religion / spinal-cord injury / Uncategorized

Thinking about sex?

Shane and Rachel (Elly) Clifton's wedding, 9 December 1989

In the next couple of weeks I will be teaching on the topic of sexual ethics. I am sure that sex is on the mind of many of you. In fact, I can say with confidence that it is likely to be on the mind of at least half of my male readers. There is an urban myth doing the rounds that men think about sex every seven seconds – a stupid myth really, especially if we take as a given another myth, that men are incapable of doing or thinking two things at once. Research does suggest, however, that “54% of men think about sex every day or several times a day,” women less frequently (see here). This variation is presumably a result of the difference between testosterone and oestrogen. Whatever the statistics, we think about sex a lot. No surprise, really, in a sexually saturated society such as ours.

Sex is certainly on my mind, and has been for some time. A few months into my hospital rehab my doctor ordered that I have a cat scan. He was worried that I had brain damage because the medical staff noticed a change in my behaviour and mood (for obvious reasons, broken necks and brain damage often go together). I was, ordinarily, an easy-going patient. While many people treat nurses like slaves, with demanding and aggressive attitudes, I think I can say (without being boastful) that I got on well with all the staff. Except, apparently, when the cat scan was ordered. I had shocked some of the doctors and the nursing unit manager with my seemingly out of character demands for a private room; insistent, aggressive, even angry (my apologies to those who bore the brunt of my attack). My family, and those staff who knew me better (Louise, Ally, Keira) understood that the issue was not brain damage. I can and do lose my cool. And after months without any sexual contact, I was longing for the opportunity to close a door and ravage my wife.

Well, it turned out that my brain was fine (or at least unchanged by my accident; whatever is wrong in my head it has always been that way!). I also was given a private room. Ravaging my wife proved more complex. Apart from the fact that so-called private rooms in hospital are not at all private, with nurses and doctors coming in and out almost constantly, spinal-cord injury and sex are not good ‘bedfellows’. This is not only because certain parts of the anatomy don’t work too well. Equally problematic is the blobby body. It’s hard to express passion when lying on a bed unable to move or when stuck in a clunky electric chair.

You would not be surprised to hear that the impact of spinal-cord injury upon sexual function is one of the most difficult things to try to come to terms with. On New Year’s Eve one of the younger men in hospital came to my room and broke down. A fit, strong and determined paraplegic, there was no doubt that he would succeed in life despite his injury. But he simply did not know how to face life without sex and orgasm. To be honest, I had no idea how to comfort him. So we shared a Scotch and then went and watched the fireworks. A depressing end to the year, but at least we could be depressed together.

Now, I have no idea why I’m telling you all this (am I mad exhibitionist?). I am sure you don’t need any more details. I’m also told the story is not all negative. Sex is not just penetrative intercourse (and even this is not impossible for many with spinal injuries), and intimacy and touch depend more upon love and commitment than upon simple bodily function. But I am motivated to encourage you to make the most of your opportunities and enjoy the wonders of the human body. As a Christian I am part of a tradition that has too often had horribly negative attitudes towards sexual pleasure. Indeed, the history of the church’s perception on these issues makes for depressing reading:

  • Origen (c.185 – c.254) castrated himself.
  • St Augustine thought that “nothing so casts down the manly mind from its height as the fondling of a woman.’ (See Thomas Aquinas’s citation and his own depressing attitude here).
  • Following Augustine, celibacy became the norm for priests – the sacred and the “venereal” kept well apart
  • the penitentials of the Middle Ages (rules for penance) had long lists of penalties for sexual sin, requiring fasting for nocturnal emissions, masturbation and many other things – see here

All very sad when you think about it. It also makes no sense when you consider the long Christian tradition of asserting that faith and happiness go hand in hand (see my earlier posts on the connection between virtue and happiness). It is beyond my capacity here to provide a theological defence of the joy of sex. But I can provide a personal one, since my injury and my loss gives me a unique perspective. Sex is one of the great pleasures of life, especially when connected to a committed relationship, since intimacy and love make for truly satisfying loving. There is also joy in the simple (and natural) experience of orgasm. This is something we shouldn’t be embarrassed about, although I suspect St Augustine still influences our culture (mostly for better but sometimes for worse). But I say, make the most of your time – wring all you can out of life. Enjoy yourself. Don’t take your sexual capacity lightly. This means you shouldn’t throw it around willy-nilly. The forgotten virtue of restraint is the enemy of true sexual pleasure. But it also means you should make the most of the opportunities life gives you. Celebrate life and love. Enjoy your bodies. You may not have them for as long as you think.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • Dave
    October 20, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Shane, gutsy article! Now that I am post 50 & suffering from a frozen shoulder (which is painful but nothing really) I reflect on not being able to do many things that I used to take for granted. For example, if I lost my office job I can no longer drive trucks or operate heavy machinery.

