Avoiding discussions of sex & disability are a proven disservice to the community. Candidness about sex is essential for our health & safety.
Sex is a taboo topic anyway, and once you add sex and disability it makes it even more off limits. For me, as a disabled person, sex has always been extra awkward. I did not want to talk to my mother about it at all because I thought she’d tell me I shouldn’t, or couldn’t, do that plus I just wasn’t comfortable.
I used to talk to my grandmother about everything – but not sex. You try telling your extremely conservative Southern Baptist Grandmother that you want to know if sex is possible for you because you like a boy in your P.E. class… You’d end up Googling sex and disability just like I did.
You can imagine Google led me down a very long – and creepy – rabbit hole full of weird words like devotees and disability fetishism. So instead, I very promptly cleared the browser history, shut down the computer, and put thoughts of an active sex life on hold for a while. Fifteen-year-old me was very freaked out.
Later as I actively began dating, I ignored the creepy shit and looked for actual data on how my specific disability would impact sexual experiences. I found nothing except for one study done in Sweden on the eighth page of the Google search. That to me highlights a real problem. It tells me even doctors are biased to believe disabled people don’t have sex.
Good Sex & Disability
This section is for the readers out there who are disabled and want to know how sex will work/feel for you. I have personally found that one of the best resources aside from your doctor is your physical therapist. Your PT is already familiar with your condition and how your body will react to physical stimuli. It’s definitely not a comfortable conversation, unless you happen to be friends with your PT. I’ve also found it helps to talk to someone of the same gender. I’ve been told you won’t know how sex works for as disabled person until you try it. I was also told by my doctor if something you’re doing hurts stop. That seems obvious but no one wants to end up on a Sex Sent Me to the ER episode so be mindful.
If you need aides for positioning purposes they have those just like mobility aides. They make wedges, pillows, and tables that can make it so the disabled person can be in a comfortable and sensible position that works for them.
There’s an episode of the reality TV show Push Girls where the older paraplegic women have a conversation with the younger ones. It’s very refreshing to see a frank and somewhat humorous discussion about a topic that is just not talked about with disabled people in my experience.
I think the reason it isn’t talked about is because no one wants to discuss sex with their teenager, and parents may think it is something their disabled kid will never experience – so why bring it up. And honestly, many don’t even think disabled people have normal desires, or if people are curious, they’re too polite to ask.
Disabled people have sex. We are sexual beings that have desires just like everyone else. We’re human after all.
I will say this though after running into some real weirdos on dating apps. To find someone attractive is fine, to fetishize them is not. That’s fucking creepy and will get you kicked to the curb real quick.
That’s the good part of sex for disabled. It’s possible, it’s normal, and it’s perfectly healthy. But if you get a creeper that’s normal too, the world is full of them – just don’t accept it.
Bad Sex & Disability
27% of intimate partner violence and crime was perpetrated on women with disabilities versus 1.1% of disabled men. Including physical, mental, verbal, and sexual abuse. There are various other abuses disabled people experience at the hands of their caregivers and family members. You can read the entirety of the study on the NCADV blog. Honestly it’s too depressing to talk about.
I think there are a couple of reasons intimate partner violence happens within the disabled community. Firstly, people can be predatory and disabled people make easy targets. I cannot run from someone if they choose to attack me, and I can’t properly defend myself. Secondly, if a disabled person chooses to marry their partner they will lose their medical insurance and their income. This effectively chains the person to their abuser. If you have no money, no other caregivers and you are being abused you don’t have a feasible exit plan or resources. You end up stuck in a vicious cycle of abuse.
When I began dating my now ex-boyfriend my sister and I set up a code word system. So if I was ever in a situation with him where I felt threatened or in danger I could send a text – like a bat signal – and she would come to my rescue. Honestly, that code word made me feel so much safer. Luckily, I never had to use it. It did however make me stop and think… I wonder if able bodied women have bat signals with their sisters?
Ugly Sex & Disability
83% of disabled people, regardless of gender, have been sexually abused. Disabled women are six times more likely to be assaulted than their able bodied counterparts. Of that 83%, 50% have been assaulted ten times or more. Only 3% of sexual assaults, abuses or crimes against the disabled are reported. (for more info visit disabilityjustice.org)
I am in the small percentage that reported the crime inflicted upon them. Putting it out into the world that I was a victim of any type of sexual abuse makes me feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed. But I’m stepping out of my comfort zone, and telling my story anyway, in hopes that we can lower the percentage of victims, or at least up the percentage of reports.
