One Question Quiz
(Illustration: Pinky Fang)
(Illustration: Pinky Fang)

SocietyMay 28, 2020

Turn me on: Navigating sex after a spinal cord injury

(Illustration: Pinky Fang)
(Illustration: Pinky Fang)

When Claire Freeman became a wheelchair user at age 17, the questions she had about how she might enjoy sex were dismissed and she was made to feel like that part of her life was over. Here she flips the script with some advice on how to find pleasure on your own terms. 

A version of this article first appeared on Amplify by All is for All, a new platform that gives space to disabled creatives and advocates to share their stories.

Should I shut up shop?

When I sustained a spinal cord injury at 17-years old, it felt like my sex life no longer mattered. It had been taken from me in an instant, and nobody was helping me figure out how to get it back. Health professionals I spoke to made me feel dismissed. Most of the information I received was about fertility, not about how I might enjoy sex. Initially, after my injury, I hated my strange, new body. It didn’t work like it used to. Sometimes there were tubes, and occasionally there was mess. Frustrated and exhausted, I tried to “shut up shop”. The only problem? I was a 17-year-old girl with raging hormones and my whole life ahead of me – desire was impossible to avoid.

Reclaiming me

After my injury, I had to find new ways to enjoy my body – my sex life wasn’t over, it was only just beginning. If you’re starting on your journey to reclaim your body, it might start with your mind. We have to do the work to reframe disability within ourselves. After my injury, a lot of the negative assumptions I’d made about relationships were self-perpetuated. For the first few years, I was my own worst enemy and sabotaged most potential relationships. I had to let go of those dominant narratives we’re fed daily about normal, perfect people and relationships because those don’t exist.

Reframing those narratives is a journey and takes work. I found that seeing images of women like myself made me feel less alone; I started working on my self-confidence and I put more effort into my appearance. I started valuing myself. I made an effort to no longer call myself broken. Instead, I was a survivor. If I found myself talking to someone I liked, I’d intentionally talk about many of the positive elements of my injury: my adaptability, my new strengths, and I never put myself down.

My advice would be to focus on building your confidence and value yourself first. An emotional connection with a partner also makes things easier – this was something I needed, especially with a body that responded differently. I’ve found that building a connection and teaching my partner what brought me pleasure helped mitigate my fears. Over time, what I enjoyed grew exponentially as I started feeling better about myself and confident enough to vocalise what I enjoyed.

(Illustration: Pinky Fang)

I’ve learnt that the normative goal of the “orgasm” might be different for my body, but it could be just as pleasurable. It ultimately comes down to figuring out what works for you. It took me some time to muster the courage to explore my new body so take as much time as you need. I discovered that my neck, shoulders, and arms were extremely sensitive, and I found that if my brain was “turned on”, anything was possible. A good place to start is to focus on the areas where you have sensation and work from there.

Everybody is different. I’ve found that discussions with other disabled people have helped me navigate my desires and discover new things to try, so don’t be afraid of having a discussion with people you trust. Some friends even suggested that their sex lives had improved from when they weren’t disabled as it’d forced them to become good communicators with their partners.

Everyone I met had at one point felt like their days of desire were over but discovered that was untrue. Almost everything we’ve been taught to believe about living with a disability is untrue, and once you understand that, you’re able to move forward and be free to explore your body, relationships, and desires.

The down low

If you’re feeling like I once did and want to “shut up shop”, here are some answers to questions you might be grappling with:

Where do I start?

Because everyone has different levels of sensation, figuring out what you like is down to personal preference, but massage/soft-touching might be a good place to start. As I said, open communication is key. Figure out what you like and what you find stimulating through exploration and then articulate that to your partner. Make it fun and don’t put pressure on yourself to make things perfect. After all, with the problem-solving disabled people do every day, I’ve found there’s nothing you can’t try.

Will people find me attractive?

Something I’ve learnt is that sexiness comes with confidence. Confidence comes with time and with re-setting your ideas about disability, sex, and intimacy. The term “love yourself” takes on more weight when you’re disabled. Often it feels like an impossible task because we’re told, still, both implicitly and explicitly, that our bodies have less value. But the great news is, we can adapt our way of thinking and look to our peers for support. When we can let go of those fears, those hang-ups and see the value of our body in our minds, anything is possible. Those beliefs the world perpetuates about disability only have power over you if you let them.

Can I have sex with a catheter?

Yes, absolutely. For people with indwelling catheters, you can remove them for the duration of sex or work around them. Wear crotchless underwear and have the tube tucked into them if you want the “it’s there but not there” look. It’s also about being okay with body fluid: perhaps have a towel underneath, or if possible, try it in a bathtub!

Do I tell a potential partner I’m disabled straight away, especially on dating websites?

This is up to you. Some people do, others don’t. I’m a firm believer in being honest and up-front. In this case, the dominant narratives regarding disability paint it primarily as a negative attribute, so my advice is to focus first on you. Once you feel comfortable, have a conversation about your disability with a prospective partner, but initially, let them see you. Our disabilities may be an integral part of us, but they don’t define us, and just like we carry false preconceived notions about disabilities, so too will prospective partners. If someone swipes right, ease them gently into understanding your disability. If they don’t respond well to the discussion, remove yourself from the discussion – your wellbeing should always come first.

Finally, if you don’t treat your disability like it’s a tragedy, they won’t either. Confidence is the sexiest trait a person can own. Confidence is not a constant state, but if you invest in negative thoughts about yourself, they will be realised. Invest in valuing and being confident in yourself, because that’s what you deserve.

Powered by AUT, Amplify by All is for All is a monthly content series that allows a range of disabled creatives and advocates to share their stories, creative work and cutting edge insights on niche disability issues of importance to our community. The work is by disabled people, for disabled people.

Keep going!