    In one sense, nothing. Yet, in another sense it removes choices and reduces options! So, I get your drift and can echo your call for us to enjoy what we have while we have it.

    Cheers, Dave M

  • jenniferharding
    October 20, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing so openly Shano, I love how you talk about real life in such a freeing way, when far too many are scared/embarrased/unsure to talk about what they consider taboo issues. There can often be so much shame surrounding issues of sexuality, which then causes people to be isolated when thinking through or needing help in this area. Love that you open the conversation!

  • Sandra Godde
    October 21, 2011 at 12:59 am

    This post was quite hilarious in some ways Shane. Didn’t you mean “ravish your wife” not “ravage”?
    Oh, for more theological reflections on the beauty and purity of sex, as God intended it, as the ultimate expression of love and intimacy and ecstacy. Christianity is an embodied faith so no surprises here that sex was meant to be a wonderful and fulfilling human experience. The only trouble is of course, as with most gifts, it is a double-edged thing – we can’t deny that the abuse &/or the misuse of sex has caused untold misery, pain and grief to many as well. But the misuse of a gift is no reason for the non-use of it, but rather should motivate us to seek it’s proper use ….and joy … and ecstacy.

  • Elly Clifton
    October 21, 2011 at 8:36 am

    That’s my favourite wedding pic! So young and innocent. We really have no idea of the extent of the vows we make on our wedding day – good thing too! Love ya, dear.

  • Shane Clifton
    October 21, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Oops Sandra. You are correct, but perhaps ravage works in it’s own way.

    • Sandra Godde
      October 21, 2011 at 9:46 am

      Perhaps it was a freudian slip then?
      In which case, i’ll pray for Elly πŸ˜‰

  • Rowena Reynolds
    October 21, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Following instructions : going to ravage my husband!

  • Sandra Godde
    October 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    so we have the blind leading the blind huh? – joke!

    But, just FYI, “ravage” means – to work havoc upon, do ruinous damage, damage or mar, devastating or destructive action. Antonyms are: build, repair, create – interesting don’t you think?

    “ravish” means – to fill with strong emotion, especially joy, to seize and carry off by force.

    which one would you prefer to have done to you ? πŸ™‚

  • Diane Pearce
    October 22, 2011 at 2:27 am

    I remember well the day of your wedding it was the most beautiful one I had been to you were both so young and so in love, and reading about what happened to you and your ability to write in such an amazing manner really touched me, having struggled with 4 ruptured discs and surgery and only morphine controlled pain over the last 4 years you have inspired me, many blessings and love Diane Pearce (Alison’s mum)

    • Shane Clifton
      October 24, 2011 at 6:11 pm

      dear Dianne, I certainly remember you well and fondly, indeed how could we forget your daughters participation.I am so sorry to hear about your ongoing pain. Living with pain is a horrible thing. I experience constant nerve pain and other matters, but nothing at the level of ongoing morphine. My experience of morphine in hospital was not a pleasurable one, so I certainly pray that you find a way through this horrible time. Sincerely, Shane

  • Shaun Mowrey
    October 25, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    This is an incredibly honest post Shane. I appreciate your openness and hope it begins to spread– the church and the world at large need it.

    I hope you are able in the coming weeks to discuss what needs to be discussed in our lectures. I, for one, though I know there are others, would appreciate it.


  • Penny Davis
    October 30, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    Thanks so much for posting this Shane, very important stuff to talk about πŸ™‚

  • lifeandothermisadventures
    November 30, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I’m dating someone who is paraplegic. I will say: he still knows how to please me! But of course it is sad for both of us that I can’t return the favor. I appreciate your insight about this.


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