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Disability Dharma: What Including & Learning From Disability Can Teach (Everyone) About Sex

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Unless you only provide sex education to lesbians, have only slept with people with a vulva or your sexual experience or exposure has been very limited, chances are you have addressed or seen a guy upset about not being able to get or sustain an erection at some point when he wanted to have one. If you're a full-time sex educator, you may deal with this as often as several times a day. Even if you have just turned on a television, you've seen it. I deal with it as a sex educator a lot. And it drives me pretty batty, especially because there's a central part of that wiggins that I just do not get.

I don't have a penis. But I do have around the same amount of erectile tissue in my vulva and clitoris that doesn't always behave the way I'd like it to, so I can understand being momentarily annoyed when that happens. Before you rush to say "But YOU can still have sex!" hold up. While people with vulvas, not penises, CAN have intercourse or other kinds of sex even if our parts aren't fully cooperating, when we do, it usually doesn't feel that good or can be painful. People engaging in genital sex when our genitals aren't very responsive is a whole lot like someone trying to run a five-mile race when they have blisters on their feet: they may be able to do it, but they're not likely to enjoy it very much. Since sex is about what feels good, not about what's physically possible, myself or other vulva-owning folks really CAN'T have some kinds of sex when our genitals aren't fully or at all responsive, just like people with penises can't.

But the fact that I don't have a penis isn't where my biggest disconnect with serious freakouts over a lack of erection once or twice lie. Until very recently, I couldn't solidly identify why questions and reactions like this struck me as so strange, but it finally hit me a few weeks back. I feel foolish not putting my finger on it until now, but it's one more example that when educators like myself tell others we really can't ever know all there is to know about sex and sexuality, even for ourselves, we're not kidding.

I'm a person with disability. I have had a hand disability since childhood that is mild to severe, depending on how I'm doing at any given time. I have also developed two unrelated chronic pain disorders during the course of my adult life. Last summer, I wound up unable to fully use or feel both my hands for weeks because more than one of my disabilities decided to gang up on me at once. Depending on the day, any or all of those disabilities can keep me from being able to do a few things I'd otherwise be able to do, keep me from being able to do most things, or get in the way of very little at all, especially so long as I'm making and have room to make my usual adaptations. I am also someone who educates about sex inclusive of disability (as well as a range of other human variations), as well as a person who does not only have sexual partners of one sex or gender, which certainly contributes to a certain flexibility of sexuality and thought about sexuality.

But what does this have to do with disability?

Well, when I hear this kind of thing, my first, most intuitive thought always is:

"Okay, so your/their body can't do that thing. So what? You can then either figure out a creative adaptation, or you can not do that thing and do something else you can do instead."

See, this is how people with disabilities often tend to think, especially when we've adjusted and adapted. Sure, when we're not in a positive space it's a lot like folks with the I-can't-get-erect-this-minute-when-I-want-to feel when they yowl in frustration about how they are tired of not being able to do something they think most other people can do. We get frustrated, too, and it's not like we were magically given some special power to adapt and be more flexible: it's something we all learn and are always in the process of learning to do better (sometimes relearning when something else in our bodies change, to boot). But there's a big difference between the two scenarios.


What is disability? Disability can be any number of physical or mental chronic illnesses, impairments or differences that substantially and frequently limits one or more major life activities, like being able to communicate with others, doing basic self-care, processing information cognitively, keeping a job or traveling, eating or sleeping. A given disability may be about or impact mobility, cognitive function, sight, speech/language, hearing or more than one of those things. Just like it's hard to create one, big blanket definition for sex that fits everyone, the same is true for disability, so not everyone disabled shares the same definition.

For one, disabled people usually learn to let go of moments like that since we have them all the time and are used to having them. Unless we've newly acquired a disability, they're not a surprise, either: we expect them. A disability is also different than not being able to get an erection on the Tuesday you're visiting your boyfriend or girlfriend. While you or I can go without intercourse or sex, since they're optional, I do need to get my pants buttoned and shoes tied in order to leave the house, my friend who is visually impaired needs to be able to find out what she owes the phone company and get her kid to school, and my friend who has trouble walking, driving and hearing still needs to be able to get to her doctor's appointments somehow.

