Hesperian Health Guides

Learning about sexuality

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HealthWiki > A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities > Chapter 7: Sexuality > Learning about sexuality

Too many girls with disabilities first learn about sex when someone abuses them or lures them into having sex. Health workers, family, friends, and helpers can include girls and women with disabilities in talks about sexuality and womanhood. Include disabled girls in sex education programs and teach them about sexuality. This can help protect girls from men who want to take advantage of them. For information on sexual abuse, see Chapter 14.

a woman in a wheelchair speaking.
I never got any sex education. I heard my mum talking with other women, but she never talked with me. She never expected me to get married, so she thought I didn’t need to know.

In some communities, girls learn about becoming a woman from a respected elder in their community. In other communities, girls have special ceremonies when they become women. In still other communities, groups of girls get together to share experiences. They learn from each other as they talk about the latest hairstyles and clothes, boyfriends, and their favorite pop stars. Girls with disabilities need to be included in these gatherings.

a disabled woman speaking.
I learned about sexuality by listening to other women talking. I wish someone had spoken to me directly, so I could have asked questions of my own.
a woman speaking; she wears an eye patch.
My mother never told me details. If I asked for details, she threatened to hit me. Mostly, I learned from my friends.
a blind woman speaking.
My aunt knew I could get married. She taught me about being a woman, just like she taught other girls.
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Finding a loving partner

Like other women, you deserve a partner who respects you and cares for you. You deserve a partner who will listen to you and who treats you well. You deserve to find someone who loves you for who you are--a partner who values your strengths and who will help you with your limitations. You deserve a partner who wants your help, your trust, and your love.

Many women who find loving partners say they refused to believe wrong ideas about disability. They gained skills and found ways to contribute to their families. And they learned to respect themselves. When you respect and value yourself, you are more likely to find a partner who respects you too. See more information on self-esteem.

a woman speaking.
After my accident, I developed a hunched back and had a hard time moving around. But I found a loving man who was drawn to my personality and my courage. He likes the way I laugh away my troubles. When he asked me to marry him, I agreed. Now we have a beautiful child.
a woman speaking.
Before my partner asked me to marry him, we talked openly about my disability. He told me that he accepted me as I was, including my limitations. He promised never to be ashamed of me. We have a marriage based on trust and respect—and we also have two children.
an older woman speaking.
My husband and I fell in love when we were working together. Our parents met and arranged the marriage for us. His mother was very good to us, but some of his relatives did not want to accept me. My husband is a government official and they thought he would not be able to travel with a disabled wife. At first, I was hurt by their opinions. But with my husband’s support, we have been able to travel together and build a strong partnership.

When a girl with a disability learns job skills and gets an education, she is more likely to find a loving partner. A job usually gives her more opportunities and stronger self-esteem. And it is easier for other people to believe that a woman with a disability who has a job is someone who could contribute to the family.

Abusive partners

Sometimes a woman feels she must settle for any partner, even one who abuses her, or one who may not care for her or provide support for her or her family. Sometimes a woman accepts a person who will help bring money and support her family. Or a woman may trade sex for food or for the help she needs to survive. At other times, it is the woman who works and the man who takes her money. He tells her she should be grateful to have him.

When a woman is valued by her family, community, and herself, she has sexual relationships with people who treat her well. She will not accept partners who hit or abuse her.

Arranged marriages

In some communities families arrange marriages for their daughters. When this happens, a disabled woman is often treated as less valuable than any other woman. Her family may arrange her marriage with anyone who will accept her, even if her future husband will not treat her well. The woman herself may agree to the marriage because she does not value herself or she thinks no one else will want to marry her.

Sometimes the husband demands a bigger dowry or other payments from the family because the woman has a disability. Or the disabled woman becomes a second wife and is not treated as well as a non-disabled wife. If a man asks for more money or gifts to make up for a woman's disability,it is a sign that he does not respect her as a woman. Often, he will abuse her in other ways as well (see Chapter 14).

Midnight husbands

In some countries, a man will visit a disabled woman only at night, to have sex with her. Then, he will leave before morning, while it is still dark. These men are sometimes called midnight husbands. They usually stop visiting the woman if she becomes pregnant, and they almost never give any financial support for the child.

a man speaking outside a house to a worried woman inside.
Please let me in.
I love you, I want to see you.
What will he say when I tell him I’m pregnant?

Feeling pleasure from sex

It is natural for a woman to want to share sexual pleasure with her partner. But sometimes a woman may not feel pleasure from sex. There can be many reasons for this. If her partner is a man, he may not realize that a woman’s body responds differently to sexual touch than a man’s body does. The woman may have been taught that women should enjoy sex less than men, or that she should not tell her partner what she likes, whether her partner is a man or a woman.

a man and a disabled woman lying together on a mat.
A woman can have sex with a man, a woman, or with herself.

A woman’s disability may make it harder for her to feel pleasure. She may need to find different ways to have sex that feel good—especially if she has only recently become disabled. Just as she takes care of her daily personal hygiene in ways that work for her disability, she can also be sexual in ways that work for her disability to bring her pleasure.

How the body responds to sexual pleasure

Both women and men feel sexual desire, but their bodies respond differently to sexual thoughts and touch. When men and women have sexual thoughts or are touched in a sexual way, they feel excited. More thought and touch make the body more excited. It is easy to see sexual excitement in a man, because his penis gets hard.

The woman’s body also gets excited, but it is harder to see. The clitoris gets hard and may swell, and the labia and walls of the vagina become sensitive to touch. The vagina becomes wet with a clear, slippery fluid. Her nipples too may swell and become sensitive.

If sexual touch and thought continue, sexual tension builds up until she reaches her peak of pleasure and has an orgasm (climax). When orgasm happens, the energy and tension is released throughout the body, especially in the vagina. Generally, after orgasm a woman feels relaxed and full of pleasure.

When a man reaches his peak of pleasure, his penis releases semen, a fluid containing sperm (ejaculation). After orgasm, his body relaxes and his penis becomes soft again.

Touching the clitoris is the most common way a woman reaches orgasm. It may also happen from rubbing inside her vagina, with a penis or with fingers. Her breasts and anus may also be sensitive to touch. It often takes longer for a woman to reach orgasm than a man.

It is possible for most women to have orgasms, but each woman’s body and experience is different. Women who have less feeling in their lower body may need more pressure and firm touching on their clitoris, sometimes at the same time as pressure in their vagina, in order to have orgasm. Even women with spinal cord injury and women who have no feeling in their bodies do have orgasms, though they may feel them differently.

Different women have different places on their bodies where they feel pleasure and like to be touched. Most people think of a woman’s genitals or breasts as the “sexual” parts of her body. But a woman’s hands, neck, face, and belly can also be sensitive areas that give her pleasure when they are touched. For women who are paralyzed or have a spinal cord injury, these other areas can become so sensitive that they can feel pleasure like orgasms because of being touched.

All the senses—touch, smell, hearing, taste, and sight—can be important and satisfying ways to feel sexual pleasure. Each person, man or woman, with or without a disability, experiences these senses in his or her own way. For a blind woman, touch, smell, and hearing might be most important. For a deaf woman, touch and sight may be the most satisfying parts of sex.

A woman can learn about the sensitive parts of her body and about how to have an orgasm by touching herself, or by letting her partner know what feels good. This will be especially helpful for a woman who has recently become disabled. It may make her partner feel good to know how to please her.