People with disabilities and chronic illness are often left out of sexual conversations. Too often disabilities and illnesses are used to define a person, instead of being recognized as just one attribute, amongst many others, that make a whole person. We not only need make people with disabilities and chronic illness part of the conversation, we need support them in their sexual explorations, empower them to feel desirable, and acknowledge their individual circumstances. This may require us to challenge some of the common myths associated with sex and disability.
Myth # 1 - People with disabilities and chronic illness aren’t sexual.
In our society, we have a very strong idea that people who are disabled or live with chronic illness do not engage in sex like we do. This idea stems from a larger notion that disabled people are essentially different and othered. The need for assistance or special accommodations for disabled and ill people are often mistaken for helplessness, and as a result, of being childlike. Even if someone is fully mentally competent and able, their physical inabilities can see them labeled as childish in our society, and therefore inherently not sexual.
Very rarely does the media portray disabled narratives, and if they do the mention of sex is very uncommon. Disabilities and chronic illness are never explored in state offered sexual health education and in fact, many people who live with visible disabilities have experienced not being included in sexual health courses, either at their parent's or the school's request. This lack of representation and inclusion is harmful to the sexual wellbeing of disabled and chronically ill people. The first step in providing visibility in the sexual environment for people with disability and chronic illness is acknowledging people with these conditions can still be sexual.
Myth # 2 - Having disabilities, pain, or illness makes you undesirable.
Emanating off the idea that disabled and chronically ill people are not sexually is the harmful idea that they are also undesirable. Many of us struggle with feelings of being sexually inadequate or unsatisfactory, and the feeling is only heightened when you are part of a marginalized group. Our media continues to feed us imagery that supports the idea that only young, beautiful, hetero, cis, and usually white people are those who are desirable and who sex is for. Anyone out of this idea is less desirable, less sexy, less deserving, and in the case of disabled and chronically ill people who require extra time, communication, and accommodations, a burden.
The truth is people who are disabled or chronically ill have as much to offer in a relationship and a sexual partnership as those who are able bodied. There are large shifts happening in cultural perceptions of beauty and desirability and we must demand representation of all people in the media to normalize all experiences.
Myth # 3 - Having to plan sex makes it less fun or enjoyable.
Spontaneous sex being the best kind of sex can be a very harmful concept, especially to disabled and ill folks. Spontaneity also means lack of communication, lack of consent, lack of boundary setting, and lack of planned tools and resources that can be helpful to a sexual experience. Many people who have disabilities require some kind of planning before sex to ensure the experience won’t be lousy, frustrating, or potentially dangerous. Making assumptions about sex and not communicating is one of the easiest ways to make sex less enjoyable.
Envision sex as a road trip. Road trips can be fun adventures but only with the correct planning. Where are you going and what path are you taking to get there? Do you have enough supplies to get there safely? Taking time to plan sex helps up your chances of having a good sexual experience.
Myth # 4 - If you can’t have penetrative PIV sex, it’s not real sex.
Often the myth that real sex is only penetrative penis in vagina sex is talked about as being erasing to the LGBTQIA+ community but it’s also harmful of the disabled and chronically ill communities too. The umbrella term of disability and illness represents a range of varying bodies, circumstances, and people. Some people can and like to have penetrative sex, while others can’t or don’t want to. Some people with disabilities like to engage with their genitals in other ways than penetration, while other like to focus their sexual energy on other erogenous zones of the body.
An inclusive definition of sex is an sexual stimulating activity. This could be masturbation, mutual masturbation, penetration, oral sex, exploring toys, phone sex, anal sex, tantric sex, BDSM play, role play, or non-genital sex.
Myth # 5 - People with disabilities and chronic illness don’t experience sexual violence.
A common part of this myth is that you have to be desirable (in society standards) to encounter sexual assault, therefore people with disabilities aren’t considered targets. This is simply not true. Attackers tend to pray on those who are vulnerable. People with physical and mental disabilities are far more likely to be victims of sexual assault than those without disabilities. Statistics vary from 2 to 10 percent more likely, though some suggest these figure don’t account for the many people who don’t or can’t report their assault. We need to start acknowledging that people with disabilities are at higher risk of sexual violence so we can create preventative measures to help protect them.