Long Nights & Intimacy Rights: A Detailed Look at Sex Rights for the Disabled

We all have the fundamental right to sexual pleasure” (Appel, 2009)

By Gaurav Dubey (M.S.) Founder & Exec. Producer of Biolitics

photo-1444807016527-23eae0a4b246Yesterday was Valentines Day. A day that, for many, comes decorated in teddy bears, chocolate, bubbly and, of course, sex! Our desire for sex is innate and grounded in our need to procreate and further the propagation of our species. Intimacy is thought to be a vital part of a happy and healthy romantic relationship. How then, does being mentally or physically disabled affect your quality of life through the lens of our innate sexuality? A multitude of barriers prevents people with mental and physical handicaps from experiencing sexual pleasure and having any sort of sex life. Inspired by the documentary Sex on Wheels by Channel 4, Biolitics has decided to take a closer look at what these challenges are and how they can be potentially overcome. Is it wrong for a mother to get her 27 year old son with an Intellectual Disability (ID)—making it hard for him to communicate—a prostitute because of how torn up he is about being a virgin? And what kind of sexual pleasure can a physically disabled man with paralysis from the waist down even feel? A look at all of these topics and more in this special Biolitics Valentine’s Day Post Long Nights & Intimacy Rights.

As an able-bodied, mentally competent individual, I have the ability to offer legal consent to engage in responsible sexual behavior. The same cannot be said for millions of people around the world with physical and mental disabilities that, in a large way, prevent them from experiencing the fundamental right to sexual pleasure. The sexual desires of those with limited capacities often bring up “vexing” and “unpalatable” issues that people generally do not want to discuss (Appel, 2009). Thus, when legislation was being written in the 1970s to address this issue, it was far easier for lawmakers to presume that disabled people, primarily those with intellectual disabilities, are “asexual” and thus need to be “protected” from acts of sexuality in order to preserve their innocence. An abundance of research is finally coming out and leading more and more people to realize that disabled persons have just as much a need for sex and intimacy as their able-bodied counterparts. Whether someone struggles in communicating with their potential mate because they have Downs Syndrome, or they’re paralyzed from the waist down and cannot maintain an erection due to the paralysis, people are people before they are disabled, and thus have the same needs as the rest of us. The British documentary Sex on Wheels by Channel 4 follows people with varying disabilities in their quest to fulfill their most basic human need: sexual intimacy. What are some barriers that individuals with disabilities face, and how can we help them to overcome them? Is it appropriate for the mother in the documentary to hire an escort/prostitute for her 27-year-old son who is still a virgin and very much in grief over this fact because his learning disability makes it hard for him to meet a partner? What about having disabled people in wheelchairs in the porn industry? How does paralysis affect one’s sexual pleasure from a biological and psychological standpoint? How can we as a society improve research and development goals to foster and nurture a more compassionate and accepting environment wherein the sexual needs of all people, even disabled ones, are taken into account? I hope to elucidate some of these barriers that the disabled face in this article, as well as provide some alternative solutions that have been proposed by activists and advocates for the fundamental right to sexual pleasure in the disabled.

I believe it’s generally accepted that picking up a girl or guy in a bar most definitely requires some communicative finesse. Developmentally challenged people, and people with severe physical disabilities such as paralysis, definitely face bigger obstacles in attempting to find a mate. One solution that has been presented is sexual surrogacy. This is essentially an escort or prostitute that will provide sexual pleasure for the client. Indeed, there are women that pride themselves in providing such a service to disabled people. Rachel Wotton is an internationally famous prostitute that specializes in sex for the disabled (Appel, 2009). In the documentary Sex on Wheels, a mother hotly debates with herself whether or not she should get an escort for her mentally handicapped 27-year-old son. In the documentary, the son talks about seeing his brother, who has children, along with others who are in relationships, and feeling invalidated, jealous and depressed. This is completely understandable, as human beings require the sensation of being touched by another human being, as that is a universal sign of affection and love. People with disabilities are no exception. Mutual contact seems to be very necessary, or else simple physical stimulation by oneself, i.e. masturbation, would suffice and there wouldn’t even be a need for prostitutes. Yet, the fact that their services are employed and have been for many years (it’s the oldest profession after all) indicates that:

physical contact with another human being provides a degree of fulfillment and pleasure that cannot be achieved by oneself (Appel, 2009)

