Disabled Sex: Sex for Two (or More)

Disabled people are often nervous when they set out into the world of partnered sex. Because it's such a taboo subject, they may not know where to start, since they've rarely heard people affirming the right to sexual autonomy for disabled people, or providing information about how to have safe, fun, loving, saucy, steamy, great sex while disabled.

This can be especially true for people with acquired disabilities who haven't spent a lifetime working with their impairments, and may feel like they've just been launched into an alien world. Sexual education in school or presentations of sex in media often provide vague information about being sexual, at best, and often leave disability out altogether — so answering questions for yourself like how you have a certain kind of sex can involve more trial and error. It shouldn't have to be this way, because, surprise, disabled people have sex on the regular and they've figured out what works for them. So, my friends, can you!

Some disabled people have specific concerns about sexuality because they're worried that paralysis, paresis, muscle contractures, chronic pain, muscle weakness, and other physical impairments may make it difficult — or impossible — to have sex. Others are concerned that neurodiversity or cognitive impairments may make communicating about sex challenging or frustrating. Plus, many disabled people receive weird, rude, and ignorant questions about disabled sexuality because they think it's some big mystery.

Where there's a will, though, there's a way, and there are a lot of options for making partnered sex more comfortable and enjoyable for everyone. That said, every body is different, so there's no list of quick tips that will work for everyone, disabled or not. You'll have to work with your partner(s) to figure out what gets you going, and gets you there. You may find "Left Foot, Red, Right Hand, Green: The Deal on Sex Positions" a useful starting point for talking about the kind of sex you want to have and developing the tools to make it amazing.

While people may think of disability as a limiting factor, it can sometimes be just the opposite. Having to think creatively about sexual pleasure can enhance your connection with your partner, and lead you to some fun mutual discoveries as you work together to find out what makes the magic happen. You may stumble upon activities nondisabled people never even dream of and while sometimes your partner has to do more of the (literal or figurative) heavy lifting, hopefully they'll relish the challenge.

Feeling sexy isn't just about getting turned on. People with satisfying sexual lives tend to communicate and work together to find out what turns them on and explore their sex lives together. That's why this advice goes for everyone, regardless of disability status.

First: Communication

People talk about communication all the time like it's the most important thing ever because, uh, it kind of is.

You need to be in clear, constant communication with your partner about your body, what's working, what is not working, how to do it better, and when you need an immediate time out because you're uncomfortable or in danger. Before getting involved in partnered sex, have a conversation about your body and your needs, their body and their needs, and establish some ground rules. Those can include some no-gos or dealbreakers, like positions that are uncomfortable or dangerous, or warnings about situations where you might not be able to communicate, but are in real physical distress or danger.

Consider using our Yes, No, Maybe So checklist to discuss your needs and plan ahead in a series of conversations: What kind of communication works for you? How and when do you shut down? How do you want to handle conversations about issues in your relationship? What will you do if you have a conflicting access need? Think about these issues as you develop your "Big Sexy Three" for prospective partners: What do people need to know about your needs?

Whether in the context of sex or not, you're going to spend a lot of your life talking to health care providers — maybe it's asking how to have sex safely with vertigo, or how to treat that itchy skin condition. For help understanding managing healthcare systems in general, and communicating with providers specifically, take a look at Dealing with Doctors.

If you've spent some time exploring your sexuality on your own or with prior partners, you may have a sense of what you generally do and don't like, and what works for you. Don't be afraid to demonstrate, or coach — both can be pretty sexy, and can help break down nerves or uncertainty when you're getting to know each others' bodies. Worried about how your brain and communication style interact with sex? It's complicated — which is why we have a whole section of this series all about it (so don't freak out: there's more on this).

Next: Safety

Safer sex is great sex! You may be able to get pregnant, or impregnate someone else, so it's important to explore birth control options that work for you if you're not interested in pregnancy right now. In addition, you're vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, which can be a really big risk if you also have immune problems, because your body might have a tougher time fighting them off. Make sure you have the safer sex supplies, and conversations, you need to have before you get going, along with any supplies you may need to address disability-specific concerns. (For example, if you're stressed out about potential cleanup issues, keep a box of puppy training pads around — it sounds ridiculous, but those babies absorb a lot of fluid and you can toss them rather than having to deal with washing towels!)

