Knowing Your Body

‘I get the feeling people think that because I am in a [wheel]chair there is just a blank space down there.’

FromThe Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability, ed. Kaufman, Silverberg and Odette, 2003


I’m 13 years old, and I’m not sure what’s happening to my body.

As you enter your teenage years your body will go through many changes.

  • Your body will grow rounder and taller.
  • Your breasts will begin to grow.
  • Hair will grow on your underarms and genitals.
  • You will start menstruating or bleeding every month.
  • A wet liquid or discharge may start to come out of your vagina.
  • You may begin to have more sexual thoughts and urges.

All these changes to your body and feelings are completely natural, and part of becoming a woman External Website that opens in a new window. For the most part, you will go through puberty in the

same ways as other girls your age.However, your disability may mean that there are some small differences. For example, girls with developmental disabilities are twenty times more likely to have an early onset of puberty – in cases like these, your body may undergo some of these changes before you are 8 years old. Similarly, if you have multiple or profound disabilities, you may go through puberty slightly later than other girls (Source External Website that opens in a new window).While there is nothing wrong with either of these, it can be hard for a girl when her body changes at a different rate from those around her. For more information, check out the disability-specific information related to puberty below.

Puberty and developmental disabilities: impairment-specific information and resources

Cerebral Palsy. Girls with cerebral palsy will be able to understand the process of puberty, but they may begin their physical and hormonal development later than their peers. If they have difficulty controlling their body movements, they may experience awkwardness as a result of rapid growth and weight gain. You can visit this site External Website that opens in new window for more information.

Autism. Girls may be confused or frightened about the changes that are taking place in their bodies, particularly menstruation. It may take longer for them to understand and accept these changes, and they may also exhibit hypersensitive hearing, changes in sleep patterns, new dietary likes or dislikes, or possible seizures. Look at this article External Website that opens in a new window or this website and video External Website that opens in new window for more information, including tips for parents of adolescents with autism.

Asperger’s Syndrome. Girls will be able to understand puberty on a cognitive level, but may still require extra help with maintaining hygiene, communicating with their peers, and picking up on subtle social cues. Adolescents with Asperger’s often experience frustration because they begin to realise they are somewhat different from their peer group. This means they may need special emotional support during this time. For more information, look at this blog External Website that opens in new window where parents share their stories about puberty and their children with Asperger’s.

I want to know what makes my body different from a man’s, but no one wants to talk about it.

Men and women have different sexual and reproductive organs. A man uses his penis to have penetrative sex. Shaped like a soft cucumber, it hangs between his legs and becomes erect when he is sexually aroused. On either side of the penis are two testicles (or balls) which produce the sperm that is needed for making babies External Website that opens in a new window.When a man has an orgasm, semen is ejaculated from the tip of the penis.

A woman’s genitals aren’t as easily visible as a man’s. The organs between her legs make up the vulva, which is a fleshy (soft, squishy and slightly wet) V-shape. There are two openings within the vulva, a small urinary opening and the vagina. When a woman is having penetrative sex with a man, he may put his penis inside her vagina. When a girl starts to get her periods, the blood leaves her body through the vagina, which is also where babies come out from. When a woman has an orgasm, she may secrete some fluids from the vagina.

The clitoris, which is primarily an organ of pleasure, is located at the top of the vulvaExternal Website that opens in a new window. It’s about the size of a small pea, and is hidden under folds of skin. The clitoris is extremely sensitive to touch, and when stimulated during sex or masturbation, it becomes firmer and slightly bigger.

Both men and women have breasts, but a woman’s breasts contain tubes that allow her to produce milk and feed her baby.

Are there certain “sexual” parts of my body?

Sex is much more than making babies, and when it comes to sexual pleasure there are many areas in your body that can be sites of pleasure – beyond your genitals or breasts. For example, the ears, neck, and feet, when caressed, stroked, kissed, or licked, can all cause a strong sexual response. So even if you have no physical sensation in your reproductive parts, you can explore your body to find out which areas give you sexual satisfaction.

I have some male body parts and some female parts – is something wrong with me?

No. In fact, 1.7% of babies are born with mixed organs. Some of them undergo surgery to become one or the other, but might still end up feeling uncomfortable with the body they are in. Whether or not you have undergone surgery, this state of mixed organs is called intersex External Website that opens in a new window.

Even if they were not born with mixed organs, many people feel like they don’t fit into the gender they were born with. So some people who look like men on the outside may feel like women inside, and vice versa. In earlier times, such individuals were considered abnormal, or treated for Gender Identity Disorder External Website that opens in new window. But gender involves more than having the sexual and reproductive organs of a man or a woman – you have to feel like a woman to identify yourself as one. For example, look atGazal’s blog External Website that opens in a new window and read her story about being trapped within- and breaking free from – the ‘wrong’ body. Or check out this video External Website that opens in a new window, where Del La Grace asks people on the streets of London whether they are male or female, drawing attention to how gender is a lot more than what’s between our legs!

Some people who don’t feel either completely male or female (or are in the process of transforming from one gender to another) identify themselves as transgender External Website that opens in a new window (because their gender is very literally ‘in transition’).