Category Archives: Gender Concerns

Barres examines gender, science debate and offers a novel critique

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Ben Barres has a distinct edge over the many others who have joined the debate about whether men’s brains are innately better suited for science than women’s. He doesn’t just make an abstract argument about the similarities and differences between the genders; he has lived as both.

Having lived as a woman and a man helped Ben Barres to better understand gender discrimination against female scientists.

Barres’ experience as a female-to-male transgendered person led him to write a pointed commentary in the July 13 issue of Nature rebuking the comments of former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers that raised the possibility that the dearth of women in the upper levels of science is rooted in biology. Marshalling scientific evidence as well as drawing from personal experience, Barres maintained that, contrary to Summers’ remarks, the lack of women in the upper reaches of research has more to do with bias than aptitude.

“This is a street fight,” said Barres, MD, PhD, professor of neurobiology and of developmental biology and of neurology and neurological sciences, referring to the gang of male academics and pundits who have attacked women scientists who criticized arguments about their alleged biological inferiority.

Barres’ piece revived the heated debate about gender inequality in science, garnering worldwide attention including pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

Where Summers sees innate differences, Barres sees discrimination. As a young woman—Barbara—he said he was discouraged from setting his sights on MIT, where he ended up receiving his bachelor’s degree. Once there, he was told that a boyfriend must have solved a hard math problem that he had answered and that had stumped most men in the class. After he began living as a man in 1997, Barres overheard another scientist say, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s work.”

From Barres’ perspective the only thing that changed is his ability to cry. Other than the absence of tears, he feels exactly the same. His science is the same, his interests are the same and he feels the quality of his work is unchanged.

That he could be treated differently by people who think of him as a woman, as a man or as a transgendered person makes Barres angry. What’s worse is that some women don’t recognize that they are treated differently because, unlike him, they’ve never known anything else.

The irony, Barres said, is that those who argue in favor of innate differences in scientific ability lack scientific data to explain why women make up more than half of all graduate students but only 10 percent of tenured faculty. The situation is similar for minorities.

“It’s leakage along the pipeline all the way,” Stanford President John Hennessy, who last year spoke out against Summers’ original remarks, said in an interview with a Newsweek reporter.

Yet scientists of both sexes are ready to attribute the gap to a gender difference. “They don’t care what the data is,” Barres said. “That’s the meaning of prejudice.”

Barres doesn’t think that scientists at the top of the ladder mean harm. “I am certain that all of the proponents of the Larry Summers hypothesis are well-meaning and fair-minded people,” he wrote in his Nature commentary. Still, because we all grew up in a culture that holds men and women to different standards, people are blind to their inherent biases, Barres said.

In his essay Barres points to data from a range of studies showing bias in science. For example, when a mixed panel of scientists evaluated grant proposals without names, men and women fared equally. However, when competing unblinded, a woman applying for a research grant needed to be three times more productive than men to be considered equally competent.

Further evidence comes from Mahzarin Banaji, PhD, professor of psychology at Harvard. She and her colleagues have devised a test that forces people to quickly associate terms with genders. The results revealed that both men and women are less likely to associate scientific words with women than with men.

Given these and other findings, Barres wondered how scientists could fail to admit that discrimination is a problem. His answer? Optimism. Most scientists want to believe that they are fair, he said, and for that reason overlook data indicating that they probably aren’t.

Unfortunately, this optimism prevents those at the top of the field from taking steps to eliminate a bias they don’t acknowledge. “People can’t change until they see there’s a problem,” he said.

Barres’ colleague Jennifer Raymond, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology, said she appreciates his speaking out. “Most people do think there is a level playing field despite the data to the contrary,” she said.

Medical school Dean Philip Pizzo, MD, also applauds Barres’ efforts to promote fairness in science. “Dr. Barres is right to challenge individuals and organizations who contribute to known or unknown bias. He compels us to think more critically and honestly and to grow in more positive directions,” Pizzo said.

Barres’ concerns go beyond his own advancement. Pointing to his own large office, replete with comfortable furniture and a coffee table, he said, “I have everything I need.” As a tenured professor, he’s not fighting for himself. “This is about my students,” he said. “I want them all to be successful.”

And he wants science to move forward, which means looking beyond the abilities of white men, who make up 8 percent of the world’s population. The odds that all of the world’s best scientists can be found in that subset is, at best, small, he said.

