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How This 'Bedroom Tax' Affects the Sex Lives of People With Disabilities

Recently government guidance in England banned close contact indoors between two or more people from different households, due to coronavirus (restriction adjusted 13 June 2020).  Some interesting headlines followed, along the lines of “British Bonking Ban” and “U.K. Sex Ban.” The general population were outraged at this interference in their private sexual lives, and didn’t like being told “no” regarding this pleasurable adult activity.

It got me thinking about how different life can be if you have a long-term health condition or disability, particularly with regard to sex. At SWAD, we’ve experienced the limitations placed on intimate relationships by narrow thinking on the part of health professionals; some of it from personal experience, and some of it from other disabled people’s experiences. It is a “tax” on sex and intimacy that is virtually invisible until you are in a situation where you have to pay it.

As one example, Mike who is one of our Directors, as a primary carer, spent several years left with two feet of mattress to sleep on in bed. Why? Mike and his partner Joanne* at the time, who was a full-time wheelchair user, had a king-size bed. The Occupational Therapy (OT) team, supplied a pressure-relieving air mattress for Joanne. This was a three-foot wide single mattress designed for hospital beds, and was placed on top of the existing mattress. It meant there was a five-inch high barrier between them, which made even cuddling in bed difficult. The air mattress couldn’t take the weight of two people, so sex on it was out of the question, but no consideration was given to this by any of the health professionals.

Mike spoke about the situation with his GP, who did give some practical suggestions such as different positions in different locations. However, Joanne needed to use a hoist for transferring so this wasn’t an option, as the only hoist in the home ran between the bed and the bathroom. Also, there was a pre-teen in the house, so the bedroom was the only private space. Mike was left with the feeling that his and Joanne’s wish to have an intimate life together fit squarely in the box of “sex is an optional extra – you should be grateful to have any help at all with a disability, sex isn’t essential.”

We are aware of other disabled people having to fight for a joint accessible bed, and they had spent 40 years together! Each individual had health needs, but only one of them required a profiling bed. Each individual had their own social worker/OT, with a small budget available to resolve the situation. For a long time, the couple were refused the option of combining their budgets into a joint budget, which would have allowed them to resolve their situation and still be able to even hold hands, never mind cuddle or have sex. Thankfully, common sense prevailed, and eventually, a combined budget was allowed.

So, if you’re able-bodied and feeling a bit hacked off at the limitations coronavirus guidelines are putting on your sex life, take a moment to count your blessings. If you are disabled, take a deep breath and ask for the equipment and resources you need — please don’t be embarrassed to ask any of your health professionals for assistance. If you are a healthcare professional, you may feel the standard “have you got any questions” may cover the topic of sex and intimacy; and that the person in front of you “knows they can ask you anything.” Please don’t assume this. Perhaps it would be better to say “You are welcome to ask me any questions. This could be about equipment, procedure, or even about resources relating to sex and the intimate side of life and relationships… I may not know the answer right now, but I am happy to find out the answer and get back to you.” If these conversations don’t happen, nothing will change.

*Joanne is not her real name

Getty image by Lordn.