Written by Jalasa Sapkota
The Importance of Comprehensive Sexual Education for Women with Disabilities:
In our contemporary society, discussions surrounding sexuality have long been constrained and deemed as taboo. Nevertheless, it is imperative for us to recognize that sexuality extends beyond mere physical intercourse; it encompasses a broad spectrum of elements including education, consent, confidentiality, and various other facets. Regrettably, individuals with disabilities are frequently marginalized from engaging in conversations about sexuality, leaving them feeling estranged from this essential topic. With the emergence of digital platforms and our growing dependence on the virtual realm, people now have more accessible avenues to explore sexual content and obtain comprehensive sexual education tailored to their preferences. However, the inclusion and active involvement of individuals with disabilities in these digital environments pose significant obstacles. Most platforms are not designed with their specific needs in mind, and particularly for women with disabilities, their ability to express themselves sexually online, whether through social media, online chat rooms, or forums, is severely limited.
We must dispel the misconception that women with disabilities do not require awareness of sexual education or that they are not considered sexually desirable. In this era of progressive digital advancements, it is imperative to ensure that online platforms are accessible and welcoming for individuals with disabilities. This includes guaranteeing that accessing sexual content and obtaining information about comprehensive sexual education for women with disabilities is available without any bias or discrimination. Sexuality is an intricate and multifaceted aspect of human life, encompassing biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors. It is influenced by various factors such as age, gender, sexual orientation, culture, and religion. Sexuality can be expressed in diverse ways, including through thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and relationships. It is a natural and vital part of life, capable of providing immense pleasure and fulfillment. Likewise, sexual health is a state of overall physical, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It goes beyond the absence of disease and encompasses the ability to enjoy and express one’s sexuality in a safe and healthy manner.
Personal Experience and Story of exclusion:
To elaborate on the existing gap in acquiring comprehensive sexual education for women with disabilities, let me provide an example based on my personal experience.
As a woman with vision impairment, I face difficulties when researching topics related to sexual expression and comprehensive sexual education online. However, due to the privilege of exposure and available resources, I am fortunate enough to find it relatively easier to navigate such content compared to women with disabilities who have less exposure. When I deliver training specifically tailored for women with disabilities, particularly regarding the internet and sexuality, I have noticed factors like shyness, shame, and lack of awareness among these women. They are hesitant to openly discuss their sexual expression, and it is important to note that this hesitation is not their fault. This highlights how, as a society, we have marginalized an already marginalized group. Women with disabilities are still unable to fully comprehend their reproductive organs, understand the functions of these sensitive organs, and grasp their overall sexual well-being. In my training sessions, I primarily focus on various aspects, such as highlighting the differences between expressing sexual expression in online and offline spaces, emphasizing the importance of accessible online platforms or forums to provide comprehensive sexual education for women with disabilities, and creating a safe and secure online space for them to explore their sexual expression. Additionally, I discuss concepts like privacy, consent, and body positivity to further comprehend the topic.
The Role of Digital Platforms in Accessing Comprehensive Sexual Education for Women with Disabilities:
Digital platforms play a crucial role in providing accessible and inclusive comprehensive sexual education for women with disabilities. Comprehensive sexual education encompasses a wide range of topics related to human sexuality, including reproductive health, consent, healthy relationships, gender identity, sexual orientation, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Leveraging technology, these platforms disseminate accurate information, promote inclusivity, and empower women with disabilities to make informed decisions about their sexual health. One of the key advantages of digital platforms is their ability to reach a diverse audience, including women with disabilities. With the widespread availability of the internet and mobile devices, women from different backgrounds, abilities, and geographical locations can access sexual education resources. This accessibility is particularly crucial for women with disabilities, as they may face physical or social barriers to accessing traditional educational resources. Digital platforms bridge this gap and ensure that women with disabilities can access the information they need to make informed choices about their sexual health.
Navigating Sexual Pleasure for Person with Disabilities in Digital Space:
Exploring comprehensive sexuality in the digital space can be a source of pleasure for individuals with disabilities. However, they often encounter numerous challenges in online environments. Many people with disabilities express feeling judged not only by society but also within the disabled community itself when it comes to sexual expression, which can take various forms such as sharing pictures, writing, or poetry. Accessibility becomes another hurdle as disabled individuals rely on their parents or friends to navigate online platforms for their own sexual pleasure that are not designed with their needs in mind. This dependency not only undermines their confidence but also compromises their privacy. For example, if a visually impaired person wishes to access pornographic content, if such websites and content are not accessible, they would have to depend upon their caretakers which violates their privacy and also can stigmatize them. While there are technological advancements like using incognito mode for privacy, the lack of awareness and training among individuals with disabilities hinders their ability to take advantage of such tools. Dating platforms, which could potentially provide avenues for sexual pleasure, often fail to cater to the diverse needs of disabled individuals, limiting their chances of interaction. Furthermore, discussing important aspects of sexual pleasure, including sex toys and related content, is often considered taboo in society, leaving those with disabilities excluded from such conversations. Even if they are aware, they face stigmatization due to the insecurity and confidentiality barriers that persist because of disability. As a result, individuals with disabilities not only face difficulties in accessing sexual information and content, but they also struggle to explore and fulfill their sexual desires due to the received and inaccessible digital settings they encounter.
According to a study conducted by Body and Data titled “BEYOND ACCESS: WOMEN AND QUEER PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES EXPRESSING SELF AND EXPLORING SEXUALITY ONLINE,” not only women with disabilities who are disadvantaged or have limited exposure, but also activist women with disabilities or those in positions of awareness and leadership, expressed their sexual expression and online pleasure. However, they faced prejudice from within the disability community. Moreover, participants mentioned that their internet usage was restricted by socio-cultural factors, including being overprotected and having their online behavior monitored by families and partners. Participants also highlighted the lack of representation and accessibility in pornography as barriers to exploring their sexuality.