With that in mind, Barres has been at the forefront of the fight to make science fairer for all genders and races. One focus is eliminating bias from grant applications, especially for the most lucrative grants where the stakes are highest.

Last year, Barres convinced the National Institutes of Health to change how it chooses talented young scientists to receive its Director’s Pioneer Award, worth $500,000 per year for five years. In 2004, the 64-person selection panel consisted of 60 men; all nine grants went to men. In 2005, the agency increased the number of women on the panel; six of the 13 grants went to women. Barres said that he has now set his sights on challenging what he perceives as gender bias in the Howard Hughes Investigator program, an elite scientific award that virtually guarantees long-term research funding.

In his commentary, Barres listed additional ideas for how to retain more women and minorities in science, beyond the standard cries to simply hire more women. He suggested that women scientists be judged by the quality of their science rather than the quantity, given that many bear the brunt of child-care responsibilities. He proposed enacting more gender-balanced selection processes for grants and job searches, as with the Pioneer award. And he called on academic leaders to speak out when departments aren’t diverse.

Barres said that critics have dismissed women who complain of discrimination in science as being irrational and emotional, but he said that the opposite argument is easy to make. “It is overwhelmingly men who commit violent crimes out of rage and anger,” he wrote. “If any one ever sees a women with road rage, they should write it up and send it to a medical journal.”

He continued, “I am tired of powerful people using their position to demean me just because I am different from them. . . . I will certainly not sit around silently and endure them.”

Complete Article HERE!

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We Need To Talk About LGBTQ Students & Sex Ed

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By Kimberly Truong

It’s no secret that the state of sex education in America can be dire — so much so that when Refinery29 polled more than 500 of our staffers and readers about their sex ed, we found that nearly a third described their respective experiences as “terrible.”

But if sex ed already fails to be comprehensive in general, often neglecting subjects like consent and pleasure, imagine how unhelpful it can be for students who identify as LGBTQ.

In fact, according to a 2016 report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), LGBTQ students are even less likely than their peers to find sex ed useful. In a survey of 1,367 students, almost half (46.5%) of LGBTQ students who received sex ed said they didn’t find it useful, while less than a third (29.9%) of their non-LGBTQ peers reported the same.

These results aren’t exactly surprising. For starters, a 2015 study from the Public Religion Research Institute found that a mere 12% of millennials reported that their sex education classes even discussed same-sex relationships in the first place. And, sadly, most of the dialogue around LGBTQ sex ed is about how terrible it can be. A cursory Google search for “LGBTQ sex ed” will bring up front-page results like “The Quest For Inclusive Sex Ed” and “LGBTQ Youth Need Inclusive Sex Education.” Not to mention, what we learn about virginity and safer sex often neglects to cover what those topics might entail for people who aren’t heterosexual. In fact, sex ed can fail to acknowledge that even what’s considered sex in the first place can differ depending on the person.

Discussing sexual orientation and LGBTQ issues in a positive way, however, is crucial to inclusive and useful sex ed that sets up students for safer, consensual sex lives (which is a pretty bare minimum goal). Noreen Giga, senior research associate for GLSEN, tells Refinery29 that even when LGBTQ issues are included in sex ed or other health discussions, they can be covered in a stigmatizing way, like “only talking about the LGBTQ community when talking about harmful behaviors” — for example, only discussing HIV/AIDS when it comes to transgender people and gay men.

“That’s just talking about the community in a negative way and not providing any positive information or representation around LGBTQ youth, especially when it pertains to healthy sexual behavior,” Giga says. “HIV can be an issue in the LGBTQ community, but that doesn’t mean that’s what health education should focus on — it needs to focus on preparing young people to engage in safer sex practices.”

It’s no wonder, then, that GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey found that less than 6% of LGBTQ middle and high school students in the U.S. learned about LGBTQ issues in a positive way during health classes. So where does that leave the remaining 94% of LGBTQ students? In an educational environment that either covers these issues in a negative way or completely ignores them. And that’s unacceptable.

“There are so many barriers when it comes to sex education overall that when you move down the line to thinking about comprehensiveness and inclusivity, it’s a huge challenge,” Giga says.

While it’s clear that educators have to make sure that sex education really prepares everyone — not just straight people — the rest of society needs to do our part and examine our own biases to help make that possible. Positive, comprehensive LGBTQ sex ed isn’t a straightforward issue that can be solved with any one solution. But in a world where parents can be outraged over children learning about different sexualities in school, and health teachers can be suspended for teaching students about gender identity, perhaps we can start by helping people better understand orientations and identities that are different from their own.

