Embodying limb absence in the negotiation of sexual intimacy

Batty, Richard; Mcgrath, Laura and Reavey, Paula (2014). Embodying limb absence in the negotiation of sexual intimacy. Sexualities, 17(5-6) pp. 686–706.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460714532935


Some people with physical disabilities experience difficulties in forming and maintaining intimate and sexual relationships (Taleporos and McCabe, 2001). Individuals with physical impairments may variously be seen as inferior, ‘not up to scratch’ and can be less valued than those thought to embody the cultural ideal of ‘normality’ (Edwards and Imrie, 2003). The loss of an anatomical part such as an arm or a leg can therefore set up a complex series of perceptual, emotional and psychological responses that can limit or prevent individuals from fully experiencing the kinds of intimate relationships that many of their ‘non-disabled’ counterparts can more freely enjoy (Oliver, 1990). Drawing on a series of semi-structured interviews and a group visual workshop with five men and two women with varying acquired and congenital limb absences, this study explores the variety of ways in which sexual relationships and intimacies are negotiated and managed. Certain participants reported a great deal of anxiety regarding their perceptions of sexual attractiveness, and experienced feelings of loss of desirability as a sexual partner. Others reported engaging in an ‘active management of visual information’ about the body, through methods of concealment and exposure. Compensatory strategies were also reported as a way to effectively maintain existing intimate relationships. Finally, hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine enactments of sexuality were described within a range of social and intimate contexts as a means to ‘normalise’ the disabled body. The findings of this study provide a richer and more contextualised understanding of the highly complex adjustment process faced by individuals with limb absence, who actively engage in sexual and intimate relationships.

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