“How do you have sex?”
“Are you even interested in dating?”
“Do you have any feeling ‘down there’?”
These are common questions that people with a range of disabilities, from Down syndrome to autism to paraplegia to cerebral palsy, will often hear from other people.
Disabled people are often assumed to be nonsexual on the basis of our disabilities. “People always make the assumption that being disabled means being asexual,” says Karin Hitselberger, an activist and blogger from Washington, D.C. This happens across the spectrum of different disabilities, and can be based on presumed mental health, physical ability, cognitive ability, emotional ability, and more.
Karin, like many disabled people, identifies as asexual—which is a valid sexual orientation, and not the same as being desexualized by nondisabled people. “Being somebody who identifies as high femme, I was afraid that identifying as asexual would make people see me as less of a woman and less of an adult.” As a society, our ideas about success, independence, and maturity are so deeply tied to gender and sexuality, like when people assume that it’s a crucial step to becoming an adult to find a romantic partner, settle down, and (usually) have children.
It’s challenging when you’re on the asexual spectrum and have a disability, because disability rights activists have been working to change the dialogue about disability and sexuality for years. I often hold back on bringing up that I identify as gray asexual, a term that describes fluidity on the asexual spectrum and in my case means that I rarely experience sexual attraction and it’s limited to a small group of people. Many people assume my sexuality automatically because I’m very open about my long-term relationship with my female partner.
“In conversations about disability, the myth that disabled people are non-sexual is commonly brought up,” says Erin Schick, an advocate and social worker in New York. “I want to be able to have these conversations in a more nuanced way that notes the existence of ace [shorthand for asexual] people.”
Disabled asexual people do exist. Although disability doesn’t automatically equate with asexuality, there are disabled aces who feel that their sexual orientation is connected to their disability. In the autistic community, there are people who feel that their asexuality has a relationship to the way they view and experience the world as an autistic person. Some people feel that their past trauma, PTSD, and other mental health issues directly impact their asexuality. And others with chronic pain and fatigue-related symptoms have said that these symptoms impact how they experience asexuality, whether it’s a fluctuating scale from day-to-day or more constant.
“My desire or ability (or lack thereof) to engage in romance or sex due to personal choice, pain, medical concerns or my being a pan gray ace, that’s all as valid as anyone else’s reasons, disabled or not,” says Emily Johnson, a social media and digital editor, designer, and poet in Atlanta, Georgia. “Abled people get too tired. Abled people experience pain. Abled people simply aren’t interested.”
Sexuality is deeply personal for everyone. I have several friends who identify as asexual, and none of us experience our asexuality in exactly the same way. It helps when we can avoid assumptions based on our own experiences or what we’ve been taught by society—so when sex is brought up in conversation, I don’t conclude that everyone in the group who hasn’t had sex eventually wants to. While talking to other ace friends, I remember that some asexuals have sex regularly, some never have sex, some occasionally have sex, and so on. We all experience our sexual and romantic lives differently, and the best thing we can do if we aren’t sure is to ask someone whether they’d like to share and then listen with empathy and understanding.