We may have a ways to go before sex education really addresses the issues it needs to in order to help us all lead healthier, more enjoyable lives, but we do have to start somewhere — even if that means having conversations that make us uncomfortable. (Need help? Our Gender Nation glossary is a great place to start.)

“We need to let go of this fear that you need to know all these answers [about sexual education], or this idea that young people need to feel shame when asking these questions [about sexual health],” Giga says. “Sexual health education is crucial, not only to students’ current well-being, but also the rest of their lives. It plays a part in having healthy relationships, learning to negotiate better health care, communicating with doctors, and even in how we think about gender roles.”

Bottom line: Everyone deserves education that helps them make healthy choices about their bodies and their relationships, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity happens to be

Complete Article HERE!

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Gender Glossary: Understanding ‘Intersex’ Beyond the Binary

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By Harish Iyer

[8] November is designated as the day where we show solidarity and ensure that we educate ourselves about the intersex community. 8 November is the birthday of Herculin Barbin a french intersex person, who was brought up as a girl, but in adulthood discovered that she has a vagina but also a small penis. She thought she was being punished and ended up committing suicide after writing a memoir, which is, a living document of what it meant to be intersex in the mid 1800s.

As a person from the LGBTIQ community, it is important that we address the I in LGBTIQ. To address that, we need to understand what intersex really means. This is because much of our discrimination is borne out of misinformation or lack of knowledge. In a world where we view everything in binaries, to let people know that there are sexes beyond male and female would need an open mind. But do we understand the binaries well either?

Did You Know: Bisexuals are capable of having romantic feelings with people regardless of gender.

Before we even get to intersex, it is important to understand the difference between sex, gender and sexuality. Let me try simplifying this with the least amount of jargon.

Speaking of sex, I remember the joke way back in school, where we used to giggle whenever we saw “sex” written in any form as we thought the response should be “2 times in a day”. But sex in every context is not the act of sexual intercourse. The most easy and explicit way that I could explain is that sex is between your legs, it is determined by the presence or absence of an organ like a penis or vagina. If you have a penis you get classified as male, if you have a vagina you get classified as female.

Gender is a social construct. It is in your mind and heart and is not determined by the presence or absence of a body organ. One could be a female and identify as female, or be a male and identify as a male. However, you could also be a male (with a penis) but identify as a female, or be a female (with a vagina) and identify as a male. What you identify as, is what we call – “gender identity”.  It is also known as “transgender”.

Segregation of gender would directly detriment a culture of empathy and mutual respect.

Also, when we say gender is a social construct, it could mean that it may take time for people to realise their gender expression. Because of the fact that the society puts people in specific gender roles, it becomes difficult for people to express that they actually are a man but from within they feel they are a woman or the vice versa. It could mean that they wish to identify as gender-queer or transgender.

Like, I am a male and till a few years back I thought my gender was male. But I am realising that my gender expression is more feminine, which could mean that I could identify as gender-queer in coming years.

The bottom-line is that my gender is what I tell you my gender is. My gender is not what you think my gender is.

One could go on and on about gender, sex and sexuality. Now that we have some basic knowledge about sex and gender. Let us understand intersex.

One could go on and on about gender, sex and sexuality. Now that we have some basic knowledge about sex and gender. Let us understand intersex.

Intersex persons are people who are born with a sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit into definitions of sex of male or female in terms of anatomy. A person may be born with a penis and with a depression that leads to a labia. Or a person could be born with a vagina and may have a small penis.

It is rude and incorrect to classify intersex persons as “in-betweens” or “abnormal” people. It is however not rude to state that intersex persons are different.

There is a huge confusion among most people about intersex persons and hijras. Hijras are a community of transgender persons who live together and have their own social and religious practices. They are mainly male persons who have a female gender expression. They may or may not have undergone a sexual re-assignment surgery to align their sex with the gender that they identify with. Hijras could be intersex people too. However, all intersex people are not Hijras.

There is a myth that hijras pick up children with ambiguous gender when they come to bless newborns. In a world where the girl child is drowned and killed at birth, it is not hard to imagine that a child with ambiguous gender is despised and also killed in some cases. Hijras are believed to offer to adopt such children. There is very little research on this. Much of these are myths propagated by folklore and incredibly stupid television serials who’re feeding on such myths and increasing the confusion between our understanding of intersex persons and hijras.

