Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm

Photo of my wheelchair in a dark room, silhouetted against a doorway, with a large shirt outlined in lights hanging against a dark wall.

“Forced Intimacy” is a term I have been using for years to refer to the common, daily experience of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world. This often takes the form of being expected to share (very) personal information with able bodied people to get basic access, but it also includes forced physical intimacy, especially for those of us who need physical help that often requires touching of our bodies. Forced intimacy can also include the ways that disabled people have to build and sustain emotional intimacy and relationships with someone in order to get access—to get safe, appropriate and good access.

 

I have experienced forced intimacy my entire life as a disabled child, youth and adult. I am always expected to do the work of opening myself up for others’ benefit, education, curiosity or benevolent oppression.

 

Forced intimacy is a cornerstone of how ableism functions in an able bodied supremacist world. Disabled people are expected to “strip down” and “show all our cards” metaphorically in order to get the basic access we need in order to survive. We are the ones who must be vulnerable—whether we want to or not—about ourselves, our bodyminds and our abilities. Forced intimacy was one of the many ways I learned that consent does not exist for my disabled asian girl bodymind. People are allowed to ask me intrusive questions about my body, make me “prove” my disability or expect me to share with them every aspect of my accessibility needs. I learned how to simultaneously shrink myself and nonconsensually open myself up as a disabled girl of color every damn day.

 

Forced intimacy is the opposite of access intimacy. It feels exploitative, exhausting and at times violating. Because I am physically disabled and use a manual wheelchair, I often experience forced intimacy when able bodied people push my wheelchair without my consent or when I am in situations where I have to be pushed by people I do not feel safe with, know or who are actively harassing me while pushing me. This often happens when I am traveling and have to rely on strangers for my access needs. I cannot count the number of times a strange man has pushed my wheelchair in the airport, while saying offensive and gross comments to me. These are the moments where disability, race, gender, immigration, class, age and sexuality collide together at once, indistinguishable from one another.

 

Another example of forced intimacy is when I am somewhere and need an arm to lean on while walking, as I often do, and I have to be physically close to and touch someone I do not want to. This happened much more when I was growing up as a disabled child and youth, before I had more say over my life and the people in it. Forced intimacy is also my entire experience in the medical industrial complex with doctors, nurses, brace makers, physical therapists and practitioners, none of which I ever consented to. It is also the many moments in my daily adult life when I have to share more information than needed to get access for events I would like to attend from folks, including “comrades,” who do not post any accessibility information on their event pages or flyers, but have an “accessibility needs” section on their Google forms. Tip: if you don’t provide any accessibility information about your event, then I cannot assess what my access needs will be. Am I supposed to list out every single access need I might ever possibly have, simply because of your ignorance?

 

Even in writing this essay, I am pushing back against the ableist notion that disabled people should just be grateful for whatever we get—whatever crumbs are thrown our way. Well, at least they even had an “accessibility needs” section on their form. And most importantly, I am pushing back against the forced intimacy and emotional labor I am supposed to constantly be engaged in so people won’t be “mad” at me, because as disabled people know all too well, able bodied people will not help you with your access unless they “like” you. This is a very real and dangerous caged reality that I and many other disabled people live in and it is one of the main reasons why forced intimacy exists.

 

Able bodied people treat access as a logistical interaction, rather than a human interaction. People I don’t know or who have never even had a conversation with me about disability casually expect to be my “access person,” without realizing that there is significant trust and competency that must be built. People assume that I will accept any access—again, any crumbs—thrown my way and of course that I should be ever-grateful for it. They don’t realize that consent exists on both ends. Sure, I know how to survive and get by with ableist access, that is a skill I will never lose as long as I am living in an ableist world; but I am also working for a world where disabled people get to be human and have consent over our bodies, minds and intimacy.

 

The contradiction of having to survive in the oppressive world you are trying to change is always complicated and dehumanizing.

 

One of the reasons that forced intimacy has been so prominent in my life is because there is an inherent intimacy to access—or at least, in my experience, to my access. When someone is helping me with access, I am vulnerable; I am interdependent with them, even if they don’t realize it. There is a magnificent vulnerability to access and to disability that is powerful and potentially transformative, if we would only tap into it. Sadly, in an ableist world, access and disability get stripped of their transformative powers and instead get distorted into “dependent,” “burden” and “tragic.” Forced intimacy is a byproduct of this and functions as a constant oppressive reminder of domination and control.

 

Though I have written here about forced intimacy as it relates to disability and access, it is in no way relegated only to ableism. I have experienced forced intimacy as it relates to other forms of oppression as well, and it manifests itself in all kinds of different ways. It has been a constant part of my life and my experience as a queer disabled korean transracial and transnational adoptee woman survivor. The forced intimacy of transracial and transnational adoption, for example, is a never-ending black hole for so many of us.

