What I Wish I’d Learned in Sex Ed

I never got The Talk. You could argue, actually, that I got something better: my mom marched in with the newest edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves and told me to come to her with any questions. Of course, I never did — did you want to talk to your parents about sex at that age? Or ever? Right. — so even though I dabbled in the book, early-onset body embarrassment kept me from really engaging. I ended up gleaning most of my information from school.

Sex ed started in about fifth grade and took various forms (tacked onto science class, a hurried discussion of periods, etc.) until the summer before ninth grade. It wasn’t exactly abstinence-only — more like abstinence-encouraged, which is remarkable considering what I could have wound up with in a less progressive state (thanks, California!). But it still left me decidedly uninformed about what my sex life would look and feel like. Your curriculum isn’t “one size fits all” if “all” means “nondisabled straight people.”

Sex ed hasn’t historically done right by disabled folks. When we’re not omitted altogether, we can still land in community groups where “people intentionally draw out every word because they assume you won’t understand otherwise” — all against a backdrop of astronomically high lifetime sexual assault rates. Inclusive, comprehensive sex education matters, and its absence does, too.

In hindsight, here’s what I wish I’d learned.


1. Literally anything gay.

Whenever my teachers tried to explain sex, I’d always be thinking, “but why?” And that’s because even in my woo-woo lefty homeland, the education I got was overwhelmingly hetero. I think the sole mention of homosexuality (that’s what they always called it) came as a lead-in to HIV and AIDS. Not exactly the best foundation. I learned about sex from straight people, so that was the kind they knew. It didn’t gross me out; I just didn’t get why you’d bother. Seems dull.

Meanwhile, I doted on various female “best friends,” listening to their problems until the wee hours of the morning and buying expertly selected gifts “just because,” so, y’know. There was a lot going on. But nobody told me being gay was a thing! And that delightfully compulsory heterosexuality is all too common for disabled people. No one really expects us to have sex drives — let alone sex lives —  so if we do, they must be of the straight variety. Disability marks the upper limit of our permissible “difference.” And a ton of smaller assumptions coalesce to make up that one: that we need a partner to take care of us; that that’s embarrassing or unusual; that only someone of the “opposite sex” can provide enough; and that it’d just be “too much” if we were queer. Straight sex and desirability are valuable currencies for disabled people — they let us taste the validation we’re supposed to want — so it’s easy to internalize heterosexuality as a given. Imagine if someone had at least mentioned other options.


2. All bodies are good bodies.

Many early sex ed lessons focused on anatomy — telling us which parts of the body were involved, what they each did, and how to keep them healthy. I understand the impulse to put it all so clinically, and there’s value and power in knowing the actual names of things. But that arm’s length approach kept me from understanding sex as a bodily experience. It was just an important event (and potential health crisis) that would happen one day — not something I would actually feel. Because I already had an unruly body I didn’t understand, I leaned pretty hard into that disconnect. Healthy!

I would love a curriculum that focuses on body types rather than just parts. Because then you can discuss a fuller range of identities — disabled, queer, trans, nonbinary, intersex, on and on — and legitimize them as a result. It took me years to actually enjoy sex, or even masturbation, because I didn’t understand that my body had value.


3. You are worthy of pleasure.

Imagine that: pleasure in sex ed class! I think the closest we ever got was my seventh-grade science teacher saying, “Sometimes people have sex because they think it feels good.” DREAM BIG.

Disabled bodies are supposed to be endured rather than enjoyed. Yes, they can be exhausting, time-consuming, expensive, and scary — I’m not even 30 and I’ve learned to walk four times — so I understand where the recitence comes from. But never telling disabled people that we can have a good time in our bodies encourages us to internalize a ton of fear and hatred. Put bluntly, nobody expects us to like being ourselves. Sex ed class is an ideal opportunity to reverse that trend by framing sex as pleasurable rather than purely functional. Sex is risky and a big responsibility — but it’s okay to admit that it can also be fun. And reminding disabled folks that we’re worthy of that enjoyment can help combat the caustic messaging we get everywhere else.


4. Sex looks lots of different ways.

Any self-respecting queer gal recognizes that sex isn’t just one thing — but you’d never know it from the standard sex-ed curriculum. There’s also basically no discussion of positions, which can be key for disabled folks (and pretty much everyone else). I mean, this graphic illustrates more possibilities in two rows than I got in five years.

Only mentioning missionary, if sex ed brings up positioning at all, relegates everything else to a taboo or lesser realm. But you’re not breaking some rule if the standard “one on top, one on bottom” configuration isn’t your favorite. Maybe you’d like a pillow under your back, or lie on your side to take some pressure off, or have sex sitting in your wheelchair because it feels best. Guess what — that’s enough of a reason! You’re allowed! Enjoy!

