Debunking Myths about Sexuality and Disability
To many people, there are few topics which seem more uncomfortable and personal than sexuality and disability. Conversations about bodies can make people uneasy, because our bodies are so often and intimately tied to our identities. And when the topic transitions to sex or disability - or both - lots of people simply avoid them out of politeness, discomfort, or a lack of vocabulary (or, let's be real, all three). That silence may be politely well-intentioned, but it leaves most disabled people feeling that their sexuality is elided and ignored in the wider world. Myths and misunderstandings about disability and sex abound, and here we will try to tackle and demystify a few.
To Understand Something, We've Got to Talk About It
An article about sex and disabled bodies from The Daily Dot asks: "Try this thought exercise: In less than 30 seconds, name one disabled person, male or female, that you've seen in a romantic storyline in a recent major film or television show. Name a disabled character that has had sex in any recent show or film. [...] Name a disabled porn star, for that matter."
If you're finding it difficult to answer those questions off the top of your head, ask yourself whether you could answer the same questions about the able-bodied more easily. Could you name a character that had a romantic storyline in something you recently watched? What about one that had sex? The answer is almost certainly yes, right? That space - that gap in representation - is also part of what contributes to making it difficult to discuss disability and sex. It's hard to talk about things which seem too personal to ask and which are rarely shown in the media. And it's in that quiet space that misunderstandings grow. More open and realistic conversations about and depictions of disabled sex would help combat stereotypes and give people more of a vocabulary to talk about disability and sex.
Until that occurs, we can all take on the initiative ourselves and examine - and debunk! - some of the most frequent myths and misconceptions:
Myth: The disabled are non-sexual
As one disability advocacy group put it: "One of the biggest barriers for people with disabilities is the assumption that they are not sexual. Not so! People with a disability can have sexual urges, have sex - possibly the adventurous kind if they choose - and be with sex workers." The disabled exist on the exact same spectrum as the able-bodied, with the same need for a sexual identity and healthy, happy, fun ways to express it.
Myth: Disabled people cannot have or enjoy sex
That might seem like an overly broad way to put it, but the truth is that most disabled people have to live through overly broad assumptions about disability and sex on a regular basis. Nearly every disabled person can tell you a story (or more like a dozen) where they had a conversation or interaction with someone who just assumed that they could not have sex or could not enjoy sex because they were disabled.
Sure, some disabilities require adaptations for sex, but that's why there's such a broad range of fun toys, aids, and devices to make sex adaptable. Sex slings, positioning straps, and all sorts of exciting gadgets all make it easier for the disabled to enjoy a variety of fun positions and activities.
Myth: The disabled do not masturbate
In fact, masturbation is particularly important to many disabled people because of the many ways they are distanced from a sexual identity in the world around them. Like anyone else, many disabled people enjoy using toys to add more excitement to masturbation. Vibrators, dildos and anal beads are always great for an added boost.
Myth: Men in wheelchairs or with paralysis cannot get an erection
When we discussed sex in wheelchairs and sex with paralysis, erections were a frequent topic. As we said in our ED post, sex can sometimes feel focused on erections and intercourse. Many disabled men could tell you that one of the most difficult assumptions to overcome is that they cannot get an erection or feel penile sensations. The truth is that disabilities are vast and different and so are their symptoms. Some disabled men get and maintain erections easily, while others use popular aids like cock rings to strengthen and maintain their erections. Many disabled men find success with prescription options, though they can sometimes be expensive.
More than that, there are many toys specifically designed for sex with erectile issues. A thigh strap-on will allow your partner to grind against you while you both focus on mutual arousal rather than be distracted by concerns about maintaining an erection. And a hollow strap-on easily fits a soft or semi-erect penis inside the strap-on, where it can be used for as long as you both desire. Hollow strap-ons are pliable enough to work for slow, face-to-face sex, but sturdy enough to support your partner being on top and grinding on you.
Myth: Sex is painful for the disabled / You will hurt your disabled sex partner
In and outside the bedroom, people with disabilities struggle with being stereotyped as weak and fragile, and it's sometimes too easy for that assumption to extend to the bedroom. Partners worry that sex will be painful for their disabled partners, or that they will not really be able to lose themselves in the moment and enjoy it because they might hurt their partner. You should, of course, talk to your individual partner - every situation and person is unique. But as a general note, you shouldn't assume that disability and fragility are synonymous. Many disabled people throw themselves as passionately into sex as anyone, and your partner should always be open and honest about what their body is able to handle.
Myth: Disabled sex is boring or unadventurous
This may be one of the most pervasive myths, but it couldn't be further from the truth. The positioning aids and toys we've mentioned - slings, straps, links, and cuffs - can be used to make both 'basic' sex positions (like missionary or lying down) and more exotic sex more accessible. And just because the sex may be adapted, doesn't mean it has to be tame. Aids like a door sex sling or a spreader bar make it easier to position the legs and body for all kinds of adventurous sex - whether laying down, sitting, standing or in the shower. You get to be creative and adventurous with your partner as you explore all the ways you can adapt sex to meet both your wants.
Myth: Disabled people can't be sexy
This is an internalized bias that many don't even realize they might have. But as we said above, the wider world gets scant few chances to see depictions of sexy, sexual disabled people in the media. And the media plays such an enormous role in shaping what we think of as sexy, attractive, or ideal. More representation of diverse bodies will help with this issue. But more directly, we can all work to remember that we find beauty, attraction, even deep sexiness outside the very narrow confines of what popular media says is attractive every day. Attraction and sexiness are rooted in dozens of seen and unseen factors, and the goal should be not to confine it to some narrow ideal, but to find the unique person - body, personality, and all - that turns you on.
The spectrum of human sexuality is varied, diverse, and vibrant. The myths and misperceptions that persist around disability and sex are often rooted in assumption and protected by a well-meaning, polite silence. Rather than assume, ask, read, and listen! The stories and voices about disabled sexuality exist, and it's the boosting of those voices and narratives that will help dispel the myths even further. With open communication and a willingness to adapt (and a lineup of toys and aids), disabled sex can be more accessible, acknowledged, and fun for all.