As human beings, we are tactile creatures. Whether we are disabled or non-disabled, most of us crave physical intimacy, or at least feel the hunger for touch, which is called ‘skin hunger.’
Touch has the power to awaken and enliven our senses, and can create a flood of feelings of pleasure.
Holding someone and being held is very important for both mental and physical health. Touch releases endorphins (mood-elevating chemicals), reduces the risk for a variety of catastrophic illnesses and has the potential to bring joy to relationships if it is used appropriately.
Though we all instinctively understand and use the language of touch, we often take this skill for granted. Touch may, in fact, be more versatile and effective than voice, facial expression, and other modalities for expressing emotion. It can communicate various positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, and sympathy.
While this need for touch is acknowledged by society when it comes to non-disabled people, the sexuality of people with disabilities often goes unregarded.
Disability and chronic illness can change the way that romantic partners are intimate with each other. For many people with disabilities, love and marriage go beyond only intercourse, and have more to do with intimacy and companionship.
This is where touch plays an extremely crucial role, because it is also a very strong means of sexual expression. And issues of sexual expression and enjoyment are issues of quality of life for people with disabilities.
Many people with disabilities have sexual intercourse like non-disabled people do, but some don’t. This does not in any way imply that the intimacy that they crave or enjoy is any less relevant. A good sex life is about much more than just intercourse.
We can take the pressure off people living with disabilities by expanding the idea of sex to include more than just penetration. Intimacy, pleasure, and connectedness can be fostered by touch, which we can call ‘outercourse’.
Together, we need to learn to explore, discover and invent new possibilities for intimacy. If we expand the idea of sex to include certain kinds of touch, our ideas of satisfaction and orgasm will expand too.
Orgasms may be triggered by pleasuring one’s erogenous zones. But even if someone doesn’t have sensation in their genitals, many other erogenous zones can be discovered.
As a counsellor, I make it a point to tell my clients about three distinct forms of touch:
The ‘parent’ touch: This kind of touch is non-sexual and nurturing in nature. The person who gives it does not expect anything in return. The reward is the delight of nurturing. In counselling sessions and workshops, I’ve heard many people complain that their partner doesn’t know any way to hold them other than sexually. In intimate relationships, the ‘parent’ touch must be put into practice.
The ‘child’ touch: This touch is used in the way that children use touch: to explore, to learn, to play, and to love. This is a non-sexual touch that’s focused on play. Too few couples play with one another.
The ‘adult’ touch: This is where sex belongs. This incorporates the care of the ‘parent’ touch and the playfulness of the ‘child’ touch, but also includes a strong element of sensuality, which the last two lack.
Without the healthy expression of the previous two types of touch, sex can’t be completely fulfilling. This would only result in sexual relationships that are boring, predictable, lifeless, or at worst, frustrating or physically or emotionally painful. This is why it is so important to practice the ‘parent’ and ‘child’ touch with your partner.
To people with disabilities who are exploring their sexualities, I would say: please take your time, relax, and enjoy the experience of sensual touching. You can get enormous gratification from petting, caressing, and kissing your partner.
Many erogenous zones in men are best activated when the body is relaxed, and the zones are stimulated in a gentle manner. Similarly, women are likely to enjoy being lightly touched on the neck, forearm, and vaginal margin.
Opening up our ideas of sex beyond penetration can disrupt the standard norms of gender and sexuality which deny so many realities. This is truly an opportunity to think out of the box and to embrace all the ways in which we can experience intimacy.
Featured image credit: Alia Sinha