Why Do People Think People With Disabilities Are Asexual?
Folks with disabilities often say that non-disabled people view them as asexual, not interested in sex, or lacking sexual desire. Non-disabled people often don’t view disabled people as sexual beings with sexual interests and desires to express themselves. A non-disabled person might struggle to see a disabled person as a potential sexual partner or, if they were a friend or healthcare provider, they may not think to give the disabled person an opportunity to share about their sexual desires, sexual health issues, or relationship goals.
This can be very frustrating for disabled people and make it difficult to find partners, have sex, or view themselves in a sexual way. We’ll explore the social influences that inform people’s bias that disabled people are non-sexual. We’ll also discuss why this isn’t true and how nondisabled people and disabled people can challenge these limiting perceptions.
To frame the perspective in this article, I’d like to share a bit about myself to model how each of our experiences and biases influence the way we see the world. I’m a straight, non-disabled, female occupational therapist who specializes in sex and intimacy. I’ve dated partners with disabilities. I study and educate on topics related to disability, sexuality, and social cultural norms that influence how we view sex. Some of the information in this article comes from my own research and some comes from conversations with and education from disabled folks.
What’s Up with Nondisabled People Thinking Disabled People are Asexual
Sociocultural beliefs that influence nondisabled people’s perception of disabled folks as nonsexual have to do with both how we view sex in general and how we view disability. Let’s start with how we view sex in general.
There is a very narrow standard for the types of bodies and people who are considered sexy. This standard is set and also re-enforced by who is represented in media, Hollywood, and advertising as a sexy person. Typically, people celebrated for being sexy are young, able-bodied, thin people. With this constant exposure to such a narrow standard, many people are excluded from being seen as a sexual person and disabled folks are one such group. The interesting piece here is that being seen as sexy is very different from having sexual desires and an interest in sex. Those “sexy” people in Hollywood likely have difficulties with sex just like the rest of us and experience things such as low desire, pain with sex, or difficulty orgasming.
Additionally, many people have a poor understanding of what sex is or could be. They may feel their sexual health education was either very poor, obsolete, or did not prepare them as an adult sexual person. There again, people can have a narrow view of what sex looks like. There is a lot of focus on penetrative sex in some of the more prominent social conversations about sex, for example, in high school Sex Ed or Hollywood sex scenes. While sexual activities are very broad, due to this focus on penetrative sex, people’s idea of what to do when being sexual can be very limited.
When someone assumes that another person is not a sexual person because they can’t “get on top during sex” this actually speaks more about the person assuming it than the disabled person. They likely view sex through the singular activity of penetrative sex.
On the contrary, sexual activity is very expansive. Some sexual activities might not even require physical movement for example role playing, bossing your partner around, writing erotica, and fantasizing. Nondisabled people can project onto disabled people their belief that if they themselves were disabled, they would not know how to have sex.
Nondisabled people’s bias that disabled people are not sexual can be further explained when we add in the way disability is often viewed in our culture. American values uphold independence and self-reliance. This influences almost everything we do and how we view the world. For disabled people, their degree of independence isn’t always completely self-reliant, and this can result in others viewing them as infantile and being patronizing towards them. This view can make it difficult to see disabled people as sexual beings if they are also viewed as infantile.
On the other hand, some disabled folks say they feel “hypersexualized” or “eroticized” by nondisabled people. This is often in response to when they voice their sexual desires or needs, they may find that people are shocked and view them as hypersexualized. This is yet again an issue with people’s view of disabled people as not sexual, so when they do voice a desire, it can be viewed as surprising or even inappropriate by the nondisabled person.
Disabled People are Sexual
Humans are biologically designed to feel sexual pleasure and seek out those experiences. This desire and ability doesn’t change or dissipate for folks with disabilities, so disabled people experience sexual desire and can receive and give pleasure. The narrow standard of who is sexy doesn’t take into account what the person who is considered “sexy” thinks, instead it gives the power to the viewer as the rater.
A disabled person might very well look at themselves in the mirror and think “wow, I’m sexy,” and so they’re sexy! Additionally, because of their disability and the need to often modify activities and problem solve, they might have a much more creative look at what is considered “sex”.
Many people with disabilities have a flourishing sex life because they are more willing to explore new ways of being sexual and have strong communication skills with their partners about the sex they want to be having. And lastly, people with disabilities might have to rely on others for help to a different degree than is typical for a nondisabled person, however, this doesn’t mean they can’t advocate for what they want sexually. If a disabled person needs assistance before, during, or after sex, they can tell partners or care attendants exactly how to help them without it limiting the erotic experience. After all, asking for something and receiving it can be a very exciting and erotic experience!
Change the Perception and Acknowledged Disabled Folks as Sexual
There are a lot of ways to help shift the perspective to acknowledge disabled people as sexual people. Many of these strategies can be and should be prioritized by nondisabled people who want to practice allyship instead of putting the burden to challenge these perceptions squarely on disabled folks. One suggestion is to challenge others who act surprised by a disabled person expressing their sexuality. Ask them why they are surprised and state that disabled people are sexual just like everyone else.
How Disabled Folks Can Explore Their Sexuality
As mentioned many times previously, folks with disabilities are sexual people. That said, if you’re a disabled person, it might feel difficult to explore your sexual preferences and interests as you likely also received poor sex ed and social messaging that viewed sex in very exclusive and limited ways. If you feel this way, here are some suggestions for exploring your sexual self!
Sensate focus. It’s a great technique for exploring the touch you prefer. With a partner, establish who is going to be the “giver” and who is going to be the “receiver.” The giver touches the receiver head to toe in an exploratory way (so for example not doing it worried about “doing it right”). The receiver's role is to simply receive with a non-judgemental lens like “Why doesn’t this feel good?” or “why do parts of this feel awkward for me?” The receiver’s role is to “feel the feels” and then switch roles, if that is accessible to you. You and your partner can talk about what you felt and learned about what your body liked and didn’t like after the session. You can also do this solo! You’re both the giver and receiver in this case and have an even better control over exploring more of what you like.
A Body Tour. It’s a great way to communicate what you have learned through sexual exploration. In a body tour, you’re taking your partner through the ways you like being touched, kissed, hugged, and licked. You can either verbally guide them or use a hand over hand technique on your body. Consider being very specific here, so for example “I like ear lobe nibbles versus licks,” “I like when you finger my clit in a circular motion versus right to left,” or “I need support of my arm like this when I am on top during sex.”
Self-advocacy. Living with a disability often requires self-advocacy skills and asserting exactly what you need and want. Asking for things can feel hard, especially in the realm of sexual activity. But asking and then receiving can also feel very erotic. Consider playing an “Ask & You Shall Receive Game” with your partner where you go back and forth asking for what you want sexually. Spend about 2 minutes on each ask before alternating to the next partner’s ask. This can be a fun and erotic way of getting into the habit of asking for what you want and need during sex.