set it would look, well, bland, I’m sure.

    I’ve never been fond of the BDSM-community trope that so-called ‘vanilla’ sex is bland and boring. (More value judgments here of what’s more and less worthy. You’d think, as sexual minorities, they’d know better.) Your interests are interesting to you. What you and your husband do is your business; you don’t have to tell anyone what you do and you don’t have to justify why you like it. If you aren’t bored, then what you do isn’t boring.

  17. The best way to put it is that I felt, as a PWD, that I was inflicting myself on others. There was no such thing as mutual enjoyability, because I had no enjoyability to offer.

    Amandaw, that’s exactly the way I always felt, too. I am really lucky to have found partners, disabled and not, who helped show me that wasn’t true, because I don’t know how I would have figured it out on my own.
    .-= Lis´s last blog ..How not to have Disability Awareness Month =-.

  18. I was *just* thinking about this. On The Office this week Pam was flipping out about Michael dating her Mom and indignantly asked Oscar “What if it were your Mom??” And he said, “My Mother’s in a wheelchar!” and looked offended.

    And I, at home, was like, “Um, so the fuck what?”

    I was going to post this exact thing.

    Anyway, thank you for this blog entry! As a sexually-active PWD, I hate it so much when people assume I do not have sex. Or that I don’t know anything about sex. Thank you thank you thank you.

  19. kaninchenzero, as a member of the BDSM/kinky community, I second that; I really hate the term “boring sex” (unless you are literally bored by it) because if you’re having fun, it’s not boring. No matter how you have fun.

  20. I’d add to the article that PWD are also asexualized not only because of general ableist ideas about sexual bodies, but because PWD are commonly infantilized, or portrayed as children in our culture. This portrayal has been decried by people with various disabilities for years, in part because it shapes where the funding and services go (disproportionately to children, often in order to “fix” them, instead of to adults)

    As a side note, I work for an organization that addresses disproportionately high rates of HIV among one group of people with disabilities, the idea that PWD don’t have sex is damaging not only in not giving PWD a chance to take full charge of their bodies, but is part of the reason that PWD have MUCH higher HIV rates than their non-disabled peers.

  21. Katherine, thank you for those excellent points. However, as Kaz notes above, it’s not a good idea to call the way disabled people are stereotyped “asexual”. I’d suggest ‘desexualised’ or ‘denied their sexual identity’.

  22. I’ve never been fond of the BDSM-community trope that so-called ‘vanilla’ sex is bland and boring.

    I’ve seen this tendency in some (sex-“positive”) feminist circles, ironically enough; because, apparently, if you’re not using sex toys, having the “right” kind of sex or having “enough” sex, you are BORING or not properly feminist.
    .-= annaham´s last blog ..IIB v 1.0 =-.

  23. “Pam was flipping out about Michael dating her Mom and indignantly asked Oscar “What if it were your Mom??” And he said, “My Mother’s in a wheelchar!” and looked offended.”

    The SAME thing happened in 90210 recently. I can’t find a transcript, but from memory: a teacher and headmaster were out talking about women the teacher might date, and the headmaster suggested someone. The teacher said incredulously, “The one with the WITHERED HAND?!”, and the headmaster responded jokingly “You’re such a diva.”

  24. Is there anything out there specifically dealing with sexuality and facial differences? Feel free to reply privately at tom@tomhead.net if you like. I’m a radfem pro-LGBT author/NOW officer/ACLU activist with Crouzon Syndrome who has mental “blocks” on relating to people in a sexual way, and would be very interested in doing some reading on this topic. (I’d also like to incorporate facial differences into the Love Your Body Day stuff, but that’s another ball of wax.)

  25. http://www.scarleteen.com/article/politics/no_big_deal_sex_disability

    I love the Scarleteen site, and so I thought I’d link to this post I read awhile back on sex and disability.

  26. Not that I’m aware, Tom, but if I find anything I’ll try and remember to pass it on. Readers, can you help Tom out?

    Lisa, I was seriously *just* thinking of that article about a minute ago! 🙂

  27. I have heard that Big Big Love by Hanne Blank is a good resource for large people in relation to the ‘logistics’ of sex. I have the book but haven’t read it yet (I have a to be read pile of about 400 books). Personally, I don’t consider fat to be a disability (I think I have said that before on this blog, sorry if I am repeating myself) but sometimes the mechanics of sexual activity can be challenging for large people and any decent info needs to be shared.
    .-= Bri´s last blog ..The TV segment =-.

