We wish to serve the needs of all adults, regardless of physical appearance or level of ability. In this post, we talked with Christine Selinger. After a spinal cord injury when she was 19, she found herself a person with paraplegia. As evidenced by her active lifestyle, including as a parathlete, Christine has, like so many, adapted to her new reality to become an advocate and educator for people with disabilities at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario.
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First, is there a more polite term or appropriate term we should use when discussing this subject?
This is going to vary depending on who you talk to. I’d prefer to stick to what it is: sex and disability.
Like you said about individuals across the sex and gender spectrum, the same can be said for individuals with disabilities. “Disability” is a really broad label that includes many, many different people. This is why we stick to the phrasing “individuals with disabilities”.
Please tell us about your organization and how it came about.
Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Ontario is an ongoing, life-long resource for people with spinal cord injuries, their friends, families and service providers. We assist people in rebuilding their lives after their injury. SCI Ontario has been developing our expertise since 1945. We are the only provincial, SCI-specific, community service organization that is of and for people with spinal cord injuries. The importance of our work is emphasized by the facts that every day, at least one person in Ontario sustains a new spinal cord injury and 33,000 people with spinal cord injuries live in our province.
A brief history of our organization can also be found on our website here.
Can you please explain the most common challenges faced by those with physical disabilities?
I think one of the greatest challenges lies in how individuals who don’t identify as having a disability view disability. We often see individuals with disabilities portrayed in the media as being helpless, sad, dependent or generally ‘less’ than those who do not have disabilities. In my experience this simply is not true. Individuals with disabilities live happy, healthy, independent lives. We may accomplish tasks in a way that is different from other people, but everybody (regardless of disability) finds their own way to accomplish tasks.
The issue with the dependent and sad portrayal of people with disabilities is that it can have a very negative impact on self-esteem and self-image. When you feel that everyone is looking at you as pathetic or sad it is very difficult to talk yourself up to feeling sexy and attractive – it makes it difficult to be confident. Relationships can also be very difficult if you feel that you are constantly needing to explain yourself to others around you, as if you are needing to validate that you are someone who is capable of being in a relationship. This can also be a great challenge for individuals with invisible disabilities. Disclosing to others that you have a disability can be extremely difficult because it feels like you are changing how that person will view you.
What are common misconceptions that both disabled and non-disabled persons have when it comes to sex and sexual wellness?
This is not necessarily a misconception, but I believe that individuals have a really difficult time talking about sexuality. There are many labels and stigmas we associate with sexuality and somehow we (as a society) feel that we can’t or shouldn’t discuss sexuality openly and honestly. Sex is a very important part of our health and is an activity that most adults participate in regularly. We should be talking about it!
What kind of training do healthcare professionals receive when it comes to sexual wellness?
I don’t know that I would be the best person to speak to this because my training is more in education than in healthcare. That being said, I think it at least should be an important part of what is learned and it should be something that our healthcare practitioners are comfortable speaking about. Sex impacts our physical and psychological health in tremendous ways.
In the BROADLY article on you, you are quoted as saying “[M]en with spinal cord injuries inquire about their ability to get an erection almost immediately. Women's questions tend to come later into the rehabilitative process and are more about romance and dating.” Is that telling to you about the importance the genders place on sex or at least their views on it? When should a healthcare processional approach someone who develops a limitation about this?
This is a bit of a two-pronged question. First of all I would like to clarify that my statement was speaking in general about the questions asked by men and women regarding sexuality. Not all men will ask about erections right away, and some women may ask about their sexuality in the first meeting. By no means am I saying that as a rule. I was also speaking to my experiences in my role as Peer Support Coordinator with Spinal Cord Injury Ontario. This program matches individuals with existing spinal cord injuries to individuals who have newly sustained injuries so that the individual with the new injury can see that there is life after a spinal cord injury – and can ask practical questions about what to expect going forward from a person who truly understands what they are currently going through.
I think this is an honest question for individuals who acquire disabilities. Women don’t necessarily need any kind of control over their genitals in order to participate in penetrative sex (though it helps), whereas men do. I can tell you from my own experience that after learning of my spinal cord injury I took stock of everything that was in my body below the level of my injury and thought about how that would change if I could no longer feel or move it.
We advocate for healthcare professionals to broach the topic early but to only discuss it when the individual is comfortable having the discussion. People with disabilities need to know that they can discuss sexuality with their healthcare team, but it can be a very personal topic.
