Sexuality is normal. Human beings need to be touched. All human beings. Yet for some reason we tend to think of people with disabilities as being asexual. We decide they aren’t interested in sex and if they are, it’s probably an unhealthy interest.
Sexuality is the same basic drive for everyone. It is emotional, it is social, and it is physical. Our sexuality involves how we feel about ourselves, our understanding of ourselves as men and women, and what we feel we have to share with others. Our sexuality is an aspect of our relationship with other people. It includes feelings of affection and approval. And it includes the whole panorama of physical sensations and desires, of which genital activity is just a part.
Depending on the disability, some people are very vulnerable to manipulation and abuse and need particular help developing a sexual ethic that protects them while also giving them the opportunity to experience the fullness of human sexuality. Contradictory messages about sex can be particularly confusing to those who have cognitive and emotional barriers to understanding.
I have met women and men who thought that the fact that they were having sex with their partner meant they would always be together and were heart broken when their partner moved on to a different relationship. I worked with one man who was overly warm and complimentary to women. He believed he was “just being nice” and needed a lot of redirection to understand appropriate social interactions in public and in the work place. I have encountered both men and women who were desperately searching for an intimate relationship in which they could share their most vulnerable self, just like most of the abled bodied people I have encountered in our society.
Everyone is a sexual being with sexual desires and sexual needs. All of us, disabled or not, need to know and abide by appropriate boundaries. Different relationships include different levels and kinds of touch.
One of the ways in which we experience the gift of sex is in the act of self-touch. Masturbation is a perfectly natural and normal way of learning about our bodies and giving ourselves pleasure. This is no less true for those who have emotional, cognitive, or physical barriers. Unfortunately, there are still places where the differently abled are shamed and punished if they are discovered to be masturbating, even in the privacy of their own rooms. To punish someone for expressing their sexuality this way is an assault to that person. There is no reason not to welcome masturbation as a healthy part of any of our lives, particularly those with barriers that might prohibit them from engaging in a healthy sexual relationship with a partner.
Sometimes those barriers are purely physical. Through genetics, accident, or injury, there are many people in this world today that carry physical scars that affect their sexual abilities. The recent movie The Sessions illustrates this reality when a man in an iron lung seeks out a sexual surrogate in order to feel the sensational height of orgasm with a partner, an experience that many of us take for granted.
Most people with physical disabilities still need to experience the joy of sexuality, even if they are not able to achieve orgasm. This can involve something as simple as the feel of skin against skin and can include the ability to give the gift of orgasm to another.
The good news is that stigma and stereotype are lessening, and many people with disabilities are experiencing the joy of an intimate relationship with another. Those who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation need us to help them define healthy relationships and to guide them on appropriate private and public expressions of intimacy and self-touch. And they need us to help them work through their own sexual ethic so that they, too, are making wise choices about how they will express their sexuality in a way that is joyful and life giving to them, and to their partners.
I welcome your comments and feedback!