More people living with chronic pain, illness, and disabilities are getting into kink and BDSM. There are so many reasons, ranging from relieving pain to owning our bodies to fun. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that half of all adult Americans have one or more chronic illnesses which could be disabling.
With so many people using kink with health issues, it’s important to be aware of the best practices for playing with people like me.
Please note: throughout this article, I use identity-first language (e.g., disabled people). It is preferred by most disabled people over person-first language (e.g., person with a disability). Make sure you check with people you’re playing with on language they prefer to be identified by.
Don’t treat us like Inspiration Porn
“Wait,” you might be saying, “I like porn!” Inspiration porn is a little different, and definitely not as fun.
Coined by the late Stella Young in 2012, it describes the idea that disabled people are here to inspire you – to tell you your life isn’t that bad because you can still do XYZ. It looks like that picture of two amputees running in prosthetics, one young and one older, with the tagline saying something about the only disability in life is a bad attitude. You’re supposed to feel better about engaging with these kinds of post because, however bad your day was, at least you’re not ‘them.’ You’re made to feel you can deal with problems you’re facing because it could always be worse.
As Stella Young said in her Ted talk, “I am not here to inspire you. I’m not here to be your one disabled friend.”
If we run into each other in a play space, I’m there for one reason – to get my ass beat, not to inspire you to walk more.
Drop your ableism at the door
Diving into Twenty Questions about disability right when you meet someone is not okay. We deal with that all the time. It’s an exhausting feat of emotional labor that we don’t often consent to doing for others – especially if we don’t know you well (or at all).
Ableism is discrimination against disabled or chronically ill people. Some people use disableism as well. In either case, the assumption is that being able-bodied and able-minded is the norm. Anything outside of that isn’t ‘okay’ or may need to be fixed. A lot of ableism exists in the assumptions about how disabled people live our lives. Comments from people in passing like “Oh, bless your heart – I’m glad you’re getting out of the house. If I were stuck in a wheelchair, I’d probably kill myself!” happen all the time. Sadly, this is a comment a friend received from a stranger at the zoo as I write this.
The idea that people are ‘stuck’ in wheelchairs is already a problem. Wheelchairs and other assistive devices like canes, walkers, and rollators give us more ability to be independent. The only time they become a burden is when an abled person decides they are.
In a kink setting, humiliation might be consensual and fun. Someone dropping an ableist slur during snuggle time and after care isn’t (unless otherwise consented to). I definitely suggest updating terms that you use and switching out ableist words and phrases for better ones.
That includes updating your kink terms, too. An old tenet of kink is that it must be SSC – Safe, Sane, and Consensual. Unfortunately, that leaves out many of us who have mental health issues or for whom kink can never be safe. RACK – Risk-Aware Consensual Kink – is a better term, especially because it doesn’t have those same ableist tones as SSC.
Note: This does not mean you should correct a disabled person on words we use to identify ourselves. Many of us are working to reclaim slurs that were once used against us. I’ll proudly call myself a cripple or other disability slurs. That doesn’t automatically mean I would be down with you using that language towards me. When in doubt, check-in with us.
Don’t use kid gloves, either
Often, when people think of disabled peeps, they consider us children. We’re not seen as being sexual and sure as hell not seen as kinky. I have to tell y’all, though: I have sex. I love sex. I love impact play. These are things that are as much a part of my identity as being disabled or queer or genderfluid are.
If we’re playing and you’re supposed to flog me, flog me the same way you’d flog an abled person. Don’t treat me as anything less than the grown sexy adult I am. Don’t be afraid you’re going to hurt me – we’ve already talked during the negotiation process about how I’ll stop the scene.
To be honest, many chronic pain patients like me wind up having a top tap out or suggest to end play before we do. We might just be the best bottoms… which is totally not biased at all (kind of joking here..maybe).
Be mindful of accessibility needs
Many kink play spaces are not accessible.
Accessibility is different for each person. What I need isn’t what another person needs. Hell, what I need one day isn’t what I need the next day. People’s needs can range from needing a ramp and elevator to avoiding florescent lighting to needing a fragrance-free space and more.
If you’re inviting someone to a space to play, ask them what their accessibility needs are and see if the place you want to go matches up.
