People with disabilities have sex too – so why do some doctors think otherwise?

Disabled people have sex. They even enjoy it.


  • Sarah Earle

    Professor of Social Science, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University

I’ve interviewed disabled people about their intimate lives for over two decades. I’ve also spoken to countless parents, carers and professionals about issues that relate to this. When I heard that Kat Watkins, who is a wheelchair user, said a doctor assumed she didn’t have sex because of her disability, I wasn’t surprised. This is a story I’ve heard many times before as part of my research and is something many disabled people have experienced.

I first wrote about sex and disability in 1999. I explored the practice of “facilitated sex”, which refers to supporting a disabled person with all aspects of their sexual expression. It was a subject that had received little attention before this, and it caused a bit of a stir at the university where I worked at the time.

Although we live in an increasingly sexualised culture, talking about sex is still taboo, even for researchers. Sex research is notoriously underfunded even though sex is an important part of most people’s lives. When I interview disabled people, they often tell me it’s the first time they’ve talked about sex. Although I’ve heard this many times now, it still jars.

Very little has changed since then for disabled people, particularly for those who have visible disabilities or learning disabilities. This is because it makes it harder for them to pass as non-disabled. Being able to pass means they are less likely to face barriers or discrimination.

Disabled people are routinely infantilised and desexualised. When disabled people are infantilised they are treated as eternal children who should be protected from harm. They are spoken to in patronising voices, or not spoken to at all, with comments and questions being directed at family members or carers, rather than to disabled people themselves.


Infantilisation contributes to the desexualisation of disabled people. Many people assume that disabled people can’t have sex or don’t want to. Assumptions like this might seem unimportant to some, but they speak volumes about society’s ableist values and beliefs.

Ableism describes how disabled people are discriminated against within a society that assumes being non-disabled is the norm. At best, these ableist assumptions are dismissive and upsetting, just another barrier to overcome. At worst, they put people’s lives at risk.

Not being able to talk about sex openly and frankly contributes to the barriers that disabled people face. Research studies show that health and social care professionals have limited training and confidence in discussing sex with disabled people.

The World Health Organization estimates that HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccination and cervical screening programmes could prevent 62 million deaths globally by 2120. However, UK research suggests that disabled women – like Kat Watkins – can’t always access cervical screening and that one in five physically disabled women have been assumed not to be sexually active by their doctor.

There is also some evidence to suggest that the HPV vaccine is less likely to be given to adolescents with learning disabilities. This may be for different reasons. Disabled children are more likely to be absent from school but ableist attitudes are probably at play here too.

They are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and coercion than their non-disabled peers. They are nearly three times more likely to experience sexual violence than non-disabled children. Disabled adults are twice as likely to have been abused as children than other adults. Even these statistics are unlikely to reveal the truth of abuse – many disabled people have disclosed unreported sexual abuse and violence to me as part of my research.

Disabled children are often removed from sex and relationships education in school, typically by parents, who assume it isn’t important. Although many parents don’t do this – and are formidable advocates for their disabled children – it’s widely recognised that parents can be over-protective. This comes from a place of love and concern but can be counterproductive at times.

Disabled children, young people and adults have a right to age appropriate, accessible information that helps them understand their bodies and recognise healthy relationships. Access to information and support about sex and relationships helps keep people safe, as well as experience pleasure and joy.

Enhance the UK, a user-led charity that runs the global campaign Undressing Disability – a resource for information, education and networking within the world of disability and sexuality – and the Love Lounge, which provides free online advice on sex and love for disabled people.

Choice Support, which hosts the Supported Loving Network to support autistic people and people with learning disabilities to get the support they need to form and maintain loving relationships.

The Conversation

Sarah Earle does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.