Sex can be challenging when you’re disabled, especially when your body has changed beyond your control.
When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2013, I developed severe numbness from the waist down and was concerned that my sensation was permanently damaged. An MS relapse had happened, meaning that a lesion had formed on my spinal cord as my body attacked itself. According to the MS Society, “This is because, if the damage to myelin is severe, then some symptoms remain, though they may still improve over the following months.” While my sensation improved over the next few months, it didn’t heal completely. As a result, I experience regular flare-ups associated with that relapse, which affect my sex life.
Sometimes penetration doesn’t work for me. Like, at all. While I always needed clitoral stimulation alongside penetration in order to orgasm, sometimes I can’t feel that the same way anymore. As MS is unpredictable, like many chronic illnesses, my symptoms vary day to day, and that includes the degree to which my body’s damage acts up. The numbness that led to my diagnosis can flare up, and it becomes much more difficult to feel what’s happening to my body. Penetration stops having an effect, and although it doesn’t hurt, it’s jarring when your body doesn’t respond in the way you want it to.
That’s why sensual touch is an important part of my sex life. The nerve damage I experienced doesn’t zap my sensation altogether. Instead, it sends mixed messages, confusing my body and misdirecting sensation. For instance, sometimes when I can no longer feel enough vaginally during sex, my thighs and butt can suddenly become über-sensitive instead. It’s almost as if the pleasure sensors that would usually be going wild during penetrative sex have been sent to the wrong places.
When this happens, I direct my partner to touch the parts of my body that are unexpectedly stimulated. And when my partner touches or rubs these areas, it can feel as erotic as penetration or masturbation.
For me, instead of focusing on having an orgasm, sex is about connection. Sure, orgasms are awesome, but being turned on, especially when my body is tingling or numb, is pleasure I wouldn’t expect to have when feeling ill. As Cory Silverberg at Live About writes, “It’s called sensual (as opposed to sexual) in part because it doesn’t have to be about a goal, it can just be about exploring.”
Sensual touch isn’t just important for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Redbook details 33 places to incorporate sensual touching with your partner purely because it feels good. All too often, sex can become about the endgame, and we forget to appreciate everything our partner has to offer.
When you take having an orgasm out of the equation, it frees you up to enjoy your body and someone else’s. Plus, it allows you to live in the moment for longer with no sense of rush to finish or come or achieve a finite goal. While nerve damage is the reason I have varying sensitivity during sex, a lot of women require clitoral stimulation alongside penetration in order to achieve orgasm, which is why exploring sensual touch can be life-changing. Sex suddenly becomes about so much more than penetration, and that’s incredibly freeing.