People with disabilities tend to, or at least try hard to, focus on what we can do. Not on what we can't.

If all we focused on was what we couldn't do, we'd be able to do even less, and be stuck in a perpetual pit of despair. This is a spot a whole lot of able-bodied people seem to be stuck in when it comes to sex a whole lot of the time, especially if sex is the first time or place when they have really wanted to do something where their bodies were uncooperative. Those with disabilities can probably teach you a few things about that, things you can probably learn pretty easily just by including us in how you think about sexuality and, for those who provide any kind of sex education, by including us in sex ed.

I'm not trying to soft-sell anyone able-bodied on inclusion just because they might personally benefit. We should always be inclusive of as many people in sex education and sexuality as we can, no matter what group we're talking about, even if it doesn't directly benefit anyone but members of that group. We should be inclusive of disability and persons with disability in both sex education and our sexualities and sex lives for the sole reason that it and we are part of human sexuality and sexuality is part of those of us with disability, just like it's part of abled people. It's also a lot easier to be inclusive than most people think, especially when we're educating about sex well, and thinking about sexuality in ways most likely to make all our sexualities and sex lives beneficial and positive.

However, there are some benefits for everyone in inclusion which might be obvious to those with disability, but might not be so obvious to those without.

The Fine Arts of Acceptance, Creativity & Adaptation

This business of accepting your body just can't do that thing, or can't do it in a given way or at a given time but that the body CAN do a host of other things can apply to far more than just a lack of erection. It can apply to a lack of vaginal lubrication, a lack of arousal, full-stop, an inability to find one sexual position comfortable or pleasurable, finding that something only works for you in very specific conditions, needing to experiment with your body and someone else's to find out what works for both of you, feeling too tired for sex at a given time or just not being in the mood when you'd really like to be.

For instance, maybe you don't have an erection right now, but you do still have hands a mouth or other body parts that are cooperating just fine that can give a partner and you pleasure, or maybe oral sex on your penis still feels amazing when it's soft. Maybe your vagina isn't as wet as you like, so you adapt by using some lubricant or by switching your focus from something to do with your vagina to something to do with your external clitoris, breasts, thighs or neck that feels good. Maybe you can't have sex comfortably in this position, so you either switch to one that is comfortable, or change something with the other one, like adding a pillow or asking a partner to add support to a part of your body with their hands.

Sometimes we also need to accept what our body does totally out of our control, whether we like it or not. That might be ejaculating before we'd like, farting during sex, making certain noises or things like muscle spasms, urinating during some kinds of sex or having certain body parts just stop working when we're not done using them yet. Some people with some kinds of disabilities need to accept that it might take them longer to connect with their own bodies sexually or with someone else's in some ways, or take longer to learn to be sexual with others: this is a flexibility a lot of people, especially young people, could benefit from nurturing with sex and sexuality.

Know what else inclusion helps with? Acceptance of everyone's sexual variation, including your own. Like understanding that we or anyone else can't "make" ourselves like things or people we don't like sexually, can't willfully change our sexual orientation or gender identity, or that something one person finds to be very sensitive on their bodies is not on our own or on a partners' body. Sometimes a given variation can be far outside of our experience or awareness, but rather than viewing that as cause to freak out or run away, we can view it as an adventure, as a whole new avenue for us to learn and experience things about ourselves or others we might not have had the opportunity to otherwise.

Disability awareness and inclusion also makes even more clear how totally ridonkulous most standards of beauty are. When we just look at diversity among abled people, it's clear it's out-of-whack, but when we earnestly include all the kinds of bodies there are in the world, and the far-more diverse range of what they can look like, act like, be like, what they can and can't do, these kinds of standards seem even more bizarre.

