There’s something we’re not talking about.
There’s something the news articles and personal essays, the films and poetry, the sexy photo spreads and opinion pieces about sex and disability are leaving out – safer sex and sexual health.
To be fair, most mainstream discussions of sex and sexuality aren’t talking about sexual health either, at least not in ways that encourage people to take care of theirs.
Safer sex has a rep for being boring and unsexy. Getting regular sexual healthcare is billed as embarrassing, and, what’s more, unnecessary unless we’re a certain kind of person, or doing a certain kind of sexual activity, or have had X number of partners.
Newsflash: Getting sexual healthcare, and practicing safer sex, saves lives and protects health, which isn’t boring. At least, I don’t think so.
Maybe we folks with disabilities haven’t been talking about safer sex because we’ve been busy convincing people of the obvious, that disability isn’t unsexy and that many disabled people do have, or want, sex. Maybe folks haven’t been talking about how they protect their sexual health because they’ve bought into the myth that stopping to put on a condom or dental dam (whether in real life or on the page) ruins the mood Maybe folks haven’t been talking about safer sex because they know talking about sexual health makes us all feel a little scared and vulnerable, and we know that disability makes nondisabled people feel scared and vulnerable.
I’m not sure why we’re not educating and telling stories about sexual health, but we need to start, for our own well-being if for nothing else.
People with disabilities who are or want to be sexual with others need access to sexual healthcare, access that sometimes just isn’t there. We also need to make information about safer sex practices part of the collective wisdom of disabled people. Just like disabled folks turn to each other to share strategies on getting our employment, travel, or technology-based access needs met, folks need to be able to draw on that collective wisdom for information on things like how to put a condom on when you can only use one hand, or how to get help filling out forms at a clinic without telling your sexual history to the whole world, or how to get a pelvic exam when your legs keep going into spasm – information you won’t find in any sexual health guide I know of.
Sexual health is a big deal. Remember that thing about saving lives and supporting health? Yes, that one. And that goes for supporting health whatever our baseline health status happens to be.
Preventing or treating STIs (sexually transmitted infections) is important for everyone, and important for public health as a whole, but I think it’s fair to say that STI prevention can be especially important for chronically ill or disabled folks whose baseline health and functioning can be compromised by something as basic as the common cold, or for someone who relies on others for assistance with personal care and health maintenance.
People, no matter what their disability status, are often so scared of STIs that they just ignore safer sex, or only practice it sometimes, or only for certain activities.
But there’s no shame in supporting our own health, and there’s no shame in being ill, either.
As my friend and colleague Ducky DooLittle says: “Good, nice, clean, sweet people get STIs every single day.”
If you want a quick run-down on safer sex in general, I suggest:
- these top ten tips on safer sex from Our Bodies, Ourselves
- this overview from Scarleteen of what safer sex isn’t
- and this overview of sexual activities and STI risks, also from Scarleteen
To start the conversation on safer sex and disability, I’m sharing this article I wrote for SaferSex.Education.
Disabled People need sexual healthcare too
Most safer sex guides take it for granted that all of us are going to have the manual dexterity (ability to move our hands) to unwrap and use a condom, that getting STI testing is as easy as booking (and keeping) an appointment at a free or low-cost sexual health clinic, and that communicating with a partner about safer sex is as easy as having a few face-to-face conversations about it. For those of us who have any sort of physical, cognitive, or psychological disability, these and other “basic” safer sex strategies may not be so easy.
It doesn’t help that disabled people are assumed to be nonsexual, or to have more important things to worry about than the “luxury” of sexual feelings or a sexual relationship, or any number of other myths about sex and disability all of which miss the mark in one way or another.
People with disabilities who are sexually active, or planning to be sexually active, need to practice safer sex, and get regular sexual healthcare, just like anyone else.
A Quick Overview of Safer Sex
If you’re disabled, know that you have the right to whatever expression of your sexuality you want to have, and you have the right to be safe when expressing your sexual self, both alone and with partners.
Safer sex is about taking care of your sexual health, and protecting yourself from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Preventing unwanted pregnancy is known as birth control, not safer sex, but it’s still part of your sexual healthcare if pregnancy is something that can happen to you or someone you’re sexually involved with.
Safer sex includes using barriers (such as condoms or dental dams) for genital contact with a partner, and getting regular sexual healthcare, including STI testing.
Sexual Health Care
Most sexual health services aren’t set up to meet the needs of disabled people. In the U.S., many providers don’t get training in working with patients who have disabilities. Coupled with assumptions about disability and sex, this can lead to you not getting the sexual healthcare you need. That might be a healthcare provider who doesn’t ask you about sex, or asks in such a way that assumes you’re not having it.
Or, it means examination tables that don’t accommodate people whose bodies don’t move in the ways expected for traditional exams. This includes staff unable, unwilling, or untrained to assist with positioning your body on the table.
Or, it means reams of forms to fill out, and informational pamphlets and brochures that are only available in print.
Even one step into a building- or doorways that are too narrow- can keep you from seeing a healthcare provider of your choosing.