On a related note…


5. It’s okay to use toys.

Toys are another taboo by omission — nobody talks about them, so we assume we shouldn’t. On the off chance they warrant a mention, it’s usually as a form of compensation for some perceived lack. Disabled people are certainly familiar with that line of discussion around our bodies. But why frame toys as a way to avoid embarrassment? We should discuss them as they actually are: adaptive tools, but also new ways to enjoy an experience.

There’s nothing wrong with adaptation in the bedroom or anywhere else. But attaching that idea to shame doesn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence. So if you’re someone who does need adaptations, or just flat-out loves the sensations toys can offer, you’re left to sort of talk people into it. I only understood the value of sex toys once I found my way to queer spaces; I should have known they were an option from the beginning.


6. You’re allowed to want.

My sex ed did actually did a pretty solid job with consent. We learned about the right to say no, and that “I don’t want to” is more than reason enough. We learned that “maybe” is not “yes.” We learned that sex is no one’s obligation. All true and imperative to a healthy sexual life. But learning only to opt out glossed over my right to opt in.

Maybe they just figured it wasn’t necessary — “Everyone wants to have sex, I don’t have to tell you!” — but when you’re disabled, you’re not supposed to want anything. You need plenty, sure, but your desires don’t exist. So you take what you can get: partners who assure you they “have no problem with it,” jobs that deem you “reasonable” enough to accommodate, benefits that keep you alive even if they also keep you in poverty. Enjoyment drops right off the table. Just like we’re not supposed to be wanted, we’re not allowed to want.

I wish I’d known that I’d had a right to “yes” as a disabled person — and not because I’m “just like” able people. Because guess what? I’m not. I can be equal to them without being like them. And that doesn’t make my “yes” any less worthy.


7. Your disability will matter.

Disabled people get sold this fairy tale that the “right” partner will “see past” our disabilities and accept us “anyway,” so disability will magically cease to matter once we’re in bed with them. Sorry, but that’s not love or compatibility — that’s erasure. Think about applying that same logic to any other core part of yourself. Would you expect them to ignore it in favor of “the real you”? Right.

Framing disability as an ideological hurdle that only the most morally upstanding person will be able to clear doubles down on shame and distances us from our own bodies. Not exactly a recipe for great sex.

But it’s true that disability can present some challenges sexually. How do you negotiate perpetually tight muscles when everyone’s best sex tip is to “relax”? What if you’re hypersensitive, or not very sensitive at all? What if you get tired in the middle? Or don’t have a ton of dexterity in your fingers? I wish I’d had the chance to discuss and confront these possibilities beforehand, instead of just assuming they’d disappear with the help of the right partner. News flash: the right partner will not “see past.” They will acknowledge, enjoy, and learn with you. And y’know, disability doesn’t always have to be worked around — it can be worked in, too. (With excellent results.)


8. You have many relationship options.

As part of that partner-as-savior game, I got a pretty solid shove toward able partners in traditional structures. When I floated dating another disabled person to one of my friends, she literally said, “You don’t have to do that.” As if disabled folks — guess what, that includes me! — belong on the dating clearance rack, where you only go if you can’t afford the real deal. Nice “compliment.”

I wasn’t getting any different signals in the classroom, as evidenced by the fact that precisely zero disabled people showed up in any of our materials. And we only ever talked about monogamy, particularly via marriage. Casual sex or anything other than a presumed lifetime commitment was portrayed as too risky to be a good idea. Disabled folks in particular don’t learn about our right to the full relationship spectrum. It’s great if you want monogamy and marriage — I personally do! — but those two things aren’t going to “free you from your suffering.” Selling them that way, as the punch card to a better life where disability will no longer affect you, is (a) a flat-out lie and (b) just another means of perpetuating self-loathing. If we got the full discussion of options up front, maybe there wouldn’t be so much pressure on our partnerships or inside our own heads.


9. And finally, remember that you’re hot.

Your body counts, it belongs to you, and you look fucking great.


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Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in Los Angeles, where she does a lot of crossword puzzles and longs for a squished-faced dog. Help her get better at Twitter.

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21 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this! The Sex Ed I recieved in a Central Florida charter school was very similar to what you described here: some discussion of consent and healthy relationships, but not of relationships differing from “one man and one woman for life”; practically no mention of the spectrum of human sexuality, much less gender indentity; plenty of preaching about “abstinance”, yet the existence of asexual people was never acknowledged; you get the idea. My Mom got a few good books about puberty for me, but all were very Herero and cis oriented, with no mention of physical or mental disability.

  2. I still remember a time in middle school sex ed when the teacher was talking about male orgasm & ejaculation, and a girl asked if women have orgasms too. She said something like “Yes, but not on the same level as men”. I thought men’s orgasms must be fucking ridiculous, but years down the road I realized the poor woman had probably never had one in her life.

  3. I also wish my midwestern bible belt public school sex education included any of the above. What we got was an hour once a week spent silently copying down definitions of all the diseases we would get if we weren’t abstinent ’til our inevitable hetero marriage.