I was molested at age 16 by a family member. Unfortunately, I was not his only victim though I did not learn this until much later.
I grew up in a tiny Texas town where they taught basic sex-ed and abstinence. We weren’t taught how to spot when you’re being groomed or victimized. My abuser used his position within my family to get away with his actions. Because of who this person was to me, I made excuses for him: he would never do anything to hurt me, maybe I misread this action or this statement, etc…
He would make inappropriate comments about my looks, my body, even my interests, and if you called him on it he would say he was kidding around. I distinctly remember on my sixteenth birthday I was in the bookstore, looking at whatever romance novel series I was currently reading and trying to find the next book in the series, when he leaned down and whispered, “Do those books turn you on?”
At which point I nervously laughed and said. “Uh, Gross. No.”
This moment sticks out for me because internally my warning bells went off but I pushed them aside and never even mentioned it to my parents.
The grooming process is both a slow and steady tool of manipulation to gain trust, desensitize, and insert themselves into their victim’s life. So much so that the victim never even realizes the crime perpetrated on them until it’s already done.
At the time I was abused I had severe scoliosis and had traveled all day. I asked him to rub my back. This was a person I loved and trusted, I never imagined he would molest, me but that he did. At the time I didn’t know what he did was a crime. I just knew I didn’t like the way it made me feel. And I even thought that I had somehow caused it by asking him to rub my back.
I didn’t report it until 7 years later, I was 23. My cousin had just had a baby girl and I decided if I could stand up for myself by saying what happened that I had the power to cut off his flow of people who would be potentially victimized. I was correct about some of that – he’s now an EX-family member as far as my immediate family is concerned.
You may be wondering why it took me so long to report the person and there are many reasons for that including feeling immense shame. Something many sexual abuse victims experience.
First and foremost, learning that I was not his only victim, made me angry because he hurt people I loved. Additionally, knowing I wasn’t the only one gave me the confidence and courage to try to stop him. I thought that by standing up I could encourage his other victims to speak their piece as well.
When I thought I was his only victim he held all the power because of who this person was within my family. I wasn’t so sure then I would be believed by everyone. I knew my mother would believe me, but other than that I didn’t know if anyone else would. In my (then younger) thought processes, losing the people who might not have believed me was really scary.
It took me many years to realize that what he did to me is a crime. And it took me all those years to process the trauma of that. I did not know that being molested is a crime equal to rape. I’m going to say this in case a young girl runs across this in one of her Google sessions. Any sexualized touch that is uninvited or makes you feel violated is a crime. If you have the verbal capability to report possible crimes perpetrated against you, you should.
Reporting those crimes can be traumatizing. It can make you feel as though you’re being re-victimized because you have to relive the things that are done to you via testimony; perhaps multiple times. But it is worth it to stop someone from victimizing someone else.
If you are the parent, caregiver, or family member who happens to suspect that your nonverbal, intellectually disabled, or physically disabled family member is being abused you can find a list of possible indicators of abuse here: How to Recognize the Signs of Sexual Abuse Among People with Disabilities.
To be honest, when I started writing this about sex and disability I had no intention of using my platform to say #MeToo. But then I saw the astronomical numbers of people with disabilities who are victimized. Victimized in so many ways, simply because we are either physically weak, or because abusers know that they can get away with whatever they want. As disabled people often aren’t seen as full-fledged human beings.
By writing this I know that for some of my family members, who still have contact with my abuser, I am re-opening old wounds or digging up things they would rather stay buried. I understand that you may be angry with me for writing this but I’m not trying to hurt you. Instead, I believe it’s important to share my truth on this a platform as a disabled person/writer. I want to use my influence for the greater good so please be proud of me for trying to do so.
My editor asked that I try to end on a positive note because I always do. But researching for this piece made that virtually impossible. This one was hard to write, it depressed me, and reminded me of things I’d really rather forget. My closing advice is this: trust your gut if it doesn’t feel right, listen to those instincts, and ask for help or get out of the situation if you can.
As extra advice to you, if your child is disabled intellectually, or physically, educate them about sex and their bodies. Even if it’s uncomfortable, even if you don’t think sex is something they’ll experience. Because they deserve to understand the things they’re feeling are normal and healthy. Those creepy abusers are counting on disabled people to be uneducated and disempowered. Here are some links to help with that:
Cognitive Disability & Sexuality
Sexual Health Education for Young People with Disabilities
This was hard to write but worth it because it’s so very important. Sex and disability needs a lot more discussion, study, and support from everyone.