By Emily Osborn
Sex and sexuality are both a major parts and basic needs of human life. However, regardless of the importance of this part of life, people with disability are often still disregarded from conversations surrounding sex. It might shock a lot of you to find out that up until 2017 in Ireland, it was illegal for a person with intellectual disability to have sex before marriage. The idea behind this law was that a person with intellectual disability could not possibly have the ‘capacity’ to consent to a sexual relationship, and therefore the courts ruled out any kind of sexual activity for those living with ID. Despite this, many people with both physical and intellectual disabilities across the world live regular and fulfilling lives, and to assume that they do not have the ‘capacity’ to make decisions for themselves regarding their romantic relationships because of their disability is not just insulting, but wrong in the first instance. More so than anything however, this law shone a light on Ireland’s subpar sex education system, with majority of special educational needs schools opting out of teaching sex education to their students as part of the curriculum. Similarly, sex education in Ireland where it is taught, does not include how disability can affect sex. How can people with disability learn about sex if the opportunity is never given to them? This can have many effects on the sexuality and sexual expression of people with disabilities, making sex often seem out of the question for these people.
Sexuality is a term that doesn’t just mean sexual attraction or having a sex life. Sexuality includes self-confidence, gender, relationships, and body image. It’s also no secret that in the media, people with disabilities (both physical and intellectual) are rarely ever portrayed in an attractive light, with the majority of disabled characters in media being the butt of the joke, or a token character to show how diverse the media you’re watching is. This undoubtedly has a major impact on the body image of people with disabilities. Many young people with disabilities have grown up without having seen themselves portrayed in media, without having seen people like them forming relationships, dating, or being portrayed in a remotely attractive manner. In fact, most people with disability are often infantilised in society and in media, and people treat the idea of them forming relationships and having sex lives as ‘morally wrong’ in some regard. Sexuality is a major part of life, and people with disabilities should not be excluded from this. People with a disability have the same basic need to love, sex, and relationships as everyone else.
Society has so many misconceptions about what it means to have sex as a disabled person. Some non-disabled people may think that disabled people only date other disabled people, and many others may think that disabled people don’t value sex or have one-night stands. Similarly, many able-bodied people wrongly assume that a person with disability can’t have ‘real sex’, and that people with disabilities don’t feel sexual desire. Disability may make having sex difficult for many reasons, but just because a little bit more preparation and care may have to go into planning a night between the sheets, doesn’t mean that it is any less normal than sex is for able-bodied people. Having sex can be very physically taxing for someone with chronic illness or disability, and there may be extra steps involved to make sure that everything is going right and is enjoyable for all parties. Sex can cause pain and fatigue for many with chronic illness, and this may lead to issues such as loss of sex drive and anxiety about sex. Disability can cause body image issues for many, and this may cause a lack of confidence in the bedroom, leading to performance anxiety during sex. People with disabilities may feel concerned that their partner won’t find them attractive because of their disability and may be concerned about what outside parties may think of their relationship. This is another symptom of the unfortunate and infantilised portrayal of disabled people in society and in media, as people with disability may feel that in order to be attractive, they must also be able-bodied. This, however, is far from the truth. As with all sex, communication and comfort are key to having fulfilled sexual relationships as a person with disability. Creativity and experimentation may also play a larger part in planning these sexual exploits, in order to find out what best works for each specific couple and their varying needs. People with disabilities who live in care homes or group home settings often are not afforded the freedom to date freely without the presence of a chaperone. Similarly, people who live in these settings are often living in the presence of several others, as well as carers and workers who arrive at their place of residence intermittently. Sometimes, people may even have to share a bedroom with other people. Privacy is often seen as a luxury in these places, making romance and sexual activity incredibly difficult to plan around. Homes and institutions such as these are often separated according to gender, which further inhibits disabled people living in these areas from finding romance.
Masturbation can also prove difficult for disabled people, with some disabled people finding it difficult to position themselves in a way that is comfortable for them. Disability activist and podcast host Andrew Gurza found this was their exact issue, and founded Handi, a sex toy company that caters specifically for the needs of people with disabilities. Many mainstream stores offer sex toys and lingerie specifically for a non-disabled demographic, further excluding people with disabilities from another aspect of sex. They also created a book, called The Handi Book of Love, Lust, and Disability, containing stories from disabled people around the world about their sex lives, with a focus on education people on what is like to be a sexual disabled person. In their own words, this book allows disabled people to be included in conversations about sex, but also allows non-disabled people to realise that their one-dimensional view of sex is not the only narrative out there. Andrew also created the #disabledpeoplearehot on twitter, a space for people with disabilities to express themselves and their sexuality in a way that is non-taboo. It is so refreshing to see a part of social media which serves to empower disabled people and their sexuality, rather than repress it.
Disability and sexuality, and the sex lives of people with disabilities, is a topic that remains taboo in modern society. This causes parents, teachers and healthcare workers to often feel uncomfortable at the prospect of teaching the birds and the bees to someone with a disability. This lack of sex education has many knock-on effects for the sex lives of disabled people. Aside from causing people with disability to often be unsure of how their disability will affect them having sex, and causing needly anxiety in the bedroom, people with disability are also more vulnerable to relationships that are exploitative, disempowering, and overall bad. One 1996 study even found that people with disability are more susceptible to having unplanned pregnancies or developing STIs, which was attributed to a low level of education on sexual health. Disabled people, like anyone else, deserve a right to sex education that empowers them, teaches them, and ensures that they stay safe in relationships. However, in addition to people feeling unprepared to offer education and advice on sex to people with disabilities, disabled people themselves often feel just as awkward asking for this advice. Some people with disability may require help from a caregiver or attendant in order to get into a position where they can have sex with their partner. The thoughts of this, for many, is an instant mood killer. Sex, for many people, is a very intimate thing which they would rather not involve other people in. It is important as a result that caregivers and professionals are also given comprehensive education on the kind of needs their patients may have regarding their sexuality and sex lives.
The Irish law forbidding people with intellectual disability from having sex was repealed in 2017, after much controversy. However, this is only the start of reclaiming the rights of people with disability to have the same freedom of sex and sexuality as the able-bodied population. While people are still campaigning for comprehensive sex education including people with disabilities to be taught in schools, there are many aspects of disabled sexuality that are still yet to rise to cultural consciousness. However, romance, sex, and sexuality are all things that are so fundamentally human, and eventually with the right education and resources, disabled people will be afforded the same right to express their sexuality and live their sex lives whatever way they wish.