on the Desexualization of Disabled Women

One of the most pervasive stereotypes about disabled people is the idea that we’re uninterested in, or unfit to be in, sexual relationships. This stereotype affects both disabled men and women, but because women’s social standing is so often tied to our potential roles as wives and mothers, disabled women frequently experience a particular brand of ableism.

Disabled women face a heightened risk of sexual abuse and assault. In addition to this, we often encounter more subtle, unintentional actions-particularly from nondisabled men-that serve to infantilize, desexualize or violate us. Like other “microaggressions,” people who do these things may not even realize that they are doing any harm.

Recently a Facebook friend of mine asked her disabled, female-identified friends to describe these kinds of experiences we have had with nondisabled men-particularly unintended violations that may come under the guise of helpfulness. The below list is a combination of the responses on this Facebook thread, my own encounters, and those of my close female-identified disabled friends. I share it with the hope of making readers aware of the kinds of things that can happen and how they can be prevented. A caveat: Many of these microaggressions are also committed by women; however, the gender dynamic between a male and female (particularly when the nondisabled male holds power, such as the case of a male taxi driver and a disabled female passenger) makes the below actions especially problematic.

  • Women described being “guided” or lifted by unfamiliar men, in the name of helping, but in invasive ways (e.g., with hands under the arms, on the shoulders or on the hips) without permission. Or, during casual conversation, having a male acquaintance rub or pat their arm or leg.

  • On a related point: having male taxi or Uber/Lyft drivers buckle them into a seatbelt, without permission and even when they were physically capable of buckling themselves in.

  • Having a man place a woman’s hands on their body or on an object, particularly if the woman is blind, as a way of “showing” something (again, without permission) or having a man push a blind woman to touch his face (either as an attempt at a pickup line, or under the myth that blind people like to explore faces by touch).

  • Verbal blends of ableism and sexism: Men on the street shouting comments such as “You’re too pretty to be disabled” or “You’re skinny for a blind person.”

  • Some women with service animals said that strangers (on the subway, for example) would casually reach between their knees to pet their service animal. Or, a stranger might reach down between a woman’s legs to “help” her retrieve a dropped item. (Again, both men and women perpetrate these actions, but it is more threatening when done by a man).

  • Invasive questions: Several women described having male Uber/Lyft drivers, for example, ask if they lived alone, which is especially invasive if the driver is taking them home. Others said they were asked by strangers if they have romantic partners, how they have sex, how they put their clothes on, or “who takes care of” them.

  • Shocked reactions when women reveal that they are dating someone, engaged, married, pregnant, parenting or interested in parenting.

  • Being obviously ignored as a potential dating partner. I had the experience a few times in high school and college, when a guy would be very friendly toward me, seeking me out for conversations, asking for my phone number, even inviting me out on what I thought might be a “date” and I would later find out that the guy either had a girlfriend the whole time, or simply showed no romantic interest. Another time, at a middle school dance, a very attractive, popular boy begged me to have the last dance with him, then never spoke to me again (making me wonder if it was a bet).

  • Being called infantilizing pet names like honey, sweetie, or baby, and spoken to in an infantilizing tone of voice.

  • A blind lesbian acquaintance of mine said that someone once told her that if she could just see what men looked like, she would be straight.

  • A disabled person who is gender-nonbinary was asked if they knew the difference between men and women.

  • A man following a disabled woman, or asking where she is going, under the guise of being helpful.

  • And many variations on the above, some well-intended, others not so much.

What steps can nondisabled men, and women, take to reduce these microaggressions?
The answer is actually quite simple:

  • Start by understanding that disabled people, including those of us with cognitive disabilities, experience all sexual orientations and gender identities; have sexual boundaries; and many of us desire, and participate in, intimate relationships.

  • Before performing a particular action toward a stranger with a disability, ask yourself, “Would it be socially acceptable to say/do this to a nondisabled stranger in my culture?” If the answer is no, don’t do it.

  • If you ever have any doubt as to whether a disabled person desires hands-on support with a task, ask first. For example: “Do you need any help with your seatbelt?” is a thousand times better than wordlessly coming up and buckling the seatbelt. By asking first and respecting the answer, you can never go wrong.

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