Sexual development is a complex process of understanding oneself as a sexual being. Youth with spinal cord injury (SCI) navigate the typical phases of sexual development along with the physical and psychological sequelae of an SCI. As youth with SCI progress from adolescence to emerging adulthood, sexual activity—physical intimacy and sexual intercourse—is an important milestone.


The aims of the study were to (1) describe frequency of physical intimacy among adults with pediatric-onset SCI and (2) identify injury, demographic, and lifestyle factors that predict frequency of physical intimacy.


Adults with pediatric-onset SCI who were former patients within a North American pediatric hospital system (N = 277) completed a structured telephone interview that included medical and sociodemographic information and standardized measures of psychological functioning. Participants rated physical intimacy and sexual intercourse frequency on a 5-point Likert scale, with a response of monthly, weekly, or daily classified as regular frequency and never or yearly as irregular frequency. Bivariate and multivariate analyses were conducted with physical intimacy frequency as the primary outcome.


Of the participants, 55% engaged in physical intimacy and 49% engaged in sexual intercourse with regular frequency. In logistic regression analyses, living independently of parents, being married, and higher perceived social integration increased likelihood of regular frequency of physical intimacy. Injury severity and secondary medical complications were not significant independent predictors of frequency of physical intimacy.


Half of adults with pediatric-onset SCI engage in regular physical intimacy; this is below the estimates for the general population. Psychosocial factors are stronger contributors to physical intimacy frequency than SCI-related factors. Health care providers and researchers should focus on barriers to social integration and development of social relationships as factors that influence physical intimacy in this population.

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