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Jul 052011

The other day a few folks started chatting on twitter about sex and disability. A friend commented that he’d really like to learn more about the subject, as he doesn’t know much and would like to know more about accommodating those with disabilities. Since the topic was sex, I responded that I hoped it would be less about accommodation and more about enjoyment. He agreed, but feared his lack of knowledge could lead him to injure potential partners.
The topic, or rather topics, of sex and disability, are numerous and wide-ranging. I’ll be coming back to them many times in this blog. Apropos of the conversation I mention here I have two observations. I think that when people think of disability, especially as it might relate to sexual concerns, they think of mobility impairments. That is, disabilities that limit or prevent movement in some or all areas of the body. Disability actually encompasses a wide range of physical, sensory, cognitive, developmental, psychological, or medical concerns.

The second observation? A lot of the concerns people have regarding the subject of “sex and disability” are concerns that apply to the individuality of bodies and experiences, whether they’re considered “able” or not.

Yes, there are differences. A blind man can’t glance across the room and entice you with eye contact. A woman who uses a wheelchair to get around may, depending on the nature of her disability, need help in and out of the chair, with changing positions, and so on. A deaf person will likely want you to leave the lights on so he can read your lips, watch your body language, or do whatever he needs to do to communicate with you while you’re being sexual. For those who can see, It’s more fun with the lights on, anyway. It can get even more complicated when someone has multiple disabilities, or when both partners have disabilities.

The basic answers, though, are simple. Responding to my friend who was concerned about injuring someone from ignorance and ensuring he could provide as much pleasure as possible, I answered that it’s exactly the same as with a supposedly able-bodied partner; safe, healthy, pleasurable sex starts with partners talking to each other, asking what is needed, what is wanted, what is desired.

I have heard people with mobility impairments say that the necessity of giving their partners specific instructions on how to move them makes the whole encounter so much sexier. Talking is always sexy.

What if your partner can’t talk? Very likely they will have a communication system set up, and it’s something you’ll know about ahead of time.

The fun, and fear, of sexy time with a new partner is the same regardless of ability. The challenges arise when we’re faced with things we’ve never encountered, and sometimes have never heard of. Don’t let fear keep you from what, or who, you want. Listen, ask questions, connect!

There’s so much more I could say, but I will leave it there for the present. I’ll leave you with a few resources.

One of the best resources for info on sex and disability is the fabulous book
The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability.
(Also available in alternative formats from U.S. and Canadian service providers. Please ask me for details.)

Here’s a list of sex and disability resources. The creator of sexuality.about.com is Cory Silverberg, coauthor of The Ultimate Guide to Sex And Disability.

What are your thoughts as you read this, or peruse the resources, or reflect on your own experiences? What do you think the challenges might be if you were sexual with someone whose abilities were different from yours? What would you like to see me write about in this arena?

  7 Responses to “Sex And Disability: Starting The Dialogues”

  1. It sounds like only thing to fear is fear itself, eh? And considering the source of the quote, why not use it. I dunno – I feel like so many folks fear looking stupid, inept or accidentally offensive but anyone can feel that way. You’re absolutely right, it boils down to communication and caring! Thanks for this post.

  2. What an important topic. It is interesting to look at it starting from the point of view of a potential sexual partner. It is equally interesting to consider how the disability community–in particular, the community providing services to people with disabilities–views sexuality. For example, when seeking services, can a person with a disability ask comfortably for assistance with an online dating profile if he/she needs it? (or find a group like the Outsiders in Britain that are active places for people with disabilities to meet)… How does a person with physical disabilities ask a personal care attendant to help him/her get ready for sex, including masturbation? There are many important questions like these, and ones that I fear are too often ignored, largely out of discomfort. And what a pity if a person feels intimidated to ask for assistance or information in this huge aspect of human life! It truly is a civil rights issue.

  3. This is a very important topic. While most of us think of disabilities in terms of mobility, loss of a limb, or loss of sight, hearing or speech, mine is very different. Due to oral cancer I lost both most of my tongue and my ability to swallow.

    The problem associated with sex without a tongue are obvious as french kissing is out of the question and oral sex would be very different with just the lips. However, without a tongue even a regular kiss is more difficult to produce. The loss of the tongue also creates a problem that I spit when I speak which is unpleasant at close quarters.

    The loss of the ability to swallow creates two additional problems. First, meeting people usually involves socializign around food/drink related events or meetings at restaurants bars, or coffee shops. While I can go to any of them, I can’t enjoy and my partner would have to watch me poor liquids and my formula nutrition down the tube. Also the noise in many public places makes understandin my speech difficult.

    Finally losing the ability to swallow, removes the normal mouth cleansing process of saliva and drinking water. Therefore I need to brush my teeth and use mouthwashes to keep my breath tolerable and it is not clear how long that can last.

    So, the bottom line is when you think about disability you have to separate out hoe the disability affects intimacy in general (do I want to be close physically to the person) from those that make certain sex acts or positions physically impossible, In all cases, it takes a special partner to want to accommodate the person with the disability and accept what can and cannot be done and enjoy what can.

  4. I think what you say about communication makes perfect sense because afterall this is what applies in a relationship where the people concerned have no disabilities. This shouldn’t be any different if one or both parties suffer from a disability. Talking or expressing your desires and/or fears is key to a better understanding of what each person wants from a relationship. Disability shouldn’t get in the way of a fulfilling sex life.

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