Sexual education across the United States is in crisis, thanks to conservative legislation and attitudes across school districts that are limiting access to comprehensive sexual education. But if you think the problem is bad for children and teens in general, it’s even worse for disabled students, who are often cut out of sexual education entirely.
The consequence is a higher rate of STIs and pregnancy despite attempts at self-education among some members of the disability community, and disabled people also experience a higher rate of sexual victimization. Disabled children and adults are often viewed as easy targets for sexual assailants, and poor sexual education exacerbates this problem.
A new study highlights the depth of this problem. Rape of autistic people is more than twice as common than that of people without cognitive disabilities. Furthermore, respondents reported that they were three times more likely to have experienced unwanted sexual contact — and that’s among those who had the language and the terminology to describe and understand these experiences. Many people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities aren’t even provided with these basic tools, leaving them vulnerable to sexual assault and unable to report it or pursue justice.
Notably, the autistic respondents to the survey used in the study were less likely to report that they understood sexual boundaries and norms, and they had an imperfect understanding of safer sex practices. Those who were more knowledgeable didn’t report that they had learned about safer sex, reproductive health and their personal rights from sexual education. Instead, they picked it up from family, friends, research online and other sources, effectively educating themselves because they were left out of the sexual education system.
Disabilities can have special influences on sexuality, and these need to be acknowledged in sexual education. Many disabled people are desexualized by media, pop culture and their own families, who assume that they are not interested in sexuality and don’t experience sexual attraction — and these same individuals make the mistake of assuming that this means disabled people don’t have sex, and aren’t targets for sexual assault. Consequently, they’re often left out of sexual education. Sometimes it’s intentional, with disabled students either sent away or not included in the discussion when the subject comes up in class. In other cases, it’s less intentional, but has the same impact. An instructor may not know about disability-specific issues, for example, or may not have training in teaching disabled students about sexual health and asserting their boundaries.
For disabled students, sexual education needs to include a detailed discussion of navigating the world of sexuality with their disabilities in mind, and this must include not just standard sex ed topics, but issues specific to disability. For example, students with cognitive and intellectual disabilities who may have been taught to ignore incursions on their personal space must instead learn about saying no when people touch or approach them in ways that make them feel uncomfortable, and need to be educated about how to report unwanted contact.
Likewise, some disabilities can create increased risks during sexual activity that may require extra adaptations like the use of bolsters or blocks during sex to be more comfortable and reduce the risk of injury, or close attention to which condoms and spermicides are used to avoid an allergic reaction.
Clear, concrete examples of potentially dangerous situations are an important part of sexual education for disabled students, along with equally demonstrative diagrams and other tools for explaining safer sex techniques and other sexual health topics. These tactics help to avoid issues with abstract thinking that can limit comprehension of lessons for disabled students. Since some people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities are taught early in school to repeat information, rather than rephrasing in their own words, it’s important to encourage students to be vocal in classroom discussions and to have them demonstrate that they understand by asking them questions about the subjects covered.
To reach this point, though, schools and sexual education instructors need to accept that disabled people are sexual, and that desexualizing them can expose them to greater risks of sexual assault and abuse. They also need to work within the framework of a larger sexual education system that respects and affirms sexuality, rather than attempting to suppress it — and this is something that benefits everyone, not just disabled people.
Photo credit: Lance Nielson.