Sexual Education and Intellectual Disabilities

This article talks about the lack of access to sexual education for people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities. Of course, sexual education classes in the US are already generally abstinence only, not scientifically correct, and only talk about heterosexual penis and vagina sex, but even these subpar sexual education classes are often inaccessible for people with intellectual disabilities for a variety of reasons (their parents may opt them out or it might be taught as part of a gym class that they do not attend, for example). It is also often assumed that parents will take care of any sexual education, and many parents are afraid that they will do an inadequate job or are simply unwilling to see their children as sexual beings in the first place. This is of course exacerbated in the cases of parents who already infantilize their disabled children.

Another aspect of sexual education that the article highlights is a lack of discussion about sexuality. The article mentions the case of one woman who identifies as asexual and for a long time struggled to determine if her asexuality was caused by her autism or not (she eventually determined that it wasn’t). In this way, the assumption that all disabled people are asexual is harmful not only to those who are not asexual but also those who are, because asexual people with disabilities can be assumed by others to be misinformed or brainwashed about their own sexuality or feel shame for inadvertently validating the assumption that disabled people are not sexual. Needless to say, figuring out your sexuality is often a really difficult process, but it is much more difficult when you are not given access to sexual information. Not only is this dangerous for medical reasons, but it can also be emotionally harmful, especially if your sexuality is not normative. And, as in the case of the woman in the article, disability and non-normative sexuality can be thought of related or causal, especially when the person is also marginalized for other aspects of their identity.

I also read an old, fairly bad article that mostly focuses on parents of adults with developmental disabilities who receive sexual education. In this article, sexual education for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is framed not as a logical process but instead as a necessary evil (“if you hide from this issue, it will come back to haunt you”). This attitude is patronizing and unfortunately it reflects the stigmatization of sexual education in general. Notably, our society thinks of sexual education as instructing people how to have sex (which is true, and which it definitely an important part) but this is not all sexual education can do. For example, in the Netherlands, where comprehensive sexual education starts when children are four years old, people learn not just about sex but also about love, body image, having healthy relationships, sexuality, and consent. Considering that people with disabilities are much more likely to be victims of abuse, such a comprehensive sex education would especially be of use to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities because it would better equip them to talk about their boundaries and advocate for themselves when they have been abused rather than being left to contemplate isolation and shame on their own. And, of course, it would help them have safer sexual freedom. Clearly, we need to change the way we think about, structure, and use sexual education in the United States.


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