How Infantilization Corrupts Disabled Sexuality
Using a wealth of education, toys and articles tailored to our needs, we all engage with sexuality on our own terms. However, for disabled people, infantilization intervenes, an unwanted bodyguard prohibiting access to pleasure, comprehensive sex education and confident sexuality.
"Infantilization refers to the process where a disabled person is stripped down to a childlike dependent," said Kaley Roosen, Ph.D., a certified clinical health psychologist in Toronto. "It may include talking or just generally treating a disabled person as if they were a baby or toddler."
A sexual deterrent, infantilization removes disabled people's agency by buying into the misconception that they have no interest in sex or romance. It is destructive in all its forms but has a particularly corrupting influence on sexual development, fed by a lack of inclusive sex education across the globe.
Presentation of infantilization
"[Nondisabled people] do things in kindness, but think before you act," said Roxy Murray, a podcaster with multiple sclerosis living in the United Kingdom. "With disabled people, they feel like we're so depowered or vulnerable that they can just say anything."
Infantilization is a part of daily life, meaning disabled adults are considered akin to children in need of protection and guidance.
"People are used to seeing disabled people as a child or childlike," said Ren Grabert, M.Ed., a sexuality educator living in Chicago. "People are talked down to; they are talked to like they don't understand sexuality or that they don't know their own bodies. There's a lot of paternalism and other people acting like they know more about a disabled person's experience than they do."
'People are talked down to; they are talked to like they don't understand sexuality or that they don't know their own bodies.'
This sidelines disabled people's needs in sex education. According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Comparative Effectiveness Research, incorrect perceptions of disabled sexuality mean disabled teenagers and adults are not invited to screen for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or given education on and access to birth control.
A lack of comprehensive sex education for children and young people leaves disabled adults vulnerable to miseducation, manipulation and sexual abuse as they mature. Crime statistics in the United Kingdom indicate that disabled adults are nearly twice as likely to experience sexual assault and are significantly more likely to experience domestic violence, the risk of which could be lessened by robust sexual education.
"When we don't have control of various aspects of our life, it often means that we don't have the space to learn about ourselves," Grabert said. "If we don't know what we like and can't share that with a partner, how can we discuss other issues, like money or land ownership?"
"[Infantilization] makes you feel like you are not seen as equal," said disability, sexuality and reproductive health educator Robin Wilson-Beattie, who lives in San Francisco. "It makes assumptions about your independence, ability and right to make personal decisions. You feel 'less than' and not seen as an adult with rights and decision-making. It's depressing and makes you feel like you aren't welcome to be a part of society."
Infantilization's corrupting influence wreaks havoc on disabled people's self-esteem. Caterina Enaer, of Sydney, has multisystemic disabilities including MS and hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and has endured repetitive infantilization, particularly as a young person.
"It really took a toll on my self-esteem, but also my perception of the world, others and the way I would show up in relationships and what I wanted out of an intimate relationship," they said.
Infantilization strips disabled people of their dignity and humanity, which may lead to feelings of degradation and belittlement, Roosen explained.
Influence on relationship dynamics
"For a long time, I bought into the notion that partners I had were saints for dating me or staying with me during tough times," said Ohio-based sex educator Grayson Schultz. "That wound up with my ex and I being unhappy for a decent amount of time in a very long relationship. It also took a lot of therapy to work through the self-esteem issues that came along with those ideals."
Infantilization teaches disabled people that romantic fulfillment is a rarity for their community, meaning it's easy to stay in unhappy relationships out of fear of being unable to find new, fulfilling love. The inaccurate connection between disability and naivety also means many people are unwilling to consider a romance or sex with a disabled person because it's considered taboo.
In response, disabled people can develop hyper-independence or a deliberate dissociation from romance to protect themselves from heartbreak.
"To combat it, I ended up becoming hyper-independent for a really long time, not allowing romantic or sexual partners to see me when I was acutely sick and unable to hide my symptoms, not allowing them to hold me, nourish me, care for me, in many ways," Enaer said.
"I'm disabled and that comes with its own paths that I manage and work with in unique ways to make sure I reach the quality of life that I desire and know I deserve," Enaer said. "But that does not mean I'm not capable. I live with multisystemic disabilities and I'm a good partner."
The sources of infantilization–able-bodied and neurotypical people–must assume responsibility for its toxic influence by taking stock of biases and acknowledging how they impact their behavior. With disabled people's voices often suppressed, only the perpetrators of this prejudice have the power to undo the damage.
Everyone would love to believe that they are bias-free, and some people live in this ignorance forever, but the truth is, unrecognized prejudice allows infantilization to subdue disabled independence and sexuality.
"Even if you don't think that you're being ableist or have ablest ideas, it's really important to confront it and to try to make a difference, because we have been fighting forever as disabled people and it's just only getting us so far," Grabert said