Understanding sexuality and disability in China

22 December 2014

I work with Pink Space, an NGO (and IDS partner) working on disadvantaged sexual desires and sexualities in China. Our target groups include women with HIV, sex workers, transgendered people, the wives of gay men, bisexual women and lesbians. We worked mostly on female sexualities until 2005.

I recently attended a workshop at IDS during which a presentation on disability and sexuality inspired me. After discussions with the participants at the workshop, I realised that disability and sexuality is a subject that lacks research and therefore not only the general public, but also sexual rights activists have little understanding of it. There is a great need for further research that can support and guide disability movements. I took the idea home, and we began our own empirical study on disability and sexuality.

Since my return we have begun working with people with mental disabilities, people who are visually impaired and homosexual people with various disabilities. We have run art workshops and made films and photo exhibitions based on our projects, all of which have tried to explore the sexual desires and needs of people with disabilities and whether and how these desires are expressed and fulfilled.

The work has provided us with case studies which we hope will have an impact in terms of changing the law. We found that the sexual desires and needs of people with disabilities are not recognised or understood by their carers, guardians or parents. Yet carers have extensive power to restrain and exert control over their sexual desires. If people with mental disabilities show their sexual needs and dare to fulfil their sexual desires, they risk facing mistreatment, punishment or even legal penalties.

We found that gender stereotypes also contribute to the failure to understand sexualities of people with disabilities. Often men with disabilities are thought of as perpetrators and women are regarded as victims in the sex act. People with mental disabilities who have sex, especially men, are punished, controlled or penalised. It is contradictory that people with mental disabilities are frequently regarded as lacking the ability to think or take responsibility for their actions, yet when they express and fulfil their sexual desires they can be penalised or sentenced at which point they become regarded as capable and responsible.

There are fears among the general public about sex in general, and greater fears about sex involving people with disabilities. People with disabilities are either thought of having no desires and abilities sexually, or they are thought of as sex maniacs. These two extremes in thinking and problematic ways of understanding disability and sexuality are common. They are also reflected in the laws and regulations in China.

Most Chinese laws and regulations do not regard people with disabilities as sexual beings, and are reluctant to recognise their existence. Therefore they are silenced, overlooked and marginalised. Their sexual needs remain unrecognised, unreflected, unrepresented, or unprotected. All of which has an enormous effect on their lives.

People with disabilities have more sexually transmitted diseases that those without disabilities. We interviewed a gay man with visual impairment who gave reasons why gay men are more vulnerable to HIV and STIs. These include lack of sex education, less access to safer sex information, and less capacity and courage to ask for safer sex.

Our case studies point out a huge gap between laws and reality. The current laws in China, either completely ignore the special needs of people with disabilities, or are over protective, assuming that people with disabilities have no sexual desires, but need their guardians, parents or social workers to protect them from being abused, raped and falling victim to sexual violence.

Ignorance and over protectiveness are related to lack of research and poor understanding of the situation.

The Policy Audit that we have published provides more information about our case studies and analysis. We hope that it can motivate further studies and eventually bring about changes in laws and practices locally and globally. In China, disability movements and NGOs are working together hand in hand with sexuality movements and academics. We can expect promising outcomes from their collaborations.

He Xiaopei is a member of Pink Space and is working with IDS researchers on the UK Aid- funded programme 'Sexuality, Poverty and Law'.

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