This Is How We Do It is a series about sex and stigma. This article originally appeared on VICE US.
One night in late November of 2016, Laura and Jacob Beck were driving from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they’d been visiting family, to their home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Their car hit a puddle, hydroplaned, flipped three times, and smashed into a tree, which came down on Laura’s head, compressing her spine, crushing her C-6 vertebrae, and leaving her with no control of her fingers, no feeling below her chest, and limited mobility in her hips, but not her legs.
Sex is one of the first things most people think about after suffering a spinal cord injury, and it was a major and salient issue for Laura early on. Questions about whether they will be able to engage in sex acts, feel sex, or even have sexual desires are right up there with questions about being able to use one’s arms, hands, or legs. Sex is, for many, such a central human drive and intimate experience, it is hard not to think about it.
About 80 to 90 percent of those who sustain a spinal cord injury (SCI) will experience a change in their sex lives. The nature of that change varies drastically according to the idiosyncrasies of each individual injury; depending on exactly where along the spinal column one suffered damage, and the type of damage they suffered, they may retain their genital sensation, or lose some or all of it. They may have trouble getting aroused, or reaching orgasm, or their arousal and orgasm may feel different from how it did before their injuries. They may develop varied levels of impaired mobility. Some may develop blood pressure and bowel and bladder control issues during sex.
No matter the specifics of their injuries, though, many people with SCIs experience a drop in their sex drives due to anxiety or depression brought on by these changes, and by the way they may fear people will see them—as damaged and undesirable. But contrary to pop culture depictions and common beliefs, people with SCIs are not inherently desexualized, nor is sex dangerous for, or meaningless to, most of them.
To understand more about how people with SCIs and their partners figure out how to make sex work through this sometimes-daunting sexual adaptation VICE recently spoke to the Becks about how, from rehab to today, they have navigated sex and intimacy.
Laura: We had had a few sexual issues before my accident. We were getting to a place where we were both patient enough to work through issues rather than letting them stress us out. But right after the accident, in the hospital, while I was in rehab, it got pretty real. He would sleep in the hospital bed with me. Like two weeks into rehab was the first time we really made out after the accident. And it was like, Oh my god, I can’t even take off my own shorts. What is this going to be?
Jacob: Fortunately, we were able to go to some good therapy places. You have therapists sitting with you, and programs teaching you about how to deal with the injury and try to move forward. That naturally sparked conversations. It’s just been a journey. And different people or situations have prompted different thoughts or conversations.
Laura: A lot of our conversations came after we would be intimate or have sex. Either I end up crying, or we’re laughing about it. The laughing about it has allowed us to grow more. Because when you’re emotional in a sad way, it’s hard to see past that sadness. But when you’re laughing like, Holy shit, this is our life now, that’s when we process the most together. Like, Now what are we going to do? Are we going to try toys? That’s never been a thing I’ve been comfortable with, but we started trying to use toys after the accident to see what it was like. Some of it was stupid.
Jacob: Most of it’s been stupid.
Laura: Most of it’s been stupid. But I know of two girls [with SCIs] who’ve been able to orgasm after they’ve used the toys. We’ve not had success yet, but we are working on that.
Jacob: That’s been the biggest thing, her not being able to have an orgasm, or feel, in general.
Laura: When he kisses my ears or my neck, it feels good. But I wouldn’t compare it even remotely to the sensation of an orgasm. Up until last night, when we used this toy we’d just gotten for the first time, I hadn’t gotten close to an orgasm. But it still doesn’t compare.
Positions are an issue, too. The easiest thing is to leave me on my back. For the past six months, I’ve gotten stronger. I’ve been able to use my arms to stay up if I’m on top. So I use new strength as it comes to change the way we can do it, staying aware of what I’m getting back and what it can change in our sex life. I can’t balance on top. But I hope that one day I can get back there.
Jacob: We’re still figuring it out. For me, the goal has always been focusing on what we can do versus what we can’t. If she can’t do it, how can I help? If it’s hard to do one thing, let’s try to do something else. And if she can’t do it, I kind of just make it happen. She likes to joke that I throw her around like a rag doll all the time. That’s just kind of how it is.
Laura: It’s easy to think that communication makes sex awkward. And I’m still learning how to communicate well. I noticed last week when I was showering that when the water hit me in one spot, my legs were shaking and my stomach was pulsing. So I texted Jacob from my Apple Watch. That, honestly, was the first time I feel I’ve communicated. It would make our sex easier if I did communicate more. But even though he’s the closest person to me, it’s still so vulnerable.
Jacob: With a spinal cord injury, either you’re going to have those [vulnerable] conversations, or something’s going to deteriorate very fast.
There is a lot of emotion tied up in [orgasm issues]. Like, what’s the purpose of sex for her?
Laura: Some days, I’m in a great place mentally. But sometimes we have sex and I feel like—and this is never on Jacob, because he never treats me like this—all I am is just a hole. I just lie there.
Jacob: Sex has always been about being close for us. But I want to make sure it’s not one-sided. I still find a way to make it interesting and fun for Laura, and make it an experience that we both enjoy, so it’s not just me trying to get off.
Laura: I’ve talked to other quadriplegic women in relationships. Finding out that they haven’t had sex except once or twice in the past few years, I’m like, What? I just can’t imagine me and Jacob not having sex. It takes a lot of work to have a good sex life, especially after a spinal cord injury. Even though it’s still fun, it requires you to be emotionally, mentally, and physically vulnerable.
Vulnerability is very scary. For me, wounds from the past make me afraid that I’m going to be left alone or abandoned. What goes through my head is, You could just leave me and go find another able-bodied. [Talking about problems in sex with an SCI is] scary because I’m like, Is this worth it? Or is this something where if I talk about it, you jet? Even though I know he’s not going to.
Jacob: Life after the injury has definitely been challenging, more so in just the understanding part. Even though I’m the closest one to her, I have no true understanding of what she’s going through.
But what I want is to be with her. Yeah, I miss our old life. It sucks that she has a spinal cord injury. But I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. I wouldn’t want to be with anybody else.