Prior to Nadia’s accident, sex used to be fun. It was exciting, there was spontaneity, but most of all it was normal. But three years ago, it became a whole new territory she had to traverse. It wasn’t sex she found herself afraid of, but rather the constant explanations about why her legs might spasm, or why she had a sub-pubic catheter. Always vouching for her body—it made her feel like a broken record and she worried what people would think. “I felt like I needed cue cards, like, ‘Hello my name is Nadia and I have this and this might happen, it’s okay if my leg spasms.”
At age 22, Nadia was in a car accident. Her spine was crushed, and while she retained function in her arms, she has none in her lower limbs.
The first time Nadia went on home leave during her rehabilitation period at Christchurch’s Burwood Hospital, she met a close friend. His first question was, “Can you still have sex?” Nadia laughs now when she recalls the conversation. “So I replied and said, ‘My vagina’s not sewn up!’”
But then it hit her—was this what her life was going to be like from now on? People asking intimate and personal questions at any given moment? Even now, people still ask Nadia if she is able to have sex and are fascinated by the fact that she most definitely can.
When it came to sex, Nadia knew she would just have to get on with it and see what happened. But she also feared the judgement of people who had no idea about what it meant to live with a spinal cord injury. It is important to Nadia to find someone she can trust because, while she may be still be able to do the deed, the act is now something quite different. The biggest change, she says, has been the lack of spontaneity—you can’t just “quickly jump into bed with someone… It’s like, ‘Oh, hang on a second, I’ve just got to go to the toilet first, I’ve gotta pee because my bladder’s dodgy.’”
Nadia says she’s her own worst enemy though, always putting up barriers to prevent the possibility of a relationship because she is afraid of feeling like a burden. “I come with so much baggage now… things take longer, require more planning, endless appointments, struggles with pain, spasms, bladder… everything”
She feels the need to tell people she is a “little different to sleep with than a normal person”. But the responses she gets in return are never quite what she expects. “Everyone has just been like ‘Yeah, it’s alright’ and I’m like ‘Okay cool, this is awkward.’”
Initially, Cody, 23, didn’t get the same understanding. He was 15 when he was injured while playing rugby and was paralysed from the chest down. In his late teens, when he went out to parties and to town with his friends, he was treated differently. Especially by girls, who compared him to his friends and made comments about him being out and allowed to drink alcohol. “People are quite funny. They just assume [that because] you’re in a wheelchair you can’t do anything.”
He realised pretty soon after his injury things might not be alright down there—“is it still gonna work? Can I still have sex?” The doctors explained things to him in “their doctor terms” but ultimately he says, you never really know until you try. “That’s one of the nerve-wracking things, that’s not the same as what it used to be and the first time is always a bit weird, but, you know, it comes with the territory.”
After his injury, sex was no longer a priority. He still went out with the boys but it wasn’t about having a one-night stand. It was important for Cody to meet the right girl and not rush into anything. He bided his time, and eventually met Jess, who he has now been dating for about a year.
And he says that when the time came and he was ready for sex, he didn’t worry too much about things. “If you have to go through the processes, take a Viagra or whatever, it’s all good…You know, life throws you curveballs and you just gotta get on with it. For me, I just try to have fun and make the most of the opportunities.”
For someone with a spinal cord injury, positions might be limited and sensation can vary depending on the level of the injury. All things considered, though, Cody says his sexual relationship is “really good” and everything is running smoothly in that department. “I’ve got a bit of feeling, so I guess I’m quite lucky, whereas other people they’ve got nothing at all. I feel like that would be a bit tough.”
Claire, 40, was injured in 1995. She says she was quite happy with one-night stands in her 20s because, for her, sex was all about having fun and experimenting. “For me it was like, I’m doing them more of a favour in a way. I rephrased it in my head so it wasn’t like ‘I have these problems they’re helping me with’, it was ‘I’m wonderful for helping them out.’ That was the only way I could really deal with it back then.”
Sex for people with spinal cord injuries is about thinking outside the box and pushing boundaries because it’s not all about penetrative sex anymore. The nature of the injury results in a disconnection between genitals and the brain, so even though someone may be turned on, it may not show physically. This means patience and understanding, but also exploring other options and methods of stimulation. Claire says there should be education about the brain, a “real sexual organ if people knew what to do and how to use it.”
She talked to her current partner for months before they met in person and they got to know each other well. Later, he told her that if they’d met in a bar, he never would’ve spoken to her because she was in a wheelchair. Claire has found social media an extremely useful tool in breaking down barriers, especially among young people. “Three years ago… that’s when I went onto social media for the first time and suddenly saw all these women around the world who were presenting themselves in this really sexy way.
“I went through years and years of hating my body and loathing it and not thinking I was of value… yet now there seems to be a lot more body confidence with regards to injury.”
Cody, too, wants to harness the power of social media, and is thinking of starting his own YouTube channel to educate able-bodied people about people with spinal cord injuries. His final words of wisdom are to not let your limitations affect your outlook. “Don’t let what you can’t do affect what you can do.”
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