A Disabled Persons Guide to Talking with Your Partner(s) About Sex
Disabled people get a lot of practice telling people about our bodies: we tell doctors, therapists, care workers, and people in our support networks like family and friends. Sometimes this is a choice, and sharing builds understanding and intimacy. Sometimes it is out of need, like if we’re explaining our care or asking for help.
Sometimes we don't choose it, but are expected to talk about our bodies, like when random non-disabled people ask inappropriate or invasive questions about our bodies and abilities. Situations like that can include extremely personal questions about our sex lives and sexuality, even though that’s often not wanted or okay. We should always feel comfortable to refuse to answer or address those kinds of questions.
The constant curiosity of others, and the expectation we should always talk about these personal things with anyone who asks, can really make it difficult for us to think about pleasurable, consensual conversations about how our bodies work and what our needs are. But when we meet someone who we are interested in as a sexual and/or romantic partner, we need to have these conversations so that we and our partners can have the best and the safest time possible. It's so important to be able to tell our partners how to support and pleasure us in the ways that work for us (and that we learn what feels good for them). Even though we’ve got all that practice, this conversation can still be really hard to start.
Here are some things to remember as you think about and prepare for these conversations:
You are entitled to explore your desires and fantasies!
As disabled people, we are not often encouraged to think about the ways that our bodies can give us pleasure, sexually and otherwise. But before we can share with another person what we want and what we like, we have to know these things about ourselves. Self-love and exploration through fantasy, masturbation or both are an important part of finding out what we like and want. If a lack of privacy or ability is a frequent barrier to masturbation for you, try to embrace and savor the moments of intimacy and privacy that you do get with yourself, and commit to finding more space for this for yourself.
You know your body best.
You know the way your body moves, feels, and reacts better than anyone. Partners might suggest positions or actions that they think would be good for your body. Suggestions can be helpful, and strategizing together about options is fun, but the final decision always needs to come from you. If a partner suggests something that doesn't feel comfortable or safe for you and your body, you do not ever have to do it (you don’t ever have to do anything a partner suggests, period). There's always more than one way to get or give pleasure, even if it's not exactly what someone is used to. Try to work together to figure out something that can meet both of your needs.
Don't worry about conversation being a mood killer: it’s not.
A conversation about positions and options and pleasure can be really fun and sexy. It can build anticipation and sexual tension while you have fun planning and visualizing things together. The only mood we should be concerned about is one where everyone feels heard and respected. Maybe the conversation is just a few minutes, maybe it's much longer. But taking the time to create space and build trust makes for an even more welcoming and intimate “mood” than you’d probably have without that communication.
Remember: you can be an active participant in sex, even if your abilities are limited or different!
Once you've thought about what you want (acts, positions, sensations) you can think about what you need to make it happen. Being disabled does not mean you have to give up any control over what happens to your body.
Think about what it would look like for you to feel like an active participant in all of your sexual experiences.
Remember, again, that sex, sensuality and other kinds of physical closeness or experiences are potentially powerful ways for you to feel in control of your body and really good in it. It can often feel like others have more control over our bodies than we do. For some disabled people, sexual and physical touch can also be a really welcome alternative to the pain and discomfort they experience. Orgasms, while not necessary or the only goal of sexual encounters, can also be very pain-relieving for some folks!
If your mobility is limited, you can develop ways to be more vocal and communicative about what you want to do, and what kind of help you need, if any. It can be harder to talk about needing help in the moment: sometimes it's easier to start the conversation about your needs over messages or email, and in advance of any sexual activity or other intimacy.
Maybe some of the sexy things you do or want are less physical. Think of different sexy things you might say to or want to hear from your partner. Try talking about how turned on you feel, what your body feels like, or telling your partner about your sexual imagination or fantasy life. Compliment your partner, and see what kinds of things come to your mind. There are so many ways to have a sexual connection with somebody: they don't always have to be physical.
