Teaching consent: making sex education accessible for all

SHW18-2-1100x365

Consent, when it comes to sexual activity, is not just about whether someone says “No”. It involves listening and paying attention to your partner’s body language and creating an environment where permission can be given enthusiastically and clearly: not just for penetrative sex, but any sexual contact. Easy, right?

Sadly not. Many people, as the stories emerging off the back of #metoo show, still struggle with the concept itself, or deliberately choose to ignore it completely. “She never said no”, you hear people say, or “I didn’t know she was drunk!”

This week is Sexual Health Week, and the theme is consent. We’re running a series of interviews, entitled ‘Teaching consent’ with sexual health educators, asking them how they go about teaching consent, and all its related implications, to young people and/or adults. We are also posting content on Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtag #NoGreyArea, and the general campaign hashtag #SHW18. Get involved and join the conversation!

An interview with Arunima from Enhance the UK

For our last interview, we’re looking at consent from a different perspective. Many disabled people don’t have access to basic sex education, let alone discussions around consent. Too often, they find themselves infantilised or overlooked in discussions about sex and sexuality, and others, for example those with hearing or visual impairments, may end up missing out on sex education altogether. For this reason, when it comes to consent, first we need to take a step back and ensure all RSE is accessible to everyone.

Enhance the UK is a charity run by disabled people, with the aim of changing the way people view disability. They do this in a variety of ways, from supporting businesses to be more inclusive to offering online services and resources, and running disability awareness training in schools. Currently, the team are running a national campaign, ‘Undressing Disability’, which aims to raise standards in sexual health and awareness for disabled people. Arunima is a project manager at the organisation.

What does your Undressing Disability campaign involve?

Arunima: One of the key things we are focussing on is creating inclusive resources for schools as part of their RSE curriculum. Statistics from the NSPCC show, for example, that Deaf children are three times more vulnerable to being sexually abused than non-Deaf children. We aim to help eliminate this likelihood of abuse through inclusive education.

Another limb of the campaign is lobbying for care providers to have an obligation to take into consideration the sexual and intimate needs and desires of disabled people living in care — something at the moment which is largely ignored. We want to do that by ensuring that all care-providers have a policy in place, and provide training for all their care staff in this area, and that these policies are included in care plans and person-centred planning. The ultimate goal is that the CQC makes this mandatory.

At the moment the campaign is online but we are currently working to develop an inclusive sex education pack that we then hope to distribute to schools. For this, we’re talking to fellow young people’s charities to organise some focus groups and chat to people directly, to see the effect lack of education has had on their lives and their sex lives. Hopefully then we can develop this resource to provide to schools so that disabled people are not infantilised, and to show schools that disabled people, too, deserve a choice.

What resources do you currently have online?

Arunima: We have a lot of ‘how to’ guides on our website for service providers and people living in care about what their sexual rights are, and we also run The Love Lounge, a safe space where people can write in about their sexual and relationship issues so we can put people at ease regarding any worries they have. The Love Lounge is run by our two non-expert “sexperts” who both have disabilities and can talk from experience to support others.

Finally, we have published a book, Undressing Disability, where people talk about their experiences with sex and love and dating.

What was your experience of sex education when you were at school?

Arunima: In terms of RSE in schools, I never saw myself in any of the materials we were given. I didn’t see myself as a sexual being, i just saw myself as infantilised. The materials were seen as not being appropriate for us, we were seen as vulnerable rather than independent, empowered individuals.

Even when I was included in the conversation, the images we were given didn’t show anyone with a body like mine, it just seemed as if it was just happening to everyone else.

And why aren’t disabled people getting the sort of information they need at school and from carers?

Arunima: RSE is now compulsory in all schools but we don’t know how inclusive and accessible these classes actually are. To date, we have not seen any evidence to show that the teaching resources and materials used are representative of the issues or worries young disabled pupils may have. This is something we’ll be working on when we’re talking to our focus groups.

For example, something like coming on your period at school can be really problematic if you don’t have the dexterity to use sanitary products independently. I’ve been told of situations when pupils can’t rely on their carer to change a pad for them, which means they’re taking a week off school, which means they’re missing out on education, including perhaps RSE. It’s those issues we need to start thinking about.

In terms of the care system, you have to look at it from a carer’s perspective too: they do not have clear guidelines or training and the area is far too murky for them to negotiate on their own. Care can often be very basic — the fundamentals are provided, but an individual’s emotional and physical needs are often overlooked. We want to get that thought process going.

What added problems does a discussion around “consent” bring up when you take people with disabilities into account?

Arunima: The chance of young disabled people being abused is more likely if they don’t understand consent and what constitutes appropriate sexual behaviour.

Going back to the statistics about Deaf young people being more vulnerable when it comes to sexual abuse — even if they receive sex education, quite often they are unable to lip read and if they are British Sign Language users, the information should be tailored as such.

Can you give an example of when sex education for both carers and the disabled person involved would have been hugely beneficial?

Arunima: On our website we have a film we made, ‘Sophie’s Story’. Sophie has MS, is non-verbal as a result, and lives in a care home. A few years ago she began to ask her carers to type messages for her using her eye-gaze board, messages which were of a sexually explicit nature to different men. Her carers were refusing to help her send those messages, so her sister contacted Enhance the UK for some support. Once we actually spent some time talking to Sophie, it became very apparent that she was longing for a way to express herself sexually and to be seen as a woman.

Since then, Sophie found a boyfriend online and they are now married. All Sophie needed was some support to make her voice heard and have her needs listened to, and this is one of thousands of stories that we hear regularly. Quite often, people feel isolated and unfulfilled, and want companionship.

People need to know that disabled people are still sexual beings and don’t always need to be protected, because protection can go too far and curtail people’s human rights. Our campaign is looking at the grassroots of education in schools and care settings to ensure people are getting the information they need to make their own informed choices. Inclusive and accessible sex education are the roots from which we can help disabled people live happier, safer and more fulfilled lives.

Still in doubt about what consent means? Check out The Femedic’s new resource designed specifically to clear up any lingering confusion.

Imogen Robinson

Deputy Editor, The Femedic

Imogen joined The Femedic after working as a news reporter. Becoming frustrated with the neverending clickbait, she jumped at the chance to work for a site whose ethos revolves around honesty and empathy. From reading articles by doctors to researching her own, and discussing health with a huge variety of women, she is fascinated by just how little we are told about our own bodies and women-specific health issues, and is excited to be working on a site which will dispel myths and taboos, and hopefully help a lot of women.

View more