We live in a society that desexualizes disabled bodies. This allows the topics of sex and sexuality to be left out of the educations of many young disabled people. As disabled students head back into the classroom this year, this absence of high-quality sexual education can instill at least two dangerous lessons within them. First, it can leave them with a sense that they are undesirable, which can in turn cause vulnerability to negative sexual attention or abuse that many do not feel safe enough to report. And even if individuals are able to avoid negative sexual experiences without guidance, they are still left to parse the basic sexual functions of human bodies with only the help of internet information roulette and their peers.
Some may get lucky enough to find helpful resources like Scarleteen (for which Rooted in Rights regular contributor s.e. smith is Managing Editor) or the work of disabled sexual educators like Eva Sweeney and Annie Segarra. Some may be lucky enough to have knowledgeable and body-positive peers. But many will not be so lucky. It is our responsibility as adults to guide young disabled people towards affirming and accurate information about sex.
Growing up a queer disabled person in the 80’s and 90’s, I certainly received plenty of direct messages about my own undesirability as a romantic partner, from a doctor who told me that sex was probably impossible for me because I didn’t do my physical therapy with enough enthusiasm (I was 10 at the time, so this was both gross and biologically incorrect), to the people who said that it would be unfair for anyone to fall in love with me because they would have to do too much to take care of me. Not to mention, this was at the height of the AIDS crisis, so the prevailing attitudes towards queerness were largely horrific.
With these messages I could have easily began my teen years thinking only that I was a burden who couldn’t ever have sex, and that if I did somehow manage it, I would likely die a tragic death shortly thereafter.
Salvation came in an uncharacteristically progressive sex ed class that my otherwise conservative (by California standards) town offered to all of its sixth-graders. One night a week, all of the eleven- and twelve-year-olds and their parents, all genders together, gathered in a huge room at the YMCA and learned about sex.
It was exactly as awkward as you are imagining it to be. No, it was more awkward. Melt-into-the-linoleum-and-disappear-forever awkward.
Yet the information was invaluable. We learned everything from the biology of puberty, to safe sex practices, to consent and the emotional realities of dating and attraction. There was a panel discussion led by teens only slightly older than ourselves who spoke openly about their own sexual experiences, both negative and positive.
This comprehensive knowledge, presented as a normal part of life, removed the shroud of mystery from sex and sexuality for me. I still shouldered much of the burden of negative attitudes towards disability and sex, and queerness and sex, but having the hard facts allowed me to recognize the misinformation that causes such societal discomfort. Knowing how my body works shifted my idea that disabled bodies are not sexual where it belonged – out of my head. It taught me that there’s nothing wrong with me, but rather something wrong with society.
So many years have passed since I sat in that YMCA. Yet the access I had to such frank and affirming sexual education remains uncommon. Attitudes towards disability and sexuality have shifted only slightly. Students with disabilities are not getting the basic information that they need to enter their adult lives prepared to safely navigate romantic and sexual relationships. Disabled students cannot wait for this glacial change. We must ensure their inclusion in quality sexual education programs throughout their education.