 

I cannot account here all of the many ways that forced intimacy has so fundamentally impacted and shaped me, that is for another piece of writing. I ache for the day when that will no longer be the case, especially for future generations of disabled children.

 

 

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47 Comments

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47 responses to “Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm

  1. Reblogged this on Celebrating Individual Abilities and commented:
    “Forced intimacy is a cornerstone of how ableism functions …. This often takes the form of being expected to share (very) personal information with able bodied people to get basic access.”

  2. Shirin

    Powerful article… thank you!!!

  3. Pingback: Mia Mingus on Forced Intimacy – The New Floridian

  4. Truth to Ableism! Thanks for this!

  5. Nicole Sheridan

    Hello there!
    My name is Nicole and I am the parent of a 4.5yr old girl who is blind (w some light perception) who will most likely be a Braille reader exclusively and use a white cane her entire life. I always had this sinking feeling about people having too much access to her and her, as a very independent, proud and adventurous young lady feeling burdened by knowing that she will, at times, have to rely on the help of strangers —-please , if you would, share some thoughts and shed some light on ways I can prevent her from becoming a victim of this forced intimacy. Thank you for sharing
    My Best,
    Nicole

  6. Yes, Yes, thank you!!! Nailed it beautifully- and it’s exhausting, while hoping feverishly that whatever you share with them, would not be backfiring back on you, and knowing that gotta be ‘happy with crumbs’. Fuck that. Thank you for putting on monitor what many of us have been struggling to explain.

  7. What a stellar piece of writing. I may have already commented, but my daughter just sent it to me after the most treacherous evening at a fundraiser that forced intimacy with a hammer and at which my monster voice was employed to terminate forced intimacy with do-gooders which only took 15 seconds to descend and threatened to toss my daughter on her head.

  8. Wow!! thank you ! While you spoke mainly of physical issues it made me aware of how I have treated those with intellectual disabilities. It makes me wonder how much of the behaviour that we see and label as being something we need to medicate or teach discipline for is really a reaction ot th forced intimacy that you mentioned. I am passing this on to as something to think about .

  9. Mr Robert Blanchett

    HT Amy Sinclair
    Yup.
    It’s a denial of agency and framing of dependence doing normal things in one’s own time and way.

    Lost count of the number of times people have:
    – offered a seat without asking (and then received a varying range of negative responses from frown to shouted abuse if I declined)

    – grabbed my stick, frame or door that I’m actually holding (or me) again without asking as I’m negotiating exit or egress from a building or vehicle

    This is akin to grabbing someone’s legs midstride.

    It’s potentially dangerous and often done in response to:
    – their own anxiety
    – demonstration of gallantry to a third party (boyfriends on trams traveling with girlfriends are notorious)
    – to expedite a perceived or assumed delay or risk in loading, unloading or traveling.

  10. Reblogged this on Rambling Justice and commented:
    Written by Mia Mingus, at her blog “Leaving Evidence”

  11. Julia

    Hello,
    This article is very enlightening about issues of forced intimacy that you must face as a disabled person. However it does not offer any suggestions as to how I as an able-bodied person can be a better ally in these types of situations. I am careful to ask for consent with regards to pushing a person’s wheelchair and other such interactions but I am wondering what else I can do to make those around me more comfortable. I am also unclear what you meant in regards to transracial and transnational adoption and would like to learn. Thanks!

  12. Michelle Levin

    In 5 minutes you changed my life thank you! I have been dealing with a progressive debilitating disease since age 7. I have all these rapey feelings and dreams when I have never been violated in that particular way. But I have definitely been violated in large and small ways consistently my whole life. This is something at age 45 I am just beginning to understand and deal with. I had some episodes of traumatically intimately abusive events. Those I was well aware of. But the rest seemed normal and unavoidable and therefore unnamed most of my life.

