Study after study on disabled youth shows that they’re sexually active at rates comparable to their nondisabled peers — in other words, they really are ‘just like everyone else,’ because they are part of ‘everyone.’ Yet, often, sexual education curricula rarely if ever delve into disability and disability issues, at a high cost to disabled students. As we fight for comprehensive age-appropriate sex and gender education in the United States to give the next generation a fighting chance, we need to be talking about sexual education and disability — because if we don’t, we’re leaving out a huge population of youth who need support.
For intrinsic reasons of inclusivity, we should be ensuring that disability plays a role in sexual education. Disabled youth need to know that they are viewed as equals, not lesser or unimportant. Nondisabled youth should be reminded that disabled people, including their classmates, exist, and that disabled people are sexual. Society desexualises disabled people, which contributes to the perpetuation of disablism, facilitates the sexual abuse of disabled people, and makes it challenging for disabled people to enter relationships — whether they or prospective partners or both have internalised negative messaging about sexuality.
But there are also some issues unique to the disability community that should be frankly talked about because disabled people deserve to be comfortable in their own bodies, and have the right to pleasure just like everyone else. Without these conversations, people fumble to find information. People who are informed about their sexuality aren’t empowered to take charge of it, whether they’re saying ‘no’ to people they aren’t interested in or protecting themselves from STIs by using barrier methods correctly.
Disabled people with the potential to menstruate should be learning not just about menstruation, but specifically how they can manage menstruation if they have impairments that might make it more challenging than it is for nondisabled people. That’s a conversation about cups, tampons, pads, and free bleeding that allows people to make informed choices, and prepares them for the day they do start menstruating so they’re ready, rather than taken aback and struggling through a humiliating series of problems.
All disabled youth should be learning about STIs — what they are, how to prevent them, what kind of testing to ask for, how they’re spread, what their symptoms are. They should also be alerted to issues that might be unique to disabled people — for example, people with compromised immune systems should be learning about precautions they need to think about taking. People with reduced sensation, or vision problems, or other impairments that might interfere with their ability to identify symptoms and warning signs, should get information about how to tell when something is not quite right with their bodies — should be taught to trust their instincts so they can seek medical attention when something is making them uneasy.
People should be learning about pregnancy, and receiving the same conversation that nondisabled youth get when it comes to options for preventing pregnancy, decisions to make if they get pregnant, and so forth. That education should also include frank discussions about intersections between disability and pregnancy risks. It shouldn’t assume that disabled people would automatically want to get abortions, or that disabled people would pass their impairments on genetically, or that there’s a problem with genetic inheritance even if someone does have a genetic impairment. It should include discussions of pregnancy and childbearing, rooted in the assumption that disabled people should be able to make informed decisions about their own fertility.
Sexual abuse should also be a topic of discussion. Some people assume that disabled people aren’t targets of sexual abuse, thanks to the desexualisation of disability, but in fact the opposite is true: Disablism and attitudes about sex and disability make it much more likely that disabled people will experience sexual assault. We need to be talking about what abuse looks like so people can learn to identify it, and we need to be stressing that it is not okay and disabled people do not have to simply accept it, whether it’s a friend, relative, aide, or anyone else perpetrating it. For people who use communication boards and other forms of assisted and augmentative communication, adults have the responsibility of providing them with tools to describe sexual abuse — because right now, some youth literally can’t communicate about it, because no one has thought to offer them the resources to do so. How can someone who can’t even name sexual abuse possibly tell an adult about it?
Sexual pleasure, too, should be a component of disability-orientated sexual education. It’s not just that disabled people can and do have sex, but that many of them find it quite enjoyable and like having it. It’s important to have conversations about masturbation and sexual exploration, about tools that disabled people use, many of which are a part of nondisabled sex, too: Things like wedges, and toys, and slings. It’s important to have a conversation about transferring safely into and out of a wheelchair and connecting that with sexytimes, to discuss how people who have trouble sitting up or lying prone unsupported can use wedges to enhance their sexual pleasure, and aren’t stuck in a single passive sexual position for their entire lives. Disability and kink belong in that conversation too — disabled people love sensation play, and bondage (the only time someone should be bound to a wheelchair), and any number of other things.
We don’t need to get more explicit than we do now in inclusive sex ed, but we do need to ensure that disability is interwoven into the conversations we have about sexuality and pleasure — how do hand contractures interact with masturbation? How do you have fulfilling sex with an ostomy bag in the mix? These are things disabled people deal with every day, and disabled youth who feel left out of sex ed should be hearing about the sexual lives of disabled people, just as nondisabled people should be learning that disabled people can and do have sex. We fight disablism in all walks of life by increasing visibility, so let’s make disabled sexuality visible.
Image: eflon, Flickr