Let’s talk about sex and intimacy in healthcare
Written by Chloe Bryant
Illustration by Maartje Aletta Reggin
Getting undressed, showering, using the bathroom — we’re raised to think of these as private tasks. Often, we do them alone, or only with those most intimate to us.
But if you’re a person with a disability, or if you’ve ever been injured or sick to the point where you need help with these day-to-day aspects of living, then you’ll know it’s completely necessary and accepted that healthcare workers become involved.
Practicality demands that healthcare workers overcome any engrained societal awkwardness around these tasks. As someone who works in a hospital, I can honestly say that helping a person I’ve just met take a shower is as normal and expected in my job as it is for hairdresser to cut someone’s hair or a nurse to take someone’s blood pressure.
In providing total care for a patient, the goal is not only to help them complete these personal activities, but to also address any concerns and talk through how they manage this area of their life going forward.
But there’s another aspect of individual care that unfortunately gets neglected in most healthcare settings — that is, the subject of sex.
Research shows that health professionals should routinely ask people if they have any sexuality or intimacy concerns [1,2]. In reality, it’s rarely addressed and this is to the detriment of a patient or client’s quality of life [3,4].
According to the World Health Organisation, sexuality is a “central aspect of being human,” and encompasses many areas including sex, intimacy, fantasies, sexual orientation, and gender identity . If a person’s health limits or prevents them from engaging with these areas, key aspects of them as a person are affected.
Health professionals have a duty of care to provide support for our patients, so we must consider all the things that are important to the person, including their sexuality.
If we can work with patients to help them address other personal activities, or even discuss difficult topics related to mental health, then there’s no reason that sexuality and intimacy can’t also be included as part of our care services.
So, what can we do to change this?
The first step is to start talking about sexuality and intimacy in healthcare settings.
If you have an illness or disability and have questions regarding sex and intimacy, it’s ok to ask for advice and support.
Likewise, if you’re a health professional and someone asks you a question about their sexuality, it’s ok to listen to their concerns, support them with what information and knowledge you do have, then refer them on to someone else if you don’t have all the answers.
Below is a brief list of some freely available online resources that discuss how sexuality and intimacy can be addressed. Companies like www.xesproducts.com.au are also great as the people behind the scenes understand how different products might work best for each individual and are full of terrific advice.
Links to freely available resources and further information:
- Family Planning Victoria – link to resources and fact sheets for people with a disability.
- SECCA – Sexuality, relationships, and your rights (link to free book).
- World Health Organisation – Framework for providing sexual health programs.
- World Health Organisation – Defining sexual health.
- The Open University - Guidance and standards on working with young people with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions.
- Sathyanarayana Rao, TS. et al. Clinical practice guidelines for management of sexual disorders in elderly. Indian J of Psychiatry. 2018;60(Suppl 3):S397-S409.
- To find a health professional in Australia practicing in sexuality/sexual health go to https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/australian-health-services or https://societyaustraliansexologists.org.au/.
If you would like to discuss this article with me or to learn more about my ongoing work on supporting sexuality and intimacy, please feel free to get in touch.
The University of Queensland
- Pascual A, Wighman A, Littooij EC, et al. Sexuality as part of rehabilitation? A qualitative study on the perceptions of rehabilitation nurses on discussing patient sexuality during clinical rehabilitation. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2019:1-8.
- Kathnelson JD, Kurtz Landy CM, Tamim H, et al. Utilizing the delphi method to assess issues of sexuality for men living with spinal cord injury. Sexuality and disability. 2021;39(1):33-54.
- McCabe MP, Cummins RA, Deeks AA. Sexuality and quality of life among people with physical disability. Sex and Dis. 2000;18(2):115-123.
- Moin V, Duvdevany I, Mazor D. Sexual identity, body image and life satisfaction among women with and without physical disability. Sexuality and Disability. 2009;27(2):83-95.
- World Health Organization. Sexual health [Internet]. WHO; 2021. Available from: https://www.who.int/health-topics/sexual-health
Products recommended from this blog: