“Do you know of places where I can safely buy sex?” It was a message from one of my disabled acquaintances. I checked my phonebook as if looking for answers and then replied. “Let me find out.” It wasn’t the first time that I had been asked this question. It wasn’t the last time I had given this answer. All across India, disabled people are looking for safe ways to fulfil their desires. For some, even self-pleasure is not possible. A quadriplegic friend once cheekily told me “IT still works and if someone is interested, they won’t be disappointed.”
These conversations are difficult and have probably taken years in the making. They are made even more difficult by the fact that many disabled people in India live with their parents and any expression of sexuality is suppressed as a rule within the confines of their homes. Sexual desires of persons with disabilities are seldom a priority issue for families or civil society. More is said through silence than words. Be grateful that you are alive. Isn’t that enough?
I write openly about sex and desire. And probably that’s why people feel free to write to me in their quest to “get laid”. What they don’t know is that even the idea of buying sex as a disabled person in India makes me very scared. Many things can go wrong. They can take my money and run away and I would be left scrambling to find my crutches. Someone might record a porno and I don’t like to generally see myself on a screen. And mostly, the hotel can be inaccessible. Imagine climbing three floors to get to the room. I would rather never have sex again.
As a disabled person, it is difficult to explain your body to others. It is also difficult to explain your body to your desires. Pleasure is easier to understand. Although that requires some amount of self-love. The world continues to confuse pleasure with sex and that is perhaps the reason why so many of us are forced to put ourselves out there in ways that make us fragile. With disabled and chronically ill people, this confusion is heightened by the betrayals of the body. You are likely to lose control in bed, and in life. Vulnerabilities might seem attractive on paper but in real life, everyone wants a ‘normal’ life. This often leaves us stranded, being pulled apart in different directions. In our conversations, we are always looking for love. In our bodies, pleasure. In our minds, sex. All three would be great but life would be better if we had at least one of those.
Our sensory life is a story of wanted and unwanted touches. Unknown hands touching our bodies while lifting our wheelchair because there are no ramps at a restaurant. Unknown people forcefully holding our hand even when we have our white cane with us. Known bodies looking at us with pity, making us feel unattractive. Known bodies avoiding touching our body as if we bring the plague. It is not surprising that there are many amongst us who don’t want sex or any form of physical intimacy. Many of us are just tired of playing this game.
Even dating is hard. There is too much work, and possible trauma involved in the entire process. Find a dating app that is accessible. Tricky. Look for a date who doesn’t find disabled bodies unattractive. Difficult. Look for a date who isn’t just trying to take advantage of your disability. Very difficult. Finding an accessible restaurant. Extremely difficult. After a few failures and unrequited humiliation, anyone will give up.
Our imagination is made up of countries where they give disabled people extra money so they can have sex. In that world, there are sex therapists, sex surrogates and sex facilitators. There is the idea of sexual citizenship. In India though, when we don’t even get proper welfare or medical insurance, it is foolish to expect the state to embrace the idea of sexual citizenship. Even everyday accessibility in physical and digital spheres is a far-fetched dream. The ableism in our society is so deeply entrenched that it is never even acknowledged. And that attitude is reflected in the people around us. Will anyone ever accept that they find us unattractive because of our disability? No, they will never acknowledge it. It makes them seem like terrible people.
One of the worst aspects of this denial is that everything around disability in this country is about individuals and everything around them is turned into tokenism and inspiration porn. Without accessibility, most disabled people have to depend on the people around them and are denied the opportunity of leading an independent life. Forget sex, just going to college, or hanging out with your friends is an impossible task if your caretakers or friends are not ready to slug it out with you. After a point, this grind of navigating spaces which are openly hostile to your bodies becomes exhausting. The world practices ableism in all forms without the culpability of discriminatory behaviour.
Over the years, I have had much advice to give to people. Try and love yourself. Love your body. Use sex toys for pleasure. Explore your body in every way possible. Which is all fine, except that most of us are not looking for pleasure or even sex when we put ourselves out into the world. What we are looking for is validation. Validation of ourselves as human beings. Validation of our sexuality. Validation of our bodies. When you live with a ‘minority’ body, this search is a lifelong journey which defines how you see yourself and after a while there is so much coping and healing on your plate that you might give up on this validation.
Being sexual can be an adventurous act for persons with disabilities. There is always a risk of being shamed. Or being laughed at. We don’t have to try very hard to find self-doubt. The able-bodied world keeps finding ways to exclude us. We don’t have the ‘chemistry’ to date able-bodied people. We don’t have access to places where you can safely have sex. We don’t have easy access to sex toys. We don’t have privacy within our homes. We don’t even have complete autonomy over our body.
Despite all that, disabled people continue to search for little safe spaces of pleasure. Plan sexual adventures even when they don’t materialize. Find comfort in heteronormative structures like marriage which are sometimes the only way for them to exercise their sexual agency. Others discover queer joy in their bodies. All of us just want to be seen. We want to be loved. We want to be attractive and desired. But above all, we want to be ourselves. Not normal, not abnormal, just beautiful human beings. Romantic, passionate, sexy. Is that too much to ask for?