I spent half my adult life locked behind the bathroom door, slipping my hand into my underwear. This night was like any other. Finally, I struggled into my pajamas and walked back into my room. Carefully placing my crutches by the bedside, I collapsed into bed after a long exhausting day. Unwittingly, all the day’s activities flashed before my eyes and thinking of the tasks for the next day, I slowly slipped into sleep.
The sea was calm that night in my dream, very calm in fact. I propped myself up on my crutches and adjusted the sails on the boat, trying to catch the best wind as I sailed westward into the Indian Ocean. It had taken years of practice to get the balance right and make sure I didn’t fall into the water. When I had been little, I had gone sailing with my father, who taught me special tricks that didn’t need me to stand up much.
After sailing a while, I turned and looked for the shore but saw nothing. The vast expanse of water stretched out as far as I could see. As I let thoughts pass through my mind, I saw storm clouds gather on the horizon. I sat down suddenly, as the boat jolted under me. In panic, I began pulling the sails down and turned the stern towards the shore. The clouds were faster than me and I was unnerved by the loudest thunder of them all, Taboo. I knew it was coming to silence me.
Nobody ever talks about S-E-X in India. Not at home, not in school. We can only ever learn from the limited experience of our friends or what the Internet can teach us; that is if we can access these in the first place. It is hard enough for an ‘able-bodied’ person to openly talk about sex, let alone explore their sexuality. This Taboo is further exacerbated for us, as we experience a greater sense of guilt and alienation. Classified as being either child-like or hypersexual, we are almost always left out of these conversations, even among peers. A simple lack of privacy makes this an even bigger struggle. A discouraging environment and the internalization of this Taboo, limits the opportunities for a challenged person to discover and understand their sexuality.
As the thunder of Taboo grew more violent, I tried to speak but couldn’t hear myself. The thunder was loud enough to drown out my thoughts and it ordered me to push them to the recesses of my mind. I crouched in the boat and waited for the thunder to stop, but it didn’t give way. Waves lashed around me, spilling dangerous levels of water into the boat. Conformity, as these high waves were called, forced the salty water down my throat choking my individuality. Expectations – the severe blustering winds of the Indian Ocean rushed towards me, sweeping my crutches into the water and pushing me down to my knees.
Society has constructed a set of strictly defined moulds for us to fit into, in order to be accepted. These moulds, in the context of sexuality, reflect rigid societal Expectations of ideal standards of beauty, sexual competence, success and sexual orientation. This fosters an environment that suppresses diversity and inclusion, coercing its members to strive towards Conformity. Every individual battles with these expectations, but the struggle is compounded for a person with challenges. Ideal standards of beauty are often central to self worth, especially with reference to sexuality. One’s ability to sexually satisfy their partner is an added factor to contend with. With the stigma and prejudgement attached to persons with challenges, we are almost never considered to be plausible contenders in the game of romance.
Society’s definition of success in primarily financial terms belittles alternative manifestations of success. People with challenges are seldom viewed as self-sufficient, let alone capable of providing for a partner. This predicament is magnified by prevailing patriarchal gender norms, which place additional pressure on men with challenges in particular. Adding to this tyranny, heterosexist norms decide who a person is meant to be attracted to, further limiting individual expressions of sexual identity.
Battling Taboo, Conformity and Expectations I pushed myself towards the mast of the boat using every last ounce of strength. Before I could bring myself to my feet, I felt the boat being yanked away from underneath. I didn’t have to look to know that it was Captivity – the most unforgiving whirlpool in the ocean. My boat lurched in the whirling waters of Captivity and it seemed as though I would be sucked in. As all these forces became fiercer before my eyes, I wondered if this would ever end.
Captive in society’s rigid understanding of an ideal relationship, people with challenges are often restricted in their choice of partners. We are expected to be with another challenged person, or consider ourselves ‘lucky’ with whoever accepts us. It is difficult to have a happy and secure relationship when society constantly presumes and perpetuates an asymmetrical power dynamic, with the challenged person often being considered inferior to the other.
Sexuality is in itself a complex concept for a young person to understand and come to terms with. Disability brings with it added layers of struggle. A person living with challenges grapples with a number of factors, both internal as well as those imposed by a dogmatic and hostile society. While it is possible to address these individual internal struggles, it is over simplistic to think that this will create a level playing field for all. A real solution is only possible if we understand how a person internalizes the experience of living within a particular society. These experiences of family, friends, community, culture and political systems play a defining role in whether a person is allowed the opportunity to reach their full ability – sexually or otherwise.
While the external forces of Taboo, Conformity, Expectations and Captivity seem like insurmountable challenges, the one thing you and I can do is to actively participate in the creation of an inclusive society that each one of us truly wants to be a part of.
About the authors:
Nandika is a voluntary team member at the Amrit Foundation of India. Having graduated with a Masters in Human Rights from the London School of Economics, she is currently working in the fields of gender and disability rights.
Ujjwal is a voluntary team member at the Amrit Foundation of India. Having graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Management from the University of Warwick, he is currently interested in the study of marginalized groups particularly the inclusion of sexual minorities.