Southern Africa Federation of the Disabled (SAFOD)

The myth of asexuality? Disability stigma as a barrier to sexual relationships

The myth of asexuality? Disability stigma as a barrier to sexual relationships in South Africa

Project duration (total months):

12 Months (1 Years)


Southern Africa


International Foundation of Applied Disability Research (FIRAH).


  1. Southern Africa Federation of the Disabled (SAFOD)
  2. University of East London (UEL)
  3. Stellenbosch University
  4. Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research (SINTEF).


SAFOD and the University of East London (UEL) of Docklands Campus in the UK, signed a Sub-Contract to jointly conduct a research in South Africa entitled "The myth of asexuality? Disability stigma as a barrier to sexual relationships in South Africa." with financial support from the the France-based International Foundation of Applied Disability Research (FIRAH).

The project is investigating the prevailing myths and attitudes towards the sexuality of Persons with physical Disabilities.

This is collaborative research project which also involves two other key partners, namely the South Africa-basedStellenbosch University and the Norway-based Stiftelsen for industriellogtekniskforskning(SITEF) - or in English, the Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research (SINTEF).

The project is premised on an increased recognition that sexual health is a human right, yet, research evidence suggests that people with disabilities may be generally excluded from living fully sexual and sexually healthy lives.One social barrier previously identified is the myth of asexuality; that is that persons with disabilities (such as physical disabilities) are assumed to be asexual, and thus not perceived as sexual persons.

The project is using mixed methods for research, including an online survey questionnaire, and participatory qualitative methods with Persons with Disabilities. It is researching a topic for which there is a paucity of research, and which is of immediate relevance to broader health concerns, particularly HIV. Situated as it is in South Africa, the country with the largest HIV epidemic in the world, the project will produce much-needed knowledge. More importantly, the project is involving innovative participatory methods for generating data. People with disabilities have been actively involved as co-researchers, having direct input on the design of instruments used for collecting survey data, as well as the actual collection of the data itself.

A participatory research technique, Photovoice, has been used whereby participants with disabilities have an active input on setting the topic agenda for research interviews. A component of the results and resources produced from this project will be used to raise public awareness of disability rights issues in relation to sexuality and sexual health, through the production of a freely available electronic book, written for a public audience.


  1. Publication of a book which will actively involve participants throughout the production of the book’s contents. The book will be available as a free download, making it more accessible to a wide audience.
  2. Publication of at least 2 articles in academic journals, such as Sexuality & Culture, Sexuality and Disability and Culture, Health and Sexuality.
  3. At least 1 conference presentation.
  4. A report of research findings will be made available to SAFOD, Disabled People’s South Africa (DPSA), and other interested disability organizations in the region.

Summary Description

Strategic Goal:

To investigate the prevailing myths and attitudes towards the sexuality of people with physical disabilities among a sample general population in South Africa, as well as the experiences of people with physical disabilities.

Strategic Objectives:

  1. Investigate the attitudes of the general population towards the sexuality of people with disabilities in South Africa;
  2. Explore the experiences of stigma and barriers to fulfilling sexual relationships among people with disabilities in South Africa;
  3. Raise public awareness about the intersection between disability stigma and sexuality;


The World Health Organisation (WHO, 2006) has developed a broad definition of sexual health which emphasises the importance of human rights and wellbeing. It defines sexual health as:

“…a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence” (WHO, 2006; pg. 5).

Sexuality is often a site of oppression and discrimination for people with disability. There is an often cited myth of people with disabilities being asexual (Milligan &Neufeldt, 2001), which can result in people with disabilities being excluded from sexual health education and care (Rohleder& Swartz, 2012). In sub-Saharan Africa, this may place people with disabilities at risk for HIV (Groce et al., 2013).

There has been an increased international attention given to the sexual health rights of persons with disabilities (e.g. the World report on Disability, WHO, 2011), and there has been a call for increased research in this area, given the relative paucity of research (Groce et al., 2013).