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.

2 thoughts on “on the Desexualization of Disabled Women

  1. Hello,
    This comment rang very true to me and my personal experience living with a disability. Often times, family, friends, and acquaintances seem absolutely shocked when they find that I am interested, pursuing, or involved in a relationship with someone. I once recall having a family member, who often infantilised me and had even referred to my vision impairment as “contagious” being quite unravelled by hearing the news that I was getting ready to go on a Tinder date. “What?…With a guy?” She asked. It was very interesting to see just how much this shocked her.
    Now, I am 22 and still find myself struggling to find a lasting relationship. I have been through several toxic, abusive, and just wrong situations, and sometimes I wonder if it is my disability that causes me to struggle to be respected. My family has, many times, discouraged me from involving myself with anyone romantically, saying “It’s prob your eyes honey. Men are intimidated by blind girls, especially smart ones.”
    What is this supposed to mean? That if I want a meaningful relationship I need to either not be visually impaired, or not be smart? While I consider myself to usually be pretty confident, these things are starting to really add up for me and are very discouraging. Does anybody have any advice for me? I live in a very strict, religious town where I am not treated well at all, and have even been accused of being a witch or a disgrace, and I find it difficult to make friends and find true support. Am I really not worth being loved? Many guys have told me all I can ever be for them is a “temporary division” but to never expect anything more out of them. I really want to live a full, rewarding, life and feel love just as non-disabled people do, yet I am at a loss. Can this be improved for me?
    Any words of advice are welcome. Thank you!

    1. Hi Vivienne. My heart goes out to you reading your comment. Please know that you are a whole, good, competent person deserving of love, and your disabilitie(s) don’t take away from that. As far as advice goes, my first thought is that it sounds like you might be happier living in a different city or town where the people respect you as you are without expecting you to change for them. After struggling to find a romantic partner for many years, I met all of my partners while doing work that I was passionate about. When I was 23, I went out of state for graduate school and met a very smart, slightly geeky fellow graduate student. One thing led to another and he and I have been happily married for seven years. A lot of nondisabled men are unwilling to try dating an intelligent blind woman, but certainly not all of them. The guys on Tinder may not be the type of guy that will appreciate your depth and humanity. I think that by perhaps going away to a new place and starting a job or a civic activity that you love, you will meet men who share your passions. The other thing, of course, is that there are a lot of wonderful guys out there who happen to also be blind. If you are on Facebook, I suggest joining my group here: http://www.facebook.com/groups/disabilitywisdom We are not a dating group, but we have discussions on the types of issues you are describing and several of our group members have been where you are (or still are dealing with the same struggles). Please don’t hesitate to add me as a friend on Facebook as well, and thanks for reading!

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