In 2019, it shouldn’t be shocking to hear that people have all sorts of desires, attractions and fantasies — regardless of whether they live with or without a disability.
But as influential sex educators like Hannah Witton have made clear, society struggles to accept that people with chronic illness, mobility issues, mental health challenges or learning disabilities can be sexual beings too.
And the associated assumptions — that disabled people are either incapable, unwilling, or in too much pain to think kinky — stem from a woefully inadequate educational environment.
According to sexual health charity Brook, 80% of professionals delivering relationship and sex education (RSE) to young people with a Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) are unable to find relatable images and resources.
Similarly, it notes that only 29% of these teachers have received training on teaching sex and relationships with people with disabilities — while a whopping 99% wanted advice on meeting the needs of people with SEND.
This has serious implications for how people with disabilities live their lives.
“Some people are quick to judge people with a learning disability, like me, when it comes to sex and relationships,” commented Richard Lawrence, Project Support Assistant and Co-Chair of the Sexuality and Relationship Steering Group at learning disability charity Mencap. “People with a learning disability have a right to choose if they would like to be in a relationship, have sex or get married.
“People have judged me for wanting to be in a relationship and have told me that because I have a learning disability I don’t understand what a healthy relationship, consent or safe sex is.”
Lawrence linked these social attitudes back to a poor RSE education at school. “I didn’t learn anything about consent, safe sex or LGBT,” he adds. “It’s a lot harder for people with a learning disability to find out about sex and relationships because accessible information is hidden away.”
Over on Twitter, sexuality and sexual health student Meg Murphy said the belief that people with a disability should only date or have sexual relations with other people with a disability “limits the possibility of developing relationships” and “defines someone as having a disability first & as as being a person second.”
All relationships require hard work & compromise, & living with a disability doesn’t mean you will contribute less. Having a disability doesn’t make you any less valid or worthy of having a healthy, consensual sex life
— Meg Ⓥ (@MegMurphy_) September 16, 2019
24-year-old Rachelle, quoted on the Brook website, says that it “would help a lot” if disabled people and the use of mobility aids was normalised and included in advertising. “Give me people in wheelchairs in advertising for sex toys, include disabled voices on panels about sex education.
“The more we’re seen the less taboo it becomes.”
So as part of Sexual Health Week in the UK — running until the 22nd September, with a focus on disability and inclusivity — Brook is focused on righting this wrong.
The charity has updated a version of its 2010 resource, Living Your Life, to help educators structure classes on sex and relationships for people with disabilities.
Units on personal attraction, same-sex relationships and masturbation are joined by talking points and image cards, providing visual representations of sex acts — including oral sex performed on a man and a woman by a man and a woman; anal sex and mutual masturbation.
The suite of downloadable resources is accompanied by a handout for young people to take away to continue reinforcing their learning. Brook has also produced resources in partnership with Mencap with specific guidance for talking to a young person with a learning disability about relationships and sexual health.
And on a social level, things are slowly changing. An inclusive RSE is set to become mandatory in all primary schools in England from September 2020.
But more importantly, Brook’s intervention is joined by a more open and public discussion about the joys, challenges and successes in managing sex and disabilities.
One influential educator is Hannah Witton, whose videos about sex and relationships have racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube.
In a recent video, she shares the experiences of people with disabilities about the misconceptions surrounding sex and disability — everything from how people approach sex to the measures they take to ensure the act is as enjoyable as possible. This was mixed with personal reflections: Witton has used a stoma bag since January 2018, and has found new clothing and techniques to keep the bag in place during sex.
There are also signs that tech is empowering disabled people’s sexual desires: designers from Taiwan recently developed Ripple, a full-body masturbation suit designed to make sexual pleasure accessible for all people, regardless of the disability they’re living with.