Myths surrounding sex and disability: separating fact from fiction

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Myths surrounding sex and disability: an illustration of a person with sunglasses sitting on their bed holding up a string.

One of the pervasive myths surrounding sex and disability is “if I have sex with a disabled person, will I catch what they’ve got?”  | ©Valeria Alvarez /Behance CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Myths surrounding sex and disability

What do you know really know about disabled people having sex? Have you ever asked yourself the question: how do disabled people have sex? Or wondered can disabled people have sex?

Broadcaster and journalist Mik Scarlet suffered a spinal collapse in his teens that left him unable to walk or get an erection. As such, he’s well placed to explore some of the most common myths he’s encountered surrounding disabled people having sex: do disabled people want sex, can they even have sex if they want it, and how do disabled people have sex?

Can disabled people have sex and other awkward questions

I’m Mik Scarlet, and I’m disabled. I’ve been this way since I was six weeks old, but I started using my wheelchair at the ripe old age of 15. One thing that has always struck me as strange about being disabled is how uncomfortable many people are around the subject of disability and sex.

Some people will just come up to you and ask you the most personal of questions in the most public of places, completely out of the blue: “how do disabled people have sex,” or "can disabled people have sex" and "can people in wheelchairs have sex?"  

Or people just find the whole subject a little bit, “Oh, no, no, it’s a bit icky. I don’t want to talk about disabled people having sex.”

I think these questions and reactions relate to a lack of knowledge and understanding about disabled people and sex. And with that in mind, I thought I’d explore some of the misconceptions and myths surrounding sex and disability.

Ten myths surrounding sex and disability

Disabled sex myth 1 – “Disabled people don’t want or need sex”

Right, let’s have myth number one then, shall we? “Disabled people don’t want or need sex.” 

It’s easy to see where this one comes from because if you imagine a disabled person in your head, you think of someone that’s in need of caring, that’s broken, but in some ways weak or helpless.

Disabled people come across as asexual just because of how society paints disability. This especially applies to people with quite profound impairments or people with learning disabilities, who you kind of think of as being like big children

The truth is that disabled people are just like everybody else. We have all the same wants and needs, dreams and desires, lusts, and fantasies. Hope this explanation puts this first myth about sex and disability to rest!

Disabled sex myth 2 – “Disabled people can’t have sex.”

Disabled people can’t have sex.” This one is one of the biggest myths surrounding sex and disability. The truth is most disabled people have sex just like everybody else; they work just like everyone else. A few people might have issues like pain, which gets in the way of feeling sexy.

Some people have impairments that mean they can’t move very easily, and sometimes getting into some of the positions that mean sex is possible is quite difficult. But all those people still function normally, and they have sex just the same as the rest of the world.

There are a very small number of disabled people (and I count myself as one of those) who have issues around the way their bodies work. 

I am very lucky, I can still feel all of my body, but I don’t have much motor movement in my genitals – so, in other words, Mr. Floppy stays floppy. The truth is, even if you break your neck right up high, you can still enjoy a sex life because there are ways of creating erogenous orgasmic zones all over your body that you can feel that allow you to enjoy sex and reach orgasm. 

What it is, really, is all disabled people can have sex. Some might have to have sex that isn’t the same as what you’d read in a textbook or learned in your sex education classes at school.

And what you should be asking is ‘what can we learn from disabled people’ not ‘do disabled people have sex’ or "how do disabled people have sex" because some of our tricks would make non-disabled people’s sex lives much better.

Disabled sex myth 3 – “Disabled people only have kinky sex.””

And the award goes to me because I’m disabled, I have kinky sex. “Disabled people only have kinky sex.” 

Many people think that disability and kinkiness go together, like a hand in a rubber glove. This is not necessarily true. Some disabled people are obviously going to be into all manner of kinky stuff because some non-disabled people are into all manner of kinky stuff. 

But there is no correlation between being disabled and being kinky.

Another big issue is that people think you must be kinky to want to have sex with someone who is disabled – and this is really troubling because it really insults all the people that go out with disabled people who are not doing it because they’re disabled; they’re doing it because they like them and they fancy them, just like everybody else. A very small number of people are into disabled people, but actually, we disabled people think that’s a bit weird, and we’re not really into it.

Read more: Men who are into dating a woman in a wheelchair

Disabled sex myth 4 – “Disabled people only have sex with each other.”

“Disabled people only have sex with each other.” Funny, this is because some disabled people prefer to have sex with other disabled people. 

Why? Because they share similar experiences and an understanding of each other’s life experiences. Other disabled people actively choose not to go out with disabled people because they say, “I don’t want to be a stereotype.” 

