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Fri19Dec2014

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Breaking the silence around disabled sexuality

Desexualised or hypersexualised because of their impairments, women with disabilities are denied the right to see themselves and be seen as independent sexual beings. Introducing a series on disability and sexuality by Richa Kaul Padte

 disabled sexuality

“I’d rather use my legs as wings” Source: Disability Culture

‘To be human is to be sexual’ - Winder

At first glance, this series may seem superfluous. Disability and sexuality doesn’t sound nearly half as important or pressing as disability and education, disability and employment rights, disability and healthcare, or disability and practically all the access issues that people with disabilities in India face on a daily basis. Sexuality belongs, perhaps, to the realm of afterthought – an added bonus when the ‘real stuff’ is sorted out. There are others to whom the issues may seem unconnected – sex and sexuality are often seen as belonging outside the parameters of the lives of the disabled. People with disabilities have more important things to worry about. Sex is not on their minds. And definitely not on the minds of disabled women. And on the mind of the Indian disabled woman? Not a chance.

But what if sexuality was more than simply sex? What if it had to do with what you feel when you look in the mirror; who you love and why; what your sexual orientation really is (despite what you are forced to tell people); the violences you have suffered in silence? Throughout the world women’s sexuality – in its all-encompassing WHO definition as thoughts, behaviours, attitudes, preferences and relationships that are influenced by a series of economic, social, psychological and cultural factors – is a topic shrouded in silence and secrecy. In a South Asian socio-cultural context where the sexualities of women are actively contained, controlled and oppressed – or passively ignored and denied – the repercussions for all women can be and often are deeply debilitating.  Constructed through images of advertising beauty, housewives producing the best meals, and always through a heterosexual male lens, Indian women find themselves living in a world where their sexuality struggles to find expression outside these frameworks. However, a life outside this framework does not necessarily mean a life of liberation. What about some of those women who aren’t held up to beauty standards or shaadi.com’s standards or any standards at all -- not because they have escaped their chains, but because their chains are even deadlier -- because they aren’t even considered to be in the game; because they aren’t considered to be women. Desexualised – or in the case of the mentally disabled, hypersexualised – because of their impairments, women with disabilities are denied the right to be sexual, and to see themselves and be seen as independent sexual beings.

Between 5 and 6% of the Indian population lives with an impairment (the social model of disability rights defines an impairment as the physical or mental handicap, and disability as the structural and societal barriers that prevent an impaired person from living a full life). So with 70 million disabled Indians and a sex ratio that suggests that just under half of these 70 million people are girls or women, why is the subject of sex and the Indian disabled woman so hard to stomach? And furthermore, what are the far-reaching consequences of this indigestion?

Consistently framed within a discourse of charity, pity, or burden, and relegated to the status of ‘things’ to be ‘managed’, women with disabilities face disproportionate levels of sexual violence and abuse, suffer from low self-esteem and body image, and are given little to no sexual education (in a country where the levels and quality of sex education are practically negligible for even the nondisabled) under the belief that they cannot and will never have sexual partners. They consequently face a range of discriminatory practices and humiliating experiences from healthcare professionals, families and organisations that stem from similar myths and misconceptions about their sexuality, or lack thereof. However, what is changing faster than policies and attitudes are the sounds of resistance breaking through the silence around disabled sexuality – ie: sexuality that has very literally been disabled by society. Women from across the subcontinent – and the world – are bringing to the fore issues surrounding their sexualities. Demanding the right to be heard, accepted and actively included within larger discussions on sexuality and sexual rights, these women are activists, lawyers, educationists, counsellors, or simply individuals who seek to rupture the systemic silence around the rights and violations of their sexual selves. They are demanding conversations about sexuality through which first and foremost, a disabled woman is not seen for her cane, her wheelchair, or her crutch, but as a woman – just like you or me.

This series aims to explore and highlight the multifaceted arena of disability and sexuality through the narratives, voices, and perspectives of women with disabilities. It tries to reframe the discourse around sex, beauty, relationships, mental health and violence, and believes that through a redefining and expanding of what these terms have come to mean, all women – irrespective of disability -­- can deeply benefit. It seeks to further the whispers and murmurings of a powerful dialogue, and encourages others to join in.

On her blog, an activist and writer who calls herself Wheelchair Dancer writes of her experiences in coming to terms with her disability. After a long struggle – both personal and political, or somewhere within the always already mixed arena of the two – she declares: “I'm here. I'm disabled. And I do it. Yes, I do. Even in this body that you cannot imagine anyone [doing it with] and loving.”  This series asks you to dance with her. 

(Richa Kaul Padte is a freelance writer and feminist activist living between Bombay and Goa. She was the co-author and project coordinator of www.sexualityanddisability.org, an online initiative by Point of View and CREA)

Infochange News & Features, September 2012