Research has long pointed to comprehensive sex education being an indicator of reduced adverse outcomes such as unplanned pregnancy, exposure to STI’s, sexual violence and exploitation. While access to comprehensive sex education is fundamentally important for all of us, it is especially important for people who are at the greatest risk for sexual victimization. Rates of sexual victimization for people with intellectual disabilities are higher than seven times the general population in America.

Picture of Parris, standing in front of the Pennsylvania State Building. He is looking at the camera, smiling, and wearing a floral dress shirt with a blue sport coat.
Parris Boyd is a Project Coordinator at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities who focuses on Sexuality and Criminal Justice. Parris graduated from Temple with his master’s in social work. He is passionate about social justice and traveling.  His goal is to ensure that people with disabilities gain more access to sexual education and are able to have more autonomy in their sexual lives.

So, how can sex education help people, especially with intellectual disabilities, reduce their risk of sexual victimization? For starters, people who have the correct knowledge to describe their experience are able to recount their experiences and hold their perpetrators accountable. When folks do not have commonly used language to describe sexual assaults, their accounts can be misinterpreted as something unrelated. Example- “He made me touch his package.” Without the context of sexuality, the interpretation may be perceived as innocent. Knowledge of appropriate language is fundamental for protection, especially considering the fact that women with disabilities are often assaulted more than ten times. Education is important to help individuals know what sexual assault is, who to report it to, and how to protect yourself should it occur.

Though talking about victimization is often a strategy used to communicate the need for sexual education, it is important to realize that people with disabilities deserve access to sexual education because they deserve to make informed sexual decisions. None of us can truly have access to an everyday life if that life does not include some kind of sexuality; be it an innocent crush, companionship, a kiss, etc. Comprehensive sexual education helps individuals to make informed choices about their sexuality by explaining the consequences of different acts and putting words to feelings they are having. Conversations around consent are also important to ensure partners are in agreement and feel safe with each other. Teaching consent is also important to ensure people don’t become perpetrators of sexual violence as well. Comprehensive sexual education helps us to know what we are doing and how to protect ourselves, both emotionally and physically, when engaging in sexuality. Unfortunately, many are not receiving sex-ed, and if they are, it is overwhelmingly sub-par.

Comprehensive sex education in terms of policy is generally the Wild West. Sex education is highly dependent on where you live and can even vary greatly from school to school within the same school district. Though abstinence-only programs have been long denounced due to having no effect on established adverse outcomes, there has been a recent proposed influx in funds towards these programs. Further, many states do not require that the information taught in sex-ed be medically accurate. While that may seem unnecessary, there are many accounts to prove the merits of such a clause – though I will not repeat them in effort to reduce misinformation.

While people who are more socially privileged are often equipped to rebound from misinformation, or no information at all, the same does not always apply for people with intellectual disabilities. If the people around them do not discuss topics related to sexuality, myths continue under the guise of information. Having the wrong information reduces your autonomy and creates a greater risk for exploitation. Withholding information does not decrease risk; it decreases the ability for victims to speak up about it.

The World Health Organization notes, “Sexual Health is fundamental to the physical and emotional health and well-being of individuals, couples and families, and ultimately to the social and economic development of communities and countries.” While sexual health should be a priority for all of us, it is imperative that we prioritize it for those at the greatest statistical risk for exploitation – people with disabilities. Fortunately, advocacy for sexual education can start very small. Because sex-ed is so individualized, people within your community may have significant authority over local schools. Principals and school boards may be the determiners of sex-ed in your schools depending on your state laws, but of course contacting your representatives can create widespread change. There is also a chance that some organizations, like Planned Parenthood, offer sexual education trainers that can come into schools and group homes if they are unable to provide the information themselves. Bring sex-ed resources to group homes, principals and school boards if they are available around you.

Advocacy is also not for everyone. Time, commitments, or a host of other factors can have some of us feeling too depleted to reach out and that is okay. Some strategies to make sure those around you are getting the information they need can include providing them with resources like NCIL’s sex-ed videos. The internet holds a wealth of information- both factual and misguided. Studies are suggesting that the internet is where many young people are getting their sexual information nowadays. Look for resources that may be useful for the people in your life. Here are a couple of tips for your hunt:

  • Look for the medium that is most accessible for your target audience.
  • Watch/Read/Listen to the whole thing! There is a lot of great information out there that can come from people who use language that may be degrading to groups of people. Messages can get lost if recipients are feeling insulted by the messenger.
  • If something sounds strange, do a little research.
  • Let the person know that they can come to you with any questions.

Sexuality is a tough subject for many of us to talk about. Lots of us have been conditioned into believing that talking about sex is wrong. While this silence may not be something many of us have ever had to think twice about, in silence predators prosper. Access to comprehensive sexual education, for people with disabilities in particular, combats the horrifying rates of sexual violence by providing a vision of what healthy relationships and sexuality looks like. This way, people are able to put words to experiences that do not feel right and identify important figures to reach out to. Comprehensive sex-ed changes outcomes.