Nonsexual virgin vs the hypersexualised fiend; stereotypes of disability and sexuality

This should probably have been the first in my blog posts about disability and sexuality…  Essentially, there are two ideas of the disabled person and sexuality; the nonsexual* virgin and the hypersexual, unstoppable fiend.

Where do these ideas come from?

When it comes to physical disability, people are reduced to things, objects to be pitied, to be looked after.  There is a view that the disabled person is childlike and this is a barrier to seeing disabled people as sexual.  Society wants to prevent disabled people from having sex in the same way they do children.

Then there’s the issue of reproduction – even when a disability has been acquired, somehow it’s assumed that the child would also have a disability and regardless, that having a disabled parent would mean that child suffers.  There is this idea that a person with a disability cannot, or should not, have children and the obvious conclusion is then that that person cannot or should not have sex.

And who would actually want to have sex with someone with a disability…? As disability is still viewed on many levels as a deformity, an abnormality, people with disabilities are considered undesirable.  So no one would be interested in a person with a disability so general thinking doesn’t even have to consider the idea of a sexual disabled person.  And tied up in this is the concept that disabled people can’t have sex; this will feed into and be fed by the idea of the nonsexual disabled person.

Historically people with disabilities have had to live in institutions which often strongly discourage intimacy between residents, again reinforcing this idea that disabled people don’t have sex.

At the other end of the spectrum, the hypersexual stereotypes are more commonly linked with learning disabilities, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues.  This seems to be because of a perception of lack of control which leads to indulgent, hedonistic behaviour which the person may not fully understand or be fully lucid for.

“Because people with mental disabilities are often not taught or shown the difference between social and private behaviour (or are unable to learn this difference), activities such as masturbation, displaying of one’s genitals, and inappropriate sexual advances may be carried out in public, or in the company of others. For the most part this does not have to do with a lack of intelligence, but a lack of informative education and teaching methods that allow people living with mental disabilities to live within a larger society.” –

What damage do these stereotypes do?

The nonsexual image means that often people with disabilities aren’t see as prospective partners.  Depending on the disability, research has shown that disabled people are less likely to have a long-term partner or marry than non-disabled people. Then we have the sickening results of a 2014 newspaper poll (I think it was the Guardian) which asked people if they had ever had sex with someone who had a physical disability, 44 percent said “No, and I don’t think I would.”  Given that estimates suggest 20% of the world’s population has a disability, this is ruling out a lot of potential partners! Although if you were one of the 44%, then I probably don’t want to have sex with you either…

At the other end of the spectrum we have the assumption that people with disabilities are out of control when it comes to sex, this tends to be an assumption used when the person has a learning disability or mental health issue as opposed to the nonsexual person with a physical disability.  Concerns around unplanned pregnancies have led to a history of forced sterilisations under the guise of protecting the person with the disability.  This comes from both the angle of protecting the person as well as protecting the potential child who could have a disability and from the belief that a person with a disability can’t be a good parent.  There’s a great podcast about this issue over on Stuff Mom Never Told You.  Whilst it’s mostly focused on the historical aspect of racially motivated sterilisation it’s still a relevant and interesting piece.  As is their Sex and Disability podcast.  edited to add: The Australian magazine Marie Claire also looks at the forced sterilisation of girls and women with disabilities (pdf).

As well as forced sterilisation, we also have the issue of inappropriate sex education.  I’ve heard of disabled young people who missed out on any sex education because it wasn’t deemed necessary… And if you are lucky enough to receive sex ed, then it’ll probably be aimed at ‘normal’ people and you still won’t be empowered through information.  And it’s not just that you don’t know how to “do it” safely; if you don’t get a comprehensive education, you can find yourself at risk of abuse or struggle to do anything about abuse – without empowering information, how do you work out appropriate boundaries, how do you tell someone that your friend put his finger in your vagina if you don’t have a word for vagina… This is turning into a post about the importance of sex ed so I’ll leave this point (almost) there.  The important message is we should all get appropriate sex ed. Thankfully we live in the world of the internet (if you’re reading this you do anyway, I acknowledge that there’s still a lot of the world without it) and sites such as Chronic Sex and Sexuality and Disability are out there to help (although they still require a certain level of literacy and understanding so will exclude some people…).