I have to confess that even though my own disabilities are often mild on the disability spectrum, sometimes it's hard to answer questions positively where people are voicing that they wish their breasts or penises were bigger, the labia were shorter, their legs were longer or their skin was lighter when typing the answer not only means looking at my disabled hand, but on a bad, day, it physically hurts for me to type the answer to that question. On days like that, I have a hard time caring about how even I look, let alone how anyone else does.

Not only do a lot of beauty standards represent an unrealistic picture of the diversity of how we all look, they also focus entirely on looks, not on how our bodies feel, uniquely function or all they can or can't do. It's a lot easier to single-mindedly focus on appearances when your body is in perfect health. On a day when my hand is working and my body isn't in pain, I can have a zit the size of Mt. Everest and I'm not going to care very much. The fact that my legs look short or my bottom looks big aren't things I tend to think about much when those legs, that butt and the rest of my body can get me around and don't hurt, but feel good. On those days I'm much too happy and too busy riding my bike or hula-hooping, tackling a whole bunch of projects without worrying I'll get cut off by my body mid-stream, enjoying sex or doing any of the other myriad things that let me enjoy how good my body can feel and all it is capable of doing to think poorly about what I look like.

Disability awareness and inclusion can also help abled people get more creative when it comes to sex. Folks with physical disabilities have to be creative about things like sexual positioning or sensitivity, and are used to having to explore positioning and sensitivity ourselves a lot, dumping preconceived notions that we can do what someone else can or will feel what someone else may feel. We tend to take it as a given that rather than starting externally, with what we see elsewhere or someone else suggests, we'll need to start with ourselves and our own bodies, feeling out what works for us (and doesn't) uniquely. We're less inclined to put all our sexual or physical stock in just one body part or area of the body, especially if the kind of disability we have means that sometimes our bodies or a given body part will work in a way one day that on another day won't work well or at all. When our bodies change over time -- as bodies always do and always will, and not just during puberty but through all of life -- we've more practice at both adapting but also at processing our feelings about physical changes.

Often we have to communicate more or more clearly than abled people do, too, and for those with certain disabilities, may need to do so in a way that's outside the box. That's one likely reason why Cory Silverberg, a fantastic advocate and friend, co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability, in the interview linked above, says that what he hears from people who acquire disabilities are more often reports of sex lives improving, rather than declining. More communication, better communication and more creativity always equals better sex, for everybody.

Elsewhere, Cory also says that living with a disability, chronic illness, or chronic pain doesn't make us fundamentally sexually different from anyone, something important for both abled and disabled people to know. What he means by that is some of the things I've brought up here: to have a really great sex life, and to feel really good about our sexuality, everyone needs to be creative and adaptive, and accepting of their unique bodies, not just disabled people. After all, no one through the course of a lifetime is going to have their body function in exactly the same way their whole life, or somehow avoid at least some big changes in what they can and can't do, sexually and otherwise.

The places where having disability can make sex different or more difficult often aren't so much about having bodies that might work or not in different ways than for others, but about lack of access to sexual partners and partnerships (both in terms of attitudes, but also per literal accessibility, like wheelchair access), lack of access to sex education, birth control or sexual healthcare that others are provided, and social issues, like finding partners who are evolved or open-minded enough in their own sexuality to accept that bodies are unique and that there are far more than just one or a few ways to be sexual.

That last bit can be and often is a problem for everyone who wants a quality sexual life, not just for disabled people. If you or a partner have ever asked yourself, each other or someone else (like us!) why you or someone else can't do something sexual you "should" be able to, why you or someone else don't like something they or you "should," or you or a partner have struggled with trying to make something work or feel good that just will not work or feel good, then it's been or is a problem for you. If you've driven yourself to tears to try and make something feel good for yourself that didn't but that a partner wants to do, if you've kept trying to do something with a partner that clearly doesn't work for them, then it's been or is a problem for you. If you've worked to try and resemble someone else's fantasy instead of being your own reality, then it's been a problem for you. If you've used a term like "real sex" to describe one given activity or way of having sex, then it's been a problem for you.