  13. jess

    Hi Nicole,
    the best advice I have received is that I should have the authority to decide who will provide assistance to me and how that assistance will be provided, and that it is not “rude”, “ungrateful”, or “mean” to be firm in asserting my boundaries and needs.
    My autonomy and my consent are important and it is my right to decline assistance, ask for space, give people clear instructions when they offer help, and to go about my life as I feel is right.
    Many people will have negative reactions to me – their fear and distress and anger and hate will sometimes show itself around me – and that is not my fault, nor is it my responsibility to educate them or satisfy their curiosity. I do not have to apologise for my disability – and neither does your daughter.
    Disability, blindness – these are not negative words. These are concepts that people have learned to respond to negatively. Encourage her to use whatever words she wants for herself and to decide what she can laugh about – and what other people can’t. “The Social Model of Disability” (from wikipedia): “The social model of disability identifies systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) that mean society is the main contributory factor in disabling people.”
    I believe we still have a long way to go as a society to truly be as inclusive as we like to think we are. Disability is completely natural, and should be embraced as simply another part of the human experience. People treat us so differently because they do not understand that there is no true difference. They fail to truly connect and empathise.
    It is important for a child to understand that they are not a reflection of the way they might be treated for having a disability – even by adults. They are not stupid because people talk to them as though they can’t understand, they are not misbehaving because someone becomes louder or more insistent after having their offered assistance politely declined, their rights and feelings don’t matter less for being ignored or talked over.
    If you have the opportunity to do so, look for community. It can be so isolating for both of you, but being connected to other people who share your experiences can be very empowering.
    My best to you both.

  14. My daughter experiences this. It’s mostly having to tell so many people embarrassing personal details about her illness.

  15. Chris G

    Daniel Kish has a rather different take on disability and in particular blindness that may be of interest.
    https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/544/batman

  16. Pingback: Grim Procrastination Wednesday Links! | Gerry Canavan

  17. Sasha

    Thank you so much for sharing this. As an event promoter, I will definitely take your comments into consideration (I’m usually the only one who even thinks to ensure there’s a path wide enough for a wheel chair etc.). I would also encourage you to speak up, and I understand how this would be uncomfortable in social/personal situations, but in the case of airports, doctors offices, etc, you are absolutely entitled to report mistreatment and it breaks my heart that this has happened countless times. However, each time we say something it’s one step (or rotation, as it were) towards change. As someone who has been victimized by authority figures, I know how vulnerable it is to file that report, but it’s worth it. An officer who victimized me because of my mental health issues was assigned sensitivity training and the report will follow him on his record from job to job.

  18. Tonia

    Thank you, Julia. I am also looking for more ways to be an ally. Looking forward to Ms. Mingus replying.

    I am specifically concerned about the actions I take in an ‘attempt’ to limit my husband’s physical and emotional pain, that cause me to feel ‘controlling’.

    For example, just now, while on an extremely rare outing with our 4 year old son, who understandably didn’t want the special time with his dad to end, I spoke *for* my husband and told our son that we had been out for a while and that we needed to get his dad home…that it was so special to have his dad with us, but that we needed to understand his limitations… I am always doing this because when I don’t, his dad will say yes to whatever it is, despite knowing it’s going to be excruciating for himself. He will say okay, despite knowing that it will take at least a week to recover, and in that week, our son will rarely see his dad.

    The whole drive home, I questioned myself. I don’t feel it’s my place to speak for my husband, but I also know that he won’t speak for himself. It’s painful for me to watch the repercussions of him over doing it, but I also know it’s not supposed to be about me.

    But as his ‘caregiver’, am I guilty of neglect if I don’t try to keep him safe?

    While I have my own issues with two back injuries, anxiety, depression, and ADD, I know that my husband feels I am able-bodied compared to himself. I don’t want to be ableist, but I also don’t want to seem like I am unaware.

    Any advice is greatly appreciated.

  19. Chris G, the article and comment are not about disabled people being negative, and I think your link kind of promotes the idea that disabled people should just be more positive and then all their problems will disappear. The article and comment is about how they struggle everyday with the concept of forced intimacy, meaning they have to let down physical and emotional walls that able-bodied people aren’t socially forced to let down. In other words, the aim here is for both disabled and able-bodied people to understand that people with disabilities deserve to feel safe and secure rather than ashamed or embarrassed to stand up for themselves, and that they should never have to justify their personal & physical struggles to anyone. Their disabilities shouldn’t mean that other people get to disregard their human qualities. I see that your link is very interesting, but using this for an article/comment like the ones above dismisses the point of what was written.

  20. Reblogged this on The other side and commented:
    There are parallels for invisible disability, and this post helps me to clarify something I have been wrestling with. It strikes me that autistic people must bear all their psychological vulnerabilities to gain accommodations – we are forced to share intimate knowledge in order to get our access needs met.

  21. Oh gods, this is so my life! Thank you for sharing.x

  22. I read your blog dear literally my eyes are wet right now..but I m not gonna console you for being disabled..you are above from the able persons…because your soul is pure.
    Some of them who didn’t express their exhaust feelings on screen but you did…you are awesome dear and this blog is really motivational blog for those who drop their guns without fight..
    This is the real fight guys and you are a real hero I must say.