The research involved activists with disabilities who shared their perspectives on what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ expressions, some of which were self-imposed. The participants felt pressured to always project a “motivational” image for the disability community, which limited their ability to express themselves freely and spontaneously. Nonetheless, many participants emphasized the importance of discussing the sexuality of women and queer individuals with disabilities and promoting acceptance of their sexuality.
It was assumed that engaging in conversations about sexuality, pleasure, and consent would lead to social disapproval, thus hindering consensual and mutually beneficial exploration of pleasure. Even those who consumed internet content on sexual pleasure refrained from sharing it online due to the fear of losing credibility as activists.
Challenges in Providing Comprehensive Sexual Education in Digital Spaces
However, when transferring sexual education to the digital sphere, numerous challenges arise. One of the primary hurdles is the lack of accessibility features in online platforms. Websites, educational materials, and interactive tools often fail to incorporate accommodations for individuals with disabilities, such as alternative text for images, closed captioning for videos, or compatibility with assistive technologies. This deficiency in accessibility hinders the effective dissemination of information to women with disabilities, limiting their participation and engagement in comprehensive sexual education initiatives.
Moreover, another obstacle is the dearth of tailored content that specifically caters to the unique needs and experiences of women with disabilities. Existing educational materials may overlook the intersectional aspects of disability and sexuality, failing to address the distinct challenges and concerns faced by this demographic. Consequently, women with disabilities may encounter a sense of exclusion or find it difficult to relate to the content presented, thereby impeding their ability to fully benefit from the educational resources available in the digital space.
Nevertheless, several solutions can help surmount these challenges and ensure that comprehensive sexual education becomes more accessible and inclusive for women with disabilities in digital settings. Firstly, developers and designers should prioritize creating online platforms that adhere to accessibility guidelines and incorporate features to accommodate various disabilities. This includes employing compatibility with assistive technologies, implementing alternative text, and providing closed captioning options for multimedia content.
Furthermore, it is vital to promote the active involvement and consultation of women with disabilities in the development and design of sexual education materials. Their input and experiences can contribute invaluable insights, allowing for the creation of content that is more representative, relatable, and tailored to their specific needs.
Additionally, partnerships between organizations working in the fields of disability rights and sexual education can foster collaboration and knowledge sharing. By combining expertise, resources, and networks, these partnerships can promote the development and dissemination of comprehensive sexual education initiatives that cater to the needs of women with disabilities. Such collaborations can lead to the creation of innovative approaches, including interactive online workshops, accessible educational materials, and peer support networks that empower women with disabilities in their sexual journeys.
Beyond the technology, there needs to be a wider discussion and conscious effort in having conversations and advocacy that systematically punishes women, specifically women and queer persons with disability for sexually expressing themselves online and offline, importance of sexual autonomy and agency in their lives, and questioning narratives that are misogynistic and ableist. These narratives impact people with disability in accessing safer and comprehensive sexual education in myriads of ways.
While discussions are valuable, it is now crucial to take action. Turning these points into reality requires tangible steps. It is high time that we acknowledge that women with disabilities have sexual desires and are a part of our society who need education on comprehensive sexual and reproductive health. Online platforms should prioritize making their services accessible, approachable, and confidential for women with disabilities who wish to explore their sexual expression. Unfortunately, various applications, including dating platforms, shopping apps, and other resources related to sexual content, remain inaccessible and unapproachable for these women. It is imperative that we address this need as soon as possible.
In conclusion, the urgent need for accessible and inclusive comprehensive sexual education in digital spaces for women with disabilities cannot be overstated. The marginalized status and lack of adequate resources available to this group have perpetuated misunderstandings and impeded their ability to explore their sexual expression and maintain their sexual well-being. It is crucial to recognize and affirm that women with disabilities possess sexual desires and are entitled to comprehensive sexual education. To bridge the current divide, online platforms must prioritize accessibility by ensuring their services are welcoming, private, and accommodating for women with disabilities. Overcoming these challenges necessitates collaboration and consultation with women with disabilities, as their input and experiences are invaluable in shaping educational materials that are representative, relatable, and tailored to their specific needs. By taking these concrete steps, we can create a more inclusive and empowering environment for women with disabilities to embrace their sexual expression, make informed decisions, and uphold their sexual well-being. It is imperative to dismantle barriers, challenge misconceptions, and ensure that comprehensive sexual education is accessible to all individuals, irrespective of disability. Only through collective efforts can we cultivate a society that embraces the diversity of human sexuality and upholds the rights and well-being of every individual.
Body & Data. (2020). Beyond access: Women and queer persons with disabilities expressing self and exploring sexuality online. Retrieved from https://bodyanddata.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Beyond-Access_BodyData_EROTICS-research-min.pdf
World Health Organization. (2006). Sexual Health: A New Conceptual Framework. Geneva: World Health Organization.
Guttmacher Institute. (2017). The Case for Comprehensive Sexuality Education. New York: Guttmacher Institute.
I am Jalasa Sapkota, a visually impaired individual and an assisting researcher at Diverse Patterns Limited. Besides, I hold a general membership position at Prayatna Nepal, where I actively advocate for the empowerment of women with disabilities as an inclusive digital rights activist. My advocacy work focuses on promoting equal access and opportunities for individuals with disabilities, particularly in the digital technology realm. Additionally, I write about issues related to women with disabilities and disability and digital inclusion.