What It’s Like To Have Sex When You Have An Ileostomy Bag
The Debrief: Crotchless panties, heart-shaped stoma covers and odour control: the reality of having sex when you have a ileostomy bag
Emma* and her boyfriend Ben* have been through the mill when it comes to embarrassing sexual experiences. In the five years they’ve been together since they met in their last year at Liverpool University, they can list accidentally sending naked pictures of Emma to Ben’s little brother; a broken banjo string and a particular proclivity for fanning farting amongst their sexual misdemeanours. ‘But fanny farting,’ Emma tells The Debrief ‘is nothing, trust me, compared to worrying about the smell of your colostomy bag as your boyfriend goes down on you.’ Well, quite.
Emma found out that she had been suffering with a form of irritable bowel disease called ulcerative colitis in the beginning of last year. If left untreated, the ulcers that were forming in her colon could have caused a perforation, which might have proved fatal. To treat the issue, a temporary ileostomy was performed, which is a procedure that brings one end of the intestine out through an opening in her abdominal wall, called a stoma. Her ‘waste’, or poo (let’s not mess about here), was then able to drain through the stoma into a bag that was attached to her abdomen. It would only have to be there for a couple of months whilst she healed from her operation, but that wasn’t much of a consolation when, as Emma puts it, she ‘looked down to see an enormous scar and a massive bag connected where coming out of my stomach.’ It was, she admits, hard not to feel like some sort of medical experiment and a bit of a freak. Hardly what anyone needs to make them feel like having sex with their boyfriend.
‘For me, that major obstacles to get over before I could start having sex with Ben again after the operation were mostly psychological and emotional, rather than physical,’ she explains. ‘We’d spoken at length about the physical practicalities of maintaining an intimate relationship - which, as two young people totally besotted with each other, was massively important - amongst ourselves and with my doctor, so I felt pretty prepared to for nuts and bolts of what sex was going to be like. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was how totally undesirable I was going to feel. Seeing myself with the stoma for the first time in the mirror was such a visual shock - how on earth was I expected to let Ben see me naked when I could barely tolerate looking at my body myself?’
But, after a number of weeks and a lot of talking, Emma felt confident enough to give sex a go. ‘The first time we had sex was really awkward because I was so nervous about what Ben would think,’ she remembers. ‘He was also insanely nervous about hurting me or moving my stoma, so the sex - which is normally pretty acrobatic between us - felt timid and like a bit of a failure. It did hurt a bit as well, but I was expecting that. I cried, but I was relieved that first initial stage was over and we could get on with figuring out how to make sex better for both of us.’
If all of this feels a lot more carefully thought out than most 20something sex, it’s because it definitely was. ‘Spontaneous sex is pretty much off the table when you’ve got a stoma. Before you have sex, you have to make sure that the entrance to your stoma is clean and properly fastened, for obvious reasons. I had a transparent bag as well for the first few weeks, so I had to add a cover which you can buy online. Mine was faintly ridiculous and heart shaped, which made us laugh, but it served a very important purpose! The contents aren’t exactly sexy to look at.’
Once all of that was taken care of, did Emma find that the stoma got in the way? ‘Well, you have to make sure it’s empty before you start having sex, firstly because you don’t want the contents making noise if it gets moved around and, secondly, depending on what you’ve eaten, gasses can be produced and it can inflate like a balloon, which obviously isn’t great when he’s on top or going down on me. And, of course, there is the issue of smell. We found that in some cases a tiny bit of a smell can be unavoidable if the bag fills up during sex but it’s mostly fine as long as you prep properly beforehand. I’m lucky to be with someone who loves me so much that this sort of thing didn’t completely kill the vibe. Plus, you can also buy internal odour killing tablets, which are great and burning scented candles helped.’
Emma also found some ingenious dressing techniques to keep her stoma flat and out of the way. ‘Crotchless panties suddenly became a thing because I could stuck the stoma in and keep it flat,’ she says. ‘And, if I wasn’t feel particularly confident, I’d wear a teddy or nighty to cover it up. I’ve never really loved getting my stomach out in bed before, so to be honest none of this made that much of a difference. The only think I think we both missed was anal sex, which was a big part of our relationship before and was not an option any more after my operation. When you consider that I could have died, though, you don’t sweat stuff like this.’
For all her bravery around the subject, Emma does admit she would never have been able to get through it without the support of Ben. ‘When I think about what it would be like trying to have sex with someone new with a stoma, my heart breaks for those poor girls who were going through it. I trusted Ben implicitly and it genuinely felt like he was along this journey with me - he never made me feel unsexy or like this was ever going to stop us from being together. We came through it stronger knowing that, if we can get through this, we can get through anything. Plus - the crotchless panties are still a thing for us now that I’ve recovered, so we can’t be that traumatised.’
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