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Sexuality and Disability India

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Let’s talk about sex and pleasure!

During an adolescent sexuality training in an inclusive Delhi school, an interesting question came up: ‘There is a 16-year-old boy with an intellectual disability, who masturbates. How can we erase this problem?’ Here, ‘masturbation’, ‘erase’ and ‘problem’ – the operative words – tell us a lot about the stigma surrounding sexuality, especially when it intersects with disability. So what exactly is it that makes many around us go ‘hawww’ when they hear about sex? And is sexuality just sex? How does it intersect with disability?

During our first Train the Trainers workshop on Sexuality and Disability, Dipika Srivastava from TARSHI asked the participants what sexuality means to them. Responses included the need for sex, freedom to express desires, the choice to select our partners, the ways we experience pleasure, and self-expression. Then why is it that in a lot of contexts in India, talking about sexuality becomes limited to sexual health, abuse and sexually transmitted infections? Why are issues like desires, fantasy, pleasure left out of conversations about sexuality?

To understand this, we must look at how information provided to us on pleasure and sex is sanitised. A glaring example is the diagram of the body that we studied in school. Do you remember when suddenly, stomach down we only have legs, knees, feet and toes? And somewhere pleasure is lost in between because it’s inappropriate and well, haww, chii, how can you talk about it? Such sanctions around sex which start when we are young then continue to interfere in our explorations and what is deemed ‘appropriate’. And to dismantle these taboos, it is important to first unpack the gendered language of sex and pleasure.

‘In a conservative society, women are not asked about how pleasurable sex was. It is always the men for whom pleasure must matter. When men have sex, flows in validation, as it is an assertion of their masculinity. For women, we house flowers in our bodies. We are looked at as fragile, passive,’ says Dipika. There is control, over people of all genders, albeit in varying degrees. So long as one fits in the heterosexual matrix, adheres to the socially regulated gender roles, is ‘healthy’ and able-bodied, one remains a part of the box. But the moment you ‘look different’ and are visibly disabled from what is acceptable enough to fit into the box, the social sanctions become starker; your body, desires, choices are surveilled more.

While sexuality remains a taboo, a hush-hush topic for those residing in the box, for those situated out of it, for the ‘anomalous’ ones, the disabled, it is considered a non-issue; ‘demanding a lot and asking for too much’. A hierarchy of needs is thus created by both the disability organisations as well as non-disabled folk.

As Nidhi Goyal, our programme director, puts it, ‘The three most important needs of the disability sector are employment, education, and accessibility, but we forget how sexuality intersects with all of these components. Shouldn’t gynaecologists be accessible and how? So the sexuality component is somewhere lost.’

This brings us back to the Delhi school. The discomfort around the fact that a disabled boy can explore his own body, just like other non-disabled adolescents, shows the predominance of the idea that people with disabilities are either hyper-sexual or devoid of sexual desires. In this binary, there is no in-between. That experiences of sexuality vary across disabilities and different disabilities have specific access needs are important when starting a conversation around sex and sexuality.

The same school, on the third day of the training, also rejected any conversations about sexuality and disability. Then, how do we begin talking about this important but oft left out intersection in a society with strict moral codes and holier-than-thou gatekeeping?

For this, Dipika has some important tips. First, that it is important to understand specific disability needs. For instance, for the hearing impaired, any sign language interpreter must be able to translate concepts of sexuality, masturbation and pleasure without passing moral judgement. When dealing with sexuality, one doesn’t just have to be age appropriate but both age and stage appropriate as content sharing can be traumatising if for example, we club girls aged 12 and 20 though studying in the same class but with different exposure and experiences of age.

Therefore, carefully considering context, identifying the stage of empowerment, being flexible with your ideas and language is absolutely necessary to create any meaningful ripples. ‘And for disabled and non-disabled children and adolescents, who decides what’s appropriate?’ asks Dipika. And rightly so, as learning for children would be more holistic if there wasn’t so much brouhaha over breasts, penises and vaginas. We should be able to talk about sexual organs as we do for hands or legs, without moral codes and over-sexualisation.

So yes, talking about sexual health and abuse is important but so is understanding the joyful shivers in our bodies, pleasure down there, and everywhere! It’s about time we start talking about pleasure, isn’t it?

(This piece is based on a presentation by Dipika Srivastava from Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues, or TARSHI at Point of View’s first National Train the Trainers Workshop on Sexuality and Disability. It is the first in a series of posts documenting the workshop sessions. Read more.)

Written by Niharika Pandit