The majority of disabled people say, “Hey, I want to fall in love with someone who I like, I want to have sex with someone I fancy. And I don’t care if they’re disabled, I don’t care if they’re not disabled, it really doesn’t bother me.” 

There is nothing about being disabled that says, “Hey, you have to have sex with another disabled person.” It’s just a matter of preference and attraction.

Disabled sex myth 5 – “Disabled people aren’t sexy.”

Oh, “Disabled people aren’t sexy.” We’re back to how society thinks about disability, aren’t we? Back to the same old ableist language.

We’re not sexy because we’re not considered sexy, and yet I know loads of disabled people who are thought of as sexy and have a sexy disabled body. There’s a whole new generation of young disabled models coming up who are pretty damn gorgeous. It’s just the fact that society, sort of, says ‘disability is not sexy.’ We are sexy, we can be sexy – you gorgeous little creature.

Disabled sex myth 6 – “Disabled people can’t have kids.”

Other ridiculous myths surrounding sex and disability is that “disabled people can’t have kids.” 

There is nothing about the majority of impairments that impact[s] someone’s fertility at all. Most disabled people can have children just like everybody else. A very small number of disabilities impact fertility, but even then, if you can’t have kids, even with the help of modern science, you can adopt or foster.

Disabled sex myth 7 – “Isn’t it wrong for disabled people to have children as they will pass on their disability to their kids?”

What’s next? “Isn’t it wrong for disabled people to have children as they will pass on their disability to their kids?” Well, no, it’s not wrong, mainly because the majority of disabilities are not inherited, so they won’t be passed on. But even those that could be passed on – who says it’s wrong to be disabled? Many disabled people are very happy with their disability and are proud to be so. Anyway, don’t you just love your kids, whatever they are?

Disabled sex myth 8 – “If I have sex with a disabled person, will I catch what they’ve got?”

Another one of the pervasive myths surrounding sex and disability is “if I have sex with a disabled person, will I catch what they’ve got?” 

No, for most of us, our disabilities are not catching; they’re not sexually transmitted. Of course, there are a few conditions, but we live in a world where safe sex should be what we’re all having, so even those people should be fairly safe. 

Let’s face it, if you’re having sex with me, you’re not going to catch being in a wheelchair off me – not unless we’re having sex in my wheelchair and in the throes of passion, you fall off and break your back.

Disabled sex myth 9 – “Disabled people have to pay to have sex.”

Another one of the top myths surrounding sex and disability is that “Disabled people have to pay to have sex.

This is simply not true for the majority of disabled people. There are some who pay for sex, and among those, some people actually claim that that is because they are disabled. And there are disabled sex workers.

But I think it says something very troubling – not only about how society sees disability but also about how disabled people see themselves. Because, really, what this is saying is ‘disabled people are so unattractive and unappealing that they have to pay to get intimate with someone.’

The truth is that most disabled people will go out and meet people and have a relationship, just like anyone else. But some people feel they haven’t got the skills or social skills, so they want to go out and pay for sex. Is it wrong? Is it right? That’s not for me to say, but it’s not true that all disabled people are only getting sex when they’ve got the money to pay for it.

Disabled sex myth 10 – “Disabled people are a burden on their partners.”

The last myth surrounding sex and disability, please.  “Disabled people are a burden on their partners.” I don’t know about you, but when I go down the pub or go to a club, and I was single, and I was on the pull, I didn’t meet someone and go, “Oh, I know, in five or ten years’ time I might have to look after them when they’re ill.” 

I mean, I’ve looked after my wife just as much as she looks after me, yet that is an attitude that many people have around disability.

The majority of disabled people do not need much, or any, care at all. A very small number needs quite a high level of care, but surely they won’t have it in place already? It’s not like they didn’t do anything before they met you. But that attitude is so ingrained in us that even disabled people feel that way too.

So, there you go! I hope that my thoughts have helped shatter the myths surrounding sex and disability. I also hope that next time you’re out and meet someone disabled, you won’t feel the urge to go up and ask them some very intimate questions. It might not embarrass you, but it embarrasses the hell out of us. 

You’ve got to remember that when you meet someone that’s disabled, look past the impairment. And you never know, you might be talking to the person that is the person of your dreams, the person that you’re going to spend the rest of your life with – or just one really fun night with.

You can watch Mik explore these issues in the following short film about sex and disability: Warning: this film includes content of a sexual nature. 

This article, "Myths surrounding sex and disability: separating fact from fiction."article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.
Article by
Mik Scarlet

Mik Scarlet, the author of "Myths surrounding sex and disability," is a broadcaster, journalist, actor, and musician, as well as an expert in the field of access and inclusion for disabled people. He has been voted one of the most influential disabled people in the UK, and was one of the first television presenters in the world with a physical disability.