An issue affecting many is finally getting the attention it deserves.
Last week, the Center for Excellence in Sexual Health at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta hosted a conference titled "Wounded Troops and Partners: Supporting Intimate Relationships." With former Surgeon Generals Dr. David Satcher and Dr. Richard Carmona among the speakers, as well as former Senator Bob Dole, this effort is a glimmer of hope that America is finally ready to deal with the issue of sex and disability.
When most people think "sexy," they don't think disabled. Yet people with disabilities can be very sexual -- much more than we give them credit for. Consider, for example, that some women with complete spinal cord injury experience orgasm.
Research by Barry Komisaruk, Beverly Whipple (The Science of Orgasm) and colleagues has shown that these women respond to vaginal or cervical self-stimulation because they could perceive it, with some reporting an orgasmic response.
When I was working on my Master's degree in human sexuality, my class watched an old video from the 1970s exemplifying that people with disabilities can indeed be sexually active. In the video, a man was paralyzed from the neck down. Yet, despite his condition, he was able to bring his able-bodied partner to climax.
All it required was some movement on her part and his talented tongue. And as I listened to her moan -- and then scream -- her way into bliss, I remember being struck by the fact that she had just experienced what many women with non-disabled lovers do not. I remember thinking that the loving exchange I had just witnessed was more beautiful than most depictions of sex we normally see.
I share this because, as many of my colleagues have called for, we need to rethink the way we view sex – what and who is sexy. You or your partner may not be disabled -- or may not have a chronic illness -- but that day may come. Even if you can't identify with missing a limb, being bed-ridden, or being having a brain injury, you could one day find yourself struggling with how to maintain a sex life in spite of back pain, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy....
When it comes to sex and disability, the truth hurts. Yet we need to examine some harsh attitudes before we can challenge them. The following are societal attitudes that all of us need to set out to change:
1. People with disabilities aren't sexual beings.
In many ways, that man in the aforementioned video was sexier to me than a lot of "hunks" we see depicted in magazines like Playgirl. He was expressing his sexuality, he was lost in the moment, and he was confident. Nothing was going to hold him back. At the end of the day, his oral fixation, and its results, were no different from anyone else's.
Yet we tend to think that people with disabilities are different. Worse, if somebody is being treated like a child -- as in can't feed himself or can't wipe herself -- then we can't see that person as sexy. Let's not forget, people with disabilities have bodies, brains, feelings, libido ... all of which make them incredibly sexual beings.
2. People with disabilities are undesirable.
Between the planning, patience, communication, and emotional support required, people who have a disability are labeled a burden when it comes to sex. Furthermore, society holds that if you can't perform a certain way in the sack, then you're no good. This is supposedly true even if you're perfectly "abled."
Humans go to great lengths when they love someone to make things happen -- to express that love and realize its full potential. Nobody or nothing is considered a burden when you want it badly enough. It's well worth the effort.
3. Good sex can only be spontaneous.
If you can't have sex on the fly -- if it requires planning and taking your time -- then your sex life is chalked up as bad, according to our society. Try telling that to a Tantric sex practitioner, right? Good sex comes in all forms -- and many will tell you that spontaneity can become overrated.
4. People with disabilities can't have 'real' sex.
People are stuck on this notion that sex can be "true" sex only if it involves certain positions or maneuvers. Related to this is the idea that non-vaginal forms of sexual intimacy, like oral sex or masturbation, are not as good as the "real" thing.
What makes for real sex is often based on our preferences, values, and attitudes. For some it might be that they actually made love or that they felt present or that it had a certain outcome.... You create your own sexual experience, so don't let anyone dictate what qualifies as intimacy for you.
5. People with disabilities shouldn't worry about sex.
The societal attitude is: why fret over your sex life when you have bigger things to worry about? Sex is a luxury one with a disability cannot afford. Guess what? Sex is important to almost everyone, no matter what your condition. Almost everyone worries about sex at one point or another since we're all sexual beings. Having a disability doesn't trump that.
6. People with disabilities aren't sexually adventurous (or if they are, they're perverted).
It's unfair to expect someone with a disability to be sexually passive. This person can desire, initiate, and thrive in the moment. People with disabilities enjoy sadomasochism, Tantric sex, sex toys... everything that an "abled" person does, and perhaps even more! Many of them have learned that your brain is indeed your biggest sex organ. And they like to keep it turned on!
7. People with disabilities shouldn't have sex.
If you're bedridden or need assistance moving around, society seems to think that you should be celibate. The lack of privacy is the biggest indicator of the disrespect we have for the sexual needs of those with a disability. A hospice, for example, may have no locks on the doors, or a nursing home may require that doors be open at all times. What's great is that some people with a disability will still try to get a little bit of lovin', no matter what the consequences are. They should be applauded instead of shamed for their efforts.
Honoring one's sexual self is an important component to healing and coping, whether we are treating a hero home from war or somebody recovering from a major car accident. It cannot be ignored. It should not be discouraged. Their fight for sexual acknowledgment is everyone's fight. We can only become sexually healthier for it.
In the Know Sex News. . .
— Canada's Abortion Rate Down. Canada is reporting that the nation's number of abortions declined in 2005, especially among teenage girls. While the country's data collection method is considered spotty, some experts attribute the decreased rate to increased access to birth control and sex education programs. The educational efforts include informative Web sites and demonstrations of condom use.
— HIV-Positive Patients Face Increased Risk of Some Cancers. A study of 54,780 HIV-positive persons in the U.S. has found that while many are living longer thanks to antiretroviral drugs, they're at an increased risk for anal cancer, Hodgkin's disease, liver cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer melanoma, throat cancer, and colorectal cancer.
— Teens Not Substituting Oral Sex for Intercourse. A study by the Guttmacher Institute challenges the perception that teens have fellatio or cunnilingus in lieu of intercourse. More than half of 15- to 19-year-olds studied had engaged in heterosexual oral sex, 50 percent had vaginal sex, and 11 percent had engaged in anal sex. Oral and anal sex were much more common in youth who had already participated in vaginal intercourse than those who had not. The data indicate that teenagers initiate a range of sexual activities at around the same time.
Dr. Yvonne Kristín Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."