Skip to main content

Sexual Violence in the IDD Community

SVPP Community Blog

Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask

Reaching Into the Vegetable Crisper, and the Annoying Necessity of Sex Education

Jennifer Harrison 

Back in college – when keeping the apartment clean seemed about as important as learning to fly fish – I once bought a zucchini. A sudden and fleeting impulse to do something adult. I purchased it with my tip money and plunked in the crisper.

Over the following weeks, I spied that zucchini out of the corner of my eye whenever I reached for a Diet Coke or leftover corner of a sandwich, a blurry green thing beneath the grease-stained bottom shelf. The vegetable became a fixture in the fridge; not something to be tended to, but glanced at, noted, and ultimately ignored. 

A month may have passed… perhaps even two… before a scent summoned me, and I slid open the foggy drawer to find my zucchini now resembled a small animal from Narnia. It was hideous, menacing, whiskered. Cooking a ratatouille was clearly out of the question, and I knew I had to throw the produce away or risk it colonizing the second floor before Thanksgiving. It was sloppy work, but I did it.

What does this have to do with sex education? Spores aside, probably more than you think.

Because the fact is, I dreaded reaching into that crisper, addressing the bloated lump cemented to the corner, endangering my manicure with its wet entrails. I wanted someone else to do it for me, someone somehow more qualified to slay that dragon. But it was necessary. I could not let it go forever - no matter how long I wanted to put it off - because it simply wasn’t healthy to let it fester there, neglected.

Such is the same with teaching our children about sex. We grimace, we shudder, we bemoan having to talk about the body parts, the fluids, and the feelings. We don’t want to say those words, our heads hung in shame, our shoulders braced. We don’t want to get our proverbial hands dirty. It would be easier to just ignore the issue and hope it never comes up.

However, like a squash left to rot…

Puberty happens and hormones surge. We can avert our eyes, but it will happen with or without us.  And if we are not watchful, these changes may beget actions which then bring about consequences far more life-changing than a bit of mold on a plastic coffer.

According to the National Survey of Family Growth, pregnancies among women with disabilities are 42% more likely to be unintended than pregnancies among women without disabilities. People with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to acquire sexually transmitted infections than their neurotypical peers. And those with IDD are seven times more likely to experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. Many believe that learning about sex will encourage them to have sex, but research proves quite the opposite. Knowledge is power; it’s what they don’t know that can hurt them.

It is up to us to make sure that our children learn about their bodies, what their parts do and how they change, what sex is and what the consequences can be. We must teach our kids that they can say “no!” to sex and how to say it, and we have to teach them that they and their partner must both give and get clear, enthusiastic consent before any kind of sexual contact. We must tell them that they can change their mind at any time, no matter what they are already doing or have done. They need to understand that there are public and private behaviors and public and private places, and that each behavior belongs in a particular place or they can be accused of a sexual crime. While we might cringe uttering “penis” and “vagina,” we need to teach our kids those words so they can explain clearly to doctors or the police if anybody touches theirs. And our kids need to know exactly who is allowed to have physical contact with them – and how, and where – so they can recognize when it is not allowed.

Ignorance is not bliss, it is dangerous.

I learned many important lessons that year in college, like paying parking tickets before they slap a boot on the car, and keeping the kitchen clean. There will always be situations requiring unpleasant responses, but we all learn at some point that sometimes we have to roll up our sleeves, don rubber gloves, and get the messy job done. It is absolutely worth it.


  • The Talk: Taking One for the Team and Getting Through it (Almost) Unscathed

    The Talk: Taking One for the Team and Getting Through it (Almost) Unscathed

    Jennifer Harrison

    Long, long ago in the wilds of New Jersey, my then-6 year old daughter pondered the origin of life while soaking in a tubful of bubbles. I was out for the evening so she summoned my husband with her question. 

    “Daddy, where do babies come from?” she asked.

    My husband paused for a few moments and then responded, “Ask your sister.”

    Her sister was 9 at the time.

