I am a regular sex education contributor to Confluence but was woefully unprepared to discuss the topic due to my own lack of knowledge or experience as an able-bodied person, and thusly I outsourced for this inquiry. I’d like to thank Katherine Harlow for writing the following and sharing these resources, you can contact her on Instagram @parkavenuepinup, or email [email protected].
KH: A key to understanding the intersection of sex and disability is understanding disability theory. Disability theory is complex and nuanced, but essentially: all disabled people are different, our needs are different, our needs deserve to be met, and that we are not a burden. The onus for unlearning ableism, such as unfavorable conceptions, or treatment of disabled people is on abled people."
Regarding language: some language has changed regarding this issue. We no longer use the phrases "handicapped/handicapable," or "special needs". Our needs aren’t special, just different. this also implies our needs are a privilege, not a right.
"Differently abled," can be euphemistic, and implies disability is a bad thing.
We largely prefer identity first language: for example "disabled person," over person-first language "person with a disability".
Abled vs Able-bodied: Also there has been a shift in referring to non-disabled people as "abled" instead of "able-bodied" in order to acknowledge the existence of mental disabilities. However, if you are speaking about physical disability particularly, it is okay to refer to non-physically-disabled people as "able bodied."
Access needs: are a need that a disabled person requires to enjoy, experience, or perform something with the least amount of pain, stress, duress, or burden upon them. For example, some folks who have trouble standing might consider needing to sit through the work day is an access need.
Inter-abled sex and/or relationships: This means when one person is disabled and one person is not. Even if this is not the case, here are my recommendations for someone having sex with a disabled person:
Firstly, unlearn your ableism: all people are socialized to be ableist until we actively unlearn it, and even disabled people can have internalized ableism. Unlearn preconceived notions, stereotypes, misunderstandings, and misinformation about disabled people. (Resources for doing this are below)
(sex can look like many things, as reminded here)
Research your partner’s disability: do as much research as possible on your partner’s disability. Educate yourself as much as possible without putting the responsibility of educating you onto your disabled partner. Research via reliable medical sources, or attend doctor’s visits with your partner, if your partner sees a doctor, and if your partner is comfortable with that. Ask the doctor questions with your partner’s consent.
Learn your partner’s limitations: have a conversation with your partner in which your learn their limitations. This is similar to a "negotiation" in BDSM, if you will. If they are open to discussing limitations, ask them what is painful, may cause a flare-up, etc. For example, vaginal or anal penetration may be extremely painful for someone with pelvic floor disorder.
Be creative: disabled people are some of the most creative people in the world from how we have learned to modify certain things with regard to our limitations and the largely inaccessible world. For example, if someone has trouble with penetration, explore outercourse, roleplay, sensation play, etc.
-Disability After Dark with Andrew Gurza, Katherine Harlow is a guest on episode 171.
-The Sex Ed with Liz Goldwyn episode with Dr. Linda Mona, who is a disabled clinician.
A lot of this work has yet to be acknowledged by the mainstream or published in books or large media outlets. That being said, there is groundwork being done on social media. On Instagram, check out:
@crippingupsex: Eva is a disabled sex educator.
@laraeparker: Lara lives with severe endometriosis and pelvic floor disorder and speaks often about sex and disability, her new book "Vagina Problems" will be out soon.
These IG accounts are not necessarily related to sex, but they give excellent groundwork for disability theory:
@itswalela is a Non-binary POC femme, community organizer, writer, and activist with cancer.
@_sambosworth is a disability activist with peripheral neuropathy, who is also a wheelchair user.
@hot.crip is meme account related to disability and ableism, run by a disabled person.
@plsdonttouchmycane is another meme account related to disability and ableism run by a disabled person.
@invalid__art is a Disability activist with over 30+ conditions.
@wheely_good_time is a Disability activist specializing in graphic design, who designs small graphics about the disabled experience.
Lastly, Never make your partner feel like a burden: even for the most well-prepared, thought-out sex with a disabled partner, things will not always go to plan. A lot of disabled people have fluctuating access needs, which means that our access needs change, sometimes day to day. Perhaps on a good day, a disabled person can be gently and slowly penetrated, but on a bad day, it is not possible. Sometimes the person does not know until it is attempted and it does not work out. Don’t express disappointment, frustration, or annoyance, we can tell even if it is not expressed with words. Understand that bodies are complicated, especially disabled bodies. Find and suggest another activity, ask if your partner needs a break, check in, etc.
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