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How to Have Sex as a Wheelchair User

People with disabilities discuss the perks and pitfalls.
María Cristina Lalonde
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María Cristina Lalonde

After a fall down a flight of stairs left her paralyzed from the chest down, a lot of things changed for Heidi Herkes.

"Suddenly, I was unable to move provocatively," remembered Herkes, the London-based founder of a personal styling consultancy. "I couldn't perform a seductive slow dance or striptease in front of my partner." She added with a laugh, "I miss the days where he could pinch my bum and grab me from behind before we ripped each other's clothes off."

One thing that didn't change for Herkes? Her desire to have sex. "I can still be quite tactile and perhaps a little flirtatious," she said.

Determined not to let their intimate life suffer, Herkes and her partner of more than a decade found ways of maintaining an active, fun and fulfilling sex life through "trial and error."

"I dress up in sexy lingerie and set the tone. I'm also very capable of directing and playing out my fantasies," she said, adding that imagination, communication and a willingness to laugh are key components.

Sex for wheelchair users: The logistics

Mitchell Tepper, Ph.D., an Atlanta-based sex educator who has a spinal cord injury, helps clients with disabilities better understand their sexual response and expression. He agreed with Herke's recipe for successful sex.

"When I explain the logistics of sex for wheelchair users, I talk about three key elements: creativity, adaptability and a sense of humor," Tepper said.

Creativity and adaptability during intimacy are key for discovering positions and methods of expression that work for you, Tepper said.

"You've got to troubleshoot based on your physical abilities and your partner's abilities to figure out how to get into different positions and enjoy sex in whatever way you can," he said.

In terms of adaptability, Tepper said people with a recent injury may need to expand their definition of sex. Certain injuries can affect genital function—such as ejaculation or clitoral engorgement—and some wheelchair users may not be able to perform penetrative sex, Tepper said. To access pleasure and orgasm, people with limited genital function must turn to alternative methods, such as touching the breasts, nipples and other erogenous zones, or erotic fantasy.

As for a sense of humor?

"People take sex too seriously," Tepper said. "They focus too much on it and they work too hard on it, which tends to psychologically tap your pleasure."

Sex for wheelchair users: The practicalities

As you might imagine, many wheelchair users prefer to have sex outside of their chairs. Both Herkes and Jake Kussmaul, a musician and journalist with cerebral palsy, agreed that they'd rather have sex on a bed ("...or the sofa or a wedge or a sling suspended from the ceiling or on a faux fur blanket surrounded by candles," Herkes added).

To ditch their chairs, wheelchair users may rely on their partners or personal assistants to set them in place.

"My partner is strong, so he can easily pick me up out of my chair, undress me and throw me around the bed," Herkes said.

Joslyn Nerdahl, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based clinical sexologist, sex coach and former surrogate partner for clients with physical disabilities, confirmed that while the situation depends on the client and their level of mobility, sex is generally easier and more comfortable outside of the chair.

However, Nerdahl emphasized that sex in a wheelchair is absolutely possible with a little bit of planning and patience. She said physical placement is often the biggest challenge, and barriers might vary from chair to chair.

"Simple things like removing or swinging open the arms [of the chair] can really help," she advised. "With an electric chair, for example, there are far more gears and electronic parts that can get in the way.

"One thing I've learned is to always make sure the brakes are on," she added with a laugh.

Advice for able-bodied partners and allies

When asked to share advice for able-bodied partners of wheelchair users, Herkes emphasized the importance of open mind, communication and experimentation.

"What works for some might not work for others, so explore one another and let your bodies do the talking," she said.

"Having sex with a guy in a wheelchair can be kinky!" Kussmaul asserted. "Instead of thinking of a wheelchair as a roadblock, think of it as an accessory for sex. It's just another bench or one of those sex chairs. If the merit of a sex chair as an accessory could be understood, so should a wheelchair."

Both Kussmaul and Herkes expressed frustration over the stigma that excludes people in wheelchairs as sexual beings.

"There are many preconceived ideas that people with disabilities can't necessarily maintain or even have an intimate relationship," Herkes lamented. "They possibly think that we are very limited to what we can do. However, once people look behind the curtain, they will realize that we are not just ordinary but extraordinary people living quite fulfilling lives."

"We're healthy! We can come! We can get aroused!" Kussmaul said. "We're bodies; we're not just minds that compensate for the fact that we have disabilities. It's OK to think of us sexually."