Sexual education & disability: Why this should matter to social work practitioners

Image from Stand up! A feminist youth-led project in Scotland that addresses sexual violence (https://www.standuprasash.com/blog/where-has-all-the-sexual-education-gone)

What do you get when you mix the taboo nature of discussing sexual intimacy with the social stigma surrounding intellectual and developmental disabilities? The answer: a heck of a lot more problems than you might think.

I would like to start this piece with a brief exercise one of the health teachers at my high school conducted at the beginning of sex ed. Repeat after me: PENIS. VAGINA. PENIS. VAGINA. Why do you think she would make a room of teenagers yell these words in school? Isn’t that inappropriate? If you think it is, you proved my point from earlier. Sexual intimacy and anything loosely related to sex are currently incredibly taboo topics. To help break down the air of discomfort surrounding such topics, that health teacher did something many are afraid to do: she spoke openly and encouraged others to follow suit.

One could argue these topics are not to be spoken about simply because we are taught to not speak about them. A child can ask why their anatomy is different from their siblings, but they will often be met with shushes or roundabout answers. In many cases, there is no reason for this reaction other than traditional values. Those same values are often times what causes conflict in regard to sexual education in public schools.

My sex ed experience at a public school was mediocre at best. I can recall learning about male and female genitalia as well as the common sexually transmitted infections. Contraceptive tools were discussed but the take-home message was always “abstinence is the best form of birth control.” Consent was not taught nor were the proper ways to actually engage in sex, just that if we did it we should do it safely. This is the public school sex education experience I received as a non-disabled teenager. Seems quite lacking. And if this is what I received, what is the experience of children and adolescents with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

Working in a behavioral school for boys with emotional, developmental, and intellectual disabilities gives me an interesting perspective. The school serves boys aged, in my experience, between seven and eighteen years old. They age out of the school at eighteen despite the progress they have made and still need to make. These students come from any district in Massachusetts and can be of any race and ethnicity. Typically, the school serves a diverse population. They are taught the same subjects most other students in the country are taught just with more academic and therapeutic support. However, these students are not always provided with a health class.

I worry greatly about this institutional deficit, partly due to my own ableism. These students are receiving very little, if any, sexual education during the school year from our faculty and who knows what they see on the Internet and what their families and friends are telling them. As they get older and begin to develop their curiosity, I am worried that they might not always have a reliable source of sexual education. With that, the concept of consent is often discussed but not in relation to intimacy. I don’t know if the connection between consent and sexual activities has been made or if it ever will be in this school setting. I don’t know if some of these students would understand the magnitude of these topics. I’d like to think these kids can do anything, but from what I’ve seen I don’t know if I would feel confident in their understanding. I wish I could feel otherwise.

Confronting my personal ableism has been difficult, but I know it will benefit myself and others in the social work field who do the same. It’s important and necessary to challenge our own ideas. Gaining experience in areas which we hold biases towards educates us more accurately. Critically examining our personal ableist ideas pushes us to gain a different perspective. Through this difficult process, I feel empowered to advocate for a stronger sexual education program for these students and others in similar settings. I would not have developed this drive without looking inwards and confronting my ableism. I encourage all to do the same. Who knows what the next revelation might be?

Editor’s note: This reflection comes at a time when it is recognized that only three U.S. states explicitly include special education students in their sexual education requirements despite high rates of sexual abuse in this community. Specifically, the disability community experiences sexual abuse at seven times the rate of the non-disabled community according to the Department of Justice. Read more about this in a recent Op Ed by Cammie McGovern.

Max Goldberg is an MSW student at Salem State University. He completed his undergraduate degree at Roger Williams University, studying Psychology with a focus in Clinical Psychology as well as a minor in Professional and Public Writing. Previously, Max has held a range of roles in multiple educational settings. Upon completing his graduate studies, Max aspires to work with the Deaf community as an advocate and educate the hearing world on the various issues d/Deaf people face.