Voices

Seeing with my hands

A photo of a women in front of a illustrated body.

Dispatches from a workshop on sexuality with a group of women with visual impairments.

I co-facilitated a sexuality workshop the other day with a group of women with visual impairment. I have done this only once before – and that was on a different topic – so I was a little nervous about how to design this one without my vision getting in the way, so to speak. I took the help of two disability rights activists, experts in their fields, and with their inputs, pushed myself to think differently. The design slowly began to take shape and come into sharp focus.

I walked into a room full of energetic, engaged and very talkative women. From the word go, they had questions. Who was I? What was my age? What did I do? Was I sighted? Was I married? Did I have children? The first volley was about me; the second about the topic. What is sex? What does sexuality mean? Is it what happens on the “first night” between husband and wife? Is it okay to have sex during pregnancy, or will the baby feel pain? And then a question that made me smile, how many times can we have sex in a day? Whoa, whoa, so many questions and we were just 15 minutes into the workshop. It was obviously going to be a cracker of a day!

The discussion on sex and sexuality needed to be steered away from husband/wife relations — or what someone quaintly termed “legal sex” — into the realm of one’s own needs, desires and mutual consent with one’s partner(s), whoever they might be.

After an exercise that got them off their feet and into small groups, Renu and I started a very basic discussion on reproductive health. Menstruation, childbirth, delivery, gestation, lack of children … they already had a lot of information that they were eager to share. We both kept trying to move the discussion from simple theoretical knowledge (“Internet पे/sociology/biology कि किताब में मैंने पढ़ा …”) into more lived experiences. We showed them a three dimensional model of the female reproductive system that they “saw” with their hands. I carried it around and, in spite of myself, was fascinated at the amount of detail they caught with their fingertips. As you can imagine, questions flew thick and fast and Renu and I had to fly around the room to keep up.

The discussion on sex and sexuality needed to be steered away from husband/wife relations — or what someone quaintly termed “legal sex” — into the realm of one’s own needs, desires and mutual consent with one’s partner(s), whoever they might be. Connecting own desire with the larger world around us (like class and caste, for eg.). Consent (each time, every time), सहमति, रज़ामंदी, versus use of force (especially when compounded with being a woman with disability). We couldn’t explain the concept enough. We moved the discussion away from heteronormative boxes into understanding the range and fluidity of possibilities. Some already knew, others were stunned (or should I say shocked?) and yet others sat quietly, absorbing new ideas.

In sexuality workshops, I often do an exercise known as body mapping where participants draw and “map” the various parts of the body. It’s a visual exercise and is a very effective way to get the group to bond and talk about sensitive issues. But how would I do this with the group before me? I felt stumped till I did an “in her shoes” moment with myself. Then I jumped up and we “mapped” our own bodies — by touch of course — and talked about what it means to us. We laughed, joked around, some felt shame and embarrassment, much giggling happened, some enjoyed the exercise, others sat down and refused to be a part of it. It was all good. Hopefully, it set off a train of thinking that will lead to more curiosity and exploring.

As for me, I learned the importance of the tactile and understood that sight itself can make me see less. Can’t wait to learn more about how to look at this world differently.

Featured image credit: This image was originally published by CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.

About the author

Nandini Rao

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