Disability has been largely ignored in conversations around sexual wellness in Ireland, leaving disabled people to do the work when it comes to educating others and their sexual health. Here, four people talk about the challenges they face
Recent conversations about access to contraception and the review of the secondary school sex-education curriculum have expanded our understanding of sexual wellness. However, the experiences of disabled people have been largely missing from the conversations .
The reality is that sex and disability intersect in a variety of ways. Victoria Rodgers, who has fibromyalgia (a complex condition characterised by widespread musculoskeletal pain and fatigue), has learned that her sex life must involve a level of planning that most able-bodied people don’t have to even think about.
“I have to plan my times accordingly and how or what positions I may have to use, for masturbation or sex with my partner. We plan what to do, talk about consent before and afterwards, and we also take our time with being together. This helps with trying positions that suit us both while not putting too much pressure on myself or my partner while enjoying good sex.
“I thankfully live independently on my own and so I can do what I want and how I please. When it comes to positions and what not, I use support pillows and angles to make sure I’m not in too much pain and it makes it far more enjoyable sex.”
Victoria, who is 41, says that having good communication helps her explore sex on both a physical and emotional level, meaning that her experience of pleasure is more authentic to her.
“Sex does help me in a lot of ways as it is the space that I share with my partner. Sex can bring us closer, and I feel happier and more at ease with myself. I enjoy sex and it makes me happy.”
With education around sex and disability still quite lacking, Victoria finds people asking some very personal and inappropriate questions.
“Even complete strangers have asked me, ‘Oh you have a disability, how does that affect your dating life?’ or ‘Oh, so is there a way for you to have sex?’ Questions like this make me sad because, just because I’m disabled, I shouldn’t feel like I shouldn’t have sex or even consider dating. It’s a very wrong and outdated point of view which needs to change immediately for the future.”
They didn’t offer any advice or support around sex, and this made me feel like I wasn’t human
But sex is not just a physical experience; it can be an emotional roller coaster, too.
Dubliner Finn Carter shares similar experiences of preplanning and having to watch energy levels closely, but says the emotional impact of navigating his sex life and his disability is also an issue.
“I always feel like I ruin the mood as it’s never just a linear activity with the number of times I have to either shift my body weight or take breaks due to my arthritis,” says the 28-year-old.
“It impacts my emotional sex life greatly as I am a very sexual person, but my body doesn’t allow it half the time. I get very frustrated when I want to engage in sexual activity, but my body just isn’t listening to what I want it to do, or I am not achieving the result I want as my body is in too much pain to do so.”
Finn says he has had some negative experiences of trying to access sexual healthcare. He felt dehumanised by his experience of accessing appropriate and supportive healthcare.
“They didn’t offer any advice or support around sex, and this made me feel like I wasn’t human. Sex is a basic human need and everyone should be able to enjoy it if they want to. They assume that because I am disabled, I am not sexually active, and this genuinely hurts me as I am only human and I have needs like everyone else. I use at-home sexual-health tests as I do not feel comfortable going to in-person ones as I am both disabled and transmasculine, and they are not normally accommodating with appropriate language or protocol.”
Wheelchair-user Alannah Murray says having a disability can make it difficult to have partnered sex, especially casual sex.
“My lower limbs are contracted, so there are some positions that are more or less comfortable. I also had a stroke in 2020 which means hooking and unhooking my bra and undressing myself and my partner is a bit slower. It also means that, while I was single, there was no such thing as one-night stands or anything because nobody was interested in foreplay like asking the width of your doors and where their bedroom was in the house.”
Alannah, who is in their twenties, found their sex life hindered as people struggled to see the person behind the wheelchair — and at times has felt objectified and dehumanised.
“I found myself entirely closed off in relationships with partners. This was the impact of my disability and my own internalised ableism. When I used dating apps, I wasn’t sure whether to include pictures of myself in my chair or if people would find me attractive for the right reasons rather than fetishising me or being able to boast that they had been with someone in a wheelchair.”
Alannah says sex was not raised by any medical professional and, like so many other people in their position, had to turn to the internet to find inclusive sex education.
“Everything I found out by myself online, and honestly, I think it’s quite infantilising. Disabled people have sex whether people are comfortable admitting that or not, and the more information and education around the topic there is, the less stigma there will be having these conversations in the long run.”
It can be exhausting trying to be yourself while someone is objectifying your wheelchair as a sexual object
The constant work of having to explain a disability and its challenges can be tiring, and an extra workload that people are often left to navigate by themselves. Alannah says they have consistently faced extra hurdles in wanting to explore sexual desire as a result of other people’s assumptions that disabled people don’t have sex — or even want it at all.
“This can be individually true, but using a sweeping generalisation of all disabled people is incredibly harmful and leads to disabled people having to do the heavy lifting of re-educating people when they just want to get down to business. It can be exhausting trying to be yourself while someone is objectifying your wheelchair as a sexual object.”
Hidden disabilities can provoke the same harmful assumptions. Aoife*, who is 32 and is based in Kerry, is diagnosed with POTS (postural tachycardia syndrome, a blood circulation disorder), fibromyalgia, and ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis, often called chronic fatigue syndrome). Initially, she was keen to discuss her experiences in a national newspaper.
“When I was approached to discuss this topic, I was excited about being photographed alongside my words. I imagined a picture of myself proudly next to my proclamations of sex being a normal and healthy part of an often otherwise unhealthy state of being. My body may not work well, but orgasms are free pain relief. I imagined readers seeing my tattoos and piercings and thinking, “I didn’t know disabled people look like that!”, because often able-bodied people don’t realise that disabled people are just as diverse as they are. I think that type of representation is extremely important, a reminder that anyone can get sick.”
However, Aoife decided not to share her name as she was concerned about the reaction of her family, who are her main support network.
“I realised I can’t be photographed for this story. I can’t even put my name on it because, as a disabled person, my first line of support is always my family. In Ireland in particular, so much of managing illness and disability falls to “community care”, and that is almost always immediate family. It is assumed that there is some level of consistent family care available and, as such, there are enormous gaps in what the HSE offers to the chronically ill.
‘‘The risk that my parents would be ashamed to see their daughter’s face in the paper, talking about how sexual health is a vital part of physical health, is a very real one. The possibility that your support network might become uncomfortable or withdraw entirely is something with real material consequences. The HSE provides medical appointments, but who will get you there? Who can you put down as your emergency contact if your mam is fighting with you?
“Most of the time, I’m not actively choosing to share this aspect of my life with a carer, but the revelation that I have a sex life is treated as me sharing something in confidence, a trust exercise. When in reality, if they opened the wrong cupboard, or looked in the wrong drawer, there would sit a dildo.”
We can all educate ourselves on this topic, and service providers in this area can avail of the IFPA’s Speakeasy Plus programme, which provides training to equip service providers with the knowledge and skills needed to support the sexual expression and wellbeing of the people they support. (ifpa.ie/education). When non-disabled people struggle to see the person behind the disability, the impact can be hard on those rendered invisible.
Finn is very clear in identifying his sexual wellness as an important part in his overall wellness. “I am not my disability; my disability does not define who I am. I am still a sexually active adult who just so happens to have to work around their body needs to fulfil their pleasure needs.”
Inclusive conversations and education have a long-lasting benefit for all.
Alannah says, “Putting stereotypes and misinformation aside will help everyone to enjoy the full spectrum of sexual pleasure, however that looks in reality. Sex with a disability isn’t any different or exotic to what non-disabled people get up to. If anything, we have more fun. Broaden your horizons, confront your own biases, and you may just learn a thing or two!”
*name has been changed