Consent Is Sexy: Sexual Autonomy and Disability

We all know that consent can be sexy — and also that navigating sexual consent can be tricky. Sometimes, disability makes it more complicated, so it's important to take some time out to talk about that as you explore the world of dating and sexuality through the disability lens.

Because so many nondisabled people think disabled people aren't sexual, conversations about sexual consent and autonomy often don't include disability, or if they do, it's only in a negative way, like suggesting that people with certain kinds of impairments aren't capable of consenting at all. That makes it challenging to learn about this stuff in settings like health and sexual education classes, so if you feel a little at sea, know you're not alone.

Nondisabled people sometimes like to make the disability community out as a big, confusing puzzle, and they act like this stuff is simple for them, but the secret is that it's actually not. Consent can be incredibly complicated and it's constantly shifting and changing within the context of any relationship or interaction. Nondisabled people can and often do find it challenging, may and can miss important signals that something's not right, and can feel frustrated when they feel like their partners aren't being clear with them. Those problems are common to all of us, because we're all humans — sometimes disability can be a complicating factor, but it's not the complication, because it's interacting with other humans that's the tricky part!

So, some things to know:

As a person with a body, you have autonomy and the right to decide if, when, and how you engage in sexual activity. Consent is constantly evolving, and may shift in response to a huge variety of factors — our emotional state, the circumstances of a sexual interaction, time pressures, or physical limitations, for example. Other people should foreground your sexual autonomy and respect your right to give or withdraw consent at any time. You have the right to have conversations about your needs, concerns, and limits.

As a disabled person, you may encounter the common attitude that you are not sexual, which in itself can feel kind of like a violation of consent, because it's someone else making up their mind about your sexuality for you. If you have cognitive, intellectual, or developmental impairments, you may have heard that it's also "not possible" for you to exercise consent and autonomy, that you are "incapacitated." This is dehumanizing, infantilizing, and just plain wrong.

But there may be times when disability interacts with how you communicate or the way your body responds to stimuli, so as you enter the wide world of sexuality, checking in with yourself so you can assess how you exercise consent is important. Knowing yourself as best you can is the first step in communicating your needs to other people, after all! Sometimes it can help to sit down and brainstorm a bit, thinking about how your disability affects the way you navigate the world — another case for the "Big Sexy Three."

And remember that consent goes both ways, too — maybe you're very comfortable with communicating and setting boundaries, but you miss cues from other people sometimes. There are ways to stay sexy and accommodate your disability that are emotionally healthy and fun for everyone.

  • Do you sometimes have difficulty verbalizing (speaking, using a signed language, taking advantage of a communication board), and if so, are there other modes of communication you find more comfortable? Do your verbal skills vary depending on factors like stress levels and fatigue, and if so, do you have a way to signal that you need to switch to another communication method?
  • Do you experience involuntary reactions that might send an inadvertent or unclear signal to a partner, like verbal tics or muscle spasms? A partner might interpret a leg twitch as a cue to stop when it doesn't mean that at all — or means just the opposite! Conversely, a moan could mean "Yes, please" or it could mean, "This pressure on my chest is really uncomfortable and I'm having trouble breathing."
  • Do you have a mental illness that sometimes causes anxiety when you're communicating with people, or paranoia/fear about other people's motivations, or extreme moods that may interfere with your ability to calmly assess people and situations?
  • Do you have a cognitive disability and/or neurodiverse identity that sometimes makes it a little challenging for you to clearly articulate your needs, or for you to pick up on the needs of the people around you? Maybe you have trouble with nonverbal cues, for example, so a partner making a sound or physical gesture doesn't really provide useful information for you.
  • Do you have a seizure disorder or another condition that might cause memory problems, lost time, or other issues that may lead to temporary impairment that makes consent logistically challenging or impossible?
  • Can you think of other things about your disability that change the way you communicate or sometimes make it harder for you to clearly connect with people?

Affirmative consent is the name of the game: Yes means yes!

As you sit down and think about your needs, consider how that can be converted into a deep, authentic conversation about consent. Have trouble with nonverbal cues? Ask your partner to be clear and specific with you, and say you will put the brakes on if you feel like you're not getting the feedback you need. Sometimes have trouble being verbal yourself? Set up some agreed and unambiguous signals with your partner for things like: Yes, no, keep going, and I'm feeling overwhelmed and need a time out. Teach your partner about the warning signs of emotional or physical overload, seizures, and other issues that mean it's time to stop immediately and let you have some rest.

Sex, Disability, and the Body: Recommended Reads 

Sex and Disability (2012), Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, Editors

Exile and Pride (1999), Eli Clare

Loud Hands (2010), Julia Bascom, Editor

Criptiques (2014), Caitlin Wood, Editor

Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013), Alison Kafer

Enforcing Normalcy (1995), Lennard J. Davis

Mad Pride (2000), Red Curtis and Robert Dellar, Editors

Extraordinary Bodies (1997), Rosemarie Garland-Thompson

Crip Theory (2006), Robert McRuer

Blackness and Disability (2011), Christopher Bell

Why I Burned My Book (2003), Lawrence K. Longmore

If you feel like your mental illness sometimes interferes with your ability to consent, be up front about that too, and resolve to work through challenging or frustrating situations together. If you know that sometimes your mood disorder makes it challenging for you to regulate your responses, for example, don't be afraid to take a pause for a few hours, a day, or more while you process an unexpected or intense emotional response. If your depression or anxiety can make you withdrawn and interfere with your ability to assert yourself, ask your partner to take it slow so you can build confidence.

Know that emotions outside the bedroom can complicate what's happening inside it: If you're stressed out about a big test or you're having family problems, that may interfere with your ability to make choices that are safe and right for you, and you may need to ask your partner to take a step back. If you're adjusting to new meds, maybe take some "me time" while you do that so you can learn more about how your body is responding without the complication of getting sexual. Try to avoid using sex as a tool to avoid dealing with anger, depression, and other intense emotions — while you might be able to consent, that doesn't always mean it's a good choice for your mental health.

Consent doesn't have to feel clunky or awkward. You can make it part of a sexy experience together — talking back and forth, asking questions, affirmatively saying "yes, I like that" or asking "is it okay if I..." can be exciting, tantalizing, and fun. It can also help you feel more secure in your sexuality, and more nurtured by your partner, because you're taking care of each other and going on an adventure together.

Be frank about your limits and needs, but also, ask your partner to do the same. By working together, you can enrich the time you spend together, and create a sexual space that feels safe and affirming for everyone involved. Especially as you get to know each other, don't be afraid to ask lots of questions and give lots of feedback. As you come to understand your sexy brains and bodies, you'll learn more about what works and what doesn't, and you can apply that outside the bedroom, too! Couples that communicate with each other can enjoy a more collaborative relationship, with less friction created by confusion and mixed messages.