Disability and relationships: a different way of looking at sex

Disability and relationships: a different way of looking at sex

Sex and relationships expert, Tuppy Owens, shares an article from her new website, School of Sex (www.School-of-Sex.info), which aims to educate people on sex and disability by sharing advice and real-life stories. 

Contributors to the website are sexually experienced disabled people and those who support them: professionals such as sex workers care staff and enablers. She has searched the globe for experienced disabled lovers with a huge variety of impairments, as well as service providers to write for the site.

Here, you can read the personal story of Alex, who has MS, about her experiences of learning how to enjoy sex with a disability, plus top tips and resources to help you enjoy it too.

My name is Alex and I am a female wheelchair user who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in my late 20s. A few years later I got married. My husband has always accepted my impairment, and often acts as my carer, too. We enjoy a good sex life and continue to navigate our journey through disability and sex, both of which are a work in progress.

To help others through the sometimes difficult world of disability and relationships, I give workshops and talks on the subject. Here, I would like to share some of my experiences of enjoying an intimate and sexual life with a disability, as well as my top tips.

Learn how to have sex with your disability

Having a disability doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy sex. It just means that you need to look at sex in a different way, and maybe use a different set of tools and ways of having sex. That, in itself, can be a lot of fun, as well as challenging and frustrating, but equally fulfilling.

First, find out what being sexy and sex itself means for you, and redefine it around your needs and what you are able to do. Connect, talk, touch, hug and don’t be ashamed of your feelings and desires, or lack of them. Explore them, explore yourself and your partner.

It may be that you actually don’t want any sexual contact at all, but just intimacy and closeness. That’s fine too. Your partner may be happy with that and masturbation. Or there might be alternatives to penetrative sex that you could explore (see the resource section for help with this). It’s all about communication and deciding what works best for you.

You could also consider an enabler, such as a sex therapist or sex worker. They can be extremely valuable in helping to show you what is possible when you need some ideas. Make sure you only use experienced, accredited people. There are some organisations and practitioners listed in the resources section at the bottom of this article.

Discover and connect with your body

I’ve been sexually active as a non-disabled and disabled person. However, with so much involvement from health professionals, I had become disconnected from my body. It became medical, and body parts were just that – anatomical body parts.

But, I also found that having a disability forces you to get to know your body better, so reconnecting with it was easier. Starting to own my body helped me see it in a new way and become a more sexual person again. This, in turn, helped me and my partner feel more like a sexual couple, and made me more aware and intuitive during sex.

Be open about your needs and desires

One of the most important things when it comes to a healthy relationship is being open with your partner, about everything, and accepting your needs and theirs. Don’t take sex too seriously, nor be flippant about it.

You may need to change how you and your partner relate to each other and how you do things together. Understand the expectations and needs of your partner as much as your own. Also make sure you resolve emotional issues and acknowledge losses, too.

You may also find that you need to separate the roles of your partner and carer, whether they are the same person or different. Try setting times, routines and locations for both. Also, consider the impact of sex when talking with health and care professionals. They may have invaluable advice.

It’s important that sex and intimacy are consensual, so make sure that the other person really wants and agrees to what you’re doing and that it is respectful and safe.

Try new things

Experiment, and don’t be afraid to fail or get it wrong. Sometimes people can be overwhelmed by the idea of being creative with sex because they think it’s complicated. But it can open up opportunities to explore and discover new things you might not have thought of before.

Why not try simply:

  • reading an erotic story;
  • hugging with no clothes on;
  • watching a favourite film together;
  • feeling each other’s skin and body with no other sexual activity;
  • talking to each other in ways that you haven’t tried before.

All this helps make people feel that sex and intimacy are achievable and pleasurable.

Remember, there is no ‘failure’, only discovering what may work well for you. Value new abilities or practices, redefine what is pleasurable. You might want to try ‘body mapping’, which involves touching areas of your body and seeing how they feel. Imagination, fantasy, and role-play can also all lead to new ways of enjoying intimacy.

When experimenting, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. An initial hiccup doesn’t mean that it is never going to work. Of course, sometimes you can experiment and you know the first time that you don’t like it. That’s fine as well. Don’t force things – simply move on and try something else.

Be confident

Confidence is crucial when it comes to having a satisfying, fulfilling and fun sex life. I believe that some of that confidence can be gained by trying out different things. I felt that having the physical experience of sexual situations to build my confidence was really important for me.

Top tips on disability and sex

  • Be creative and experiment.
  • Don’t give up after an initial disappointment.
  • Redefine what sex and intimacy mean for you.
  • Be aware of your needs and ways to communicate them.
  • Remember that we all like and need different things.
  • Develop a new self-awareness/self-acceptance of your body.
  • Communicate as clearly and openly as possible.
  • Connect and give each other pleasure and enjoyment.

Sex aids and equipment

  • Use adaptable or high-powered vibrators if you aren’t very sensitive – Tuppy’s article on the top sex toys for disabled people is a great place to start.
  • Use adaptions, such as a grab rail near the bed, to help with positioning and moving.
  • Refer to a range of resources – websites, blogs, forums, books etc, and talk to other disabled people.
  • There’s lots of sex aids out there that can help – sex swings, wedges, special cushions, vibrating gloves – see resources below for websites that may provide these and many other options.

Working around your disability

  • Plan ahead – preparation can be a sexy-new type of foreplay.
  • Take your time – have a quick nap if you need to.
  • If you can’t undress, get your partner to do this.
  • Close your catheter valve before and during sex.
  • Certain positions can make spasticity better or worse, so experiment.
  • Attractive, sexy underwear has been designed for ostomy users and those with incontinence issues.
  • Prescription drugs can have side effects on sexual function, so it’s worth taking to your GP if you’re concerned.
  • Spasms can be affected by triggers, timing, and medication, so understand your patterns. You can also medicate just before sex to minimise them (consult your GP first).

Resources

Books and booklets

  • The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability (Kaufman, Silverberg and Odette).
  • Secret Garden, by Nancy Friday – a collection of people’s sexual fantasies.
  • Urban Tantra, by Barberla Carrellas – it explores the vast range of sexual, spiritual and emotional possibilities open to all of us, written in a very accessible style.
  • Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure (Zed Books) – there is a chapter called Sex and Disability that’s particularly useful.
  • The Disabled Sexual Surrogate by Lawrence Shapiro 2017 and The Elephant Journal – both talk about making love without having sex.
  • Desires Reborn, by Penny Pepper – erotic short stories featuring disabled characters.
  • The Trouble with Illness, by Julia Segal (Jessica Kingsley) – how illness and disability affect relationships.
  • Supporting Disabled People with Their Sexual Lives, by Tuppy Owens with Claire de Than (Jessica Kingsley) – a clear guide for health and social care professionals.
  • Sex, Intimacy and Relationships (MS Essentials/MS Society).
  • Sexuality and MS: A Guide for Women (MS Trust)
  • Sex and MS: A Guide for Men (MS Trust).

Online Resources

This article contains guidance only and advice should always be sought from a GP or medical practitioner.

By Alex Cowan

This article was originally published on the School of Sex (www.School-of-Sex.info). Tuppy Owens – who founded the members club Outsiders and Disability Helpline – created the website to enable disabled people to freely enjoy dating, sex, relationships and love. Having good sex education makes you happier, healthier and safer.

Some disabled people have described their sex education as worse than useless, and people who have become disabled later in life may have received no support to continue on their sexual journeys. The School of Sex website aims to change that.

If you would like to contribute, please email Tuppy@Outsiders.org.uk.