Love, Health And Wellness

How To Talk About Your Chronic Pain Or Disability Before Having Sex With Someone New

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How To Talk About Your Chronic Pain Or Disability Before Having Sex For The First Time With A New Partner

When you slip under the sheets to have sex for the first time with a new partner, it’s normal to have a thousand questions rush through your head. Questions about what they might like, what you like, and the inevitable intrusive thought about this week's grocery shop. 

Voicing these thoughts and communicating how your feeling is a key part of a healthy sexual experience. (Though, that grocery list doesn’t make for the most tantalising pillow talk: maybe keep that one to yourself.)

One conversation that is rarely planned-for, however, is the one where you reveal details of your chronic pain, illness, or disability to your partner. Dating is hard enough, now you have to think about how to tell a potential partner about your health?

You’ll probably wonder when the best time to have this discussion might be; do you broach it during foreplay? Before you reach the bedroom? Or maybe wait until they suggest a slightly over-zealous position and you have to explain that, unfortunately, your hips just don’t bend that way.

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I was diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis, specifically Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), at eighteen years old, and developed it when I was thirteen.

The National Ankylosing Spondylitis Society (NASS) states the typical symptoms of AS are; early morning stiffness and pain, chronic back pain, chronic fatigue. The organization also details that the condition can affect things like bone density, gastro health, and can cause pain in a wide range of joints. I’m very familiar with all these symptoms, and a common response people give when I divulge my diagnosis to anyone, regardless of context, is that I’m far too young to have such a disease.

It’s possible that I exude a “hips don’t lie” aura, or maybe — and this is more likely — the dating scene has not yet adjusted to the notion that young people can, and do, have arthritis.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people with Ankylosing Spondylitis develop in their teens or twenties. AS most commonly causes severe pain in your lower back and hips, as well as widespread stiffness and chronic fatigue.

Ankylosing Spondylitis is unreliable, which means I can switch between being a (somewhat) nimble, active date who is the perfect companion for an adventure, and the perfect candidate for someone who is really, really good at staying still and watching a significant amount of Netflix.

This occasionally means that, if I’m in a good period of health, my condition may not come into conversation, as I don’t present as significantly ill. If I am going through a more troublesome time with my pain, it may be one of the first things I feel as though I need to get out in the open.

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Sex with arthritis can be daunting. With an unreliable and unstable condition, there’s no telling how you’re going to fare from night-to-night.

Having a significant flare-up of your condition can mean sex is virtually impossible, yet if your condition is unpredictable and unstable, you can be raring to go just a few hours after a flare-up. Having to explain this, and all the other intricacies of arthritis, to a new partner is a less-than-calming experience — but it’s worth it.

As an outspoken, sex-positive, outgoing disabled person, I would love to say that I don’t find it difficult to talk about my arthritis in relation to dating or sex ... but that’s not the case. It can be tough, even for me.

Growing up in a world where you’re taught that disabled is equal to unattractive, undesirable, or burdensome leads to an internalized ableism that leads to many a hurdle in regards to loving yourself and ensuring self-confidence all around, and especially in your love life.

It’s understandable to not always feel sexy with a diagnosis of arthritis or any other chronic pain condition, as it is not befitting of what you’re taught to believe is sexy. With arthritis, or at least in my experience with arthritis, you’re stiff, you’re in pain, your mobility is infringed upon.

These are all things that you’re implicitly taught are unsexy.

In fact, everything we’re socialised into believing as stereotypically ‘sexy’ does not factor in any notion of disability.

Therefore, it is unsurprising to not feel as though you belong in the Playboy mansion with joints as stiff as a board. But contrary to the abundance of ableist messaging we’re subject to, sexy and disabled aren’t mutually exclusive traits. That, however, is sometimes a little hard to remember whilst trying to navigate through the world of dating with arthritis.

This is where, in this case, if you’re the person living with arthritis, the concept of self-love comes in. Not the pop-culture style of self-love which demands you allow face masks and RomComs to make a significant dent in your bank account in the name of an ego-boost — but tricky, perception-altering self-love that sets you on the road to accepting yourself as both arthritic and sexy: sexy with a walking stick, sexy with a limp, and sexy when bending in any way but to grab some painkillers is a no-go.

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If your partner has arthritis, it’s understandable if you don’t know all the facts, figures, and intricacies of what it means to live with arthritis: you don’t need to in order to be supportive. What you should do is be patient. Understand that all bodies are complicated and take a while to understand, and that is doubly true when being with someone with arthritis, or any disability.

There is an abundance of resources available that give details of the intricacies of sex and arthritis, from what positions are most advisable, to the medical impact of sex on arthritis.

However, the best way to support your partner with arthritis is to talk to them.

No leaflet, YouTube video, or blog post can tell you exactly how to support your partner's specific needs. Everyone’s experience of arthritis, and with any disability, is different. No two people will have the same comments to make about what it is like to date or to have sex with arthritis, even if it is the same type. So open communication is key.

Sexiness and arthritis have been regarded as mutually exclusive for a long time. This is partly because arthritis is typically associated with the elderly. But that's just factually incorrect.

It’s also due to the fact that many chronic health conditions, many disabilities, are regarded as numerous things — sexy typically not being one of them. Even for us, as those living with disabilities.

Loving your arthritic body (or your partner's arthritic body) into a state where sex is comfortable, fun, and supportive, can be done.

But it starts with mixing up a cocktail of open communication, respect, and the rejection of ableist views that see arthritic and sexy as antithetical.

Not just for us, but for the people who desire us.

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Bethany Dawson is a freelance journalist focusing on feminism, disability rights, and British politics. She’s currently working for a bachelor's degree in Politics and Sociology and navigating the complexities of Westminster. Follow her on Twitter @bethanymrd for more, and check out BVisible for her work on invisible illnesses.