Disability and sexual confidence

Having a disability can make you feel less confident about yourself, especially if physical constraints make it hard for you to meet new people and gain confidence. The Mix looks at how you can regain your 'sexual-esteem'.

Girl pulling a boys tie suggestively

There are ways you can boost your sexual confidence.

Some people are born with a disability, but others may be affected by one later in life. Whether you’re hearing or speech-impaired, have a learning disability, or you’re a wheelchair user, different forms of disability and illness can affect the way you have sex, or the amount you do it. Your sex life could be affected by the disability in itself, because of side-effects of your medication, or psychological problems, such as anxiety about your performance and how your body may react.

Out of the 1,115 people who took part in Disability Now’s (DN) sex survey in 2005, 84.7% of respondents said they’d had sex and 46.6% had a sexual partner. The survey revealed that many disabled people feel their sexual and emotional needs are being ignored. Many reported low self-esteem and asked to have more access to counselling services. Some requested sex workers who could enable them to enjoy and learn about sex, and 68% said they’d prefer to have a specialist psychosexual counselling service for disabled people.

“I have a physical disability, but I’ve not had sex yet so I’m not quite sure how it’s going to affect me,” says Beth, 21. “I have Hypermobility Syndrome, which means my joints have an ‘unnatural’ range of motion which causes chronic pain. I’ve no idea what it’s going to be like to have sex… yikes.”

For some people, it may not just be the actual act of sex that makes you apprehensive. You could be worried about whether you’re deemed attractive to the opposite sex and even if you’re able to have children.

Finding help

There are various illnesses and disabilities that may have an impact on how you feel about yourself. Depending on what affects you, it could mean you have a low libido or decreased genital sensation, sexual feelings and sexual response. More specific symptoms relating to your condition or disability could leave you feeling stressed, depressed and angry, and even less sexy or attractive. Put all this together and it’s not surprising that you may not feel up for doing it in the first place, especially if you’re still coming to terms with a disability. You may also have fears of being isolated, especially if you’re confused about your sexuality.

There are people who can help you in all these areas and you aren’t alone in having these feelings. Outsiders, a self-help group for disabled people, publishes a number of useful leaflets on its website that may be of interest, including one titled: ‘Disability and body image’. If you want to speak to someone in confidence, call the Sex and Disability Helpline on 0707 499 3527.

Talk about it

It can be very distressing if you’re worried about something going ‘wrong’ during sex and this will no doubt knock your confidence. This is where communication with your partner is all the more important. If you’re uncomfortable with something and you let them know, then hopefully they will be all the more supportive and sensitive if things don’t go exactly as planned. If they don’t understand, it may be worth thinking about whether they are the right person for you. As hard as it may be to end your relationship, it’s important to be with someone who understands and responds to your needs.

Unconditional love

Meryn is 25 years-old and has hemiplegia, a condition which weakens of paralyses one side of the body. “I’ve always felt self-conscious about people’s first impressions of me, convinced that the first thing they’d notice would be my walk or my hand,” she says. “I always assumed that any relationships would have to develop from friendships because my condition would put people off from a more ‘instant’ attraction. But this wasn’t so. I got together with my bloke the first time I met him, and even though we were both drunk, the fact we exchanged numbers the following morning and are still together six-and-a-half years later is a clue that he didn’t wake up and think ‘What am I doing with her?’

“Because of my hemiplegia, it makes me a lot more one-handed than most people, so on occasion I’ve worried whether that makes me disappointing during foreplay, but the fact that my boyfriend doesn’t seem to have any complaints suggests that that it’s mostly me being paranoid.”

Next Steps

  • Outsiders run the sex and disability helpline 07770 884 985
  • Youreable is an online community forum for disabled people.
  • Stars in the sky is a friendship and dating site for people with learning difficulties living in London.
  • Do you want to understand your relationship better? Love Smart helps you work it all out.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Julia Pearlman

Updated on 29-Sep-2015