Talking About Sex

'They say sex is a lot about communication. If this is true, my disability does force me to talk to my partners much more than I would, left to my own devices. I have to talk about what we're going to do, what needs to happen in order to do it, what I can and can't do. So there's little possibility of anonymous sex.'

From The Ultimate Guide To Sex and Disability, ed Kaufman, Silverberg and Odette, 2003

Question1 Isn't good sex just supposed to 'happen'? I feel like talking about it may kill the mood.

Many of us have grown up believing that sex is something that is best not talked about. External Website that opens in new window This can make sharing intimate details about desires, sexual thoughts and feelings difficult. But sex is not always completely spontaneous, and telling your partner what you like can help you have great sex together. Talking about sex - either verbally or nonverbally (check out the question below for examples of nonverbal communication) - can also be a way for you to express what you are comfortable or uncomfortable with in a sexual situation. Being able to express to your partner what your limits of comfort and safety are - what you are willing to do and not do - can be important in having a satisfying and safe sex life.

Talking about sex - or 'dirty talk', including your fantasies and desires - can also be arousing for you and your partner. Describing fantasies and sexual acts can also be another way to have sex if you're too tired, don't have much mobility, or can't find much private time.

As a woman with a disability, a lot of people feel like you shouldn't be having sex, and in the event that you are, you definitely shouldn't be so bold as to talk about it. By being open about your sexuality and relationships (insofar as you feel comfortable), you can break apart this stereotype, and force people to confront their prejudices and false ideas about sex and disability. 

Question2 I want to tell my partner what pleases me sexually, but I'm too embarrassed to say anything.

If you find it hard to express something verbally - because of your disability, your discomfort, or because speaking isn't your forte - there are other ways to get the message across. We tend to overvalue speech as the only way to express ourselves, but nonverbal communication can be especially effective in a sexual situation (in fact, it is sometimes the only way that many people ever communicate their desires).

Why not try guiding your partner's hand to parts of your body that feel good, and indicating what kind of pressure you want used? Or demonstrating by example what you would like them to do? Or using sounds of pleasure or discomfort to indicate your levels of satisfaction? There are certain things you may need to say, but you may find this easier if you have established some nonverbal communication with your partner.

(Source: A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities, ed. Maxwell, Belser and David, 2007)

Question3 I have problems with bowel and bladder control during sex, and I'm really embarrassed about it. When and how can I discuss this with my partner?

Experiencing incontinence - loss of bowel and bladder control - is far more common than you may have been led to believe. Most societies view any kind of bodily fluid as dirty, shameful, and certainly not sexy. But sex involves a lot of fluids (sweat, discharge, sperm, blood, urine) - it's just that when two people melt into each other's arms on a TV screen, none of these are ever shown. Since there's so much shame and guilt around urinating and defecating, be gentle with yourself, and bring it up only when you're ready, with as much preparation as you need. The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability, A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities and various websites External Website that opens in new window on the internet have similar suggestions on how to approach such discussions.

Forget for a moment what your partner's reaction might be; focus on what you need out of this. Do you want him or her to understand how your body works? Will you need help when it happens and want to ask your partner for this? Do you want to draw attention to the fact that this represents a wider issue, and that the problem isn't with your body, but with societal norms around bodies? Or do you want to figure out if he or she will be able to handle sex with you? Because you may have already experienced shame, embarrassment or rejection related to this, it's natural to be nervous about having this conversation. Practicing beforehand - with a friend or in front of the mirror - can help you figure out what you want to say. But you shouldn't feel like you have to bring it up, and certainly not until you are absolutely ready. Take your time, make sure you feel comfortable, and give your partner space and time to respond.

Question4 My disability means that I'm in a lot of pain almost all the time, including during sex. How can I help my partner understand this?

It is difficult to explain major pain - the sense of urgency it causes and its after-effects - to someone who has never felt it. So rather than trying to make your partner understand the experience of pain, try and explain the effects it has. For example, explain how the pain affects your mood and body in terms of sexual arousal. Discuss how while this doesn't mean you don't want to have sex, the terms of the experience may have to be adjusted around your pain.

If your pain is sporadic and can occur in the middle of a sexual act, your partner may feel like he or she is responsible for it. It's important to talk through these feelings of guilt. For more information, read this handbook PDF File that opens in a new window External Website on chronic pain and sex.

(Source: The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability, ed. Kaufman, Silverberg and Odette, 2003)

Question5 I was sexually abused, and I have conflicting feelings about and during sex. Should I tell my partner about this?

It can be challenging and scary to talk about this with your partner, and if you do choose to discuss it, it's entirely up to you what you decide to disclose about the abuse. You don't have to say anything at all, but if you feel you may have a strong reaction to something during sex, it may be a good idea to explain this to them.

What you tell your partner can be based on what you want, and how much you feel they need to know. Do you need to take things very slowly? Is it important that you can stop whenever you need to? Are there certain words that you would rather they avoided because you associate them with negative feelings? Practicing talking about this (in front of the mirror, with a friend, or with a counsellor) can help you identify what you want to say, and give you more confidence to say it.

Question6 My 13 year old daughter has a mental disability, and is expressing curiosity about sex. How can I talk to her about it?

There is no standard way to talk about sexuality to children with mental disabilities, and you will have to judge her level of understanding before deciding how to do so. If she has a moderate or severe disability, stick to providing basic information to answer her questions in a simple manner and help her be safe from abuse. If she has a mild intellectual disability, explore other topics like sexual orientation, relationships, masturbation, and different types of abuse.

Gather all the information you need, so you can answer her questions accurately. Use the correct name for different body parts, as vague descriptions may confuse her, and leave her with the impression that sex is an embarrassing topic.

Instead of setting aside a time to do this, look out for moments when she is curious about sex (like a romantic scene in a movie, or a depiction in a book about a relationship). There are many ways in which you can make sex understandable for your daughter. For example, you can use dolls to show her where babies come from. Role playing is useful to talk about the difference between public and private places, and to teach her to say no to unwanted touches and interactions. Masturbation is often a big concern for parents of mentally disabled children. Check out the last question on the Sex with Yourself page for more information about this. Be patient, and if she has trouble understanding something, try and break it down into smaller steps. There is no right and wrong way to talk about sex with your daughter, and if a particular method doesn't work, you need to be willing to experiment until you find one that does.

(Source: Sex Education for children with intellectual disabilities External Website that opens in new window)

Attention Partners

If you are having sex with a disabled woman, consider talking to her about these things:

  • How her disability affects the way her body works
  • Where it is easier to have sex (her wheelchair, the bed, the floor)
  • What position hurts or could be more comfortable

Read more on Attention Partners

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