How do you identify if a person is intersex? You will not be able to tell. And you don’t need to identify them. They will tell you if they feel like telling you. It is polite to ask everyone what gender pronoun they would prefer and address them that way.

Didn’t I say, gender is something that people tell you? It is not just he/she or him/her, some could say that they prefer a collective pronoun “they or their” or “ze or hir” as gender neutral pronouns. So the pronouns in short are he/she/ze/ they or him/her/hir/their. Ask, don’t assume such things.

There are very few people in India who are intersex and openly identify as one.  One of my friends, Gopi Shankar is an intersex person who founded an organisation called Srushti Madurai. I used to always refer to Gopi as “he” as his gender expression, I assumed is Male and so did many journalists. Until recently when I discovered that he is intersex and prefers pronoun “ze”.

Ze contested elections in the Tamil Nadu Legistlative assembly in 2016 and has also won a lot of awards and accolades for hir work in the domain of gender and sexuality especially in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.

Complete Article HERE!

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The future is fluid:

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Generation Z’s approach to gender and sexuality is indeed revolutionary

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Whenever a new generation comes of age, it inevitably ends up getting scrutinized by those who came before. Just look at how millennials have been derided for killing romance, sex, and the entire democratic system. If you believe everything you read, it’s like this generation is single-handedly out to destroy all that is holy in America, leaving nothing behind for posterity.

But death leads to new life, and from the ashes of the American Dream (which millennials have also killed), the younger Generation Z appears to have discovered a bevy of new social norms—especially in regards to gender and sexuality.

Also called the iGeneration, Generation Z is loosely defined as anyone born between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s (aka ages 7 to 22). Growing up in the shadow of what is now the largest living American generation, Generation Z inevitably took a lot of inspiration from millennials. But as this group of young Americans become teenagers, even certified legal-drinking adults, one defining feature experts are starting to notice is the iGen’s tendency to view gender and sexuality as something on a spectrum, not just simply male or female, or gay or straight.

Lily-Rose Depp, Johnny Depp’s 18-year-old daughter and an actor in her own right, has said, “You don’t have to label your sexuality; so many kids these days are not labeling their sexuality and I think that’s so cool.” At 19 years old, Jaden Smith told GQ Style, “I feel like people are kind of confused about gender norms. I feel like people don’t really get it. I’m not saying that I get it, I’m just saying that I’ve never seen any distinction.”

For these Gen Zers, fluidity isn’t reactionary like it was (and still is) for millennials; now, it’s closer to the norm.

In fact, a 2016 survey by the consumer insight agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that only 48 percent of Generation Z identifies as “completely heterosexual,” compared to 65 percent of millennials. And over half of these young Americans reported knowing someone who goes by non-traditional gender pronouns like “they/them,” making this generation the only demographic where that is the case.

The iGeneration, as its name suggests, is unique because its members were the first to be born in the post-dot-com bubble world. While Generation X, baby boomers, and even older millennials will wax poetic about life before the internet took over, Gen Z doesn’t even know what that looks like. And although being constantly connected to the web can be very problematic at times, it has also gifted this generation with a level of exposure to different worldviews that was previously unheard of.

“We grew up in a time when the internet opened the doors of the world—literally—and allowed us to talk to someone on the other side of the globe in a matter of seconds,” Sean Dolan, a 19-year-old who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and now lives in Austin, told the Daily Dot. “The internet generation, as I’ve heard us referred to, has never experienced what it is like to not feel connected to every piece of information in the world at any time.”

Not only does the internet open up doors to different views of gender and sexuality, but it also allows for members of Gen Z to find other people who feel the same way that they do. Today, online communities like those found on Tumblr and in private Facebook groups are there to show support even when nobody is physically there to do so.

“Nowadays, I feel like kids are way more open about talking about sexuality, and making it more mainstream through use of social media and new forms of technology,” Madeline Dolinsky, a 20-year-old Chicago native told the Daily Dot. “People can freely express who they are and feel comfortable knowing they have a larger community around them who supports them.”

According to a 2013 study by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, LGBTQ teens are online for an average of 45 minutes longer than straight, cisgender teens. And while only 19 percent of these straight, cisgender teens reported making friends online, half of the LGBTQ survey respondents said that they did have a close friend they met online.

