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Sex and disability

Tags: disabled, disability, young people, sex

Despite some misconceptions, young disabled people have active sex lives. Some studies suggest that disabled adolescents may even be at greater risk of having unsafe sex.

Dating, sex, and romance are a standard part of many young people’s lives. However, most of us who’ve been through it or are going through it will recognise that sexuality can be very complicated and highly personal.

If you are a young person with a long-term illness or disability, it might feel like there’s a whole extra bundle of complications thrown in.

Disability can be associated with factors like social stigma and a reliance on the support of others, all of which can get in the way of how you meet new people and develop relationships [1]. You may also have important routines around medication and treatments that affect how you manage your free time [2].

Many young disabled people have also expressed fear around being rejected by potential partners, worrying that they might not be considered attractive or won’t be thought of as a romantic partner [3].

Getting on just fine

However, despite evidence to suggest things might be trickier, some research suggests that disabled people are getting on just fine when it comes to sex and relationships.

While some studies showed relatively low sexual activity among young disabled people [1] [4], others showed only minor differences between adolescents with and without disabilities when it comes to having sex, exploring sexual orientation, and the age of first sexual experiences [5].

It depends largely on the type of illness or disability you are dealing with. In one example, a study showed that young people with diabetes defined their relationship more by companionship than by physical intimacy and that relationships were more likely to last longer [2].

So, what do you need to know?

One of the major risks for young disabled people is a lack of proper sex education. Despite what we know about the active sex lives of disabled people, there remains a misconception that disabled people aren’t sexual or aren’t interested in sex [6].

This can mean safe sex practices like STD prevention aren’t discussed by parents and educators as much as they should be [7]. Unplanned pregnancies tend to be fairly high in this demographic too [8].

Some research even suggests that disabled people have more sex than their non-disabled contemporaries and may even be more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour [9].

So, while a chronic illness or disability can complicate sexual development, it doesn’t necessarily get in the way of it, or change it. Young disabled people are going through very similar experiences to their non-disabled friends [10], and the more we talk about this, the more we can do to make sure sexual education is available for and tailored to everyone.


[1] Kef, S., & Bos, H. (2006). Is love blind? Sexual behavior and psychological adjustment of adolescents with blindness. Sexuality and disability24(2), 89-100.

[2] Seiffge-Krenke, I. (2000). Diversity in Romantic Relations of Adolescents with Varying Health Status Links to Intimacy in Close Friendships. Journal of Adolescent Research15(6), 611-636.

[3] Gordon, P. A., Tschopp, M. K., & Feldman, D. (2004). Addressing issues of sexuality with adolescents with disabilities. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal21(5), 513-527.

[4] McCabe, M. P., & Taleporos, G. (2003). Sexual esteem, sexual satisfaction, and sexual behavior among people with physical disability. Archives of sexual behavior32(4), 359-369.

[5] Surís, J. C., Resnick, M. D., Cassuto, N., & Blum, R. W. (1996). Sexual behavior of adolescents with chronic disease and disability. Journal of adolescent health19(2), 124-131.

[6] Murphy, N., & Young, P. C. (2005). Sexuality in children and adolescents with disabilities. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology47(09), 640-644.

[7] Cheng, M. M., & Udry, J. R. (2002). Sexual behaviors of physically disabled adolescents in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health31(1), 48-58.

[8] Greydanus, D. E., Pratt, H. D., & Patel, D. R. (2012). Concepts of contraception for adolescent and young adult women with chronic illness and disability. Disease-a-Month58(5), 258-320.

[9] Sawyer, S. M., Drew, S., Yeo, M. S., & Britto, M. T. (2007). Adolescents with a chronic condition: challenges living, challenges treating. The Lancet, 369(9571), 1481-1489.

[10] Taylor, R. M., Gibson, F., & Franck, L. S. (2008). The experience of living with a chronic illness during adolescence: a critical review of the literature. Journal of clinical nursing17(23), 3083-3091.



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