Skip main navigation

Expanding your interests: Sex, sexuality and relationships

In this video, Tom Shakespeare explains the relationships between disability and sexuality.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Disability and sexuality.
TOM SHAKESPEARE: So when it comes to sexuality and disability, we often hear that disabled people are asexual or the rest of it. That’s just nonsense. That’s just so silly. If you think about the entirety of disabled people, most disabled people are having sex, having relationships just like everybody else. So let’s start with that. Let’s just not think there’s a problem. And then we need to think well, what are these different groups of disabled people? Some folk are born with disability. And sometimes they face barriers, particularly people with intellectual disability. And that’s usually to do with empowerment.
It’s usually to do with knowledge, to do with other people’s attitudes, to do with the fact that their carers– parents, care homes, whatever– think whoa, they shouldn’t have sex. So they need information. They need empowerment. They need some support and some protection because there vulnerable to abuse. Then you have other people who are born with disability who don’t have intellectual or cognitive issues, but they have physical or communication issues. Now a lot of us– and I’m in that category– have had relationships, sex, marriage, children, whatever like everybody else. But some people face particular barriers. I think this is often when they have a complex disability, profound disability, and particularly communication problems.
So it may be difficult for them to form relationships. The third group is people who become disabled– maybe a spinal cord injury or something like that. Now often they’ve been having sex. So the question is are they going to continue having sex? Sometimes their partnerships break up. Often, they have new partnerships, which might even be better. So the question there is making sure that rehabilitation includes information about sex. That’s virtually the first question people think about when they come around after the anaesthetic– oh my God, am I ever going to have sex again? So helping people understand yes they can. They may have to have it differently. But it can still be good. That’s really important in rehabilitation.
And then the fourth category of people is people are disabled through ageing. And we have this idea that older people don’t have sex. Well again, nonsense, of course they do. And we need to support them. We need to have sex-positive images. We need to be able to deal with any physical changes that happen with ageing. We need to confront this issue of people with dementia. And again, it’s questions of capacity and consent. But we need to have the conversation– whichever group, whatever age– we need to have the conversation, not start from the idea it’s a problem.
And of course, there are various resources we have to support people with their sex– sex education, sex therapy, or surrogacy, sex work in jurisdictions which allow that, sexual facilitation which means basically helping somebody prepare for or get into the sexual situation but not having sex with them. And then there are various forms of support and facilitation for people with physical and intellectual disability. So there may– and of course counselling, and psychotherapy, and so forth– so like everybody else, disabled people may need some input around the sexual issues.
Not all disabled people, not all of the time, but we need to make sure that we have services that are set up to meet those needs as and when they occur to enable people to have the same sort of sexual intimacy, relationships, family that other people do. Because disabled people– surprise, surprise– are like everybody else.

When we think about sexuality we usually think about sex or sexual orientation. But what we mean when we talk about sexuality is much broader than that. It involves how we construct ourselves as attractive, who we invite into our intimate lives and what we want to do (with our bodies and our minds) when we get intimate with other people.

Sex itself is often a taboo subject when it comes to people with disabilities. It is often assumed that somehow people with disabilities are asexual, or that at least this is a topic that should not be mentioned. But as Shakespeare et al. (1996) note, for people with disabilities the problem is not usually “how to do it” but “who to do it with.”

Still, for the “non-disabled” world, considering sex and people with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, is still thought to be shocking. Historically, and still today in some countries, this has meant that women with intellectual disabilities have been sterilised. In the interview with Tom Shakespeare, he argues that most disabled people are of course having sex or want to have sex. So he turns the issue around, and asks how people with disabilities can be empowered in their sexuality.

Tom identifies three key issues that are often conflated in relation to people with disabilities around sex and relationships:

  • lots of people with disabilities want sex and can have sex but are too often denied it;
  • people with disabilities are often denied opportunities to explore their sexuality and build positive intimate relationships where they can have safe sex and learn about their sexuality;
  • many people with disabilities are involved in different types of intimate relationships that expand their identities (such as becoming a parent, a lover, a carer and so forth).

Talking points

In the comments for this step, reflect on the video and on some of the resources in the See Also section below and consider the following questions:
  • What is the difference between sex and sexuality?
  • What are some of the misconceptions about sex and sexuality for people with disabilities?
  • Do you agree with Tom’s main points, and the key issues he identifies? Are there other issues to be aware of?

Feel free to share any personal stories you feel comfortable sharing, but please keep in mind that this is a public discussion forum. When in doubt, please review FutureLearn’s code of conduct.


Tom Shakespeare, Kath Gillespie-Sells, and Dominic Davies. (1996) The Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires. London: Burns & Oates.

« Back to Basics

This article is from the free online

Disability and a Good Life: Thinking through Disability

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education