Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

To Love and Be Loved: Sexuality and People with Physical Disabilities

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

To Love and Be Loved: Sexuality and People with Physical Disabilities

Article excerpt

People with physical disabilities are stereotyped as asexual, as lacking the same sexual and relationship needs and desires as nondisabled people. Yet people with disabilities are human beings, created in the image of God, and thus are sexual beings with the same capacity to love and be loved as any other human. In this article, the author discusses the sexuality and heterosexual experiences of adults with various physical disabilities. She explores possible effects of disabilities on sexual self-concept, romantic relationships, and sexual activities as well as describes some practical steps that can be taken to remedy specific difficulties. The author also briefly relates some personal experiences as a woman with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia who is married to a man with cerebral palsy. Implications for clinical practice are discussed. The author encourages psychotherapists to prepare themselves to respond intelligently and comfortably to the sexual questions and issues raised by their physically disabled clients, regardless of the presenting problem.

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Sexuality is an integral part of what it is to be a human being; it is part of the image of God in humankind (Grentz, 1990; Small, 1974). According to the Genesis account, God created us in his image, male and female (Gen. 1:27, NIV). We relate to the world, and to each other, as male or female. Sexuality is broader than sexual behaviors; it is who we are. It is the part of us that drives us toward relationships with other human beings and even with God. In our individual maleness or femaleness, we are incomplete, and it is that incompleteness that drives us toward bonding with others (Grentz, 1990). In our capacity to love and be loved, in our need for relationships, we reflect the image of God in us.

People with disabilities as human beings are made in the image of God just as nondisabled people are (Pietsch, 1986)--and as such they are sexual beings. This should be obvious, but often it is not. People with disabilities are often viewed by society as incomplete humans (Hwang, 1997). There is a tendency to assume that disability spreads out into all areas of a person's life, that if the person is disabled in one way, he or she is disabled in all ways (Chigier, 1980; Daniels, Cornelius, Makus, & Chipouras, 1981). Disabled people are viewed as lacking the capacity for normal and satisfying sexual relationships. What's more, they are seen as asexual, without the same desires and needs for sexual and romantic intimacy that nondisabled people have (Daniels et al., 1981; Griffith et al., 1975; Hwang, 1997).

Stereotypes about the supposed asexuality of disabled people have far-reaching consequences for the lives of individuals with disabilities. These stereotypes affect those who are intimately involved in the lives of disabled people, such as parents, rehabilitation professionals, physicians, and educators (Chigier, 1980). Parents tend to believe that their disabled adolescent and adult offspring are dependent and childlike and should be shielded from social situations, which can result in a lack of social skills (Daniels et al., 1981; Rousso, 1993). Young people with disabilities are often not given sex education (Daniels et al., 1981; Hwang, 1997; Tilley, 1996), and adult disabled women often lack basic knowledge of reproductive health (Nosek et al., 1995). Disabled women are given Pap smear tests less often than nondisabled women, partly because of the inaccessibility of gynecologists' offices and examination tables and partly because of an assumption that they are not sexually active (Tilley, 1996). This lac k of knowledge and health care leaves adolescents and adults vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, undetected cancer, and sexual exploitation and abuse (Hwang, 1997; Rousso, 1993). This can also leave them unprepared for basic life changes, such as a girl's first menstrual cycle (Nosek et al. …

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