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Expanding your interests: Sex, sexuality and relationships

In this video, Tom Shakespeare explains the relationships between disability and sexuality.

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.

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Disability and a Good Life: Thinking through Disability

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