Give Teens With Disabilities Access to Sexual Education

Yesterday, the Guttmacher Institute issued a press release with some study results which attracted a great deal of attention. “Following Decade-Long Decline, U.S. Teen Pregnancy Rate Increases as Both Births and Abortions Rise” hit the wires and the speculation started almost immediately. Many members of the feminist community argued that it was the result of the total failure of abstinence-only education, a form of sexual education I’ve long railed against, and advocates for abstinence-only argued…well:

Others said the reversal could be due to a variety of factors, including an increase in poverty, an influx of Hispanics and complacency about AIDS, prompting lax use of birth control such as condoms.[1. Stein, Rob. (2010, 26 January) “Rise in teenage pregnancy rate spurs new debate on arresting it.” The Washington Post, A04.]

…yeah. Thanks for that.[1. Insert meloukhia-rant which would otherwise eat up this entire post here.]

Teen pregnancy in the 1990s dropped radically. Now, it’s on the rise again, very much in line with predictions made by researchers. And there is a pretty demonstrable link here between the rise of abstinence-only and the rise in the teen pregnancy rate. This much is clear, and it’s a link which should be discussed.

But there’s another issue which I haven’t seen getting very much coverage: The denial of sexual education to teens with disabilities, even in areas where sexual education of some form beyond “keep your legs closed until marriage” is offered. This is not fair to disabled teens, and to people with disabilities in general, and it’s something which needs to be addressed, pronto, because we should be at the point in society where we recognize that all teens including disabled teens need access to balanced information about sexual health, contraception options, and recognizing abusive relationships.

People with disabilities are at increased risk of being sexually abused.[1. Myers, Leslie. (1999) “People With Disabilities and Abuse.” Readings in Independent Living.] Young people with disabilities are especially vulnerable.[1. Mansell, Sheila, Sobsey, Dick, Wilgosh, Lorraine, and Zawallich, Andre. (1996) “The sexual abuse of young people with disabilities: Treatment Considerations.” International Journal For the Advancement of Counseling, Volume 19, Number 3. Pp. 293-302.] You know what happens to people who are vulnerable to sexual abuse who do not receive sexual education? It makes them more vulnerable.

It’s time to recognize, as a society, two important things:

  1. Some people with disabilities like to have sex.
  2. People with disabilities in general are at increased risk of sexual abuse and assault, whether or not they are sexual.

These must be acknowledged so that we can start focusing on making sexual education fully accessible. Because this is a critical step in breaking down a vicious cycle which perpetuates not only widely believed stereotypes about people with disabilities, but abuse of people with disabilities, including justification of that abuse.

We need to be providing disabled teens with tools which they can use to make choices about their sexuality, like if they want to have sex, with whom, where, when, and how. And, given that able people sometimes have disabled partners, providing people with non-judgmental information about sex and disability is pretty important. Plus, admitting that some disabled folks enjoy sex too can break down a lot of social stigma, including the attitude that people with disabilities can’t have sex or don’t like to have sex. When even supposed professionals ask questions like “is your partner capable of having sex,” it illustrates a profound lack of awareness.

And we need to make sure that information about recognizing and addressing abuse is provided in sexual education, with a special focus on recognizing, preventing, and handling abuse of disabled persons. We also must ensure that people have the ability to report abuse, because almost every study I see about abuse and people with disabilities includes some variation of the line “unfortunately, reporting of abuse is limited, which makes it difficult to arrive at accurate estimates…”

Not including terms to describe sexual abuse in a communication book, for example, is a pretty effective way to prevent someone from reporting sexual abuse. Sterilizing institutionalized women so that they can’t get pregnant when they’re being sexually abused by caregivers is another very effective way to make it hard to get accurate statistics on abuse. Not giving people with disabilities the language they need to describe abuse perpetuates abuse. So does ignoring reports of abuse from people with disabilities.

Disabled teens need sex ed. It’s time to give it to them.[1. And it’s time to make some pretty major changes in the sex ed system in general. Abstinence-only aside, a lot of sexual education is highly heteronormative and binarist. Sexual education needs to be much more inclusive of a lot of things.]

