Taking Your Body for a Ride: Masturbation and Disability
Before getting sexy with other people, it may help to get to know your own body — although it's not required— and a lot of the disabled youth I talk to haven't had the opportunity! They're not sure which sensations they like, how their bodies feel when they're excited, what they definitely don't like, and how to handle the physical mechanics of pleasure. Nondisabled people sometimes assume masturbation is a snap, but for some of us, it can be more challenging. That doesn't mean it's impossible.
Because disabled sexuality is a source of so much pointed silence, it can be hard to think of yourself as a sexual being, and you have a right to be sexually autonomous, no matter what messages you might be getting from media, pop culture, and society. If you're also a young person, or a member of another group whose sexuality makes other people extra uncomfortable, this can be extra challenging. The stigma surrounding sex and disability means you may also have received a lot of messaging about how masturbation is yucky and not okay. It's hard to overcome that, and it can be a long journey, but we're here for you.
Maybe you feel a little awkward or dorky about wanting to explore yourself, and you're not alone — you're also not alone if you feel just fine about it, but you're stymied when it comes to where to begin...
...which is with some basic anatomy. We have a great guide on anatomy that's focused not just on informative things like what you'll find where, but how to view your entire body's sexual health and autonomy. Sexual anatomy isn't just about genitals or breasts. It's also about that sexy brain of yours! Your skin! Lips! Ears! Nose! Toes! Exploring your body on its own is a great way to relax and find out more about yourself, but you can also squirrel away some information for future reference in partnered sex and your "Big Sexy Three" (you can find information about that in the introductory article for this series here) — if that's your thing.
Think big: Masturbation goes beyond genital stimulation and can include what some people refer to as "sensation play," which is fun for everyone, but can be particularly great if your genitals aren't in the mood or you want to switch things up a little. Sensation play takes advantage of one of your biggest and coolest erogenous zones: The skin. You may have already noticed that some sensations give you a little shivery feeling — the brush of a hand at just the right pressure, for example. You can harness that to learn more about what feels good and where.
Set aside some serious time, and don't push or rush yourself. It may take you a while to figure out how to get comfortably situated and discover what works for you, and you don't want to be interrupted. If you're worried about family members or aides disturbing you and you don't feel like discussing your sex life with them, consider asking for a few hours of rest so you can take a "nap."
Fun note: Because we're so used to adapting things to make the world work for us, we tend to be pretty creative when it comes to sexuality!
Props, props, props
Even nondisabled people use props — they can change the experience of solo or partnered sex a lot! They may help you masturbate more comfortably, and can free up resources so you can concentrate on the fun stuff instead of an ouch. While some sex stores sell fantastic props and tools for solo and partnered sex, you can also easily improvise, and in the case of some specialty items, you might actually be better off with improvisational work.
First on your list might be some wedges, which you can use to find a comfortable position to support your body. You may already have some around, especially if you have limited mobility and you use wedges or pillows to help support yourself. They can be pricey at a sex store, but medical supply stores often sell their own versions for much less. Play around with different positions to find a way to cradle your body that feels safe and comfortable — and allows you to more easily access areas of interest (which don't necessarily have to be your genitals!). If you can't find or purchase wedges, you can also use folded blankets, towels, or sturdy cushions.
You may have good hand mobility and dexterity that you can put to use, but that doesn't mean you can't use toys and tools to explore your body. Our DIY sex toy guide has some tips and tools, and you can also experiment with various things from around the house — but remember the safety tips!
- Cover any and all objects used with a condom — if you don't have one, a latex or nitrile glove can be a good substitute
- No objects with sharp edges or pointy bits
- Do not use anything that could possibly shatter, splinter, or break off inside you
- Objects with electrical currents are for outside use only
- Do not use anything that belongs to or that you share with another person
- Do not use electric objects in the tub or shower
If your hands need a break — or you just want to play with toys because they're fun — some vibrators have long ergonomic handles that make them easier for you to use. Remote-controlled toys are another option, as you can slip them into your pants or underwear and control their speed and intensity — consider picking up a harness or a pair of underwear with a pocket, or sewing one into an existing set, so the vibrator doesn't migrate. Depending on your level of impairment, setting up a vibe and lowering yourself onto it is another option.
These techniques work for genitals of all shapes and sizes, though you may need to do some experimentation to figure out what feels right to you. For those of you sporting a penis, a masturbation sleeve can be a great tool if you have difficulty using your hand alone (or want to experiment with different sensations).
If you're a wheelchair user, one of our sexy crip experts tells me, you're in luck: Your wheelchair can be a tool for sexual expression too.