By enforcing proper health standards and government regulation, such services could benefit many people suffering from such conditions and raise their quality of life and level of happiness. Laws on escorts/prostitution may in fact need to be revised to include caveats that allow for persons of limited capacities to have their full fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness preserved despite their condition.
Another issue that arises, however, is the lack of information and knowledge provided to such individuals, which is indeed necessary for their protection, such as birth control, condoms, STDs, pregnancy, the right to say “No”, and more. While persons with intellectual disabilities have the same wants and needs as their able-bodied counterparts, they may not have had the opportunity to be as well-informed as they should be regarding the responsibilities involved in having a sexual relationship. Does this mean we should deny them that right entirely? Or should we be funneling our resources to expand our reach and make this vital information more accessible to such challenged persons? One very vital reason we need to worry about expanding the rights of the intellectually disabled in particular is the high rate of abuse such persons already face. By not having access to proper information regarding their rights and the laws regarding sexual and reproductive health, patients with IDs are more susceptible to abuse (O’Callaghan et al., 2007). Thus, we need to make sure that we do our very best to provide everyone with information regarding the laws surrounding this matter in a fashion that is easy to understand, and distribute it in an efficacious, easy to disseminate fashion.
One final platform I would like to take is one where I advocate for the ongoing research and development for new technologies that improve the sexual function of those persons with physical disabilities, generally caused by accidents leading to paralysis. One man in the video, mostly paralyzed from the waist down, demonstrated having to insert a needle and catheter into his penis and inject himself directly into the corpus cavernosa penile tissue to try and achieve an erection, which still ultimately failed. Interestingly enough, another woman with paralysis claimed nipple stimulation caused her to have pleasurable feelings in her genital areas despite the fact that she can’t feel her genitals from the paralysis. This is due to the Vagus nerve connection and provides fascinating insight into the biology of sexual health and function in disabled patients. Since we as a society are finally coming to realize that persons with mental and physical disabilities need human intimacy just as much as the rest of us, we should act upon this philosophical awakening by improving methods to enhance their sexual function so they can try and live happy, fulfilled lives as best they can. To deny handicapped or disabled people this right is a civil injustice and should be treated as such.
This article elucidated some of the sociopolitical and biological barriers to sex in disabled people. We examined the fact that such persons should have the same rights to sexual pleasure as everybody else in the population, as they innately require and depend on it, too. I want to personally commend the directors and producers of Sex on Wheels, as well as everybody at Channel 4 who was involved in its making. We at Biolitics appreciate people pressing society to talk about the things that make them uncomfortable. But even more so, we are concerned with the civil liberties that should be afforded to all individuals, and in the case of sexual liberties, to all consenting adults. The concept of consent was one that was touched on in many examples of the literature I reviewed. Some individuals with IDs have difficulty in consenting the same way able-bodied people do, therefore the context of consent is crucial to examine, as well. A potential remedy to this is to examine each instance of consent on a case-by-case basis. There is no “one-size fits all” anything, and there certainly isn’t in healthcare and medicine. Proper regulations and enforcement by local and state governments can allow for the safe and beneficial use of sexual surrogates, especially for those with developmental and physical disorders. While moving forward, research should be calculated carefully by keeping in mind that disabled persons are people before they are disabled, and thus every measure should be taken in the lab and the courtroom to provide them with equal opportunities for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.



Appel, J. M. (2010). Sex rights for the disabled? Journal of Medical Ethics, 36(3), 152-154. doi:10.1136/jme.2009.033183 [doi]

Hardoff, D. (2012). Sexuality in young people with physical disabilities: Theory and practice. Georgian Medical News, (210)(210), 23-26.

O’Callaghan, A. C., & Murphy, G. H. (2007). Sexual relationships in adults with intellectual disabilities: Understanding the law. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research : JIDR, 51(Pt 3), 197-206. doi:JIR857 [pii]

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