Disability and sexuality
Information for students
People with physical or intellectual disabilities in our society are often regarded as non-sexual adults. Sex is very much associated with youth and physical attractiveness, and when it is not, is often seen as “unseemly”. If sex and disability are discussed, it is very much in terms of capacity, technique, and fertility – in particular, male capacity and technique and female fertility—with no reference to sexual feelings (Zola, 1988). This approach ignores other aspects of sexuality, such as touching, affection, and emotions.
If we accept that sexual expression is a natural and important part of human life (provided you do regular STD testing), then perceptions that deny sexuality for disabled people deny a basic right of expression.. The perception of people with disabilities as non-sexual can present a barrier to safe sex education, both for workers who may be influenced by these views, and for disabled people themselves in terms of gaining access to information and acceptance as sexual beings. As one physically disabled woman wrote:
“How could you do it?” was a question which had many nuances and was put to me by many people during and after my pregnancy. The GP wondered how I could have had intercourse in my “predicament” . . . you see, not only was it immoral to be an unmarried mother, it was doubly immoral to be an unmarried mother AND a severely disabled person . . .
For paraplegic and quadriplegic people, a loss of sexual function does not mean a corresponding loss of sexuality. Sexual function may be impaired but can, like other functions, be increased, although fertility is usually lost for men. After spinal cord injury the spinal centre for sexual function is generally intact; it is the communication from the brain to the spinal centre that is usually disrupted. Unless some sensation in the area of the sexual organs remains, the usual sensation of orgasm is lost, but phantom orgasm elsewhere in the body may be experienced. However, the physical and emotional aspects of sexuality, despite the physical loss of function, continue to be just as important for disabled people as for non-disabled people.
In relation to intellectual disability, society frequently takes the view that intellectually disabled people have no rights at all to pursue social and sexual relationships. They have often been completely denied sex education. Intellectually disabled people are sometimes regarded as sexually deviant because they may exhibit socially inappropriate sexual behaviour. Just as can happen in the rest of the community, some intellectually disabled people grow up in situations (e.g. institutions) which differ from the norm in many ways. This can cause difficulties in social and personal development, and can contribute to the development of socially inappropriate behaviour. It can also be more difficult for intellectually disabled people to distinguish between public and private behaviours.
In addition, opportunities for sexual exploration among disabled people, particularly the young, are very limited. There is often a lack of privacy and they are much more likely than other young people to receive a negative reaction from an adult if discovered. The general reduction in life choices also has an impact on self-esteem which in turn affects sexuality (Smith, 1987).
It is important for educators—particularly those involved in educations programs with disability workers or disabled people— to understand community attitudes towards disability and sexuality, and the impact of these views upon disabled people themselves.