If your disability is sensory, or if it affects the way you communicate, you can develop some reliable and alternative methods of communication that work for you and your partner(s). Figure out what you can contribute and what you want to do and go from there. Remember that sex is not just one thing, or only genital, but a beautiful umbrella of different sexual, orgasmic and sensory experiences.
If your sexual experience includes embracing and savoring all these good feels, you are doing it right.
Be clear about what words you do and don't like to describe your body parts and disability/mobility aids.
If you have scars, prosthetics, a walker, wheelchair, a cane — make sure your partner knows the ways to talk about them that feel best to you. Language is powerful and the wrong words can be a major turn-off.
Maybe you call your genitals and other body parts by one name when you are navigating care and health care, but you use different words in a sexual context. Share that with your partner, and find out how they like to refer to their genitals and the rest of their body, too! These conversations can also be a really fun conversation and opportunity to learn a little bit more about each other's bodies.
If you have a mobility aid and if it is a part of your sexual interactions, you get to have control over how it is used or talked about because that is an extension of your body. The same goes for any prosthetics you may rely on. If you have a catheter or ostomy bag, you are still perfectly able to have sex! These things can stay clean and out of the way, and it's perfectly okay to talk to your partner about them. Remember that there is nothing shameful about any of your parts or aids. Honor your body fully, and make sure others do too.
A lot of physically disabled people have reclaimed the word crippled or crip to define themselves. But that doesn't mean that it would feel good for a lover to say something like “I love your crippled body.” Check in about these types of identity-based words, too.
When we are ready to engage sexually with somebody, we can be comfortable engaging with that person to strategize around how to make it work best.
Our partners should make us feel safe and heard before, during, and after sex.
If what you need are longer conversions about logistics and more involved support and care, then that's what a partner will need to be prepared to do if they want to be your partner. Remember, you are giving your partner the opportunity to do something really meaningful and intimate with you. The lessons disabled people can teach the world about power, communication, consent, and interdependence are gifts. If your partner is willing to pleasure you sexually, they should be open to learning what goes into making that possible. This does not mean that they are required to do the things you need if they are not comfortable with it, but if that is the case it is probably not a good match.
Non-disabled people always ask disabled people about how we have sex, like it is some mysterious thing. But the truth is, vulnerable conversation and communication is often the only difference between disabled sex and mainstream notions of what sex should be. Think about the magic you hold as a disabled person, the gifts that you have of communication and patience which are often taken for granted. Remember that these things should actually always be the standard, whether you are disabled or not. As disabled people we get a lot more practice using them: many non-disabled folks could definitely stand to improve at both so that all the hard work doesn't always fall to us.
In case it needs saying: other disabled people make great partners. As a disabled person, intimate relationships with other disabled people can feel really sexy, validating and comfortable.
Practice these conversations with yourself or with a good friend.
Come up with questions for yourself, for your partner, or even questions that you want your partner to ask you. Practice asking and answering; practice saying some things you know are difficult for you or feel intimidating.
Ask what kinds of touch feel good, share about what doesn't feel good, ask each other what fears you have. Ask each other about what feels exciting!
Remember that these conversations can take whatever format feels best for you.
If you're most comfortable writing to express your feelings and thoughts, you and your partner can agree to write or text back and forth about the things you need to discuss. This can even happen while you're in the same room as each other. If eye contact feels hard, maybe you can sit with your backs to each other or lay side by side to have a conversation. There is no wrong way to communicate!
You got this!
Romantic and sexual relationships can be a lot of work, but that work shouldn't necessarily be hard or a bummer. These kinds of relationships and interactions should open up spaces for healing, intimacy, exploration and fun.
In all seriousness, I think disability is a superpower. Remember the gifts that you have been cultivating throughout your life. Remember that the popular media might not represent you, but you can represent you. You deserve to be respected and loved however you need to be, and you get to participate in sex in whatever ways work best for you.