This article is about sex and women’s pleasure. And not for the purpose of making babies or pleasing male counterparts. Just plain sex.
This article isn’t about medical expertise or biological research. It’s also not about sadness, longing, or nostalgia for what once was before injury or illness. It’s about everyday women and their real, current sex lives. It’s about the myriad of possibilities for sexuality after paralysis — that sex can be fun, adventurous, frivolous, messy, tender, exploratory and more. And it’s about opening a door for communication.
I want to make a few things clear: I’m not a sex expert or medical professional. I also wouldn’t consider myself “kinky,” “weird,” or “sex-obsessed” (whatever that even means). I’m simply a red-blooded woman who considers sex and sexuality to be one piece of my identity as a whole human being.
I’m also a T4 complete paraplegic, 14 years out from injury, who has discovered that there is a significant dearth of opportunities for women with paralysis to dialogue about our unique sexual lives and bodies. We especially don’t get chances to talk about sex beyond how it relates to medical diagnoses, pregnancy, or relationships with men.
In America, our discussion of sex and sexuality is already stunted. Even though sex infuses much of what we see, hear, and buy, we don’t actually talk about it, meaningfully and non-judgmentally. We especially don’t talk about it when it involves “disabled” bodies.
Men with paralysis get an occasional opportunity since they account for more of the paralysis population. Products are geared toward men. Forums are often geared toward men. Heck, men can even talk about their erectile functions and orgasms without consternation because they can veil it in talk about virility for procreation. Still, even for guys, sex talk is often taboo (especially because there’s an expectation that, if they’re “real” men, they should have it all figured out).
I want to call bullshit. And I want to call it for my female comrades. We have a right to talk about our bodies, our desires, and our experimentation without needing pregnancy as an excuse, and without feeling shame or embarrassment. (Frankly, I wish the same for our guys … if they want to talk about using a vibrator because it feels good, they shouldn’t have to disguise their desires in procreation cloaks.)
In writing this article, I wanted to reach out beyond my own contacts to ladies from a variety of backgrounds. Because there are limited forums to openly discuss this topic, I initially created an optional survey that I distributed through contacts, social media, and organizations for women with paralysis. Many thanks in advance to the ladies who responded, openly and honestly. (Some names have been changed.)
So, here we go. Let’s talk about sex, bay-bee!
The Survey: Exploring, Experimenting, Stimulating
First and foremost, I wanted to know when ladies re-engaged with sex after paralysis, and how they did it. The experiences my respondents shared were diverse. Some had sex within a few months, others waited around a year or more. Some re-engaged with a partner they’d had before injury, others with a partner they met post-injury. It was common, though, that certain factors delayed sex for a few years, such as grieving for what had changed, fear about what it would be like, and uncertainty about what to try.
Lulu, a 60-year-old incomplete para from Florida, still hasn’t really experimented with sex six years after her injury, mostly due to not having a partner. Still, she says the most surprising thing she’s discovered about sex after paralysis is “the need.” Through things like fantasizing, visualizing past experiences, and exploring her body with a mirror and touch, “I’m getting bolder about my need,” she says.
But even with initial uncertainty, sex is very much still on our radars. “Life is different … that doesn’t mean you can’t experience sex,” says Jessica, a 34-year-old with permanent paralysis following surgery for spasms. And it’s good to acknowledge that we’re not going to be sexual dynamos right off the bat. Initial sexual experiences were “interesting,” “comfortable,” “different,” or just plain “bad.” But, things can only go up from there.
Our bodies become uncharted territory following paralysis. Everything is new again. In some ways this is frustrating, but it also gives us an opportunity that not many people get: to re-experience the novelty of our sexual bodies. Even if you’ve had sex a thousand times, with paralysis, it’s brand new!
For many, paralysis is a reason to experiment in ways that maybe we didn’t before injury. “I never had an orgasm (even before SCI) until I found BDSM,” says Dawn, a 55-year-old T11. “When I became a para there were no good ways to learn about sexuality. I didn’t know ’til I was 50 that my G-spot had sensation. And I didn’t know the things I needed to enjoy sex. [Now] I have a winch in my garage and a massage table. Lots of fun.”
Often, paralysis spurs creativity. Regardless of age and injury level or type, a majority of people I consulted had tried the following: masturbation (alone and with partners), giving and receiving oral sex, using toys, different sex positions, fantasizing, cuddling, kissing, stimulating other non-genital body parts, role playing, engaging other senses (food, oils, music, etc.), talking “dirty,” and good ole’ sex. Less common but still utilized were sensual massage, watching or reading “sexy stuff” (videos, pornography, erotica), sex therapy, sex clubs, relationship experimentation, and kink.
A pretty diverse menu of options! And experimentation and practice are important. Most of the ladies I queried initially didn’t think they had any genital sensation, but now have discovered that they do. For some, it depends on what is being used to stimulate. “It takes a lot longer,” says Jessica. Maggie, a 35-year-old T5 complete, says, “I have a Lelo vibrator with multiple settings. I like the setting with slower rumbles … I can sense it more, whether it’s inside me or by my clitoris.”
Sensation isn’t necessarily superficial, but instead feels activated by deeper muscles and nerves. “I feel more, depending on the partner,” says Alyson, a 29-year-old C7-T2 incomplete. “If I feel connected and safe, I feel more. It’s amazing how the mind and body work together.”
Furthermore, “feeling” is subjective, and not the end-all-be-all. Stimulation is enhanced by “watching my partner touch me where I can’t feel,” says Alyson. For Maggie, “I love having my guy go down on me. When I watch and think about it, it activates my genitals and feels good. It’s psychological, but also physical … like telepathic adrenaline.”