This doesn’t come as a surprise for Michael Bronski, a professor in the women, gender, and sexuality department at Harvard University. In the 16 years that Bronski has been teaching, he has witnessed first hand how internet communities have shaped his students.

“I can remember a moment at Dartmouth, maybe 2007, when the freshman class showed up and because Facebook had just been invented, many gay or lesbian students as freshmen came and they already knew each other,” Bronski told the Daily Dot. “It was this amazing thing where the first LGBT meeting was completely packed because they were all friends already. Well, they were virtual friends.”

And that was 10 years ago, when social media was just starting to become a part of mainstream culture. Now, the iGen often goes to these virtual communities first to learn about gender and sexuality, regardless of whether they’re actively looking for fellow LGBTQ teens or just trying to procrastinate homework.

“Even in the past five years, I think I’ve seen more of an openness and open-mindedness about talking about stuff,” Bronski said. “You don’t have to go to the library to look up in the card catalog books that have ‘gay’ in the title anymore—you can do it on your iPhone that your mother left you with when you were 10.”

In other words, the internet can give queer teens what real-life surroundings cannot. For Dolan, growing up in what he refers to as “the conservative suburbs of Chicago,” it was hard for him to be open about his sexuality. Only when he went off to college and found himself surrounded by other people his own age did he gain the confidence to come out to his family. And when he did come out, he found that his parents were supportive, but not necessarily as understanding as his fellow Gen Zers.

“I had this idea all the way up until college that I would never come out to my parents, except for when I [told] them that I got married to another man,” Dolan said. “It wasn’t until I finally summoned up the courage to call them and tell them that their first reaction was, ‘Honey, we know.’ I still feel that, although they have been accepting when I talk about it at home, it is a borderline don’t-ask, don’t-tell situation.”

Dolan’s family experience shows that America won’t seamlessly become a fluid utopia when iGen takes over. While Gen Xers like Dolan’s parents might be more open to gays and lesbians than Baby Boomers are, sexuality is still predominantly seen as a black-or-white concept among them. The term “sexual fluidity” didn’t even enter the mainstream vernacular until psychologist Lisa M. Diamond wrote a book on the subject in 2008.

Gender fluidity, meanwhile, is an even more recent concept in pop culture. Only in the last few years have people come under fire for using the derogatory term “tranny.” And for some Gen Zers, the reality of living life outside of the binary is still far from perfect.

Nikolai Tarsinov is a 20-year-old transgender man currently living in Boston who identifies as pansexual. He often notices a discrepancy between how open his generation thinks it is in regards to fluidity, versus how open it actually is.

“My friend group is almost all heterosexual and cisgender. If I’m being completely honest, they are a lot less open-minded than they think they are,” Nikolai said. “The same people who proudly declare themselves progressives and allies will offhandedly make comments about how I’m not a ‘real’ guy.”

This also might have to do with maturity—teenagers can be mean and they’re hardly masters of nuance. But it also shows that this generation is teetering on the precipice of a major breakthrough. It’s going to take more than celebrities endorsing fluidity, however, to make long-term, noticeable changes to how America perceives gender and sexual identities. The million-dollar question now is whether or not Generation Z is ready to commit to those changes.

“I would never belittle the progress society has made. Just over the course of my short life, I have seen queerness go from something to make fun of to something that’s tentatively accepted,” Tarsinov said. “We are a lot more progressive than any generation that has come before us, but there is a lot more work to be done before society gets to a place where all people can be comfortable with their sexuality.”

It can be hard to predict trends in an entire generation’s worldviews, especially when dealing with a group as young as Generation Z. It can be even more difficult to try and sum up an entire generation’s views on a topic as complex as gender or sexuality. And let’s get one thing clear: Generation Z probably won’t be the group to completely rid the world of sexual and gender binaries.

With that said, this generation is onto something. It will be interesting to see how gender and sexual norms change as the iGen continues to grow up and enter the “real world”—whatever that means.

Complete Article HERE!

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Why Sex Education for Disabled People Is So Important

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“Just because a person has a disability does not mean they don’t still have the same hormones and sexual desires as other individuals.”

 

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“Sex and disability, disability and sex; the two words may seem incompatible,” Michael A. Rembis wrote in his 2009 paper on the social model of disabled sexuality. Though roughly 15% of adults around the world (that’s nearly one billion people), and over 20 million adults in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 64 have a disability, when it comes to disability and sex, there’s a disconnect. People with disabilities often have rich and satisfying sex lives. So why are they frequently treated as though they are incapable of having sexual needs and desires, and are excluded from sexual health education curriculum?

