Spinal cord injury (SCI) can disrupt an individual’s sex life, but with rehab and an informed approach, the obstacles can be overcome
Sexuality, in general, describes how a person goes about expressing himself or herself as a sexual being. Sexuality and sexual expression are an integral part of a person’s life, and just as we are all different, our sexual preferences also differ. Sexuality is important to people regardless of age, gender, relationship status, gender identity, sexual expression and physical abilities. Experiencing meaningful relationships is a core part of who we are and sexuality plays an essential role in how we relate to others.
Various factors influence our sexuality, including values, beliefs, attitudes, experiences, physical attributes, sexual characteristics and societal expectations. If the views of others are experienced as judgmental, they can inhibit the process of accepting one’s personal opinions and preferences regarding sexuality. Sexuality is not a question of right vs wrong or good vs bad. It is an expression of who you are and it’s therefore valid and valuable. Since sexuality is a topic that is often avoided, people sometimes find it difficult to discuss – which, in turn, can prevent them from enjoying fulfilling sexual relationships. Accepting your sexual preferences as “normal” is a big step towards embracing a fundamental part of who you are.
Some of the concerns of SCI individuals revolve around physical abilities like walking and performing daily tasks, the work environment, medical complications, opinions of others and more. But, since sexuality is such a big part of who we are, it is no surprise that a threat to sexual functioning is one of the biggest worries. There is sometimes a belief that SCI individuals are unable to have sex and doomed to have relationships lacking in intimacy. This is a myth. It’s also a shortsighted view, as it assumes that sex is the only factor that is relevant in sexuality and intimacy. People with disabilities are still able to have meaningful sexual relationships.
One of the main aims of sexual rehabilitation for SCI patients (just like physical rehabilitation) is to show that much of what you were able to do before is still possible – it’s just about finding different ways of doing it. The process focuses on educating people about what sexuality really entails and coming up with a plan that can work for each person. Challenging myths and opinions about sexuality is essential to laying the foundation for intimate relationships. There are numerous options to overcoming the perceived barriers; what is needed is knowledge, communication and an open mind.
Dr Estie Janse van Rensburg is the founder and MD of Charis Psychological Services. She has a Masters Degree in Counselling Psychology (University of Free State, SA) and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology (University of Bangor, UK). After being diagnosed with a spinal cord tumour, she combined her 15 years of clinical experience as a psychologist with her own journey as a patient, and developed a practice that specialises in providing psychological services to individuals with physical health challenges. Column courtesy of Charis Psychological Services.