Breaking taboos: Sex for the disabled

CHINA - Song Yuhong was born with spina bifida, a congenital condition that left her in a wheelchair. But that has not stopped the 41-year-old from realizing her dream of becoming a mother.

"The most frequent question I'm asked is, How can you still have sex and have babies if you are paralysed?" said Song, who has two girls, aged 3 and 1.

"There's still so little understanding. Yes, of course we can. We need it, just as you do!"

Song, who lives in Hebei province's Shijiazhuang, is far from a typical case, however.

According to Xie Yan, a disabled people's rights campaigner, sex for the disabled has long been a taboo subject in China.

He estimated that more than 50 per cent of disabled people do not have any regular sex life.

"Many of them feel unattractive, less worthy of sexual partners," said Xie, who is founder and CEO of One Plus One Beijing Disabled Persons' Cultural Development Center. "They feel they can't live up to the idealized image and expectations society has set."

A 2012 national census by the China Disabled Persons' Federation found that the marriage rate for disabled people was 63.9 per cent, compared with 83.1 per cent for the population as a whole.

"What's worse," Xie said, "is that they are deprived completely of sex education, leaving them vulnerable to sexual abuse."

To shed light on the topic, Xie's NGO and Handicap International will give 10 disabled people an opportunity to recount their sexual experiences on Thursday. They will share a Beijing stage in front of an audience of about 200 people.

"Sex education has always been lacking in China, not to mention for the disabled," said sexual health expert Fang Gang at Beijing Forestry University. "Most people think that the disabled don't have the need or ability, so why bother educating them about sex."

Fang Yuxiang (no relation) has a 36-year-old daughter who is mentally challenged. He said she has shown strong affection for a man with cerebral palsy whom she met at a Beijing rehabilitation centre.

"She likes him so much. She asked if she could kiss his hand but was rejected and got very frustrated," he said. "She has no idea about her body, so she can't help displaying her sexual impulses."

He said his daughter has never received sex education. "I don't know how to teach her. I don't think she can understand."

A male patient at the rehab centre sometimes masturbates in public and grabs at women, Fang Yuxiang said.

"Usually the social workers yell at him, or even beat him," he said. "Worse, people think he is a pervert and curse him. No one thinks of teaching him."

Sexual health expert Fang Gang said mentally disabled people are capable of participating in sexual relationships despite many factors - a reduced ability to make proper sexual decisions, for example, and the need for safe sex.

"The right approach is to help them distinguish between public and private behaviour, instead of stopping such behaviour and shaming them," he said, adding that with good education and counseling they can benefit from affection and intimacy.

Cai Cong, 26, has been blind since birth and attended a special-education school in Changchun to study massage.

He said he had talked with friends about sex, but it was considered "dirty talk". He said that some had never even heard of condoms.

For a long time Cai and his friends listened to a sensual radio programme, which the government later cancelled, saying it was pornographic.


Adults with mental disabilities are rarely educated on how to protect themselves and are extremely vulnerable to sexual or physical abuse, said Li Lan, a programme officer in Nanjing with Marie Stropes, a sexual health NGO based in Britain.

According to media reports, in 2005 an orphanage in Jiangsu province performed hysterectomies on two mentally ill teenage girls because the owner thought it would be too much trouble to care for them when they started menstruating.

"People with speech or sight problems easily fall victim, too, because abusers are confident their targets can't describe or recognise them," Li said.

Sun He with Handicap International said the biggest problem facing NGOs that want to solve the problem is a lack of professionals who understand the nature of disability and sexuality.

"Not enough attention has been given to this field," she said. The lack of research adds an obstacle to the organisation's plans for next year to provide sex education to disabled people.

"Deep down, the problem is not simply that the disabled are not having sex," said Lyu Fei, CEO of the Able Development Institute, a Beijing NGO. "It's that they are still excluded from mainstream society, not only in employment and education but also in terms of sex life," she said.

"Not one of those issues can be addressed individually."