The problem isn't your body or mind or someone else's body or mind not doing what they are supposed to, because when we're doing it right, there just isn't a supposed-to in sex. I know, I know: you can pick up a ton of magazines or books that tell you there is. But they only keep saying that because they both make gobloads of money on all the folks who want to badly to believe it's all that simple and homogeneous, and because most of the folks who write that stuff themselves haven't outgrown that way of thinking, which is a pity for everyone. The problem is staying stuck in ideas about or definitions of sex that might be someone else's that work for them (or don't, but they still cling to them all the same), but which won't or don't work for you, and not recognizing that the aim is to explore and find what works for you, uniquely, rather than reading from someone else's script based in fantasy or in someone else's body or sexuality.

Like Cory says:

When thinking about physical disability and sex one of the biggest barriers is a lack of imagination and creative sexual problem solving. If you believe that the only way to have sex involves an erect penis and well-lubricated vagina, you may be out of luck. When you realize that sex is so much more than intercourse, greater opportunities and fewer obstacles present themselves.

Sound familiar? If you've spent any time at all at Scarleteen it does, because it's something we say to all kinds of people with all kinds of embodiment and sexuality, about intercourse or many other kinds of sex, every single day.

Many disabled people know the problems many people have with accepting and honoring uniqueness and with thinking flexibly about what we can and can't do acutely. So, while people with disability are so often treated by others as asexual or considered to be able not to be sexual, the fact of the matter is that because of some of the things disabled people learn and the ways we learn to adapt, in some ways disabled people can often find we're better equipped to manage and enjoy our sex lives than abled people may find they are. But again, these aren't magical powers: they are things all people can learn and mental adjustments everyone can make.

Mental Floss That's Good for Everyone's Life & Sex Life

Understand that all too often, people with disabilities of all kinds are not included in sex ed or in sexuality: many people either presume the disabled to be asexual or treat disabled people that way. That can mean everything from being left out of sex classes altogether or having sex ed that makes no allowance for disability; lack of access to birth control or sexual health services, or services which are fully accessible; understanding that some people with disability may only have access to partners who are sex workers; the greater incidence of sexual abuse and assault to disabled people, media presentation of only abled people as sexual or sexy and a whole lot more.


Even if you or your partners are able-bodied now, chances are that at some point, at least one of you might not be. In the United States alone, according to the 2009 census report, 41.2 million Americans have some level of disability. 12% of people 16 to 64 do, and 41% of adults 65 and older have disabilities. Of course, you're also going to get older, so even if you don't acquire a disability, your body is going to change, including in the ways it works.

If you've ever voiced something like "If I can't keep it up, I'm not a real man," "If I can't get wet, I'm no good," or "If intercourse doesn't feel good, I'll never have a sex life," then you have a small taste of what disabled people face and are constantly challenged with, both from other people, but also from internalized messages we've got to work to ditch. If we stayed stuck in those kinds of headspaces it would be even more debilitating for us and our sex lives than it can be for abled people.

For abled people, these kinds of states are either often temporary or aren't often a way those people will be defined as whole people by many people around them, including by strangers who don't know anything about them. In other words, someone considering giving you a job or thinking about going out with you probably isn't going to look at you and automatically categorize you as "That girls with the dry vagina during week three of her menstrual cycle" or "Doesn't-like-or-can't-do-intercourse-when-he's-sleepy guy." That's a very different situation than a person nearly everyone automatically files as "Wheelchair-girl," or "That guy who talks funny," tends to face. Not only can the parts that don't work often be permanent for many people with disabilities, if we don't work hard not to judge ourselves or box ourselves in when it comes to the way our bodies function, it's much harder to deal with how much everyone else does.

