When was the last time you felt comfortable asking about your sexual health, or mentioning your sexual relationship, at the doctor’s office?
Sexuality is always a potential part of healthcare – we don’t usually leave our feelings, our relationships, our reproductive choices or experiences, and all the other pieces that can be part of our sexualities at home when we go for a doctor’s appointment, or wind up in the hospital, or talk to a social worker, or spend the day at the lab getting poked with needles or having pictures taken of our innards. Unless they specifically provide sexual healthcare, most of these people and places don’t include our sexualities in our healthcare discussions or plans. This isn’t going to work longterm for most of us; Most people identify themselves as being sexual or having a sexuality, and most of us are going to need to see the doctor or have medical tests at some point in our lives.
Last month I wrote about all the fantastic stuff I learned at the session on sex, sexuality, and relationships for neurodiverse folks at the Guelph Sexuality Conference.
Today our topic is Health Care’s Erasure of Sexual Pleasure.
Natalie Rose and Sophie Delancey, the workshop presenters, focussed on the experience of people with chronic illness or disability, but they pointed out that people receiving routine or preventive healthcare are just as much a part of the system, and just as much in need of improved care around their sexualities. They were also quick to point out that criticizing the failure of healthcare to address sexuality isn’t an indictment of individual providers; it’s a criticism of the system that trains providers and sets policies.
This workshop was packed! They had to bring in more chairs. People want to learn this stuff.
Natalie Roseand Sophie Delancey make a dynamic duo for presenting on sex and disability. Natalie was trained as an occupational therapist and has a spouse with physical disabilities; Sophie has worked in sexuality-related jobs since graduating from university and has recently become disabled. They’re also both super-vibrant and enthusiastic. They know their topic, and they love it.
One thing I really appreciated was that they both shared personal experiences and observations. Sophie’s role wasn’t just to be the disabled person telling her story and Natalie’s role wasn’t just as the rehab professional telling us about the research (or, in this case, the lack of research).
For example: At one point Sophie was telling a story about her time in the hospital after her strokes, about not being able to get the right words from her brain to her mouth to communicate that she felt crowded by having so many people around her while she was using a bedpan. Sophie pointed out that policies should address patient privacy, especially because many patients can’t speak, or can’t find the right words, or feel too stressed or intimidated to speak. She talked about how the rush-rush-rush of being cared for in a hospital or rehabilitation centre can feel invasive, and that it can feel dehumanizing, even with the best intentions, to not have the privacy around the most intimate parts of our lives (everything from using the toilet to sneaking a smooch with a partner) that most of us take for granted.
Telling stories about our lives and experiences is crucial to developing empathy, to highlighting diverse experiences, to making sure people know they’re not alone. But if we don’t center that in something bigger – and that something doesn’t have to be a footnoted, bibliography’d academic paper – we’ll all be sitting their telling our stories without gaining insight, building tools, or developing the power to make transformative change. The people we really want to reach – the policy makers, healthcare providers, social service workers, support workers – are going to walk away and go back to doing their jobs if we continue to simply tell stories without making targetted, applicable recommendations for change.
I’d like to just dismantle the system, but we usually can’t do that, so we need to give folks the tools to make their systems better – to do their jobs better. Like I said, the room was packed during this workshop, and I’d like to think that healthcare providers left with approaches to make their practices more inclusive of sexuality, more accepting of disability, even if they can’t directly impact the policies that se patients and clients as little more than the specific health problem or life crisis they come in with.
Making sex okay to talk about.
Our medical system is based on facts, biological happenings that can be observed and explained. For example: Unless healthcare providers find a reason for a patient’s pain, that pain is often dismissed or belittled. Patients’ Reports of pain often aren’t included, or described in detail, on medical charts. if a physical reason for the pain isn’t found, it’s assume to not exist, an the impact of the experience of pain on personal identity, relationships, daily activities isn’t explored or addressed.
Biologically provable facts are just a part of how most of us experience sexuality. Healthcare providers who want facts don’t know what to do with identities, experiences, feelings – and they’re not trained to know what to do with any of that. They’ll look for research on sex, and, mostly, find statistics on birth control methods, sexually transmitted infection risk, and sexual abuse prevention. These are absolutely important, but, noep, not the whole picture by a longshot. Another part of the picture? Most Medical students aren’t getting the training they know they need to be able to address patients’ sexual concerns.