10 thoughts on “Give Teens With Disabilities Access to Sexual Education

  1. Brava!

    Just a P.S. to this, we are always in need of more people with disability to help actively help support our users with disabilities at Scarleteen, so anyone who is on board with this blog post and wants to get proactive? Please drop me a line, we could use your help!

  2. Heather! You’re one of my icons! *blushes* I am abashed to admit that I totally neglected to mention in this post, because I was so focused on what’s wrong with sexual education right now rather than what’s right, that Scarleteen is a really great sex education resource and that one of the things I like about it is the handling of sex and disability. Of course, first we have to make teens with disabilities aware that it exists so that they can use it!

  3. I’m so flattered!

    I agree, continued outreach is key, though we do get a lot of users with disability who do find us. Some of the major barriers we hit with those users is a) not having enough of us around who also have disabilities to talk with them from a place of having been there, and b) so little research and information to draw on outside Scarleteen with certain issues and disabilities, and so few other resources to get those users to for more information. 🙁

    But I so agree with you, that inclusion is such an issue, and that a big part of disability inclusion is also inclusion re: orientation, gender, non-binary thinking about sexuality, the works. And EVERYONE benefits from that, because simplistic, binary approaches don’t tend to serve anyone well.

    I also agree that addressing sexual abuse in and among the disabled population is so, so freaking important, and that some of that IS giving sex ed. Lord knows the world should have learned this just by how women’s sexuality was presented by now, but if we treat a group of people like they are not sexual, or less than human, we not only keep them from their sexuality, we put them at greater risk of being sexually abused and exploited.

    Just so in love with everything you have said here today.

  4. I work for at a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. The number of clients who have experienced sexual abuse is shocking. I have to say though, the agency I work for does make an effort to educate clients. However, parents/families of clients sometimes are the biggest problem, as some object to sex education and reject the idea that their adult children might want to have sex. Some also withhold permission for their adult children to go on birth control. If the parents/family are the client’s legal guardian, we can’t educate without their permission.

  5. What can I say you are not the first to draw attention to this issue but it is very well written and the message never seems to get through so let’s all keep after it. Sex education needs to be a right not something parents or agencies can deny. I have tweeted your blog from @getbuzzed and others are as well.

  6. FPA did a big campaign on this a couple of years ago: (heteronormative?)

    I’m with KJ – the problem with sex ed often isn’t with professionals (though it sometimes is), but with parents/carers. Especially people with learning disabilities – I’ve heard parents say “She’s not interested, she doesn’t need to know”. If you start talking about the protective role of sex education they basically go “lalalalala I can’t hear you”. Their kids are not sexual beings to them and that’s the end of it.

    I once found, in a big box of ‘things we should have sorted out a long time ago’, some sex education stuff for people with Spina Bifida from the 70s proving that people have been trying to put this on the agenda for a long time. Though the advice that if you have a colostomy/urostomy bag then you can put a multicoloured patchwork bag over it for sex is awesomely 70s!

  7. I think this issue should be addressed very much.

    once, when I worked for a satellite TV provider, a father insisted that the adult content he was being billed for was incorrect, as his disabled daughter was the only one home at the time, and there was no way that she would be interested in it.


  8. Thank you for this article. Too often the fact that there are sexual adults with disabilities- or that we would want sex, particularly for those of us with developmental Disabilities- is ignored or even out right denied.

    I have read some horrible discussions on parent lists debating birth control for young women with Developmental Disabilities. The camps usually break down to these: “I won’t put her on BC because she’s not ever going to need it” (Denial of sexuality) or “I am putting her on BC because I know that there’s a good chance someone will take advantage of her” [sometimes coupled with the old “and she will never be able to handle having/raising a child with or without a partner”] (Paternalism). Rarely do the parents who are considering BC for their daughters “Because I recognize that she is physically and sexually maturing and may choose at some point to be sexually involved” speak up in these discussions, and the parents who also happen to be disabled themselves become more and more frustrated.

    :-/ Additionally, finding sex ed stuff that is accessible is not always an easy task. Thank You, Bonnie, for the link you provided in your comment BTW, I will have to share it!
    .-= Savannah Nicole Logsdon-Breakstone´s last blog ..Charities =-.

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