According to Kehau Gunderson, the lead trainer and senior health educator at Health Connected, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing comprehensive sexual health education programs throughout the state of California, the sexual health and safety of students with disabilities is often not prioritized because educators are more focused on other aspects of the students’ well-being. “Educators are thinking more about these students’ physical needs. They don’t see them as being sexual people with sexual needs and desires. They don’t see them as wanting relationships,” Gunderson told me when I met her and the rest of the Health Connected team at their office in Redwood City, California.

When I asked why students with disabilities have historically been excluded from sexual education, Jennifer Rogers, who also works as a health education specialist at Health Connected, chimed in. “In general, the topic of sex is something that is challenging for a lot of people to talk about. I think that aspect compounded with someone with specialized learning needs can be even more challenging if you’re not a teacher who’s really comfortable delivering this kind of material,” she said.

But it was the third health education specialist I spoke with, DeAnna Quan, who really hit the nail on the head: “I think sometimes it also has to do with not having the materials and having trouble adapting the materials as well. While people often just don’t see disabled people as being sexual beings, they are. And this is a population who really needs this information.”

The complete lack of sexual education in many schools for students with disabilities is particularly alarming given the fact that individuals with disabilities are at a much higher risk of sexual assault and abuse. In fact, children with disabilities are up to four times more likely to face abuse and women with disabilities are nearly 40% more likely to face abuse in adulthood. Yet students in special education classes are often denied the option to participate in sex education at all. When these students are included in mainstream health courses, the curriculum is often inaccessible.

Disability activist Anne Finger wrote, “Sexuality is often the source of our deepest pain. It’s easier for us to talk about and formulate strategies for changing discrimination in employment, education, and housing than to talk about our exclusion from sexuality and reproduction.” But as Robert McRuer wrote in Disabling Sex: Notes for a Crip Theory of Sexuality, “What if disability were sexy? And what if disabled people were understood to be both subjects and objects of a multiplicity of erotic desires and practices, both within and outside the parameters of heteronormative sexuality?”

When it comes to disability and sexuality, a large part of the issue lies in the fact that disabled people are so infrequently included in the decisions made about their bodies, their education, and their care. So what do people with disabilities wish they had learned in sex ed? This is what students and adults with disabilities said about their experience in sexual health courses and what they wish they had learned.

People with disabilities are not automatically asexual.

“The idea of people with disabilities as asexual beings who have no need for love, sex, or romantic relationships is ridiculous. However, it is one that has a stronghold in most people’s minds,” wrote disability activist Nidhi Goyal in her article, “Why Should Disability Spell the End of Romance?” That may be because disabled people are often seen as being innocent and childlike, one disabled activist said.

“As a society, we don’t talk about sex enough from a pleasure-based perspective. So much is focused on fertility and reproduction — and that’s not always something abled people think disabled people should or can do. We’re infantilized, stripped of our sexuality, and presumed to be non-sexual beings. Plenty of us are asexual, but plenty of us are very sexual as well, like me. Like anyone of any ability, we hit every spot on the spectrum from straight to gay, cis to trans, sexual to asexual, romantic to aromantic, and more.” Kirsten Schultz, a 29-year-old disabled, genderqueer, and pansexual health activist, sexuality educator, and writer, said via email.

Kirsten, who due to numerous chronic illnesses has lived with disability since she was five years old, was not exposed to information regarding her sexual health and bodily autonomy. “I dealt with sexual abuse from another child right after I fell ill, and this continued for years. I bring this up because my mother didn’t share a lot of sex ed stuff with me at home because of illness. This infantilization is not uncommon in the disability world, especially for kids,” she said.

Growing up in Oregon, Kirsten said she was homeschooled until the age of 13 and didn’t begin seeing medical professionals regularly until she turned 21. “This means all sexual education I learned until 13 was on my own, and from 13 to 21, it was all stuff I either sought out or was taught in school.” Schultz explained. But even what she learned about sex in school was limited. “School-based education, even in the liberal state of Oregon, where I grew up, was focused on sharing the potential negatives of sex — STIs, pregnancy, etc. Almost none of it was pleasure-based and it wasn’t accessible. Up until I was in college, the few positions I tried were all things I had seen in porn…AKA they weren’t comfortable or effective for me,” she added.