When people don’t get this training, when there isn’t solid research, people tend to substitute their own opinions, especially around things as loaded as sexuality is for most of us. Or, they just avoid the topic as much as they can.
It’s hard for patients to get their needs met in a fast-paced, overworked, undervalued healthcare system as it is. If that need has anything to do with sexuality, most people are going to feel super-inhibited. Sophie’s biosays she had worked in the adult industry for five years before her strokes. With all that experience talking about sex, she still felt intimidated at the idea of mentioning her concerns about her sexual function to her healthcare providers. She didn’t want to alienate people who were addressing all the other needs she had after a sudden and life-threatening medical crisis. She didn’t know the parameters for what was okay to talk about. If no one mentioned sex and sexuality, she sure wasn’t going to rock the boat by mentioning it herself.
When providers don’t ask about sex and sexuality, the message is sent that it’s not an important part of health and healthcare.
patients don’t know if they’re allowed to talk about sex;
providers are often the people in power, even if they don’t see themselves that way, and it’s ultimately going to be up to them to open the conversation.
Not that that’s necessarily going to mean (or that we want it to mean) your primary care doctor saying: “So, how about that sex life.”
Some providers don’t like to bring up sex and sexuality first because they think doing so would conflict with their client-centered approach – therapy or treatment is client-directed, so if clients don’t bring up sex (or any other topic), the provider doesn’t ask.
Culturally, we have really strong taboos against mentioning sexual things in nonromantic settings – and even in romantic settings lots of people have trouble expressing themselves around sexuality, but that’s a story for another day – and many people have experienced doctors or other providers shutting down questions about sexual fears or problems. We’re at a point where healthcare providers are going to have to step up and be key players in changing the conversation.
Some of the ways Sophie and Natalie suggested showing that sex and sexuality are acceptable topics:
- ON intake forms, include questions about sexuality, including whether the patient has any sexual concerns they’d like to discuss. If you think about it, we’re asked about all kinds of socially uncomfortable topics on forms and at appointments – poop, food choices, weight, menstrual cycles, you name it. We’re always allowed to not answer if the question makes us feel too vulnerable.
- In intake and discharge processes: Include resources for sex and sexuality information, especially information related to disability or illness, in any packets of material provided to the patient. I need to add here that this packet should always be provided in a format the patient can read (This doesn’t usually happen; printed paper is the default. At the very least, someone from the medical ofice or facility needs to go through the packet with the patient so that they know exactly what’s in there.
- When making a treatment plan. Occupational and physiotherapists, especially, work with patients to decide on the goals and direction for the treatment plan. They can include sexual or romantic activities in the examples they give to help their clients develop that list of goals. And no, I’m not suggesting that the therapy should involve sexual activity. There are plenty of non-sexual ways to meet physical goals for sexual and romantic activities. For example: Natalie mentioned that getting into and out of, and figuring out supports for the reclining bound angle yoga pose as a great nonsexual way to experiment with sexual intercourse positions where the person receiving would be lying on their back.
- At the office, hospital, or rehabilitation (or log-term care) facility: Make this a sexually inclusive environment. Include sexual healthcare and relationship health pamphlets or posters available in the waiting area, and in exam and consultation rooms.
- And, I really liked this one for providers: Wear a button saying something like “You can talk to me about sex.” As a silent reminder that sex and sexuality are accepted in that space. I should add: If the client or patient can’t read, or can’t see, they should be told about this, in the same sort of calm, “Oh by the way” tone you’d use to tell someone there’s bottled water available if they’d like some.
- To all providers: If you don’t have sex an sexuality training, you can still talk to your patients about it. You can listen (that’s therapeutic in itself) and know who to refer them to.
There’s so much fear that goes into being sick, especially if it’s a sudden helth crisis, that, in my book, anything that will help patients feel better, feel more in control of their lives, have more pleasure, is a good thing.
Natalie told us about one woman she heard about, who, one year after her stroke went to her doctor for a follow-up, and asked when she was allowed to have sex again. He was, apparently, surprised, and told her she could have had sex any time that previous year. There that woman was, afraid that the sex she wanted would hurt her, and too afraid or shy to ask sooner.
Not that lack of sex ever injured or killed anyone, but all pleasure is precious, and no one should have to worry needlessly like that.