Take advantage of the negotiation process
Negotiating a play scene is one of my favorite things to do. It is automatically set up for us to talk about any extra needs or concerns I may have going into a scene. I can share my filled out yes/no/maybe list. Then, I can tell people what words I don’t want used, what it looks like when my PTSD is triggered, and what parts of my body are no-go zones that day.
I can also talk about what to do in case there’s an emergency with my health during play and even guide my play partner(s) through that process. Emergency meds are always nearby, just in case, along with a card that shares medical information.
Use multiple safe words for different things
Safe words are one of the things that the kink world is known for. Most people can name the street light version where red is stop, yellow is slow down, etc. A good chunk of people even know that safe words can be other random words like pineapple or dinosaur.
What many people don’t know is that we can layer these safe words or even use them in everyday conversation.
My husband and I have had to work around difficulties I have communicating about pain, fatigue, mental health, and more. Some of our words are easily identified, like ‘bummed’ or ‘bummy day’ for having an uptick in our depression symptoms. Others are things that usually take a while to explain.
For energy, the idea of spoons or spell slots can be helpful. Gamers might recognize spell slots from video games or Dungeons & Dragons. The idea behind either of these terms is that everyone can only do so much before they have to rest. The problem is that many disabled people don’t get the same number of energy units that others get throughout the day. It’s incredibly nice to have a term we can use that allows us to quantify how completely and utterly exhausted we are. For pain, I always use the comparative pain scale. I find it much more descriptive than the ones we may see in an exam room. For PTSD, I’ll usually just say I’m having a PTSD moment or that I’m triggered.
Consider having codes for these things. Codes for bathroom breaks are a great idea, too.
It’s also important to consider a code move/action in case your partner goes non-verbal or your play removes the ability to speak. At my dentist – yes, my actual dentist – our code move is for me to lift my left hand. It gives me the ability to fidget with my right hand as much as I need to.
You may need to alter things you’d normally do to make them more accessible to your play partner.
If your partner can’t stand long, using a St. Andrew’s Cross while you flog them for an hour isn’t going to work well. Instead, set up pillows on a flat space like a bed for them to lay on their stomach on. That way, you can still access their back while they’re in a comfortable space.
If you have sex furniture from companies like Liberator or Intimate Rider, they can definitely help with positioning. Toys used may need some adaptations or changes, too. Playing with electricity, for example, is a bad idea for people with cardiac or gastric pacemakers.
Talk with your partner about what might work best for them. Personally, I’d probably be happy to stand against a cross for an hour… but I’d also heavily pay for it. Sometimes, that’s both fun and fine. If I have to do anything the next day, though, it can become a problem. I highly recommend not only considering your current health and mental issues, but also your schedule for the days that follow.
Problem solving these issues together can help you and your play partner become closer. It will also help them trust you more, and we all know trust is incredibly important in kink relationships. Honestly, supportive problem solving around my health issues is something that would turn me on.
Honestly, you should know this is important already. It’s vital in every situation to keep things consensual and as safe as possible. Again, it’s imperative to use those safe words and movements you set up ahead of time. I recommend setting up breaks during play for bathroom visits, taking necessary, prescribed medications, to hydrate, and to check-in.
I’m going to be honest – aftercare may look a lot different than normal.
You may need to help us get dressed or back into a wheelchair. You might need to get us secured into leg braces. You might have to help with bathroom stuff. We may need some care in the next few days that isn’t just a text or call.
Aftercare is going to look different depending on what your play partner’s needs are. Make sure that you cover potential aftercare ideas during the negotiation process.
Create a feedback loop
If you’ve played with someone, part of aftercare should be giving feedback. While most people think about this purely in regards to sex, it can be integral to play pals, too. Set up a time a few days after play to talk about your session. Ideally, this would be in-person and in a relatively sober, non-play space. Use non-violent communication techniques such as using ‘I’ statements. Furthermore, honest communication and receiving and giving feedback is essential for all players, not just for those that who identify as disabled.
Playing with someone with a disability or chronic illness might not be the same as playing with an abled person. As always, it’s important to communicate clearly and be aware of risks. You may just find the perfect person to play with in ways you never imagined.
CSPH Resources on Sex & Disability
The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain, and Illness
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