Many wheelchair users wonder if they’ll be able to have sex after a spinal cord injury – and there’s a belief that people with disabilities are asexual. This notion couldn’t be more wrong.
It appears that within our society there is a misconception that any form of disability is synonymous with asexuality. Sadly, this belief occurs far too often, resulting in frustration, confusion and often a sense of loss – not only of the physical autonomy the person once had and of the culturally ascribed life that one should live, but also of a basic and integral part of being a person, that is, one’s sexuality, which is often linked with being an adult.
We need to understand what the term “asexuality” means. Asexuality is defined as a lack of sexual attraction to others, or a low or absent interest in or desire for sexual activity. Importantly, asexuality is not considered to be in keeping with a healthy person. (It should be noted that asexuality is often considered to be a symptom of mental illness or emotional difficulties, such as depression.)
Sexuality is considered to be a need that is very central to being a person. If we look back through history, sexuality has often been linked with the idea of the “correct” way of doing things. Whatever doesn’t meet these criteria of normality is labelled as other or wrong.
One point to note about this misconception is that, until about 20 years ago, little research had ever been conducted into sexuality and disability. In fact, almost nothing was written about disability at all, other than a rare medical article focusing on physical treatment. Perhaps to draw from these two arguments, a third arises.
As a result of disability, in some cases, a person with a disability might require assistance or adaptation. This can lead to the inference that the partner with more autonomy has to take on a “parental role”. This is a very dangerous assumption. It can disempower the person with a disability and create a rift or distance between partners, ultimately affecting the quality of their relationship and the quality of life of both.
Recently, however, it would appear that there has been a measure of academic focus on this view. While this field is relatively young, it is growing rapidly; it’s starting to allow voices and life experiences to be heard and shared, which previously were not.
It seems to end on a positive note. These misconceptions are now being brought into the public space for debate and conversation. This is a good start in breaking down the stigma around sex and disability and, ultimately, creating the opportunity for a new cultural understanding of how sexuality and disability can, and do, exist with each other in harmony.
Barry Viljoen is a clinical psychologist. He divides his time between training future psychologists and psychiatrists, research and clinical practice. He works from a systemic interactional approach in therapy, dealing with a wide range of emotional difficulties and severe psychopathology, working with both adolescents and adults. Barry is in full-time practice at Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital and is University of Witwatersrand, Department of Psychiatry, Joint Appointee.