Q: I’ve fallen in love with another disabled person, and both of us rely on attendant assistance for getting into bed. How can we have sex?
A: You should discuss this with one or both of your personal assistants. Asking for assistance getting into bed together, or to get into a particular position so the two of you can be lovers is a reasonable request that more people are exploring these days, but as the concept is still pretty recent, it needs to be handled with some care.
There are, of course, some boundaries to consider. Don’t make the assistant feel obligated to do this, but ask them how they feel and allow them to identify what they would be comfortable with—or not. Many people doing assistance work understand that your ability to be with an intimate partner is just as important to your quality life as your ability to be mobile and to have your bowel and bladder needs covered.
This will add a new component to your relationship with the assistant. There will be a new set of feelings and issues to work out. Take care not to risk losing the quality of interaction you will likely have already achieved by making them feel you are resentful if they say they are not comfortable participating in supporting your sexuality. Your goal is to handle this in a way that will allow the assistant to take some pride in facilitating your choice to pursue a healthy, loving relationship with your partner.
Be clear about exactly what you would like them to do, let them know in advance, and if they identify a boundary then you’ll be able to respect it when you’re in the course of being with your partner. Tension with the assistant will compromise the loving mood you want to set so you and your partner can enter into that passionate and liberating space of making love. Some assistants might be completely unwilling to contribute, others might be more than happy to help you get into position and then leave—until they hear you call for a change—and yet someone else might be willing to let you ask them to place and move your hand on a certain part of your lover’s body.
Thus the rub, if you’ll pardon the pun. At what point does the assistant risk becoming a part of the action? What kind of trust and discretion does it take for someone to play an active role in your intimacy without becoming part of it? As you approach this boundary the questions become increasingly tricky, and it takes some patience, honesty, and compassion to work through them to arrive at what works best for everyone concerned.
Many people are now bringing up this issue when they interview potential assistants. Even someone who relies on personal assistance but is not now in a relationship would be well advised to broach this topic, just to know what the assistant’s position would be should it come up later. It doesn’t have to mean you would not hire someone who was not comfortable with this, but you’ll know where they stand and reduce the risk of an awkward or tense situation in the future.
In the heat of your desire to get your sexual relationship cooking, don’t take your own emotions for granted. How will you or your partner feel being naked together with another person? When you’re about to indulge in something as personal and vulnerable as making love, with another person either present in the room or within earshot for the moment when you need assistance, how will it affect your ability to let go and be fully passionate and unselfconscious? It could mean that the atmosphere or your sexuality will be very different indeed from what most people consider “normal.”
Even though you’ve already adapted to the changes in your sexuality because of differences in the sensation or sexual function of your body, you cross an altogether different boundary when a third party enters the scene. It will produce a variety of new issues, and there will be an adjustment period. Be patient and allow everyone involved the time they need to get used to these new dynamics.
None of this should discourage you, but rather invite you to explore yet another aspect of how we foster positive relationships with people who play key roles in our lives. People do this, it’s being talked about more, understood better, and will be increasingly free of the taboo and resistance that many people undoubtedly still feel as they begin to explore its possibilities.
You have the right to whatever creativity and sensitivity you can bring to bear as you pursue meaningful experiences and relationships. Just be sure to observe what comes up as you experiment and take everyone’s valid feelings into account so that you and your partner can find ways to express your love for each other.
Responses are by noted author, speaker and recreational juggler Gary Karp, whose books include Disability and the Art of Kissing. Karp has been honored by induction into the Spinal Cord Hall of Fame as a disability educator. Find out more about Karp at Modern Disability.
Copyright 2007, Gary Lawrence Karp