I had my first sexual experience when I was 22. In fact, my first kiss also happened when I was 22. You could call me a late bloomer. Before that hot summer’s night, I used to dream of what I would do with whoever was my crush at the time – feel free to use some imagination. Now, in my 30s, I have had many sexual experiences and, like many other sexually active individuals, I enjoy the intimacy and pleasure it brings. Unlike other people who have and enjoy sex, I have Cerebral Palsy.
Sex and disability are two words rarely spoken about together. Disabled people are often incorrectly perceived as being asexual due to society’s generally heteronormative ideas around sex. It is evident that this stigma that exists needs to be dismantled, and a campaign for the condom and lubricant manufacturing company, Durex, achieved this with much success. The campaign, controversially called The Unf*ckables, was launched in Spain in 2020 and featured disabled people as the stars of the advertisements. Despite the campaign being tongue-in-cheek, it is provocative in the way it forces one to view disabled individuals as sexual beings.
It would be ignorant for society to exclude disabled people from the sexual narrative, especially when they make up 15% of the global population, according to the World Health Organization. Sex is as much of a basic need as eating, drinking and sleeping are for all human beings. Furthermore, we yearn for that oxytocin to make us feel good.
Speaking as a young woman, who lives with a physical condition which affects my mobility, my sexual experience do look a little different to the norm. My biggest challenge has always been penetration, owing to the fact that I cannot open my legs very wide. I have managed to work around this by communicating my needs to my partner, resulting in either changing positions or the overall pace. Apart from my mechanical sexual challenges, I sometimes feel anxious and self-conscious around sexual activities. Compounded with the usual performance concerns, I worry that men might find my body unattractive. This really is not conducive to relaxing my body as it increases my spasms – not ideal components for enjoyable sex. Over the years, I have realized that the better I know my partner and the more comfortable I feel around him, the more the anxiety and negative feelings about my body falls away.
From a broader perspective, people who have other physical disabilities, including spinal cord injuries, neuromuscular conditions like Multiple Sclerosis, amputations and varying degrees of paralysis all experience challenges in the bedroom. Some people use sex toys and physical aids (such as bed modifications) to enhance their sexual experience. Finding suitable sex positions can bring more comfort and make it easier for physically disabled people.
The physical act of sex accounts for only a part of one’s sexuality. Disabled individuals experience barriers to sexual healthcare services, including gynecological examinations, information around safe-sex practices and accessing contraception. These include attitudinal barriers, where misconceptions around disabled people’s ability to have sex are rife, causing discrimination and the perpetuation of society’s ignorance. In addition, physical barriers in terms of inaccessible buildings with no elevators as well as inaccessible toilet facilities and dimly lit areas making signage difficult to read all contribute to a disabled individual’s inability to access these vital healthcare services. Communication barriers are also fundamental in contributing to the lack of properly disseminated sexual information. The printed information is often not available in braille or in larger fonts, making it difficult for people who are blind. There is also little use of sign language to accommodate deaf people.
Consensual sex is a union between people, filled with an intimacy that has the power to bring pleasure and a deep physical connection. Bonds with other people are borne from our gregarious nature and in a perfect world, the ability to enjoy the most primitive act where this takes place should be plain sailing. The world we find ourselves in requires compassion, genuine empathy, honest communication and open conversations with our partners and as a society to conquer the many challenges before us.
Words: Jaxx Woulken