Mik Scarlet shares his personal experience of sex with a spinal cord injury.
I know from my own experience, when you gain a spinal injury you grieve for the person you once were, the future you have lost and what you imagine lies ahead. Our society doesn’t paint living with a spinal injury as anything other than a nightmare and this is a stereotype you wake up to post injury. You imagine your tomorrows to be a whole world of hell, with so many things now closed to you and a major element of this loss is something rarely talked about; sex. Spinal injured people are always painted as losing the ability to have sex and this really hits home when you find yourself joining the SI gang. But the truth is far from the myth and it can actually open up a whole new world of sexual bliss.
I may be jumping ahead here. Let’s start with the facts. Not the facts that you are given by your surgical team at the beginning of your life with a spinal injury but the facts as seen by me, someone who has been living with an injury for over 35 years. Spinal injuries can impact on people in many different ways. I once met someone who had an injury at the exact same place on their spine as mine, yet they had full function and no sensation while I have little function and nearly full sensation. In layman’s speak, they could walk but were numb from the waist down while I couldn’t walk but have pretty much full sensation. Now this is a pretty extreme case of difference, but it indicates what I have found to be the truth around spinal injury, it’s not a cut and dry story. Just because two people have a T12 level break (spinal injury type speak here – each vertebrae in your spine has a level and number and within the spinal injured community these numbers are normally a conversation opener) doesn’t actually mean they share the same level of loss of function due to their injury, and this goes doubly when it comes to sexual function. Some people may have no change in the function of their sexual organs, some have partial loss of feeling or function and others have no feeling or function at all. When I woke after my spinal injury I worked fine, but when I was taken off steroids that were helping me heal quickly I found I lost everything. Then over a few months my feeling came back but I was left unable to gain erections or to ejaculate. This was very upsetting as a fifteen year old, but any loss of sexual function can damage your confidence whatever your age. Note, that’s another truth I have discovered as the years rolled on, that things change as the years progress.
However, a spinal injury can change how your body works, and if you do have issues around sexual function this impacts how you feel about yourself. No matter if you are a man or woman, straight or gay, when spinal injury impacts on the way your downstairs area works it is very easy to feel less. Less confident, less sexy and less sexual. Usually the advice is to get used to the way your body works and try to find solutions that allow you to give pleasure. For women you are told about methods to ensure lubrication and men now have several methods for achieving erections via medical intervention. These can be mechanical or they can be chemical, via injection of prescription drugs. There is of course Viagra, plus a system for introducing a drug via the urethra. All can give you back some level of function, but having tried them all I should point out that not all work, depending on how your spinal injury has effected your function and all are real passion killers. Nothing ruins the mood like injecting your penis, especially if, like me, you are in a relationship with someone who is needle phobic! These methods of regaining function in men can help with confidence but I have found that they reinforce that feeling of loss and otherness that comes with spinal injury. For both sexes it’s easy to continue to see sex as being what we were taught in school, reproductive sex. Not that reproduction is closed to anyone with a spinal injury. Most women can still have babies, with support, and for men there is new techniques for producing sperm no matter what level of function you have. It’s the same kind of method used for years in the breeding of live stock. It involves having an electrical stimulation probe put up your rectum and this causes you to ejaculate. Then you can use artificial insemination to finish the job. Or you could be like me and just view that part of your life as closed, maybe get a dog!
However sex is so much more than the method for making babies. It should be fun, exciting and a great way of bonding with a partner, whether they are the love of your life, your current squeeze or a one night stand. It’s this element of their sex life that many spinal injured people feel they have lost, especially early on when they are learning to live with their injury. Trust me, nothing could be further from the truth. If you are a man and have lost the ability to gain erections, but can still feel, with a little effort you will find that you can achieve multiple orgasms. It transpires that it is the erectile system that prevents men enjoying sex in the way women can, and once you experience this you tend to not miss a ‘hard-on’ in quite the same way. If you have lost sensation, there are now a growing group of therapists and disabled people, myself included, that are promoting various ways of turning the erogenous zones on the parts you can feel into orgasmic zones, which opens up a whole new world of sexuality. I don’t have enough room to fully explain my technique here (maybe in another article – hint hint please Editor?) but check online. There are many differing techniques so it might be worth trying a few to see which suits you. But trust me, it really is possible to orgasm even if you are paralysed from the neck down.
I haven’t mentioned things like incontinence but that doesn’t impact on your ability to have sex, just your confidence around your body and how others may consider you. My only advice here is the same I give to all disabled people. If someone isn’t into you because you are incontinent then they aren’t the right person for you. Look upon it as a filter to make sure you don’t waste time on the wrong one, while the right one walks on by. I also haven’t explored issues around position, but as this really is different for each person it’s another huge subject.
Sure sex after a spinal injury will be different than it was before, but with the right attitude, support and partner it can be better.
I know when I incurred my SI I thought my sex life was over, but I know that nothing could beat the sex I have now. A lot of that is due to my injury and how it made me re-examine what it means to have sex. Yes, that’s a big ask when you’ve just set out on a life with a spinal injury but believe me, things get sooo much better!
For more information on sex, relationships and having a family with a spinal injury contact the Spinal Injuries Association www.spinal.co.uk.
If you want to ask me a question directly contact me via Enhance The UK’s Love Lounge – enhancetheuk.org/enhance/mik-scarlet/