When it comes to sex and disability, there’s a whole slew of myths and misinformation. But there’s no excuse not to educate yourself and get the facts straight. In celebration of July being Disability Pride Month, we asked sexually active members of the community to dispel some myths so that everyone — even fellow disabled folks — can better understand that people with disabilities most definitely have amazing sex lives.
Here are eight myths about sex and disability, debunked.
1. Myth: People with disabilities do not have sex lives at all.
Fact: People with disabilities enjoy, want, and engage in sex.
Syd Chasteen, a full-time wheelchair-user with spina bifida and the author of the Bif In Medias Res blog, tells O.school, “The most damaging myth about disabled people and sex is that we don't have it, can't have it, or don't want to have it. When in reality, disabled people are just as desiring and capable of having a fulfilling sex life as non-disabled people.”
“These kinds of ableist, small-minded stereotypes hurt the disabled community and kill our self-esteem,” writer and disability activist Kristen Parisi tells O.school. Parisi, who is parapalegic, adds, “These attitudes have contributed to my own battles with depression.”
“It's sad and frustrating that disability and sex are still almost a novelty subject,” Parisi continues, saying “Back when going to bars was still possible, I had men regularly come up to me saying things like, ‘wow, so do you ever have sex? Can you feel it?’ I've even had the question posed to me by other women at professional events.”
2. Myth: People with disabilities are not “worthy” of sex.
Fact: Yes, they absolutely are.
Josh Galassi, a public relations professional who has cerebral palsy, tells O.school, “I think one of the most dangerous myths is that we somehow are not sexual, or worthy of sex. A lot of people, and society, simply don't view people with disabilities as sexy or desirable, which can be really damaging to a person.”
Galassi says he grew up believing nobody would ever love him or want to have sex with him because of his disability. He tells O.school that this belief altered the way he viewed himself — and it sometimes still affects him to this day.
“I'm always having to fight those thoughts whenever I date anyone,” he says. “It's the whole question of, What will they think when we meet and they see my disability? Will they still want me? Is this going to be a dealbreaker? After a certain point, you have to let it go, and believe that, if it's meant to be and they aren't a total asshole, none of that will matter.”
“[Disabled people] deserve to be loved the way they want, whether it's sexually or otherwise, regardless of their disability status,” Parisi adds.
To a non-disabled person, connecting disability and sex “challenges many of our cultural perceptions of sexual attractiveness and sexual ability,” sociologist and clinical sexologist Sarah Melancon, Ph.D. says. However, it’s up to each of us as individuals to educate ourselves, broaden our perspectives, and realize that sexual pleasure comes in so many valid forms.
3. Myth: Disabled people do not have the appropriate mental capacity to have sex.
Fact: Though some disabilities do affect mental development, that is certainly not the case for a large pool of people.
“One of the most damaging myths about those with disabilities is that we are infantilized or seen as mentally immature for our age,” mental health and disability advocate, writer, and life coach Jessica Victoria tells O.school. “While this doesn’t directly relate to our sex lives, it feeds into the assumption that we don’t need sex.”
4. Myth: It’s too difficult for people with disabilities to physically have sex.
Fact: It may take a bit longer for people with physical disabilities to figure out what’s most comfortable and enjoyable for them. But the process of figuring it out can be part of the fun.
Jessica Victoria tells O.school that recently she began talking to a potential partner, but he soon stopped talking to her because “he couldn’t imagine me being able to f*** him and that it didn’t ‘feel right.’” His ignorance on the issue led to him saying rude things to the point where Jessica Victoria felt she had no choice but to block him.
“It’s rough to be rejected because of something you can’t control,” she says. “Educate those who don’t understand.”
5. Myth: Disability and identity are one and the same.
Fact: Disability is only one aspect of identity.
“Yes, I am disabled,” Galassi tells O.school, “but I'm also a writer that loves low-calorie ice cream and watching TV. Very little of my life revolves around my disability. Sure, it may take me longer to get dressed in the morning, and I may have a hard time going up stairs, but there is so much more that defines me — and disabled people in general — than my/our actual disability.”
6. Myth: People with disabilities owe you answers on how they have sex.
Fact: Read the room before you ask — unless the conversation is about sex, it’s not appropriate for you to assume such a private question is warranted.
“It is absolutely not appropriate for people to question disabled people about their sex life unless sex, in general, is being discussed and even then boundaries and privacy should be respected,” Chasteen tells us. Jessica Victoria agrees that there’s a time and place for this question.
“When I’m on dating apps, it is often one of the first questions I get asked, which I think is very inappropriate,” Jessica Victoria says. “However, if I am talking to someone for a while, I think it’s important that they ask questions. Because in reality, our bodies are different than the average person.”
Galassi says that wording has a lot to do with whether or not this question is appropriate. “As someone who is disabled, I would hate if it someone asked me ‘how does sex work for you?’ I think that question is a bit abrasive and kind of already assumes that sex doesn't work for me, which isn't accurate. I would rather someone ask, ‘What are you comfortable with when it comes to sex?’ ”
7. Myth: If a person’s disability affects their genitals, this means they can’t have sex.
Fact: Even if a person’s sexual function is reduced, their sex drive can still be strong and healthy.
Dr. Melancon tells us that despite the fact that some people lack sexual function or have reduced sexual function, “many have a sex drive equal to an average non-disabled person,” adding that science has shown partial or complete paralysis in the lower body doesn’t always equal no sexual feeling.
“Interestingly, some women with complete spinal cord injuries can still experience orgasm,” she tells O.school. “There are several different nerves in the genital region associated with sexual pleasure. While nerves connected to the clitoris cannot transmit pleasure signals to the brain in this case, the vagus nerve bypasses the spinal cord, so is not affected.”
Therefore, sexual function and feeling can vary and remain intact despite a disability’s interference.
“I can't tell you how many times someone has asked me ‘Does everything, you know, down there work?!’” Galassi says. “In those instances, I've found it can be helpful to respond with something as simple as, ‘I totally get why you would ask that, as it's a common question I get. The beautiful thing is that we are all so different. Some people's may work, some may not. That said, here is my experience…’ "
8. Myth: Having sex with someone with a disability puts more pressure on the situation.
Fact: Sex can be awkward and sometimes nerve-wracking, no matter your disability status.
Galassi says that he recommends fellow members of the disability community stay open and “allow the other person to ask questions and make mistakes,” during sexual encounters. “I've found that I am often the first disabled person someone has ever talked to, and many of them are too afraid to ask certain questions, in fear of being offensive or not asking correctly. I say, allow them to ask it, and then gently explain to them why that may be offensive, depending on your comfort.”
And, if you’re getting serious with someone with a disability, do your best to educate yourself. “There is a great book out there called Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain, and Illness,” Jessica Victoria adds. “I totally recommend it as it is very educational.” A book like this is a great source for both parties in a disabled/non-disabled relationship.
“The key [sic] is just keeping your communication open from the get-go, let them know your limitations and curiosities prior to having sex,” Galassi says, addressing fellow disabled people. “If they are a good person who genuinely cares about you, they will understand and work with you!”
“If I could tell another disabled person anything, it would be to focus on their own sense of well-being and what they're looking for,” Parisi says. “They deserve to be loved the way they want, whether it's sexually or otherwise, regardless of their disability status.”