Informed Sex is Good Sex: Prioritizing Intimacy Education for College Students with Intellectual Disability
Many emerging adults with intellectual disability express a desire to have meaningful romantic relationships and sexual experiences, yet only half receive intimacy education in high school (Barnard-Brak et al., 2014). Even then, this education is often not comprehensive, meaning students with intellectual disability are usually taught an abstinence-only, preventative approach. This has the potential to be problematic as students with intellectual disability transition to college life with more autonomy and exposure to intimacy and sexuality than ever before. Intimacy is a basic human need, and encompasses the love and affection of a romantic relationship and/or a physical act with another that provides sexual gratification. Intimacy affects overall quality of life and satisfaction. It is important to remember that healthy intimate relationships are a positive aspect of life, including college life for students with intellectual disability.
A lack of knowledge about intimacy may result in negative or even dangerous outcomes like unplanned pregnancy, inappropriate physical behavior, and sexual abuse. For students with intellectual disability on a college campus, a lack of comprehensive intimacy education could also mean a lack of understanding sexual norms and consent, which could result in conduct violations or interactions with campus police. In academic settings, students must know how to navigate intimate situations and understand nuances in order to engage with their peers, faculty, and support systems in a healthy and informed way. While living independently in university housing or in off-campus housing, knowledge to engage in healthy intimate relationships is critical in maintaining a safe environment for all university students. Intimacy is a theme that spans all life domains, including employment, as students with intellectual disability navigate relationships and laws around sexual behavior in the workplace.When all college students, including those with intellectual disability, have access to intimacy education, it contributes to the safety, well-being, and health of the campus community as a whole (Lechner et al., 2013).
So what can we, as professionals, families, and students do to increase access to comprehensive intimacy education for college students with intellectual disability?
1. Throw away the misconceptions: Throughout history, adults with intellectual disability have been classified by two extremes: either asexual or hypersexual. Many adults with disabilities have their desire to have an intimate relationship dismissed because parents, siblings, teachers, and other professionals continue to treat them like children who don’t know enough or couldn’t possibly engage in healthy intimate relationships. It’s time to acknowledge that adults with intellectual disability may have the same desires to be connected (emotionally and/or physically) to a partner, to have a family, and to make decisions about intimacy in their own lives.
2. Advocate: The best way to prevent potential negative outcomes associated with intimacy is to educate people. As noted above, people with intellectual disability historically lack comprehensive intimacy education. Equipping students with the knowledge they need to achieve agency in this aspect of their lives is important since intimacy education is a positive and necessary part of being part of a safe college campus and community, yet staff at college programs for students with intellectual disability may receive pushback from multiple stakeholders such as university personnel and parents.
3. Assess: Given that very few students with intellectual disability come to college with intimacy knowledge, it’s important to assess students’ level of knowledge and interest in this area, yet less than half of inclusive college programs for students with intellectual disability assess their students’ interest and level of knowledge in intimacy (Stinnett et al., 2021). Assessment data can assist program staff in supporting students in achieving student-directed goals and identifying what students already know, what they want to know more about, and how they’d feel comfortable learning about intimacy.
4. Use existing resources: Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that not every program can have an intimacy education expert on staff. Program staff should analyze the resources and programs that already exist on campus (often hosted by University Health Centers, Women’s Centers, or clubs/organizations) to ensure that the information is accessible and in plain language. Program staff can also partner with these organizations to train them on best practices in working with students with intellectual disability, which is likely a population that they aren’t familiar with. Remember, the best resources are those created by or with people with disabilities. They are the experts in their own intimate lives.
5. Reach out to Think College!: We would love to chat with you about this topic and how to refine this aspect of your program. For more information or to talk to a member of our technical assistance team, please email email@example.com.
Check out the following resources on how to support adults with intellectual disability in learning more about intimacy:
Sexual Health Equity for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
Our Sexuality, Our Health: A disabled Advocate’s Guide to Relationships, Romance, Sexuality and Sexual Health
Barnard-Brak, L., Schmidt, M., Chesnut, S., Wei, T., & Richman, D. (2014). Predictors of access to sex education for children with intellectual disabilities in public schools. Mental Retardation, 52(2), 85-97.
Lechner, K. E., Garcia, C. M., Frerich, E. A., Lust, K., & Eisenberg, M. E. (2013). College students’ sexual health: Personal responsibility or the responsibility of the college?. Journal of American College Health, 61(1), 28-35.
Stinnett, C. V., Plotner, A. J., & Marshall, K. J. (2021). The Continuum of Support for Building Intimacy Knowledge in College for Students With Intellectual Disability. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 59(6), 472-486.
About the post author: Chelsea VanHorn Stinnett, PhD is the Training Development and Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Think College Inclusive Higher Education Network. As a former executive director of an inclusive postsecondary education program, Chelsea is interested in researching and assisting program in supporting students to develop sexual agency.