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Disabled Still Have Sex Lives

Though people think a disability will end your sex life, nothing is further from the truth. Don't be a prisoner of sexual myths: Indulge your senses.

Pleasure Bypasses Spinal Cord

In one study, 16 women with various levels of complete spinal cord injury (below vertebra T-6, meaning that they were paraplegic, not quadriplegic) were compared with five women who had no spinal cord injury. Each used a specially designed tool to stimulate themselves in vaginal and cervical areas as well as in other parts of their body above the level of their injuries where they felt especially sensitive.

"Only one of the non-spinal-cord-injury women had an orgasm, while three of the women with [spinal cord injury] had an orgasm in the laboratory," Whipple says. "One had six orgasms during the experiment. One had never had any sexual stimulation in the two years since her injury, and these were her first."

If there's no "feeling" below the waist, then what explains these sensations? Whipple notes that a nerve bundle called the sensory vagus bypasses the spinal cord, carrying nerve impulses directly from the genitals to the brain. So even if the spinal cord is damaged, "pleasure" messages can be carried through the sensory vagus from the genitals to the brain, triggering the experience of orgasm.

Whipple and her colleagues even confirmed this theory by doing PET scans of women with complete spinal cord injury. These tests showed that an area of their brains that is connected to the genitals through the sensory vagus was indeed receiving signals.

Lessons From Eastern Traditions

But even if you can't experience "traditional" orgasm, that doesn't mean your sex life is over. "Acceptance means letting go of all your old notions, like 'sex equals intercourse.' Comparison is something that really kills people in moving forward," Tepper says. "We're not tied to old ways of being, and that way we can allow pleasure to happen."

He advises people with disabilities to consider incorporating tantric approaches to sexuality into their relationships. "It's an eastern model, focused on sexuality as an altered state of consciousness, rather than the western model of sex as working toward a goal."

Originally published June 4, 2001.

Medically reviewed Jan. 20, 2003.

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