“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.