We're big fans of condoms, gloves, and dental dams, which come in an array of shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors, including latex-free versions. Also keep oodles of lube on hand, and make sure it's condom-compatible. In addition, we recommend talking to your doctor about regular STI screening and deciding on a schedule that works best for you, given your sex life and other factors. If you wear medical devices or use medical supplies, you may also want to talk to your doctor about how to handle catheters, colostomy bags, and other sometimes less-than-sexy parts of life with a disability.

Getting into position

If you have mobility problems, those pretzel-like illustrations in Cosmo probably look both impractical and horrific. That's okay — there are a lot of sexual positions in the world, and the ones that are right for you are the ones you can be using, no matter how "boring" they might seem. Wedges, pillows, folded or rolled blankets or towels, blocks, and pretty much any other item that helps you get into position can be really useful tools for cradling your body and helping you support yourself. A sling or swing, whether designed for sex or otherwise, can be another great option. Some people are more comfortable on hard surfaces than soft ones, or vice versa. An arm chair or couch can be a really great sexual tool, as can your wheelchair, if you're a wheelchair user — if you have a wheelchair that's comfortable and fits you well, it's basically ideal for supporting you during physical activity.

You may need your partner's help to get into position, and you can make that sexy, too — turn it into a tease or game if you have the time, or if you're in the mood for a quickie, the race to get set up can be part of the fun. As you experiment, you'll find the supplies and arrangement that work for you.

You know your body, so stay alert for warning signs that you're not in a good position, like shaking muscles, numbness, tingling, burning, or other discomfort. If you don't have sensation in some parts of your body, educate your partner about signs that something is wrong. Be aware that if you have continence issues, your body might surprise both of you in the heat of the moment, so make sure your partner is ready and aware. It's part of life and nothing to be ashamed of — and plenty of nondisabled people sometimes lose it during sex sometimes too!

My spidey sense is tingling 

If you have sensory problems — whether too much or too little — sex can sometimes be frustrating or disappointing for you. Patience is the name of the game. If your genitals aren't up for it (literally or figuratively), lots of other areas on your body can be erogenous zones, starting with your head and going all the way to your toes. Maybe your partner can read you a dirty story, or nibble on your ears. Your lips are one of the most famous sexy spots on the body. Other parts of you may respond to any number of sensations. You and your partner might find experimenting with toys helpful, including using dildos or vibrators and harnesses or straps. You can also explore objects for sensation play, from feathers to works and beyond.

Sometimes even a little bit of sensation is too much, whether it causes pain or other reactions. Work slowly with your partner to find the kinds of touch that feel good for you, and learn where you enjoy stimulus and where you definitely do not. Your body may not want to cooperate at all one day and be totally into it the next, so be prepared for varied interest in sexual activity. If you're having trouble touching or being touched because tactile sensation is so unpleasant, explore getting sexy verbally — sign a story for your sweetie, read some naughty fanfic together, look at (or ask for a description of) erotic art, or tell your partner what you'd like to be doing to them.

Mutual aid

If you use an aide or personal assistant, conversations about getting sexy can sometimes be tricky, especially if you're a minor and they think they're in charge of your sex life. Depending on your level of comfort, you may want to sit down and have a frank conversation, explaining that you are a sexual being and you want to have safe, comfortable sex — so you need help with doctor's appointments, picking up safer sex supplies, and setting up your bedroom, but you and your partner will take it from there. You have the right to sexual autonomy and to privacy.

If your aide isn't amenable to this conversation, and/or your parents aren't backing you up (or they're the ones providing your personal assistance), you may be forced to catch some private time where you can, until you're older and have more autonomy when it comes to hiring and firing your personal assistants and setting boundaries. If you're an adult under guardianship, be aware that you still have rights. Your local disability resource center can help empower you with tools relevant to your nation and area, including education about sexual advocacy.