Disability and sexuality

People with physical or intellectual disabilities in our society are often regarded as non-sexual adults. Sex is very much associated with youth and physical attractiveness and when it is not, is often seen as “unseemly”.

If sex and disability are discussed, it is very much in terms of capacity, technique and fertility – in particular, male capacity and technique and female fertility – with no reference to sexual feelings. This approach ignores other aspects of sexuality, such as touching, affection and emotions.

Disabled people not non-sexual
If we accept that sexual expression is a natural and important part of human life, then perceptions that deny sexuality for disabled people deny basic right of expression. The perception of people with disabilities as non-sexual can present a barrier to safe sex education, both for workers who may be influenced by these views and for disabled people themselves in terms of gaining access to information and acceptance as sexual beings.

For paraplegic and quadriplegic people, loss of sexual function does not mean a corresponding loss of sexuality. Sexual function may be impaired but can, like other functions, be increased, although fertility is usually lost for men.

After spinal cord injury the spinal centre for sexual function is generally intact; it is the communication from the brain to the spinal centre that is usually disrupted. Unless some sensation in the area of the sexual organs remains, the usual sensation of orgasm is lost, but phantom orgasm elsewhere in the body may be experienced. However, the physical and emotional aspects of sexuality, despite the physical loss of function, continue to be just as important for disabled people as for non–disabled people.

In addition, opportunities for sexual exploration among disabled people, particularly the young, are very limited. There is often a lack of privacy and they are much more likely than other young people to receive a negative reaction from an adult if discovered. The general reduction in life choices also has an impact on self – esteem which in turn affects sexuality.

It is important for health care professionals, particularly those involved in education programs with disability workers or disabled people, to understand community attitudes towards disability and sexuality and the impact of these views upon disabled people themselves.

(Elna McIntosh, Health24 sexologist, updated February 2008)

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