  4. Seems like a lot of that stuff is the responsibility of the parent to teach in addition to the sex educator (or, more likely, the middle school teacher who was “volunteered” to teach the sex ed unit because nobody else wanted to do it).

  5. I too am a product of the California system(more specifically LA county) and you are pretty much spot on. I will also add that they never taught us about condoms like how to use them(something movies and tv shows always showed, usually with a banana as the example). I think they mentioned that some people are allergic to the standard condoms, and they make condoms that are aren’t latex, but that about it. I think my 8th grade teacher also mentioned showering before having marital relations is welcome.

    I also wonder why school never really mention that intersex bodies exist? Like, even Republicans will have a hard time arguing against that as people born intersex. Seriously would help kids out, cause for years I thought intersex and trans was the same thing, just different terms(though back then a more offensive was being used among middle and high school kids).

  6. Ahh sex education. I remember the answer we were given when someone asked about gay people:

    Some people are gay, get over it (decent start from a catholic school) You probably won’t hang out with them much after that. (WHAT THE LIVING CRAP?!?!)

    I remember thinking it was bullshit at the time, but it still made a mark.

  7. Parents talking about sex? My Dad was crass and cisheteronormative. My mom was absurdly vague and childish. School didn’t have the classes. I owe a lot to the Encyclopedia. Most of what I learned there was accurate and applicable.

    I wasn’t seen as or considered disabled at the time, so I appreciate you sharing your experience. You’re a powerful writer, Carrie. Your words always mean a lot to me. 🙂

  8. I was fortunate enough to have good books and resources for sex ed at home and at my (alternative, Canadian) schools, including a special visit during middle school of the sex ed/dance visiting teacher, which we simply called “Sex with Janet,” and which started with anonymous written questions. I can’t imagine growing up without this…

    But really I came on here to comment for #s 4/5, to plug the liberator line of sex furniture/pillows. They seem pricey for hunks of foam but make such an enormous difference in terms of accessibility for those with strength or flexibility issues (aka me).

    • I have to give a lot of credit to my mom, though, who bought me this (embarrassing at the time, but actually really amazing) book called It’s Perfectly Normal, which was basically a Sex Ed course narrated by a cartoon bird and bee. I

      t covered basically all of the things on your wish list, which is super progressive considering this was 25 years ago, and I still remember that the illustrations included an incredibly diverse cross-section of humanity — all different ages, abilities, sexualities, ethnicities, sizes. And everything was explained in a way a kid could understand.

  9. Sex education in our small town in Missouri was abstinence-only, hetero-only, Christian-focused, and anti-abortion, not to mention ableist and problematic in about a million other ways.
    Our educators actually told us that condoms weren’t effective at protecting against HIV, so why wear them anyway?
    And the whole, “when you have sex with multiple people, you are like a cup of spit,” arguments. Ugh.
    This all took place in Jr. High. When we got to High School, it wasn’t any better – our teacher could barely muster the guts to whisper the word “vagina,” and when we watched a film on HIV/AIDS, it was completely focused on a white cis woman who transmitted the virus from her husband’s blood transfusion. -.-

    I guess, thank goodness for the internet and Autostraddle. But also – I still get mad when I think about the fact that I have to use Google to seek information on queer sex.

  10. Our sex ed classes in year 7 were taught by a priest, so it’s fair to say they were pretty useless. There was no mention of homosexuality, pleasure, positions, toys, body types, or even consent. And this was long before the internet, so it didn’t feel like there was any other place to go to learn anything. We really are failing our young people, even to this day.

  11. The “education” I received and that I know many students receive in the U.S., particularly in the Midwest/South (the Bible Belt), is not something I would even label as “sex education”. It’s not about sex. It’s about reproduction, so out goes any hope of mention, let alone discussion, about the actual act/s of sex (position, type, toys, partners, etc.). Out goes any hope of mention, let alone discussion, about sexuality or gender identity outside the “norm” of heterosexuality and cisgender identity. Out goes any hope of mention, let alone discussion, of sexual activity that does not serve as a function of reproduction. Rarely even a mention/discussion of consent. It is strictly about biology, an emphatic encouragement of abstinence, and the occasional suggestion to use protection (read: condoms, since other forms of protection were not discussed in the slightest) if you find you absolutely, positively cannot abstain. Minimal mention/discussion, even, of sexually transmitted infections, including the scope of possible infections, the scope of transmission, as well as methods of prevention, detection, and treatment. Sex education is borderline non-existent if not entirely non-existent in far too many schools and homes throughout the U.S., and it is disservice to our young people (and the adults we grow to be) and a detriment to society.

  12. I like that phrasing, “because they *think* it feels good.” not because it actually feels good, but because they’re under some kind of hypnotic spell that makes them think that touching other people’s bodies and having them touch your body is a pleasurable experience. It’s a real fuckin’ epidemic.

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