  28. This is a great post, very observant about the way PWD can be desexualised by TAB culture. I do have a point to add though based on my own experience. I have a fairly visible disability in that I’m totally blind (I prefer visually impaired but no TABs seem to know what it means so I’m forced to only use it in PWD friendly spaces to avoid having to explain all the time) anyway, this combined with the fact that I’m quite petite used to mean I got harrassed all the time at college by guys who seemed to be turned on by my apparent ‘vulnerability’, this was very creepy and also incredibly frustrating as they’d pretty much reduced me to my disability. I’m not ‘special’ and I don’t need ‘rescuing’ and I’m definitely not playing the damsel in distress to fulfil anyone’s fantasy. The problem seems to be that if you’re blind then you’re allowed to have a sexuality as long as its passive so you just become an object for somebody else’s fantasies. Well, I’m sexually dominant and bi (predominantly interested in women) so where does my sexuality fit in this? Also, though my friends at uni were trying to be nice, the boys in particular had a nasty habit of ‘vetting’ any boy (never the girls) I bought back to my dorm to make sure I was going to be safe with them (these weren’t serious relationships or anything!) as though I wasn’t capable of making judgements myself because I might have missed some visual clue to them being dangerous, not sure what, having 666 tattooed on their forehead maybe? They definitely didn’t do this for the other TAB girls we lived with. Anyway, think my point is that sometimes the fetishisation of the disability to the exclusion of the person can be almost as bad as total desexualisation.

  29. I’m sorry, I should have mentioned in my comment — I don’t like the BDSM community trope that leather sex is better and I’m part of the BDSM community. I’m less active in it these days and don’t volunteer for stuff or go to meetings and events, but I’m definitely oriented that way and have been since I can remember having sexual thoughts (like when I was six or seven). So I’m cranky about the attitude because I run across it all the time. That ‘they’ should have been ‘we.’

    That said, I very much like the BDSM community’s inclusion of people with disabilities[1], fat people, older folks. The sort of people who ‘shouldn’t’ be running around naked do and it’s excellent. Most events I’ve been to recently have at least one workshop on disability sexuality issues and there are lots of folks with assistive technologies; sign interpretation is provided to make events accessible to Deaf people.

    [1] Though one of the few Dallas hotels that’s willing to host our events and is big enough is not accessible; the only elevator that goes to the meeting space floors (there are four levels of them) is a service elevator in the kitchen. Seethe.

  30. That’s such a good point, Rainbow. I’m sorry you’re being treated that way.

  31. Rainbow, disability fetishism and the devotee culture really squicks me out too (as it does other site contributors as you can note from the fact that we specifically address it in our comments policy). It’s frustrating that the attitude towards people with disabilities from the temporarily able bodied community seems to take opposite extremes: Either we are desexualized, or we are fetishized for our bodies and treated explicitly as sex objects/playthings for able bodied fetishists. I’ve actually been ruminating over this for a few days, so I sense a post coming on…

  32. Meloukhia, I’ve got a blog post in the works about that subject. A while ago I discovered a video which was ostensibly a “tribute” to so-called “quadriplegic goddesses”, a sequence of pictures pinched from others’ websites, and from news sites, of women with obvious quad paraphernalia like wheelchair straws, ventilators, paintbrushes in their mouths etc (nearly all obvious high-level quads, one or two with just a power-chair and none in a manual who could be mistaken for paraplegics). I recognised two of the women and tipped them off, and both said they disliked being put on a pedestal and “worshipped” like that. One of them, who only got back to me last Friday, said her pictures had been “borrowed” and used on websites which she found disgusting and threatening, which is why she had stopped maintaining her own website a number of years ago.

    It’s interesting that they call themselves devotees but show no respect to the individuals they are supposedly so “devoted” to. They also use the language of religion (as with the word ‘devotee’ itself), and when you find religious cults which also fetishise one sort of disability or another, the individuals get no respect there either – consider the murders of albinos in east Africa in which body parts are used in “traditional medicine”.

  33. Rainbow,
    I too am totally blind and have had similar experiences. The other problem I constantly encounter are people questioning my sexuality. I identify as a lesbian and constantly have people telling me things like “You can’t be gay… You’re blind. How would you know?”

    It gets frustrating when people assume they know more about you and your own sexuality than you do!

  34. Steph, that’s mind-boggling. Do these people not think at all? I’m stunned. And yeesh, someone owes you an apology, so: As a Representative Sighted Person, I’m sorry so many of us are so insensitive.

  35. I’ll second kaninchenzero with that. That’s…. utterly baffling, Steph.
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Identifying =-.

  36. […] (?), Chally at the FWD blog covered this in a post on Sunday. As she points out, people with disabilities (PWD) are often characterized as […]

  37. thanks for the post. def will remember to use ‘desexual(ized)’ instead of ‘asexual’.