This article was written by Social Psychologist Dr. Justin Lehmiller.
Sex and disability is a topic that is not often discussed. It is rarely—if ever—addressed in sex education courses, and few doctors are comfortable talking about sexual issues with disabled patients.
Part of the reason for this is because disabled persons are often stereotyped as asexual. This stems from the fact that people tend to have pretty narrow and heteronormative views about what “counts” as sex, often defining it strictly as penile-vaginal intercourse—but it’s also due to a lack of education and awareness.
It’s important for us to start talking more openly about sex and disability for multiple reasons. First, disabilities are common. In fact, 1 in 4 adults in the United States has some form of disability, with the most common being mobility issues, which affect more than 1 in 7 people.
Second, anyone who lives long enough will eventually develop a disability, whether through age-related changes in the body, chronic illness, or accidents. Even if you’re able-bodied now, having a better understanding of disabled sex will help you to more successfully navigate your intimate life in the future.
Third, sex is good for our health, both physically and psychologically. It’s a form of exercise that can improve mood, enhance our sense of meaning in life, and deepen the connection we have with our partners. Why should anyone be denied the pleasures and benefits of sex simply because they have a disability?
In this article we’re going to explore sexuality and disability in the context of wheelchair users and answer some of the most common questions people have about this. For sexuality resources dealing with other forms of limited mobility (such as mobility issues related to arthritis and chronic back pain), check out this article.
How do people in wheelchairs have sex?
A lot of people mistakenly assume that if you’re in a wheelchair, whatever is between your legs necessarily doesn’t work; however, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s important to recognize that the reasons people use wheelchairs are many and varied, so don’t make assumptions about what someone in a wheelchair is or is not physically capable of or what they enjoy in bed.
“There are so many sexual assumptions people have about the disabled body that are entirely inaccurate,” says Andrew Gurza, a disability awareness consultant and host of the Disability After Dark podcast. “Some people with paralysis do have function of the genitals, some do not. Even if their genitalia doesn’t work in conventional ways, that doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoying themselves.”
What this means is that persons with limited mobility might engage in vaginal and/or anal intercourse, oral sex, or anything else that’s on the menu for able-bodied persons, from using sex toys to kink/BDSM. For others, intercourse might be off the table, but other things are possible.
Whether your partner is able-bodied or disabled, don’t make assumptions—instead, communicate. Ask each other about your sexual wants, needs, and boundaries—and be sure to listen.
“What people should be asking is, ‘How does sex and disability feel?’ This gives the disabled person the opportunity to share with you so much more than just the mechanics,” says Gurza.
Wheelchair sex positions
A lot of people might assume that a wheelchair necessarily limits the positions you can try during sex, but that’s false. A wheelchair can actually lend itself quite well to modified versions of a number of “classic” sex positions.
However, the feasibility of a given position will depend on whether one or both partners have disabilities, the specific type(s) of disability involved, and the comfort level and preferences of the partners. Some people might prefer to have sex in their chair, while others might prefer to move to the bed.
It’s therefore a very tall order to come up with a comprehensive guide to wheelchair sex that is inclusive of all potential possibilities, so just consider this to be a starting point:
Oral sex. A person seated in a wheelchair can potentially give and receive oral sex from this position. For example, if you move the chair over to the bed and have your partner lean over the edge so that their genitals are in your lap, this can potentially provide a convenient position for both oral and manual stimulation. Alternatively, a partner who is seated in a chair can position their legs to receive oral from a partner who kneels in front.
Seated, face-to-face intercourse. For interabled couples (couples where one partner has a disability but the other does not), this is sometimes a great position. The able-bodied partner straddles their partner and sits on their lap. This may allow for comfortable penetration, while also offering the intimacy of being able to look into each other’s eyes.
Seated doggystyle. A variant of doggystyle is potentially possible in a wheelchair. The able-bodied partner can stand at the edge of the bed—facing toward it—and lower down onto their partner’s lap, using the bed for support.
It is also potentially possible to adapt to other positions in a wheelchair, such as reverse cowboy/cowgirl, or move to the bed to explore other positions, such as missionary-style sex or 69. Again, the key is communication, but also experimenting, exploring, and finding what works best for mutual comfort and pleasure.
“I think you have to have a larger conversation with partners about what your access needs are, what you can and can’t do,” says Gurza. “Talk about what you want to do, but also dive into why that may not be accessible. Be open to exploring sex that involves slings, wheelchairs, walkers, pillows, etc. and that looks different from what you have imagined. Check in on your partner’s disability status during sex.”
Ways individuals with limited mobility enjoy sex
Creativity and adaptability are crucial to enjoying sex when one has limited mobility. Just as disabled persons often have to adapt daily life to meet their needs, the same is true of their sex lives. There’s nothing wrong with that either. There isn’t just one “right” or “correct” way to have sex.
Disabled sex necessitates dismantling traditional and heteronormative notions of what “sex” means and taking a more expansive view. “I think that being disabled allows someone to open their borders on what sex is supposed to be,” says Gurza. “A lot of the definitions available as to what sex should be are ableist, and downright inaccessible. A disabled person ought to define sex as whatever feels pleasurable and accessible to their disabled bodies.”
Put another way, sex can be anything you want it to be—and that’s an important lesson for everyone to learn, regardless of your ability status. Sex doesn’t have to look a certain way, and it doesn’t have to follow a certain script. You can customize it for your body in terms of what is both feasible and pleasurable.
Disabled sex might or might not involve intercourse. It might be vanilla, or it might be kinky. It might involve a couple, or maybe even a threesome or group. It might involve role-play, sex toys, or other novelties, too. Just as able-bodied persons have multiple possibilities for enjoying sex, so do disabled persons.
Sex and disability is a topic that has been on the margins for far too long—and we all stand to benefit from talking about it openly and incorporating it into sex education.