The loving touch: tackling taboos around disabled people and sex

Tom Shakespeare argues that physio staff can help tackle the taboos that still surround disabled people and sex.

For the last 40 years, disabled people have been campaigning for their rights – to be included in the community, to access transport and buildings, to have an equal chance of employment. In that struggle, there have been both gains – civil rights legislation – and setbacks – austerity policies. But one area that has been neglected has been that of sexuality and relationships.  Disability rights advocates have found it easier to campaign for access to public, as opposed to private, issues.
Yet intimacy and sexuality are also human needs. Disabled people are exactly like everyone else in this respect. The deepest acceptance comes from being loved and desired by another human being. Nobody has a right to a partner, but they do have a right not to be prevented from having a partner.
Lack of sex education is an obstacle. Lack of self-esteem and confidence is an obstacle.   Over-protection, by parents or care workers, is an obstacle. Lack of participation in public spaces is an obstacle. Lack of privacy is an obstacle. All these things can be overcome, if policies and practices are reformed.
I co-wrote The Sexual Politics of Disability, with Kath Gillespie-Sells and Dominic Davies, 20 years ago. Having interviewed more than 40 disabled people, we summarised our message as: the problem of disabled sexuality is not ‘how to do it’ but ‘who to do it with’. In other words, rather than worrying about positions or practices or erections, the issue was achieving social inclusion and developing the confidence to form relationships.
What can physio staff contribute? My first thoughts are: helping people to feel comfortable with touch; enabling people to feel positive about their bodies, and to find ways of managing their spasms and contractures; having the conversation which may be felt to be taboo or inappropriate.
You’ll have more ideas.  Disabled people do sometimes need particular assistance to be sexual, from their partners, support workers or the professionals who work with them. I believe that everyone has the right to achieve intimacy, in whichever way is right for them.
  • Professor Tom Shakespeare, Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia
Professor Tom Shakespeare, Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia

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