- Disabilities complicate sex, but never preclude it.
- Unfortunately, many people believe the cruel myths that disabled people are neither sexual nor desirable.
- For great sex while disabled, focus not on your disabilities, but on your abilities.
Most of us wonder if we’re sexually attractive. Some people agonize over it. That’s understandable. Self-doubt, especially about one’s sex appeal, is near-universal. Now imagine that beyond normal self-doubts, the world told you in a myriad of ways both subtle and crass: You’re not sexually attractive. No one could possibly want someone like you. That’s what people with disabilities contend with throughout their lives.
According to Census data, 19 percent of Americans—50 million people—have disabilities. Physical limitations complicate sex but never preclude it. When there’s a will, there’s always a way.
Touch is the only sense we can’t live without. Virtually everybody—every body—enjoys sensual touch. Even those with severe disabilities can enjoy erotic pleasure, both solo and partnered. Of course, erotic adjustments must be made. Partners must be patient and flexible. And coaching is necessary. But satisfying sex is always possible.
Myths vs. Truths
Myth: Disabled people are not sexual.
Truth: Everyone has handicaps. Some are just more visible and limiting than others. Except for the asexual 1 percent, everyone is capable of erotic pleasure. Disabled people often face serious obstacles to expressing their sexuality. But they’re as sexual as anyone else.
Myth: Disabled people are not desirable.
Truth: Everyone is attractive to someone. If you’re able-bodied and feel an erotic spark with a disabled friend, say so. And if you’re disabled and feel romantically attracted to a friend, say so. Of course, attraction may not be reciprocated. That’s life. But silence means nothing ever happens.
Myth: Disabled people don’t have the energy for sex.
Truth: Sex is not a luxury some can’t afford. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. Disabilities don’t change that.
Myth: Disabled people can’t have “real” sex.
Truth: Some disabilities make vaginal intercourse difficult or impossible. But there are many other satisfying ways to make love. Even those who have no genital sensation can enjoy erotic pleasure and orgasms.
Myth: Sex is private and serious disabilities preclude privacy.
Truth: Disabled people who need attendants may not have the privacy able-bodied folks take for granted. But that doesn’t cancel their sexuality. Attendants can position the disabled to enable self-sexing or partner sex.
Myth: Disabled sex can’t be great sex.
Truth: Actually, several years after disabling injuries, some people report that sex is more enjoyable than it was before they became disabled.
Of course, disabled sex is no bed of roses. Many disabled people feel undesirable. Disabilities complicate finding partners and arranging private time with them. Mobility limitations may interfere with lovemaking. Many disabilities cause chronic pain and/or fatigue that interfere with sexual energy and responsiveness. Many disabled people take medications, notably antidepressants, that may cause sex-impairing side effects. Some disabilities, for example, spinal cord injuries, interfere with genital sensation and orgasm. But with sufficient stimulation, many men with spinal injuries can raise erections and around half of those with spinal injuries can have orgasms.
Suggestions for Sex Despite Disabilities
- It's difficult, sometimes impossible, not to feel preoccupied with your disabilities. As much as possible, focus on your abilities, the pleasure you can enjoy and provide.
- If fatigue is an issue, schedule sex for times when you have the most energy.
- To whatever extent possible, enjoy self-pleasuring. Solo sex does not require much mobility or genital sensitivity. Self-sexing is the foundation of sexuality. When you have physical challenges, it becomes even more central to erotic satisfaction.
- If you can use vibrators, they can deliver great pleasure. Dozens of models can be found in sex toy catalogs.
- For many people with disabilities, shower massagers can be great boons to self-sexing. The spray’s intensity can be controlled and directed wherever you like. For those who need attendants, shower massagers may also allow privacy. Attendants can set up the device in the tub and direct the spray, then leave.
- Solo sex can be enjoyed with others. Partners can self-sex in each other’s presence or over the phone, FaceTime, or Zoom.
- Orgasm is not necessary for erotic enjoyment. If it happens, great. However, the goal of sex is not orgasm, but pleasure—and in an erotic context, any sustained, gentle touch can provide it.
Seeing Is Believing
One reason why there are so many myths about disabled lovemaking is that so few able-bodied people have ever seen disabled folks being joyously sexual. Here are three opportunities:
- In the 1978 Academy-award-winning film Coming Home, a paraplegic Vietnam veteran (John Voight) is a bitter wreck—until a chance reunion with an old high school acquaintance (Jane Fonda) turns romantic. Despite his disability, they discover how to enjoy lovemaking. In one scene, Fonda fellates Voight and asks, “Can you feel this?” He replies, “I can see it and I love what I see.”
- The 2012 film, The Sessions, is based on the true story of a Berkeley, California, quadriplegic (John Hawkes) who is determined to enjoy sex—though all he can move is his head. A surrogate partner (Helen Hunt) helps him realize his goal. Surrogate partners can bring joy to those with disabilities who have limited partner options. Visit the International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA).
- For 25 years, journalist/photographer David Steinberg, of Santa Cruz, California, has specialized in non-pornographic, fine-art photography of couples making love in their homes. Coincidentally, one of the first couples Steinberg photographed included a man with cerebral palsy. When he saw the photos, the man said, “Oh, my God, we’re beautiful.” Since then, Steinberg has photographed many disabled couples. To view a selection of his photos, visit his website, under Photography > Sex and Disability. Or check out a podcast that features his work.
Are You the Parent of a Disabled Child?
Everything in this post goes double for parents of children with disabilities. My suggestions:
- Your children are innately sexual.
- Discuss sexuality with them as you would with able-bodied children—see my previous post.
Of course, it’s not easy discussing sex with kids. When I had children, I’d been a sex educator for a decade and still sometimes felt tongue-tied. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert. Or super-articulate. Just try. And keep trying. Once disabled kids become teens, you and they might view the resources mentioned above, and use them as springboards for discussion.
- Some children with severe disabilities require a great deal of care and may not have many opportunities for private self-exploration or partner play. To whatever extent possible, grant them the privacy and opportunities to explore their sexuality by themselves and with special friends.
- When disabled teens or young adults want to lose their virginity, surrogate partners can help. Visit IPSA.
The best book I’ve found is The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain and Illness, by Kaufman et al.