Internet safety matters, too.

While many disabled people are infantilized, others are often oversexualized. K Wheeler, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Washington, was only 12 the first time their photos were stolen off of the Internet and posted on websites fetishizing amputees. K, who was born with congenital amputation and identifies as demisexual, panromantic, and disabled, thinks this is something students with disabilities need to know about. “There’s a whole side of the Internet where people will seek out people with disabilities, friend them on Facebook, steal their photos, and use them on websites,” she said.

These groups of people who fetishize amputees are known as “amputee devotees.” K had heard of this fetish thanks to prior education from her mother, but not everyone knows how to keep themselves safe on the Internet. “This is something that people with disabilities need to know, that a person without a disability might not think of, ” K said.

K also believes more general Internet privacy information should also be discussed in sex ed courses. “In the technological age that we’re in, I feel like Internet privacy should be talked about,” they said. This includes things like consent and sending naked photos with a significant other if you’re under 18. “That is technically a crime. It’s not just parents saying ‘don’t do it because we don’t want you to.’ One or both of you could get in trouble legally,” K added.

Understanding what kinds of sexual protection to use.

Isaac Thomas, a 21-year-old student at Valencia College in Orlando, lives with a visual impairment and went to a high school that he said didn’t even offer sexual education courses. “I did go to a school for students with disabilities and, unfortunately, during my entire time there, there was never any type of sexual education class,” he said.

And Isaac noted that sexual awareness plays a large role in protection. “They should understand that just because a person has a disability, does not mean they don’t still have the same hormones and sexual desires as other individuals. It’s even more important that they teach sex education to people that have disabilities so they’re not taken advantage of in any kind of sexual way. If anything, it should be taught even more among the disabled community. Ignoring this problem will not make it go away. If this problem is not addressed, it will increase,” Isaac said.

Before entering college, Isaac said he wishes he had received more information about condoms. “I wish I had learned what types of condoms are best for protection. I should’ve also learned the best type of contraceptive pills to have in case unplanned sexual activity happens with friends or coworkers.”

Body image matters.

Nicole Tencic, a 23-year-old senior at Molloy College in New York, who is disabled, fine-motor challenged, and hearing impaired, believes in the importance of exploring and promoting positive body image for all bodies. Nicole, who became disabled at the age of six after undergoing high-dose chemotherapy, struggled to accept herself and her disability. “I became disabled when I was old enough to distinguish that something was wrong. I was very self-conscience. Accepting my disability was hard for me and emotionally disturbing,” she shared. “I was always concerned about what other people thought of me, and I was always very shy and quiet.”

It was when she entered college that Nicole really came to accept her body, embrace her sexuality, and develop an interest in dating. “I had my first boyfriend at 21. The reason I waited so long to date is because I needed to accept myself and my differences before I cared for anyone else. I couldn’t allow myself to bring someone into my life if I was unaccepting of myself, and if I did, I would be selfish because I would be more concerned about myself,” Nicole said. She also recognized the fact that while sexuality and disability are separate topics that need to be addressed differently, they can impact each other. “Disability may influence sexuality in terms of what you like and dislike, and can and cannot do,” but overall, “one’s sexuality does not have to do with one’s disability,” she clarified.

It’s important to make sex ed inclusive to multi-marginalized populations.

Dominick Evans, a queer and transgender man living with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, various chronic health disabilities, and OCD, believes in the importance of sexual education stretching beyond the cisgender, heteronormative perspective. He also understands the dangers associated with being a member of a marginalized group. “The more marginalized you are, the less safe you are when it comes to sex,” he said in an email.

Dominick, who works as a filmmaker, writer, and media and entertainment advocate for the Center for Disability Rights, has even developed policy ideas related to increased inclusion for students with disabilities — especially LGBTQ students with disabilities. “These students are at higher risk of sexual assault and rape, STIs like HIV, unplanned pregnancies, and manipulation in sexual situations,” Dominick said. “Since disabled LGBTQIA students do not have access to sexual education, sometimes at all, let alone education that makes sense for their bodies and sexual orientation, it makes sense the rates for disabled people when it comes to sexual assault and STIs are so much higher.”

According to Dominick, the fact that many disabled students are denied access to sexual health curriculum is at the root of the problem. “When it comes to disparities in the numbers of sexual assault, rape, STIs, etc. for all disabled students, not having access to sexual education is part of the problem. We know this is specifically linked to lack of sex ed, which is why sex ed must begin addressing these disparities.”

