As I write this, I’m more than halfway through our latest Feminist Book Club book — Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility — and deep into the heart of Sex Ed for All Month. Previously known as Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, the month of May has since been earmarked as a time to raise awareness around how we provide (or don’t provide) young people with adequate sexuality education and resources.
For me, this month brings up questions of those we tend to leave behind in conversations about sex ed. This includes BIPOC students, LGBTQ+ students and, yes, disabled students.
Disabled Youth Have Historically Been Shut Out of Public Education
The history of disabled folks’ access to education is grim. In fact, the United States only guaranteed disabled children access to a public school education in 1975. The law that was passed at that time — the Education for All Handicapped Children Act — required school districts to provide disabled students with access to the same information and classes as their peers.
Even so, as disabled youth have gained greater access to much of the overall public school curriculum, sexuality education (as per usual) lags behind.
And then there’s our troubling history of forced sterilization. I’ve written previously on this topic, with a focus on BIPOC. But thousands of Americans with disabilities have also been subject to coercive sterilization.
SIECUS recently released a report that includes this history. But, briefly, disabled youth were, once upon a time, typically confined to institutions. And beginning in the early 1900s, they were also targeted by supporters of the eugenics movement, who pushed for the sterilization of those with cognitive disabilities in an attempt to “cleanse” the human gene pool of “undesirable” traits.
In fact, these actions had government backing, particularly with the passing of Buck v. Bell in 1927. Would it surprise you to know that this Supreme Court ruling has never been formally overturned? It’s true. The non-consensual sterilization of people with cognitive disabilities is still legal in some parts of the United States.
This history (which isn’t yet ancient history) needs to be openly acknowledged.
But that’s not the only deficiency that exists in sex ed for disabled youth.
Disabled Youth Are Often Desexualized and Infantilized
Able-bodied folks often assume disabled folks (whether physically or cognitively disabled) are asexual. They presume a lack of desire. They infantilize them, presuming them too innocent or too immature to engage in a sexual relationship. They’re unable to imagine disabled folks as sexually or romantically attractive to others.
For this reason, disabled youth are often excluded from sex education classes — literally. In many cases, they’re removed from classrooms as soon as the anatomy slides go up.
This decision to opt disabled students out of sexuality education is just one example of how they’re typically excluded from most decisions that are made about their bodies and their care.
And these decisions are made for disabled youth despite the fact that they’re just as capable as anyone else of having satisfying sex lives, loving relationships, and strong families.
Non-Inclusive Sex Ed Presents a Very Limited View of Sex and Sexuality
Even when disabled youth are allowed to take sex ed, the curriculum often presents a very limited vision of what sex is and what it might look like. In my non-FBC work, I write a lot about how important it is to expand the definition of sex to encompass more than just penis-in-vagina (PIV) penetrative intercourse. This narrow definition of sex leaves out people of varying ages, abilities, and sexualities. And heck, this goal-oriented version of sex can be a bummer for cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied folks, too.
As an extension of that, these curricula also present a limited vision of who is having sex. PIV sex aside, the photos and videos and anatomy tools used by instructors typically depict only white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied people. Representation in sex ed matters. Students need to be able to see themselves in what we teach. And when they don’t, they may assume that the lessons they’re learning are not relevant to them.
This should go without saying, but disabled folks deserve pleasurable sex and healthy relationships, too.
Without Inclusive Sex Ed, Disabled Youth Are at Greater Risk
I hate that so much of the sex ed that’s out there is fear-based. There’s such an enduring focus on the negative impacts of sexual activity to the exclusion of all else (pleasure, anyone?). But learning about these risks, and learning how to have safe sex, is still essential.
Unfortunately, inadequate sex ed has led to higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancies among disabled youth. Again, this is a byproduct of students not seeing themselves in the curriculum and, by extension, not learning about the contraceptive options and other safer sex options that might work best for them.
(Real Talk: This is a problem for students of all identities depending upon the school district they’re in and upon whether or not that district has adopted a comprehensive sex ed curriculum, but these problems are especially exacerbated for disabled students.)
And This Lack of Adequate Sex Ed Only Increases Instances of Sexual Violence and Abuse
Disabled youth are more likely to report coercive sex, forced sex, and sexual abuse. In fact, the World Health Organization reports that disabled children are 2.9 times more likely to be victims of sexual violence. The number rises to 4.6 times more likely in the case of cognitive disability.
There are a number of reasons for this. For one, there’s that lack of representation. Lessons on violence prevention and healthy relationships can leave disabled students thinking that victims of violence are always cisgender, able-bodied women and that perpetrators are always cisgender, able-bodied men.
For another, when disabled youth don’t receive adequate education on anatomy, body autonomy, body confidence, and healthy relationships, there can be a lack of understanding around whether a sexual assault is happening. Disabled youth need information on how to identify abuse and how to engage in healthy relational decision-making and boundary-setting.
Disabled folks are also often taken advantage of by those with more power than them, which can make the victim of abuse afraid to report it. For example, caregivers are often perpetrators of such abuse. And when a victim of abuse is dependent upon their abuser, they may feel powerless to remove themselves from the situation.
Sex ed that does not shame or exclude disabled youth is key in empowering them to demand the care and the interactions and the relationships they deserve.
So What Do We Do?
For one, we need to actually include disabled youth in general sex education classes so that all students see that their disabled peers are fully human, and are sexual beings. This means also including information in these lessons that’s relevant to disabled students, such as the barrier methods available to those with mobility limitations. This acknowledges these students’ inherent sexuality, which is important for everyone in the classroom.
We also need to address the lack of representation in the curricula that exist by incorporating more diverse stories and images.
We need to provide adequate cultural competency training to sexuality educators.
And as is typically the case for all marginalized populations, we need to fund more research on how we can make sexuality education more effective for all disabled youth.
This is just a start, of course. SIECUS has some additional recommendations. (Love you, SIECUS!)
To Learn More About Sex Ed for Disabled Youth, You Can Read:
- SIECUS’s “Comprehensive Sex Education for Youth with Disabilities: A Call to Action”
- a fact sheet from Advocates for Youth on “Sexual Health Education for Young People with Disabilities — Research and Resources for Educators”
- “Why Sex Education for Disabled People Is So Important” by Ariel Henley (a Disability Visibility contributor!) for Teen Vogue
- Mad Hatter Wellness
- The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain, and Illness by Miriam Kaufman, MD, Cory Silverberg, and Fran Odette
- A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability by A. Andrews