anonymous on September 12, 2011

My partner’s spinal chord injury makes me feel self-conscious...what are some ways we can bring equal pleasure into the bedroom?

I'm very attracted to a man with a spinal cord injury, but when we've tried to be intimate, I find that I'm very self-conscious because the focus is more on my pleasure than his. I'm used to there being an obvious sign of a man's arousal (erection) and I feel awkward being the only one who appears to be aroused.

answered by Mitchell Tepper, PhD, MPH on September 12, 2011

Thanks for your insightful question, and for your courage to share what feels different about being intimate with someone who has a spinal cord injury (SCI).

First, talk with your partner. Just like any relationship, when a person with a disability and a person who is able-bodied come together, communication is key. It’s impossible to know what works for a new partner without discussion and experimentation…so, if you haven’t already, I encourage you both to speak about what turns each other on, and about each of your sexual needs and expectations.  

It may also be helpful to view this sexual relationship with fresh eyes. It sounds like you may be perceiving your current relationship and sexual activity from the context of previous relationships with able-bodied partners. While that’s perfectly normal, it may be beneficial to you and your new partner to work toward creating a “new normal” when it comes to sharing sexual intimacy, excitement and pleasure.

For example, instead of expecting an erection when your partner is aroused, pay attention to his breathing, sounds he's making, and any increase in color on his face and neck. Or, better yet for some people, ask him to tell you what he's feeling along the way. Sexual talk can be a powerful turn on for both parties.

Find new ways to bring him pleasure. Remember that SCIs often leave people with new (and sometimes surprising) erogenous zones that can offer intense pleasure. It’s possible that touching your partner near his genitals doesn’t bring him sexual excitement, but touching him somewhere else will.

If he isn’t yet aware what’s pleasurable to him, perhaps you can help him discover potential new erogenous zones through sensual massage. For example, while he’s in a comfortable position, touch him on different locations on his body as he describes to you the level of pleasure each spot gives him. After you’ve both determined his hot spots, you can stimulate those areas and, hopefully, bring more balance to your sexual activity.

Your partner may also wish to consider talking to his doctor about medical help for erections or orgasms. For example, erectile medications (like the most well-known brand, Viagra) can sometimes help men with SCIs get erections. There are also other medical options – including shots, suppositories, vacuum pumps or even penis prosthesis – that help with erectile dysfunction.

One more thing to keep in mind…

Depending on the severity of his SCI, your partner may still be able to orgasm…even without an erection.In addition to manual stimulation, many men with SCI report pleasurable feelings and potential orgasm by vibrator stimulation.

Bottom line? Communicate and experiment, and don’t assume that your partner’s lack of erection means that he’s not experiencing excitement or pleasure.

I wish you both good luck and mutual sexual fulfillment.

Related info:

Mitchell Tepper, PhD, MPH

Dr. Tepper directs sexual health education at An AASECT-certified sexuality educator and counselor, his areas of expertise include sexual dysfunctions, sexuality following disability or illness, pleasure and orgasm, relationships, and military and veteran couples' counseling. Dr. Tepper was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University.

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