So what does Dominick have in mind in terms of educational policies to help improve this issue? “The curriculum would highlight teaching students how to protect themselves from sexual abuse, STI and pregnancy prevention campaigns geared specifically at all disabled and LGBTQIA youth, ensuring IEPs (individualized education programs) cover sex ed inclusion strategies, access to information about sexuality and gender identity, and additional education to address disparities that affect disabled LGBTQIA students who are people of color.”

Understanding power dynamics and consent.

It’s important to understand the power dynamic that often exists between people with disabilities and their caretakers. Many people with disabilities rely on their caretakers to perform basic tasks, like getting ready in the morning. Women with disabilities are 40% more likely to experience intimate partner violence compared to non-disabled women. This includes sexual, emotional, financial, and physical abuse, as well as neglect. For this reason, women with disabilities are less likely to report their abusers.

“Sometimes they’re more likely to think ‘this is the only relationship I can get,’ so they’re more likely to stay in these abusive relationships or have less access to even pursue courses of action to get out of the relationship. Especially if there is dependence on their partner in some way,” said K.

Dominick agreed. “Many of us often grow up believing we may not even be able to have sexual relationships. We often grow up believing our bodies are disgusting and there is something wrong with them,” he said. “So, when someone, especially someone with some type of power over us like a teacher or caregiver, shows us sexual attention and we believe we don’t deserve anything better or will never have the opportunity for sex again, it is easy to see why some disabled people are able to be manipulated or harmed in sexual situations.”

Dominick said this ideology led to his first sexual experience. “I probably should not have been having sex because I lost [my virginity] believing I had to take whatever opportunities I received,” he said, before going on to acknowledge the falsehood in these assumptions. “I’ve had many other relationships since then, and my last partner, I’ve been with for 15 years.”

But when it comes to disability, consent can be tricky. Some disabilities make communication a challenge. The lack of sexual education for many developmentally disabled students means they often don’t understand the concept of consent.

People with disabilities are more at risk for sexual exploitation and abuse.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, children with disabilities also face a much higher risk of abuse. In 2009, 11% of all child abuse victims had a behavioral, cognitive, or physical disability. In fact, when compared to non-disabled children, children with disabilities are twice as likely to be physically or sexually abused. Those living with developmental disabilities are anywhere from 4 to 10 times more likely to face abuse.

Deni Fraser, the assistant principal at the Lavelle School for the Blind, a school in New York City dedicated to teaching students with visual impairment and developmental disabilities, believes it’s important for all students to understand the importance of boundaries, both other people’s and their own. Many students at the school, who range in age from 2 to 21, also have co-morbid diagnoses, making the students’ needs varied.

“It’s important for our students to know that we want them to be safe at all times,” Fraser said. “Letting them know what’s appropriate touch, not only them touching others, but other people touching them; saying things to them; for people not taking advantage of them; knowing who is safe to talk to and who is safe to be in your personal space; if there’s anything going on with your body, who would be the appropriate person to talk to; not sharing private information — so what is privacy; and the importance of understanding safe strangers, like doctors, versus non-safe strangers.”

The portrayal of disabled bodies matters.

The media also plays a part in perpetuating the idea that individuals with disabilities do not have sex. Sexuality is often viewed as unnatural for individuals with disabilities, and many disabled students internalize that. “Even Tyrion Lannister, one of the most sexual disabled characters on television, usually has to pay for sex, and even he was horribly deceived the first time he had a sexual experience,” Dominick noted. “If the media is not even saying sex is normal or natural for disabled people, and sex education is not inclusive, then often disabled people are having to learn about and understand sex on their own,” he added.

Many students with disabilities also want to see their bodies reflected in sexual education materials. “Part of the curriculum at a lot of different schools includes showing some level of video,” K said. But including a person with a visible physical disability in these videos would go a long way in helping to shatter the stigma surrounding sex and disability, she said. According to K, this would help people understand that sex isn’t only for able-bodied people.

People with disabilities make up a large part of the population. They’re the one minority group any person can become a part of at any time. Therefore, incorporating disability-related information into sexual education curriculum not only benefits students who are already disabled, but it can help students who, at some point in their lives, will experience disability. Embracing an inclusive approach and keeping bias out of the classroom would help raise awareness, create empathy, and celebrate diversity. By listening to disabled voices, we can work toward a society that values inclusivity.

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