  23. Thank you for this very powerful and insightful post. As someone who has lived with an invisible disability (IN-ability?) ever since an accident 8+ years ago, I can relate to much of what you describe. The lack of visual cues (wheelchair, cane, seeing-eye dog, etc) is a huge hindrance, raising eyebrows and suspicions whenever I request what others would consider ‘special treatment’ or I line up in a queue for ‘disabled.’ The general absence of compassion and understanding is, sadly, not only lacking but all too often, appalling. On the other hand, I also occasionally find myself in an encounter where I can offer a calm explanation, which results in a spark of enlightenment in the eyes of others. I’d like to think that perhaps they will pass it forward…

  24. VisualVox

    Reblogged this on Aspie Under Your Radar and commented:
    This is a great post, and it reminds me yet again of why I don’t talk much about being autistic… with anyone, really. Even in safe, autistic spaces, there can be too much intrusion , as others seek to connect with me in ways that are actually very uncomfortable for me.

    I find it especially off-putting with certain autistic men, for reasons too complex to describe and explain at this point in time. Not *all* autistic men, but … well, men in general tend to be “problematic” for me for a whole bunch of reasons.

    Most of it has to do with how men are socialized and what’s expected from gendered individuals. It takes a very “evolved” individual to interact with me in ways that aren’t offensive on some level.

    So, I keep everybody and everything at arms’ length. Shields up. Is it lonely? Not nearly as lonely as being stuck with stereotypical gender roles and people who don’t know how to socially navigate in any other way.

    Life goes on. And I have myself intact. That’s what matters.

    Great post… Nice.

  25. My sister who has epilepsy has been disabled my whole life, and I think she would agree. it is a big choice, who you allow to be there- when you have to allow someone to be there even if you don’t like it. I am sorry to hear your experiences have been so hard, it sounds like there is a need for strong improvement especially in airports- where I can’t even imagine a disabled person ever traveling alone through. Then again, we all take turns watching my sister, who has had five brain surgeries- and still she’ll never have the freedom that she once did even with things in a better place than before.

  26. Many thanks for sharing. Powerful.

  27. Another wonderfully written post Sonia. I feel sad to read your story and hope that I have not added to the pain of any disabled person. You help me expand my awareness and perceptions. Thank you.

  28. This challenged and taught me. Thank you for sharing with such candor.

  29. Thank you for this very insightful and personal point of view about forced intimacy. This was eye-opening for me. As an able adult who works with kids with disabilities, primarily autism, I would like to know how I should respond to an adult with a disability, so as not to make him or her uncomfortable, embarrassed, or angry. I like to think that I treat people with disabilities as I would anyone else, but I’m sure that occasionally I do something that causes a person discomfort(as I’m sure we all do). After reading your post, I believe I will be more mindful of the issue of forced intimacy. Your post has given me an excellent perspective into that.

  30. Excuse my bad english: this article was so intense, very powerful and it made me reflect on the topic again as many years ago I wrote an essay/ proposal for the government IN Mexico and of course I realize that in my country we are in the prehistory regarding this. Please keep writing

  31. Brooklyn's Corner

    Wow. I have a disabled son that’s two and I need all the information that I can get my hands on to make sure that his needs are met. Thank you 😋

  32. The key is to always ask, even if it was okay last week it may not be okay this week. I’m a live-in for two adults with disabilities and every day/time we get consent to assist.

  33. Wonderful article! I do have one question, in case you or someone else wouldn’t mind answering. If someone is disabled, is there a polite way to offer to help them with something, or is it always best to do nothing unless asked for help?

  34. I am someone with a vocal disability and I have experienced forced intimacy. I have been told to explain myself countless times regarding my voice. I have no issue answering simple inquiries, but when I am expected to go into detail about my voice and why I am the way I am, it just feels bad. I’ve had a previous manager tell me that their diabetes is the same as my vocal disability because it is not a physical disability and that I should explain to everyone I encounter on the job why my voice is the way it is. As a Black woman, forced intimacy, in the sense that I have to make able bodied people comfortable with me, reminds me of respectability politics and how Black people are often expected to police their behavior to make others more comfortable.

  35. Enlightening. Thank you for your honesty.

  36. I think so too. Great post

  37. Absolutely! I love the idea you expose that we must open up our vulnerabilities for them to be at all recognized. It is exhausting!

  38. Robynne Black

    Thankyou Chris G, that is such an honest account. I’ve seen both sides being an ex support worker, and then developing MS myself. Sometimes you need to share, and sometimes its okay to say ‘its none of your damn business, thats private’. Thankyou for writing.

  39. This was a great read. Opened up a new sphere . Well written! <3

  40. Reblogged this on The Comfortable Coop and commented:
    Having find myself, too often, being to accept the touch of strangers I found this article important.