I wrote the following post in March 2014, after attending Mara Levy‘s talk, Problem-Solving Sex with Disability at the Catalyst Conference.
Mara Levy is an Occupational Therapist (OT) in Washington DC. Occupational therapists help people who’ve experienced injury or illness to return to activities that are meaningful to them—activities like walking, driving, working, crafting, and the like.
Mara includes sexual expression and sex in her definition of meaningful activities. This may be a “well duh!” idea to many readers here, but there’s this belief out there that people with disabilities have more important things to worry about than being sexual, and that sex just isn’t relevant once someone becomes disabled. (Not true!) it doesn’t help that many medical and rehabilitation providers don’t address sexual issues, concerns, or changes with their clients, and you can have people really not sure where to go with meeting the sex and sexuality needs that don’t go away after illness or injury.
There are a lot of negative, or just plain silly, responses to disabled people and sexuality.
Here’s what Mara says nondisabled people need to do about that:
- rid themselves of paternalistic attitudes (thinking of disabled people as childlike or helpless)
- Avoid jumping in to help or change something unless they are asked to
- remember what is and isn’t their business (hint from me: If you wouldn’t ask an apparently nondisabled person on the street about their sex life, don’t ask a disabled person)
- respect boundaries
And, Mara added, nondisabled people need to do this processing and awareness building on their own time.
A disabled person’s sexuality is no one’s business unless they ask you for help working on sexual issues, or unless they want to have sex with you (and you want to have sex with them).
People also need to question the all-too-common assumption that a visibly nondisabled person seen with a visibly disabled person must be the caregiver or helper. This gets old—really fast—especially if the people in question are actually lovers.
Speaking of partners, Mara made what I thought was a really important point about consent. It’s not just the person with disability who needs to consent, but their partner. For some disabled folks, most physical activities have some level of pain or discomfort attached to them. A partner may not be able to consent to something they know hurts their partner, no matter how much they’re told that it’s okay, and that this sexual activity is wanted. For people with chronic or episodic (occasional, brought on by specific factors like weather, certain activities, etc) pain, this may well be part of the sexual negotiation.
Because people are often sent the message that talking about sex and sexuality isn’t okay—and this is doubly true for people with disabilities—Mara emphasizes that it’s important for medical and rehabilitation providers to give their clients or patients explicit permission to talk about sex and sexuality. Even if that’s not their area of interest or specialty, even if they don’t have all the answers (people who do specialize in sex and sexuality rarely have all the answers), just listening can be powerful, and starting the problem-solving process can lead to patients and clients getting what they need and want from their sexual lives.
There are a lot of barriers to people with disabilities experiencing their sexualities, such as:
- Physical and psychological pain or discomfort.
- Societal attitudes about what “real” sex is, about who is sexy and attractive, even about who is allowed to live. (Hint from me: Disabled people are often told, by strangers and friends alike, that a nondisabled person would “just die” if they had such-and-such a disability.)
- Paternalistic or inspirational attitudes. It’s a strange either-or in which people with disabilities are either seen as childlike—in need of help or guidance—or are seen as amazing, imbued with super powers. Sometimes, disabled people are subjects of inspiration porn, which isn’t at all sexy!
Mara proposes using the same model she uses to work with clients around their activities of daily living—I just had to throw some rehab speak in there—to helping people solve sexual problems or simply to reach their sexual goals.
This model has us looking at the person, at the environment, and at the situation. For each one, we figure out what needs to and can be fixed, what can be compensated for, and even what may traditionally be seen as a problem but which can actually be an asset.
What does the person bring? Not just their disability, but their hopes, their desires, their beliefs about sex (and what they know about sex). The environment may or may not be accessible to this particular person. What’s the situation? What’s the person trying to do? Does the available environment make the situation possible? (If the person wants to have intercourse with someone, but needs (maybe for pain or mobility reasons) to be able to lie down on a firm surface, and the only room that’s available has a fluffy feather bed, the needs of the person, the requirements of the situation, and the reality of the environment, aren’t going to go together.
That’s just a simple example of course. The kinds of questions that will be asked, and the kinds of fixing, compensating, or adapting that will be done will depend on the activity—and when it comes to sex and sexual expression, the activity list is endless. So here’s just a sampling of the kinds of questions one might ask:
- What are the physical issues (E.G. pain, reduced sensation, mobility impairment)?
- What are the psychological issues (E.G. anxiety, stress, grief around acquired disability)
- What values and knowledge does the person have around sex?
- Does the person have a solid understanding of their medical condition? Is the prognosis and treatment known? Are there limitations on sex recommended by healthcare providers? If medication interferes with sexual functioning in a way that doesn’t work for the person, can that be changed?
- Is the place where the person wants to express their sexuality accessible (E.G. dance club, bedroom)?
- If the person needs a caregiver to help with some tasks before, during, or after the time of sexual expression, is there someone close by who can give nonjudgmental assistance?
- Cultural environment: What attitudes are held about sex and disability, both separately and together? Are they negative or limiting? Has the person internalized them? Are they having to spend time and energy resisting spoken and unspoken messages they’re getting about their disability, their sexuality, or both?
- What’s the activity in question? What movement or amount of physical and emotional energy is required? What props are required?
- Are there things that would help, such as pillows to support the body or grab bars to help with movement?
- What are the goals the person has for the activity—orgasm, connecting with their own body, laughing and sharing playful, intimate touch with someone else?
The questions you’ll ask will be very different if you want to go dancing and flirting at a local bar or if you want to find a romantic partner.
It occurs to me that this kind of problem-solving process can be applied to anyone’s life, whether you have a disability or not.
It seems to me particularly useful though in breaking down barriers that say that sexual expression for someone who has disabilities is just too complicated to warrant attention.