While sexuality issues are often a sensitive topic, for people with disabilities they pose additional challenges. This is because of the way others view people with disabilities and seek to define and regulate their sexuality.
Perception of sexuality
People with disabilities are often seen as asexual or without sexual desires or experiences. It is sometimes assumed that people with physical disabilities do not have ‘normal’ sexual functions and needs. People with intellectual disabilities can be seen as incapable of responsible sexual relationships. However, people with disabilities have the same sexual needs and desires as everyone else.
Learning about sexuality
Sexuality and relationships consultant Claire Ryan offers workshops on sexuality for those with disabilities and their support people. Topics include sexual desire, romance, contraception, online dating, sexual orientation and sexual identity. Advice is also offered on how to access the services of sex workers. People are invited to bring up 'anything you want to talk about'.1
Sexuality education has been criticised for not exploring pleasure and desire – and this is especially the case for people with disabilities. Because many people assume that those with disabilities are incapable of desire or sexual pleasure, education on these issues is often seen as unnecessary. While people without disabilities are most likely to receive sexuality education from parents and friends, people with disabilities may have to rely on other sources.
Research indicates that people with disabilities experience a higher incidence of sexual abuse than other groups. As a result, parents and carers can be protective of them and restrict their sexual freedom. Incidence of sexual abuse and lack of sexuality education mean that people with disabilities are more vulnerable to sexually transmissible infections.
Disability advocates have argued that the right to sexual pleasure is the real accessibility issue for people with disabilities. A recent project in Australia has produced a training and resource pack for people with learning disabilities and those who support them. It used the stories of 25 people with learning disabilities to develop materials which focus on the rights of people with disabilities to be sexual in ways that are safe for them. The resource pack is also used in New Zealand.
Sexual surrogates are paid to give people who are not sexually active an opportunity to explore their sexuality. Surrogates may be used by people with disabilities who have few opportunities for sexual encounters, for example those in institutional care with significant mobility disabilities. Advocates for sexual surrogacy argue that everyone has a right to experience sexual pleasure.
Some people are critical of sexual surrogacy because they think that paying someone for sex is immoral. Others would prefer people with disabilities to have opportunities to have relationships that include emotional intimacy as well as sex. A sex worker may provide sexual pleasure, but not an ongoing emotional connection.