I robbed this question from someone else: Did your disability impact the way other people responded to you as a sexual person at all?
Yes, but I think this is because of how I viewed myself. I sustained a spinal cord injury when I was 19, and in a lot of ways I retreated into myself. I have always been an outgoing and confident person but after my injury I found myself wanting to blend in and second guessing a lot of what I said or did. I became very self-conscious and this translated into my body language. I slouched forward and tried to not make eye contact, trying to slip by without being noticed - so I wasn’t noticed. That period didn’t last long, however, and I was back to my usual outgoing, bubbly personality. Even with renewed confidence, I was still a little unsure of how I fit in to the puzzle romantically. I think that this also changed as a result of having an incomplete spinal cord injury – what I could and could not feel or move was changing drastically over the first couple years after my injury, so I was having trouble getting comfortable in my own skin.
Once I was comfortable enough to pursue relations with others I found that I was easily ‘friend-zoned’, and that getting people to see me as attractive in a sexual way took on a new dimension. It tough to explain, but I felt that people weren’t immediately physically attracted to me so I needed to be willing to pursue individuals I was interested in.
This all being said, I find that total strangers seem completely okay with asking about my sex life. Seriously. I’ll be sitting on the subway and someone next to me will ask. It’s weird. For some reason, people seem to see individuals with disabilities as purely asexual beings, which isn’t true. Certainly there are some individuals, just as there are in the larger population, that live asexual lives but that is far from the reality of most. The lives of individuals with disabilities should not look much different from the average life – but the barriers that stand in our way force us to adapt our lives to our environment.
Is there a difference in how to approach sexual wellness with those who develop a limitation and those who are born with them?
Sex is very individual and each person has an appreciation for different ways of participating in intercourse. It’s something we determine for ourselves through experience. For individuals who acquire disabilities after they’ve already had sexual experiences there is usually a period of transition in figuring this out again. Acquiring a disability is a lot like inheriting a new body – your body may react very differently to various stimuli. What worked for you sexually before you acquired your disability may be very different than what works afterward. I try to advocate for people to have fun with figuring out what will or won’t work for them again and to be open to trying new things.
Since we do sell products for all walks of life, what are some products you recommend?
I try to stay away from endorsing any specific products, but I am very happy to see companies creating products that are more accessible or focused on individuals with disabilities. In fact, we have a strict non-endorsement policy: http://www.sciontario.org/page/non-endorsement-statement
In terms of recommendations I tend to stick to recommendations more around practices – I try to advocate for people to be open and willing to try new things and to have open and honest conversations with any partners they may have.
Have you ever encountered problems with the design of sexual wellness products because of physical limitation or disability? Please describe.
I can say that there are certainly toys that people with various disabilities may want to avoid or use in a limited capacity. For example somebody with limited sensation for temperature may want to avoid toys that heat up in case of burns, or someone with limited hand dexterity may want to avoid toys with small buttons or clasps that are not easily accessed.
What are some recommendations you have for disabled people to build their self-esteem and feeling of “sexiness”?
I think the best recommendation I can give is the same advice I would give to anyone - be yourself. You are sexy. If someone doesn`t see you that way then it`s their loss. If you`re the kind of person that likes to get dolled up by doing your hair or makeup or shaving all the right places, then do that. If you`re the kind of person that would much rather spend a few weeks in the backcountry without even a shower, do that. You will attract the people that are right for you. Also, be willing to put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to ask someone out or start a conversation with someone you are attracted to.
We find that there is no single sex toy that works for everyone because everyone is different, everyone has some limitation or idiosyncrasy that affects their tastes or sensitivities. The same is true for disabilities as each limitation is different and affects people uniquely. What are some of the more common products that your clients and students have reported as effective?
Not necessarily bout specific toys, again, but practices.
If you have limited sensation and are prone to skin breakdown you will want to avoid sitting on hard surfaces or wet surfaces as well as avoiding temperature extremes. If you use catheters, you will want to ensure that you are as clean as possible before you urinate again to prevent urinary tract infections. Many women have trouble with lubrication and would need a lubricant to ensure that they don`t inadvertently tear or damage their skin.
What are some of the criteria you recommend for clients and students when choosing a toy?
Everything I said above. It’s about knowing your body, both in terms of the secondary complications of disability that you might encounter and what turns you on, and finding ways to enhance your experience. I also suggest that individuals try out some lower-cost options before opting for expensive toys. Make sure it is actually something you want and enjoy before you spend all that cash.