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Sexuality Education for Individuals with Special Needs: “Sexual Consent” Part 1

“Sexuality is an integral part of the personality of everyone: man, woman and child; it is a basic need and aspect of being human that cannot be separated from other aspects of life (World Health Organization, 1975)”. At JSC we accept this as a given: we are all sexual beings, including those of us with various disabilities that may impair our functioning and may impact our decision-making abilities. Of course, a person’s ability to participate in sexual activity depends upon his or her functional social understanding and, as educators and counselors working with people with disabilities, we are often called upon to promote healthy sexual choices in their sexual lives.

Our intervention strategies will vary based upon our client’s physical, emotional and intellectual abilities and skills. Social, familiar, and cultural considerations also play a part in the way in which we intervene. Our clients’ ages, health and previous experiences must also be considered. Educational interventions can include classroom presentations and instruction or one-on-one counseling. A variety of curricula exist that teach special clients with mild to moderate levels of disability aspects of sexuality ranging from simplified biological concepts of human sexual development to interpersonal aspects of sexuality including dating, relationship skills and sexual health. Among the challenges of teaching sexuality to students with cognitive and/or emotional problems is teaching the concepts of sexual consensus and consent. Unfortunately, based on numerous reports of date rape and regretted sexual encounters occurring on college campuses, these concepts appear difficult to comprehend even for the most gifted among us. As a society, we need to do a better job of addressing this topic.

Our clients and students need to understand that sexual activity between them and another individual must contain the component of consent. Helping our clients understand this concept can be daunting yet critically important. Although the elements that constitute consent can be clearly enumerated and defined, in practice they are often extremely nuanced and abstract. And depending upon our client’s level of cognitive function, even when taught explicitly, these may not be understood[1].

It would help if we as educators and counselors had a really good handle on the definition of consent ourselves. As the concept becomes clearer to us, we can more easily adapt our instruction and conversation appropriately to best instruct our students. This is essential in order to give our clients the best chance of understanding this idea and the ramifications of missing it all together. So here goes:

Sexual consent is a two-way street that involves the clear and unambiguous communication by each participant throughout any sexual encounter. Consenting to some sexual acts does not imply consent to others and once started, all activity should stop if there is a change of mind by either. Importantly, and essential to convey to your students and clients, consent cannot be inferred from the absence of “no.”  In other words, consent cannot be obtained from someone who is asleep or otherwise mentally or physically incapacitated, whether due to alcohol, drugs, or some other condition. Consent cannot be obtained by threat, coercion, or force. Agreement given under such conditions does not constitute consent.  If all of this sounds legalistic, it is[2].

Without this understanding and tools for incorporating it, our students are at risk for engaging in behaviors that at worst may constitute criminal offenses and more commonly, result in misunderstanding and relationship difficulties.  Clearly it is not enough to teach our students about sexual abuse prevention from the point of view of avoiding victimization. It is also essential to shed light on the problem of the perpetrator, albeit an inadvertent one. Giving our students the information to understand sexual consent and the concept of mutuality would go a long way towards ameliorating this problem.

This blog is a provisional exploration of a topic not often discussed. It is intended as a starting point and is an invitation to engage you, the reader, in a conversation that is both controversial and absolutely necessary. If your students and clients are out and about in the community and are unsupervised, they need to know about sexual boundaries and related sexual issues. I will continue to explore this topic and will introduce ideas suggested by others in the field of sexuality education. Your comments and ideas are welcome and encouraged. How have you helped your students with special needs approach this issue?

Part 2 will continue the conversation.

Garilynn Stanfield, MSW, PhD candidate

Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Sexual Assault Counselor

Curriculum Consultant, James Stanfield Company


[1] In cases of sexual abuse, actual consent may be irrelevant, because the person may be considered incapable of giving legal consent.

[2] Laws and statues governing sexual acts and behaviors vary by state.

©2013 James Stanfield Company. All Rights Reserved.

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