A few years ago, during a nationally televised tribute to actor-director Christopher Reeve, Reeve's wife, Dana, took the stage to sing a song. Before launching into her number, she spoke eloquently of her love for Reeve, paralyzed by a spinal cord injury received in a fall from a horse. And then she turned toward her husband, sitting in the audience, and smiled secretively at him. "Chris? You still do it for me, baby," she said.
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In that "public-private" moment, Dana and Christopher Reeve told the world what scientists and sex therapists already know: Sexuality doesn't end when a person suffers a disability. There are quite literally hundreds of ways to experience sexuality and sexual pleasure. Even when someone apparently loses all the physical sensation in their genital regions, couples can still achieve sexual closeness, pleasure, and even orgasm.
Mitchell Tepper, PhD, president of the Sexual Health Network (www.sexualhealth.com), travels the country speaking about sexuality to conventions and groups of people with disabilities. Tepper, whose spinal cord was injured in a diving accident when he was working as a lifeguard some 20 years ago, tells listeners that television and movies often promote myths about sexuality and disability.
"For example, people with spinal cord injury are often portrayed in movies as sexually frustrated men and women who either have to rely on buying sex from a prostitute or have to go without," he says.
Nothing could be further from the truth, says Beverly Whipple, PhD, RN, FAAN, a professor emerita in the college of nursing in the neuroscience center at Rutgers University and a noted researcher on sexual health. "Sexuality encompasses the totality of our being," she says. "Think of a candy cane. The red is the peppermint flavor. But do you only taste peppermint in the red or throughout the candy cane? You taste it throughout, and similarly our sexuality goes through all of us."
Whipple advises people with disabilities -- particularly those with limited sensation in the "traditionally" sexual parts of the body -- to talk with partners about many of the ways to have erotic pleasure that do not involve the genital area. "Sensuality and sexuality are much more than the genitals."