Too, not everyone with disability has fantastic sexual experiences, and one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- barriers to a good sex life if you're disabled is finding partners who can be as adaptable as you are. The limited ways so many people think about sexuality and abled bodies can mean that a lot of sexual partners come to the table who don't know how to be creative, adaptive and communicative; who are so locked into how sex "should be" or should look that they can't DIY it and go through a full process of exploration, communication and discovery that's unique to each partner, and which leaves a lot of room for variance. That inability to be creative and adaptive certainly hurts disabled people, but it also rips off everyone else. Sex that isn't very uniquely about the individuals involved, or that's only about this body part or that one, tends to get old really fast, if it was even remotely interesting or satisfying to begin with.

Hopefully you can see that treating or thinking of yourself poorly when you've just hit up against a limitation of your body -- be it temporary or permanent -- isn't being kind to yourself or treating your body and mind with the kind of respect it deserves. Hopefully you can also see that treating anyone else that way, abled or disabled, isn't treating others with the kind of respect they deserve. If you're someone with disability who is having a hard time with any of the things brought up here, sexually or otherwise, cut yourself some slack. Like I said, this isn't about magical powers or other people just automatically being in a good place with disability: it's something we learn, over time, and it can tend to take some time.

While having no idea how to fly an airplane certainly means we're not a pilot, nothing we can or can't do with our bodies or minds takes away from some of the most essential, basic parts of who we are and from our basic humanity, which absolutely includes the widely varying abilities and limitations of our bodies. Whether or not you can get or stay erect when you want to doesn't mean you're not a man (if you identify as one); whether or not receptive intercourse feels good to your body at a given time or period doesn't mean you're not a woman or not heterosexual (if you identify in those ways). Whether or not a given person is able to move their body like someone else, communicate like someone else, or feel things other people can feel doesn't make anyone any less human than anyone else.


Being a step or two outside-the-box in a number of ways can tend to nurture and require the kinds of skills and thinking we're talking about with disability, too. Those who are trans gender or gender nonconforming, who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, who are some kind of minority in the community or area they're in, whose sexual preferences or likes are more uncommon, who are poly or have relationship models which aren't given broad social approval are some other groups of people besides those with disability often very familiar with aspects of these issues, too.

If and when we or others do find ourselves thinking that way, that means we need to reframe our sexuality, sex life or our ideas about either so that it's about each of us very uniquely, not about general or broad expectations that aren't realistic for us or a partner, or about someone else's idea of what works for their body with the bodies of previous partners, or thinks will with ours. If we find ourselves thinking that way, we need to learn or remind ourselves that any ideas we have that sex or sexuality -- or any part of life, our bodies or our minds -- are the same for everyone, or that there is one kind of normal, one kind of sex life, one way or group of ways people experience sexual pleasure are ideas without a basis in reality or humanity.

Any temporary or permanent limitations, variations in embodiment or ways of functioning we or others have with our bodies or minds doesn't mean we or they are not sexual or not human or are any less sexual or less human. If anything, it's exactly those things which clearly demonstrate our being human.

Understanding and enacting that -- as the rule rather than the exception -- is the core of disability inclusion and advocacy, in sexuality and in all things, and benefits disabled people immensely. But it also benefits everyone immensely and is something we can all learn from disability. Sex isn't one-size-fits-all, after all: not for anyone. Some people can treat it that way, sure, and too many people do, but those don't tend to be the people reporting wonderful sexual lives and relationships that they and their partners find particularly inspiring and enjoyable.

Sex and sexuality are massively diverse from person to person, partnership to partnership, experience to experience, between one phase of life and others. Sex and sexuality are about how each of us experiences and expresses ourselves as sexual beings, and the range of diversity on those experiences and kinds of expression is as vast as the range of diversity in how each of us talks, what each of us dreams about, how each of us was raised, and how different we all look and are embodied. The more adaptive and inclusive we can all be in how we think about and frame sex and sexuality, but also in how we enact it, the better it is for all of us.

written 17 May 2010 . updated 24 Jan 2014

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