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July 13, 2021 | by Mira Vance
Heterosexism in Disabled Sex Education
By Mira Vance
There have been serious failures in how we teach sex education, particularly to people with disabilities. Heterosexuality has been taught as the norm, and, in many programs, queerness is never addressed. This exclusion of homosexuality is linked to the assumption that sex is merely reproductive not something done for pleasure. This is explored by Micheal Gill in the chapter “Pleasure Principles” from his book Already Doing It. By excluding concepts of pleasure and exploration from sex education, we are leaving people ignorant and vulnerable to exploitation.
There is a long history of able-bodied people seeking to control disabled sexuality. This can be clearly seen in the history of sex education for the congenitally blind. In Patrick White’s essay “Sex Education; Or, How the Blind Became Heterosexual” he discusses the history of sexuality and blindness and the ways in which heterosexuality has been reinforced through the ways in which sex is taught to blind people. In the early twentieth century authorities segregated the sexes in order to prevent intermarriage as sexual activity between two blind individuals was seen as “immoral or sexually perverse”. This was an idea squarely rooted in eugenics. There was a narrative that blind people should be kept from sex. Children at schools for the blind were often required to sleep with their hands outside of their blankets to prevent exploration, and The Talking Book Program of The Library of Congress refused to record any books with descriptions of sexual behavior.
When the narratives around blind sexuality began to change around 1950 and sex education began to be introduced, they were following an assumption that blind people would be drawn to the opposite sex through a sort of “metaphysical force” rather than the physical senses. They soon realized that blind people did not have what they deemed to be a common sense construction of sexuality and gender and thus set about enforcing a “heterosexual matrix” where there are two genders and one must be attracted to the other. There is an assumption that blind people must be able to understand the visual nature of sexuality (as much of gender and sexuality is visually seen and experienced like the look of the body, grooming and clothing choice). This denies the unique ways that blind people experience sexuality and insists on promoting essentialist and universalistic notions of sex and sexuality. Sex education for the blind thus became an effort to assimilate the blind into the heterosexual matrix rather than an aid in their own exploration.
The erasure of non-normative sex practices for disabled people has been a consistent feature of disabled sex education. For people with intellectual or developmental disabilities they may be taught body parts and about reproduction (if anything at all), but they will not be taught anything that breaks the idea that heterosexuality is natural. Non-normative bodyminds have not been granted the opportunity to learn and explore pleasure and desire and have largely been forced into a binary that simply does not reflect their desires or experiences. Disabled sexualities need to be respected and valued, and their divergence from the heterosexual matrix needs to be understood not as dangerous deviance from the norm but as an expression of the sexual citizenship and agency that we are all entitled to have. The ableism and heteronormativity present in sex education need to be exposed, and disabled people’s voices and perspectives must be included in the development of inclusive and holistic sex education.
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