Use a powerchair? Explore the tilt function to get your body in a comfortable position for self-exploration. Depending on your mobility, explore the sensation of shifting or rubbing your weight on the seat. Go for a jiggly, bumpy ride on a rough surface. Play around with the position of your belt and/or straps if you want to see what light bondage feels like. But remember to wash your seat cushion on a regular schedule!
On the rest of your body, pretty much anything can become a tool for sensation play: Feathers, back scratchers, dull forks, paddles, hairbrushes...anything that feels different and intriguing. If you have limited dexterity, you can grab a rod and attach items to it for greater and more comfortable reach. One cool thing about many sensation play toys is that you can keep them around while retaining your privacy, because a pencil on the nightstand or a fork you haven't had a chance to take back to the kitchen yet doesn't raise any eyebrows, and lots of people have grabby sticks to help them grasp objects.
And did we mention that you have a big, sexy brain? If getting physical is a challenge — you're not in the mood, you don't have time, or your living situation isn't ideal — go old-school. Read some sexy stories! Write some sexy poetry! Find imagery that gets you feeling sexy! Play some sexy music!
Sins Invalid is a performance art project produced by and for disabled people of color. Artists like Patty Berne, Leroy Moore, and Elaine Beale center queer, disabled, nonnormative bodies in amazing performance art, but they don't stop there. Sins Invalid also does outreach and education, including workshops for people who want to get to know their bodies in a performance art setting that centers disability justice in a safe, nurturing space.
When Sensory Stimulation Isn't
Depending on the nature of your impairment, there may be some parts of your body where you don't have that much sensation, but for some, the opposite problem holds true. Chronic pain and a variety of other conditions can mean that the wrong sensation in the wrong place is super uncomfortable — or agonizing. You may know your body and its limits when it comes to everyday life, from "ugh, sheets dragging on my skin feels like a nightmare" to "I really don't like squishy textures," but you might surprise yourself when you explore your body sexually. Maybe something that seems like it should feel fine, or really good, doesn't — or maybe your sensory tolerance changes from day to day.
If you have a vagina and you notice persistent pain and discomfort, you might be looking at our old enemy vaginismus, or vulvodynia. Testicular pain and soreness, or a tender foreskin, could also be signs of a problem. While a wide variety of sensory experiences is a part of life, extreme pain and discomfort are cause for concern, and you should talk to your doctor. Need tips on frank and sometimes uncomfy conversations with docs? We've got your back!
It can be frustrating when it feels like your body is making war on you when all you want to do is get off! Backing off and taking a break isn't giving in, though — it's giving your body some breathing room. If this becomes a recurrent problem, though, bring it up with your doctor. You have the right to live comfortably, and that includes the right to be sexual, so if pain and unpleasant sensations are limiting your sex life, that means they're a drag on your quality of life, and that's not good. Remember that in many nations, you're entitled to privacy, and you can ask a parent or aide to leave the room so you can discuss concerns about your sexuality in private.
If you use an aide or personal care attendant to help you with tasks of daily living, masturbation can feel pretty complicated — you may need help with things like transferring to your bed, getting your body situated, locating the toys and tools you want to use, setting up vibrators, and more. Because your aide is an employee (and sometimes also a family member), there are some complicated issues to navigate when it comes to sexuality. You may want to maintain a bright line between their work and your sexuality to avoid creating discomfort.
If you're interested in exploring your sexuality, you can have a frank conversation with your aide about what you're interested in so the two of you can set some boundaries and discuss what's possible. It's okay to feel awkward about that conversation! But remember that sexual pleasure is part of your overall health and wellbeing and you are entitled to be able to masturbate. Discuss your physical needs from a practical perspective — "I would like help setting up bolsters and transferring to the bed or couch" — and focus on making them as similar as possible to tasks your aide may already be completing for you. Your aide may already help you on a daily basis by setting out items you use, for example, or assisting with attaching things to extenders or grabbers so you can use them independently.
Similarly, your aide may spend time around your genitals in a health care context — they may assist you with putting on underwear and taking it off and toileting, for instance. Focus on the practicalities of issues like "I would like help cleaning up." It may feel clinical and pretty unsexy, but it can also help maintain personal boundaries — you're asking them to enable you to masturbate safely and comfortably, not to do the work for you.
Your aide (or family member) may decide that they should be in control of your sexuality — and that specifically, you shouldn't have any. That's not actually their call to make, but you may have limited options when it comes to things like firing them, especially if you're a minor. Or you may feel too uncomfortable to have a discussion about it right now, in which case safe workarounds may be your best option — like waiting until bedtime to have some me time, when you know you won't be interrupted! If your aide isn't supportive of your needs, it's time to get crafty, and think about requests that would give you a little private time to explore paired with the tools you need without being explicit about what you're doing.