‘To be human is to be sexual’ Winder, 1983
Mythbusting by Sexuality and Disability
Sexuality is often equated with just sex. Actually, it’s much broader and also encompasses gender identities and roles sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships. It is influenced by psychological, economic, political, social, and biological factors. Sexuality is a natural and healthy aspect of living, and it’s a part of who you are.
Women with disabilities are rarely seen as sexual beings, however. This leads to a range of myths and misconceptions around their sexuality, which are debunked below.
To most nondisabled people, sexuality and disability seem to be unconnected terrains – disabled women’s sexual desires are by and large assumed to be non-existent. However, the reality is that women with disabilities are sexual beings with sexual fantasies, feelings and aspirations like anyone else. They are unable to express their sexuality fully not so much because of a disability but because of the assumption that they are not sexual. Other barriers include restrictions on their mobility, negative societal attitudes and the lack of educational, entertainment, social and health services and rights that other people have. (Source: ‘Sexuality and Disability in the Indian Context’ TARSHI working paper )
Women with disabilities – particularly those with physical disabilities – are often seen as childlike, and thought about in terms of ‘care’ or ‘protection’, thus rendering them sexless. However, all human beings are sexual, no matter if, when, how, or with whom we choose to express or not express it.
Sins Invalid , a performance on sex, beauty and disability, poses many powerful questions: ‘Who is sexy? Who is sexual? Who is sexually desirable? Are the people that society designates “beautiful” really sexier or more sexual than people who get labeled “plain”? What about older people, heavier people? What about people with disabilities? Are these people fully sexual human beings even though they don’t show up in movies, on TV, or in advertising? What happens to all of us when we write off huge sections of the population as non-sexual or sexually undesirable?’
What attracts someone is unique to each individual, and is caused by an unpredictable mix of things, including personality, looks, timing, sexual fantasies, etc. However, because we’re surrounded by false ideals of beauty like models with impossibly thin and upright bodies, it can be hard to start thinking of people who don’t fit into that category as ‘beautiful’. Attraction is, above all else, a connection between two people, and imposed beauty standards may actually have nothing at all to do with it.
Since women with disabilities are seen as ‘childlike’ and aren’t supposed to be sexual, any sexual desire they express is seen as perverted or ‘too much’. This doesn’t mean that they have disproportionate sexual desires compared to nondisabled women, but that because they are not meant to express this aspect of themselves, when they do, it’s seen as a problem.
This myth is especially strong when it comes to girls or women who are mentally disabled. Since people living with mental disabilities may not have been taught sexual norms – masturbation is a private thing, your sexual body parts should remain covered around other people, etc – they may express their sexuality in socially inappropriate ways. However, this is more likely a result of a lack of information than that of an ‘oversexed’ mind or body.
Seeing girls and women with disabilities as oversexed is dangerous because it exposes them to sexual abuse under the guise that they ‘enjoy’ it. No one deserves an unwanted sexual encounter, and this includes people with disabilities.
We tend to see certain needs as more basic or fundamental (eating, bathing, sleeping) than others (communication with others, sexual desires, intellectual development). This divide is sharper in the case of girls or women with disabilities. If a woman needs help to have her ‘basic’ needs fulfilled, her ‘other’ needs are seen as irrelevant.
In reality, any person experiences various needs at the same time. For example, the desire to eat when you are hungry may not be any greater or less than the desire to talk to someone when you are lonely. Similarly, sexual desires cannot simply be seen as ‘secondary’ to more ‘fundamental’ needs, whether or not someone has a disability.
This myth is a branch of a much wider one – that no one needs sexuality education. Sex Ed is often misunderstood as teaching children how to have sex or ‘permitting experimentation’. In reality, sexuality education encompasses a lot more than the mechanics of sex. Age-appropriate sexuality education looks at how teenagers feel about their bodies, love, sex, relationships , and protection from abuse and violence.
Some people also believe that sex education goes against Indian culture The reality, however, is this: as long as human beings have sex, we need sexuality education no matter what culture we belong to. Culture, in any case, is dynamic and evolving. Practices that have previously been upheld as part of ‘Indian culture’ – such as sati and child marriage – are now seen not just as harmful cultural practices, but as criminal offences.
Girls with disabilities are most often denied the little bit of sex education that their peers receive. This is embedded in other myths- that women with disabilities don’t have sexual desires, that no one will want to have sex with them (so they won’t be subjected to abuse), and that they can’t have ‘real sex’ anyway (so there’s no point in showing them how). In reality, sex education can empower all young women with the knowledge and information to have safe and pleasurable sex, prevent STIs including HIV, stop unwanted pregnancies, and protect themselves from abusive sexual partners.
Many people think that sex takes place only when a man puts his penis into a woman’s vagina. In reality, people have sex in many different ways that aren’t generally shown in popular media or frequently discussed. Kissing, touching, masturbating and oral sex are all sexual activities, even though they aren’t included in the ‘standard’ definition of sex.
The myth of a ‘real’ or ‘correct’ way to have sex might lead women with disabilities to believe that because they can’t see, feel, or move their bodies in certain ways, sex isn’t for them. But sex is for everyone, even though the mechanics of it can vary. There are no rules governing what sex can or cannot be, except that it should involve consent and safety. Sexual acts don’t have to look, sound, smell or feel like anything apart from what works for the people who are involved.
Sex is often depicted – in movies to books to pornography – as two people naturally falling into each other’s arms within seconds of making eye contact. This leads people to feel that any amount of planning means that it’s no longer ‘natural’, so it doesn’t count as sex. But in reality, sex often does not happen in a completely unplanned way. Whether the build-up involves flirting with someone in a crowded room, ‘setting the mood’ with some music and candles, checking if the object of your desire shares your sexual orientation, or discussing how your disability means you may need a few extra pillows or specific positioning, sex is always a process of communication. And the idea that it can happen without thinking, talking or planning is questionable. Women with disabilities may need to take some extra factors into account before having a sexual encounter with someone. She may need to think about the times of day when pain or tiredness are less of a problem, put a waterproof cover on the bed in case her bladder leaks, or may simply need to ensure that she has the privacy she desires. However, this doesn’t make the sex women with disabilities have any less ‘natural’ or ‘real’ than those who don’t have similar considerations.
Since women with disabilities are not expected to be sexual, neither are they expected to reproduce. A report entitled ‘Women and Girls with Disabilities: Defining the Issues’ states, ‘Keeping us genderless by discounting us as women and as sexual beings helps to prevent us from reproducing, which keeps us harmless to society. And, once we are categorized as non-breeders, we are discarded as socially useless.’
It is believed that ‘disability breeds disability’, and that a disabled woman will give birth to a disabled child. However, only a small percentage of disabilities are hereditary, and these don’t always pass on to the next generation. . In most cases, a disabled women and a nondisabled woman both have an equal chance of giving birth to a disabled (or much more likely, a nondisabled) child. It is also believed that a woman with a disability will be unable to care for her child. This is merely a perception. Women with disabilities can raise children-like everyone else, they may need a little help at times. Look at this website for parents with disabilities for more information.