And then there’s the impact the nonsexual physically disabled person myth has on health care.  I recently tried to get a coil fitted, failed miserably, and then asked if I could try another kind of contraceptive pill.  On both occasions, the two different doctors I was dealing with, both assumed I didn’t need it as a contraception.  I don’t but that’s not the point.  The point is I could have needed it as a contraception but because they assumed not, I didn’t get asked the same questions or given the same advice such as if you’re sick it might not work.  Or any information about using condoms to prevent STIs.  Thankfully I’m fairly clued up on sexual health but a lot of people aren’t, I return again to the issue of poor sex ed…

*I’m using the phrase nonsexual or desexualised because asexuality is great, when it’s your identity, not when it’s forced on you by society and I think using the same terminology will confuse the issues and take away from someone’s actual identity.

“Lay back and think of England…”

Great but I wasn’t expecting all of England to be trying to force it’s way into my vagina.  

Definition: Vaginismus is vaginal tightness causing discomfort, burning, pain, penetration problems, or complete inability to have intercourse.  This is the result of an involuntary vaginal muscle spasm, which makes any kind of vaginal penetration painful or impossible.

Needless to say, no one really talks about it.  I’m betting unless you found this post intentionally looking for information about Vaginismus or you’ve known me a while or follow me on twitter, you probably hadn’t come across it before.  And it’s something that has taken me years to even start to talk about.

When I was a teenager I struggled to use tampons but I didn’t talk about it.  Why would I?  Presumably I was trying to put them in wrong or something…  Or, in darker moments… presumably there was something wrong with me ‘down there’.

The next time it became an issue was when I tried to have sex.  Everyone knows the first time can hurt but I was in a loving relationship with a very patient guy.  We took our time and built up to it.  But try as we might, penetration was not happening.  I eventually sucked up my courage and pride (I mean who fails at sex?!) and went to a doctor.

The doctor told me to use lube (duh) and relax (duh) and to try with sex toys instead, starting small.  Given that one of the causes of Vaginismus can be psychological, I really think she should have done a bit more than that… She did say if I really wanted we could go for sex therapy but it wasn’t something she really seemed to be offering and it wasn’t feasible at the time.

So, off we went to Ann Summers.  There are some bloody scary things in there if you have Vaginismus!  We found the absolute smallest vibrator and went home with good intentions.  Despite a lot of attempts, solo and with my partner, I didn’t really make any progress.

The best I got at penetration was using tiny tampons which required me to do acrobatics to get them in whilst remaining relaxed enough.  Needless to say, increased pain etc means I’m now strictly a sanitary pad girl.  However, I am at a point where about half the time, my hands aren’t good enough to deal with sanitary pads so my carers are having to change them for me.  Which is grim and humiliating and strips me of my last dregs of dignity.

Enter contraceptive.

Side note: when talking to my doctors about this, they assumed that I needed it purely to stop my periods, I was offered no advice on safe sex… I can only assume this is because I’m disabled… sigh…

I’d tried a couple of makes of the pill but they just gave me really really long periods which was no fun.  And the doctor said that the coil would be the best thing for me to stop my periods.  So I explained about the difficulties I had with penetration and she brushed them off.  Presumably thinking I was a bit neurotic.  She asked if I’d had some paracetamol to help with the pain.  I laughed.  I take morphine and tramadol daily and I have a high tolerance for pain.  And she got started.  And it was like having a bulldozer trying to push it’s way into my body.  Its hard to explain.  For me, it’s not really about pain but rather the severe discomfort (I can’t think of a better word) of it.  My muscles clamp down and will not give way and it’s not something I’m consciously in control of.  We tried to get the coil in but it didn’t happen.  Apparently you could see my muscles contracting through my stomach…  Back to yet another type of pill then…

So, yes, penetration, not for me.

And all of this does make me a bit hesitant about any future relationships.  At what point in a relationship to you say, hey, erm, you know sex, well penetration… well that doesn’t work.  I know there are many other ways to get satisfaction but the world at large does seem obsessed with penetrative sex…

So, that’s my vagina.  Say hi!  And don’t be offended if it doesn’t say hi back, it’s not very friendly…

A bit of factual info:

  • Although I’m not a success story, there are ways of working through Vaginismus although I’d recommend choosing your doctor carefully.
  • It can be caused by physical reasons as well as psychological ones or a mix of both although there seems to be a lot of websites which only talk about psychological causes.
  • You can develop Vaginismus even if you’ve had a healthy and successful sex life up until that point.
  • You can have Vaginismus and still be able to use tampons, like most things in life, there’s a scale of severity.
  • Possibly 1 in 500 women experience Vaginismus although it’s probably under reported and I expect under diagnosed so I would think it’s more common than that..

Useful websites: