Bad types of sex ed and sexual violence prevention about developmentally disabled people
Lydia X. Z. Brown
[Photo: Graphic showing photo of a dusty chalkboard on cinderblock walls. The text says "Bad types of sex ed and sexual violence prevention about developmentally disabled people - lydia x.z. brown."]
A friend recently posted a question asking what red flags to look for in training materials about sexual violence prevention for autistic and other neurodivergent communities.
Many activists, self-advocates, scholars, and other community members have written about different kinds of ableist ideas about sex, sexuality, and sexual violence that hurt autistic and other neurodivergent people. I will not attempt to describe every possible form of ableism in this category.
Nonetheless, as I provided my friend, I'm publishing this short list of some of the most common bad types of sex ed and sexual violence training about developmentally disabled people.
The curriculum, training, materials, or lesson plans are bad if they make any of these assumptions, or if these beliefs are foundational in them:
Autistic and other neurodivergent people only experience sexual contact in the context of sexual violence targeting us ― e.g. we are incapable of having or acting on our own sexual desires and are always and only victimized, so the goal of sex ed for us is only to protect and keep us safe in a very paternalistic and agency-denying way.
This is bad especially because the rates of sexual violence targeting us are already astronomical, and that reality is both horrifying and completely unsurprising to anyone neurodivergent or developmentally disabled in any way. Why that fact makes it worse to assume our only sexual experiences are violent ones is because it still denies our agency ― our ability to make choices for ourselves, and our capacity to maybe want to experience sexuality in ways that we not only consent to, but that give us joy or pleasure. Consensual, pleasurable sexual experiences are something that some survivors of sexual violence actively seek (in different ways and on different timelines, of course) as one path toward healing.
Autistic and other neurodivergent people can't understand consent, sex, sexuality, or sexual urges or desires, and so the possibility of our sexuality means that we are a risk, threat, or danger to other people (and especially and specifically nondisabled people of any gender or age), so sex ed is about controlling us as preemptive predators waiting to happen, and again, denies our competence or capacity by presuming us as always incompetent and incapable of understanding (and so also incapable of choosing to change our own behavior).
This is also bad especially because there are many predatory people in autistic and other disabled communities, especially certain types of predatory disabled men who prey especially on people of marginalized genders (women ― cis or trans, and nonbinary people). Just as in any group of people, no matter how that group is defined by itself or by people outside the group, there are always predators.
When the predators are disabled, they sometimes use their disability as an excuse for their violence or harassment, which is not only inaccurate, but hurts every other disabled person who is not a predator or worse, who has been victimized by disabled predators. Sex ed/sexual violence prevention training that uses this harmful idea actually enables these kinds of predators by letting them off the hook and excusing them from ever having to take accountability. That is bad and wrong.
Any relationships we have must only be with nondisabled or neurotypical people who are there to help, save, rescue, or therapize us, or with whom having a relationship proves we have "overcome" neurodivergence or disability. The nondisabled partner also primarily exists as a caregiver.
This is bad because of course partners in any relationship configuration can help each other, or provide care or support to each other, and that is not automatically wrong, abusive, or exploitative. But it also can be wrong, abusive, or exploitative, for a lot of different possible reasons, and given any number of different types of power dynamics.
More importantly, this idea is bad because it reinforces the idea that being a disabled person, and a neurodivergent or developmentally disabled person in particular, means that we can only prove our worth or value by dissociating ourselves from other developmentally disabled people.
Any relationships we have must only be with people who are similarly disabled or neurodivergent, because we are considered lesser people by virtue of our neurodivergence or disability, and therefore we "only" "deserve" each other. This also means our relationships are automatically treated as not as good or meaningful as relationships between nondisabled and neurotypical people.
You can find examples of this in news coverage of (a) a wedding between a couple where both partners are little people, and (b) a wedding between a couple where both partners have Down syndrome. In news coverage of both of these weddings, the reporters talked about the couples as being super cute and adorable in a way that sounded like they were talking about two little kids in kindergarten who say they "like" each other and give each other flowers they've picked from the recess playground. It's infantilizing and also patronizing. It treats the relationships as not really real, and also reinforces the idea that disability is bad and being disabled is bad, and so that is why disabled people should only be with disabled people.
In reality, disabled people can choose each other as partners in all kinds of relationship configurations for a million different reasons. We also can choose partners who either aren't disabled at all, or who have different disabilities than ours, for a million different reasons.
Please do not use or reinforce these ideas if you are helping create or edit any training about sex ed or about sexual violence prevention. There are far, far better resources out there.