The assumption that sexuality and disability are mutually exclusive denies that people with deviant bodies experience sexual desires like everyone else.
For disabled women, the most difficult discussions are centred around sexuality. Mostly the issue of sexuality does not appear on their horizon as significantly as their disability does. Like most Indian women, sexuality was defined within the parameters of marriage. Most disabled women found themselves without words to express their sexuality. In a culture where any deviation from a norm is seen as a marked deviation – the impaired body becomes a symbol of imperfection.
The myth of the beautiful body defines the impaired female body as unfeminine and unacceptable. Within the normative society there has been a conspiracy of silence about the sexuality of disabled people; it is not accorded the attention it deserves. Specifically women with disabilities are marginalised in a patriarchal society in India. This social and cultural apartheid is sustained by the existence of a built environment, which lacks amenities for the disabled and solely caters to the needs of the more complete and able-bodied. This social disregard coupled with experiences of social, economic and political subjugation deny the disabled a voice, a space, and even power, to disrupt these deeply entrenched normative ideals that deprive them of their social presence and any semblance of identity.
To my mind, disability does imply broken persons, as an inadequate society is neatly tuned to the workings of normative structure serving political and economic ends. Unfortunately such incipient stigmatisation against women who carry the insidious label of “disability” with them results in an exclusion that creates both a sense of despair and distress. This feeling of seclusion often leads to suppression and non-recognition of the “lack” that marks them initially as different.
As I wrote elsewhere, the roots of such thinking are found in Indian mythological instances, where Lakshmana, the brother of lord Rama, cuts off the nose of “Shurpanakha”, sister of King Ravana, who is interested in him. That Lakshmana can only respond to what he defines as non-acceptable behaviour by disabling the ugly female monster indicates how disability and desexing are equated in the Indian psyche. The ramifications of such historical rendering are to be found in the North Indian Punjabi culture, where, for instance, girls though allowed to interact with their male cousins, are not allowed to sleep in the same room.
Disabled girls, on the other hand, are under no such prohibitions, as they are considered sexually safe, or rather asexual. The assumption is that they will not conceive of the interaction as a “come on signal” nor invite a sexual encounter. It is almost, as if a disabled girl is perceived not like other girls but is “above all that”, which has the effect of freeing the other to imitate any action, which in more cases than most turns out to be exploitative. Sarla who shared a similar experience, says at first she would be thrilled at being allowed to sleep in the same room as Adarsh, who was her first cousin, but later realised that this benevolent gesture of her family stemmed from her family’s complete denial of her sexuality.
Later, when the same cousin propositioned her and said that he was willing to satisfy her sexual desires, provided this would be kept secret, she felt being “asexually objectified”. Paradoxically, it highlights a complete disregard of the dangers of sexual violation to which disabled girls are exposed on an everyday basis. Familial abuse is one such example where the possibility of disabled women experiencing subtle abuse and being controlled are prominent. Most of the women who have shared their experiences with me feared abuse and violence more from the extended family and acquaintances. In this sense, though the family is directly responsible, it does lead to a “fear psychosis” as many of their accounts are treated as overactive imagination. As she recounted this to me, Neelima repressed her disgust. “I tried telling my mother about my uncle. She had such a look of disbelief as she said to me, “Arre who tumhe kyon tang karega? Usko ladki ki kami hai? Tumne kabhi apne aap ko shishe mein dekha hai? (Why would he be interested in you? Is he short of girls outside? Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror?)”
The assumption that sexuality and disability are mutually exclusive also denies that people with deviant bodies experience sexual desires like everyone else and thereby refuses to recognise them as sexually typical, despite their differences. For that is the essential fact: An understanding of the self mandates an understanding that we exist only as fully embodied beings. However, the cultural devaluation and the extent to which the juxtaposition of sexuality and disability is silenced, makes it all the more difficult for disabled people to have a positive self-identity. The issue is not only that the disabled person must fight to be the author of their own sexuality but also must establish sexuality in the first place. What is wrong here is that a disabled woman in this society is considered to have no sexuality at all. Disabled women are seen as “childlike” and aren’t supposed to be sexual, any sexual desire they express is seen as perverted or “too much”.
An interpretation of Rohtak rape case is where the disabled woman is herself responsible for her abuse. The fact is that they are considered as soft targets as the perpetrators assume that they can get away easily. Clearly, this is not understood by our society. Since disabilities are multiple, many women are unable to comprehend or communicate about such acts of violence or assault they face in the family, neighbourhood and society at large. I think it is critical that we can understand the experiential reality of a woman with disability.
I would like to conclude in Eli Clare’s words: “Gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race… Everything finally piling into a single human body”.