Others have gotten creative about the type of stimulation they explore. “Rough breast and nipple play,” says Dawn. “Breathing into my ear deep when coming, noises during sex, rubbing me,” says Sandra, a 34-year-old C5-7 complete.
“I get just as excited by the stuff I do to my partner,” says Maggie. “I love giving him a good blow job, or wrestling with him. I like playing with control, and using my tongue to tease.”
Endless Possibilities For Pleasure
After my own injury, I felt like there was a common assumption that the enjoyment factor of sex is compromised following paralysis, or that sex has to look completely different in order to be enjoyable. But it’s important to acknowledge that this is largely a fallacy perpetuated by people who aren’t actually paralyzed themselves.
I remember one of the first things a close friend said to me after my injury: that she was sorry I had never experienced having an orgasm with someone before I was paralyzed. I thought, how do you know what it’s going to be like? And why are you assuming that it’s going to be worse?
I’m not alone in encountering these attitudes.
Yes, it might be different, but every human does it differently. And “different” doesn’t mean it’s all relegated to the mind, or takes the physical out of the picture. If anything, having paralyzed bodies creates potential for exploring physically where a majority of “normal” sex partners never venture.
For many of the women I spoke with, doggy style is one of the preferred possibilities. Dawn says she likes it because “it hits the G-spot.” Tara, a 35-year-old L2 adds, “The submissiveness of doggy style really turns me on.”
On the flip side, Alyson loves being on top. “I feel so powerful and capable,” she says. “My partner holds my hips or my butt and I move my upper body. Every position is totally creative, and that’s the fun of it.”
Of course, positioning can take a little more preparation. “The first time I got on top, it was a little tricky. I didn’t want to hyperextend my knees,” says Maggie. “Now I know how to take it slowly, and my partner and I kind of roll together to get me on top. I watch my knees to make sure they’re OK.”
Having the right tools can help, too. “I recently saw something called the Body Bouncer that was a little bouncy seat you can sit on, while your partner lies underneath. Depending on your strength and stability, it might be a good option for being on top or trying other positions,” says Maggie.
“We have a wedge called the Liberator that helps us with different positions,” says Tara. “My husband may assist me by helping hold up one of my legs, by helping me turn over and position my legs correctly, or by wrapping his arm around my lower stomach to pull me closer into him.”
As for different types of supports, Jessica enjoys using a beanbag (“He helps position my hips and legs”). Other favorites included firm pillows and a headboard to grab on to. “I use my arms to help move my body, since my legs don’t work like most people’s.”
Multiple people suggested trying different locations. “I’ve tried it on the floor, the couch, even in a bathroom stall where I could use the grab bars for support. But I think I like a good old-fashioned bed the most,” says Maggie.
Lastly, the right clothing (or lack thereof) can make a difference. Maggie likes when her man stays dressed and she gets naked. Tara’s husband prefers her in satin lingerie.
No matter what you try, communication is key. “Talking and expressing myself to my partner even when it’s hard and painful has been the only way to find freedom and pleasure!” says Alyson. “If they’re uncomfortable that’s OK — it’s not your job to make them comfortable.”
And, of course, safety with skin, bladder, bowels, and contraception are important. “I’m always careful with my skin,” says Dawn. Tara emphasizes the necessity of “emptying bladder and bowels beforehand and making sure to clean myself and empty bladder afterwards.”
“I make sure to have lubricant in case my body isn’t wanting to lubricate itself,” says Maggie. “And I make sure to clean my vibrator and myself really well.”
“Birth control is so important. It takes the anxiety out of sex about getting pregnant and allows you to be in the moment,” says Alyson.
Taken altogether, our frank sex talks boiled down to this: Whether you’re 29 or 60, live in Tennessee, New Jersey, or Colorado, whether it’s injury or illness, complete or incomplete — sex after paralysis can be awesome.
Heck, you’re already having to focus a lot on your body, why not make it enjoyable? Tara recommends finding a way to connect with your body, other than just medical means. “I found dancing, working out and stretching very helpful. Take care of yourself — for example, eat well, stay as active as you can, and treat yourself to a new outfit that makes you feel sexy. The more comfortable and confident you are with yourself, the better sex will be.”
“Start slow. Use a mirror, or take pictures of yourself, just for yourself. Be curious and open,” says Maggie. “And make sure you honor your own needs and wants as much as your partner’s. Mostly, don’t write off sex because of the unknown.”
“It’s going to be fun, awkward, and special,” says Sandra.
“Relax,” says Lulu.
“Don’t take 25 years to learn your body like I did,” says Dawn. “Figure out what you like, what you want. Life is too short not to enjoy sex.”
Multiple women commented on how empowering their sexual reawakenings have been. Many, like Alyson, have grown to love the uniqueness of their bodies. “It makes me feel like a unicorn!” she says.
So go ahead, ladies. Get yourself a mirror, a vibrator, a wedge, a beanbag, a partner, and venture into something new. Don’t stop talking or sharing. Be a unicorn!
• Body Bouncer, hight3ch.com/body-bouncer-bouncy-sex-toy-nsfw/
• Ferticare Personal Vibrator, www.medicalvibrator.com
• Lelo Sex Toys for Women, www.lelo.com
• Liberator Bedroom Adventure Gear (has many positioning pillows and wedges), www.liberator.com; 866/542-7283
• NewMobility.com. Search our website using terms such as “sex.” For links to past articles on women’s issues, including sexuality, see www.newmobility.com/2011/05/womens-issues/
• PleasureABLE manual, www.dhrn.ca/files/sexualhealthmanual_lowres_2010_0208.pdf
• SCI Ontario, educational module on sex toys, https://sciontario.adobeconnect.com/_a1123264708/sexuality/
• Sexual Health Network, www.drmitchelltepper.com/sexual_health_network. Under “Projects,” check out the videos, such as “Sexual Positions for Women with Paralysis.”