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Sexual Consent as a Disabled Person

Agreement is a requisite for intimate encounters, including those with people with disabilities.
Hannah Shewan Stevens
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Hannah Shewan Stevens

Consent education teaches people how to set clear boundaries, stop sexual encounters when they choose to and prevent themselves from harming others. Having consensual sex is an agreement between two or more participants. This should be clearly communicated with an affirmative expression of consent.

Developing this practice is a complex process hindered by poor sex education in schools, hesitant parents ill-equipped to educate and the enduring taboo attached to discussing sex openly.

Disabled people, of which there are about 1 billion globally, face additional barriers to developing healthy consent practices. Barriers to well-informed consent add to higher rates of sexual assault and domestic violence among disabled people. Disabled women are at greater risk of experiencing rape than nondisabled women, with an estimated 39 percent of female rape victims being disabled, according to a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ableist sexual barriers

The most well-known form of societal sterilization for disabled people is desexualization. Simply put, it divests someone of sexual quality and power, stripping away a foundational principle of humanity.

Desexualization is a destructive force which convinces disabled people that they do not belong in sexual spaces. This practice, hidden in the underbelly of society's deepest prejudices, is fed by woeful sex education across the globe.

"Disability wasn't even mentioned at school, let alone a rounded part of my education, and [this] was one of the biggest reasons I went to great lengths to conceal my own disability, even to the point of injury," said Miss Pastel, a Sydney-based disabled body positivity, sexuality and disability activist who creates kink toys. "There was never a point where I felt like any of our sex ed was remotely relevant to a queer, trans, disabled goblin of a teenager."

Another contributing factor to barriers is infantilization, which refers to disabled people being treated as incapable children. It takes away independence and, ultimately, makes it harder to be assertive in sexual situations.

"Disabled persons often experience a lack of autonomy over their own bodies," explained Kaley Roosen, Ph.D., a Toronto-based clinical and health psychologist. "Going through various systems where they are limited to their set of problems or their diagnoses in school or medical systems, it can be hard to feel fully human. Others swoop in and decide what is best for our bodies."

Years of treatment can break down self-esteem and contribute to helplessness.

Disabled people are vulnerable to developing lower self-esteem, according to research in Social Science & Medicine journal, because they may not meet the norms of culturally constructed appearance, which complicates consent practices. They are taught to feel lucky to receive any attention, no matter how abusive or half-hearted it is.

The impact on the lives of disabled people

"When the message that we are not desirable is the one constantly being reinforced, any attention we get is going to feel like it comes with a price tag attached to it, and that price is our absolute consent," Miss Pastel said. "It is simply assumed that we should be thankful for the attention given to us and say yes to whatever it is that the individual wants."

Socializing disabled people to appease others contributes to difficulties in asserting themselves, so it's harder to set clear boundaries and easier to disregard them for someone deigning to show us attention.

"As a result, we tend to cross our own boundaries for others," said Candice Alaska, a photographer, writer and mental health advocate in Trinidad and Tobago who has borderline personality disorder (BPD). "Our desire for external validation, our fear of being abandoned or harmed by others act as powerful incentives for us to disregard our own boundaries."

The cycle of societal invalidation, absent sex education and desexualization inflicts untold damage on disabled people's ability to engage in sex confidently and safely. The factors contributing to this cycle and the widespread impact on disabled people are impossible to quantify, but the devastation is obvious.

Important lessons for disabled people

Sex education rarely considers the needs of disabled people, and despite disabled people often growing up to enjoy a satisfying sex life, they are precluded from learning how to have a safe sex life.

One in 3 adults with intellectual disabilities suffer sexual abuse, according to a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, and these adults are at risk of missing out on sex education entirely, according to the American Psychological Association.

"A good understanding of what consent looks like should be taught age-appropriately to young children," agreed Gerhard Poppel, clinical sexologist and co-founder of the Swann Center, an organization in Delaware offering inclusive sexual education. "Unfortunately, many parents and educators neglect this responsibility early on, leaving much room for misunderstandings and wrongful actions in minors, adolescents and youth."

Teaching people that consent is broader than a simple "yes" or "no" is a great way to start. Some disabled people may find it easier to use physical signals, such as shaking or nodding the head, and others develop signals unique to their relationship.

"Disabled persons also have different ways of communicating that may not include speech," Roosen explained. "Creative ways of communicating consent have to be managed and agreed upon ahead of time."

Learning how to set firm boundaries should be a cornerstone of disabled sex education, because we are infantilized into submitting to others' wishes. Writing a list of boundaries and triggers is a helpful tool. Say them in the mirror, like affirmations, and share them with potential sexual partners before engaging physically. Build up slowly; there is no rush when safety is the priority.

Destigmatizing disabled sexuality

Countless tools are available to aid disabled people in evolving their consent practices to protect themselves and forge a fulfilling sex life, but be patient, because finding accessible and adapted tools is a trial.

Regardless of what an ableist society thinks about our ability to consent, all disabled people have the right to explore their sensuality in a safe, consensual environment.

"We are talking about unpacking a lifetime of trauma, and this is not something that will go away overnight, but with time, care and support, it can definitely be navigated," Roosen said.