Expert advice for looking after your sexual health

Expert advice for looking after your sexual health

Sexual health is a topic that many people don’t feel comfortable talking about, but is an important part of overall health and wellbeing.

Key points

  • Sexual health is an important factor in overall health and wellbeing
  • Dr George Turner of Western Sydney University says the community needs to change the way the sexual health of people with disability is treated
  • Dr Turner also has some individual tips you can use to maintain sexual health

People with disability often miss out on information and support for sexual health because of the way that other people perceive them and their wellbeing.

To address this, Dr George Turner, Senior Lecturer in Social Work in the School of Social Sciences at Western Sydney University, has shared advice not only around what society needs to change but also some individual actions you can take to look after your own sexual health.

Societal issues

Dr Turner says many of the issues people with disability face in learning about sexual health and sexual orientation, as well as engaging in dating and relationships, are caused by community attitudes.

“In some ways, people with disability are subject to the same taboo-ness that permeates all of society regarding sexuality so I think it's really critical to understand that the topic, in general, is this toxic stew of societal secretiveness, shame, misinformation and power,” explains Dr Turner.

“I think those are all associated with sexuality and this hierarchy of who gets to be sexual or who is considered worthy to be seen as a sexual person and unfortunately people with disability often fall outside of that cultural norm.”

According to Dr Turner, many in the general community have ableist views about sexual health, including that it is not 'essential' for people with disability or that there are better things people with disability should be focussing on.

To change these community attitudes, Dr Turner believes there needs to be more focus on sexuality and sexual health in school through sex education, more support to develop the social skills needed for healthy relationships, and general learning around disability awareness.

Dr Turner says training for health professionals and others that might be able to support people with disability to address their sexual health is also needed.

For example, training a General Practitioner (GP) so that they are aware adults with intellectual disability also deserve to have personal conversations about contraception and pregnancy.

Psychologists or doctors prescribing antidepressants should also be aware that people with disability deserve to know about the side effects of the medication that can affect sex drive.

More representation of people with disability in the media to reflect the diversity of the community will also help, says Dr Turner.

“People with disability tend to be silenced, segregated or shamed out of [sexual] experiences and that means they get dismissed, desexualised and discounted. If they are seen, they're seen as cute or that it’s not real sex, not legitimate love,” explains Dr Turner.

Challenges in dating

There can be many different challenges people with disability face when it comes to dating and relationships.

Disclosing your disability to a potential partner can be difficult to navigate, but the decision is completely up to you and what you feel comfortable with.

If you have accessibility requirements for any location you might go to on a date, it could be helpful to discuss this with your potential partner or date.

Medications related to your disability may affect your energy levels and sex drive, so it’s important to factor that into your dating life and understand the side effects of any medications you take.

Some activities related to intimacy or dating might require a support worker to be involved, such as going to an adult shop to purchase a device, setting up a profile on a dating app, or even sending a text to an intimate partner.

This can be challenging and awkward because your personal life is no longer private, and this may be met with discomfort from support workers as well.

Dr Turner says the disability support system itself may also affect your choice and control because it has a focus on risk avoidance and preventing any risk of exploitation or abuse.

Having an advocate or an ally who knows about your personal life and intimacy can help you to represent that side of your life in conversation and overcome some barriers. This could be in conversations with your GP or health care team, for example.

Tips for intimate relationships

Good communication is key to a healthy intimate relationship, Dr Turner says, so if you have a partner it is a good idea to schedule times to talk about your relationship, including talking about what you might like to improve.

Having conversations about how your body works and what you know about your sexual health before sex can give you the opportunity to be prepared and have the best experience.

Dr Turner’s top tips for sexual activity include:

  • Know your body, how it works and what does and doesn’t feel nice
  • Choose positions that manage any pain you experience due to your disability
  • Learn about good lubrication
  • Use personal toys to supplement fine motor skills
  • Pillows can be helpful supports for comfortable body positions and hip alignment
  • Sex is about more than just intercourse, so don’t forget to make time for other enjoyable activities with your partner, such as flirting

More information

Sexual health clinics can be a good place to start if you want to connect to services or education programs.

Sexual health services can also provide sexual health checks and information about sexually transmitted infections so you can be on top of your physical health, particularly if you are seeing multiple sexual partners.

You can find sexual health clinics nearby by heading to your State or Territory Government’s Health Department website.

Family Planning New South Wales also has programs that directly support people with disability with sexual health and online resources that are free to access.

Dr Turner also suggested a few books that can also be helpful:

  • Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain, and Illness by Dr Miriam Kaufman M.D. and Cory Silverberg
  • Teaching Children with Down Syndrome about Their Bodies, Boundaries, and Sexuality: A Guide for Parents & Professionals by Terri Couwenhoven
  • The Guide To Getting It On by Paul Joannides

What else would you like to know about dating and relationships? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Sex education - an important part of learning about life
Taking care of your mental health when living with a disability