    Nobody enjoys these questions or discussions, but – alas! – they are necessary pests. Without teaching them how to make good choices and how to stay safe, we run the risk of our loved ones getting erroneous information from the internet or making it up as they go along. And as history has shown, that rarely ends well. So, after returning home that evening, I batted cleanup for my team. Informational mistakes were rectified, myths were debunked, and my little one was stunned to learn that couples do not, in fact, make babies by peeing in the same toilet. (I later informed my then-9 year old that it’s not nice to punk your sister. We all learned that night.)

    I tell you this admittedly discomfiting story for a reason. As a cautionary tale to squeamish fathers? A caveat not to leave the house without a sex therapist on speed-dial?

    No, I am sharing simply to highlight a prevailing truth: that most of us will do whatever it takes to avoid The Talk. 

    How can we make it easier, calmer, and less traumatic to the teller as well as the listener?  Here are a few suggestions from the experts.

    Don’t Shy Away From Those Words

    Whoever was in charge of naming the parts of human anatomy sure did a doozy. Whether the words are embarrassing-sounding in and of themselves or humiliating because of what they signify, our private parts can be difficult to discuss.

    But it is so important that we teach them! We all need to know what our body parts are actually called so we can clearly communicate with our caregivers, our doctors, and the police, if need be. Nicknames are not universal, and the on-call gynecologist may not know what we mean by “my hoo-ha.” Teach the words. They become less cringe-y as you do it.

    And once you can freely throw around language like “penis,” “testicles,” and “vulva,” try to keep the giggling and eye-rolling to a minimum. While it can be bonding to share a blush and shrug with your child/student/curious neighbor, shame can be contagious. So be sure to present the facts in the most positive, upbeat light. And that means speaking those words with confidence. (I mean, we have no problem talking about that fabulous planet, Venus…)

    Don’t Believe That Facts Incite Action

    Among our greater fears is inadvertently introducing newer! more exciting! cutting edge! sexual information that our students can race out and replicate as if the education were a thrilling suggestion. It is, therefore,  tempting to omit addressing certain sexual acts and language that we’d rather they never learn. Like, all of it.

    But the fact is, they will learn it. And if they don’t learn it, they’ll probably figure it out on their own. And if they never figure it out, they’ll just wind up hearing about and possibly doing something else we’d rather weren’t featured on their sexual menu. 

    Thankfully, finding out about a sex act does not predestine its performance. On the contrary, according to sex-positive parenting expert Airial Clark, research shows that “teens who talk with their parents about sex, relationships, birth control and pregnancy begin to have sex at later ages, use condoms and birth control more often if they do have sex, and have better communication with romantic partners and have sex less often.” This is all the goal! We’ve unearthed The Secret to Responsible Sex!

    Now, does that mean we should fire up “Eyes Wide Shut” and prepare to take notes together? No. (You’re welcome.)

    But if your student is old/savvy enough to ask the question, they are probably mature enough to get the answer. So, when they do approach you, be honest and be frank. Give only necessary information until they are ready to hear more. And feel free to follow up with a “But I don’t recommend you do this now. It’s really only good with someone you love.” That may be the heads-up that sticks.

    Find Your Cue

    What if Junior never asks about sex or their private parts? What if the years tick by and we remain surprisingly, conspicuously cringe-free?

    Bring it up yourself, and according to age. Experts suggest that children should learn the proper names of their body parts as soon as they begin talking. If it’s too late to catch that train, try tossing around some of those words today!

    “Hey, did I ever mention that your butt is really called your anus?”

    Too awkward? Then just start using them in conversation. Ask if their zipper is broken in the area of their pants “that covers your penis/vulva” or ask if their breasts are sore from that pecs workout at the Y. If they stare at you blankly, the door is open for discussion.

    “...What? You’ve never heard that word before? Let’s review!”

    Once a child is in middle school – or beyond – talking about sex will probably just mean filling in gaps in information they have already been collecting for months… or years. So the discussion doesn’t have to amount to scaling Everest, maybe just getting yourselves to base camp in one piece. 

    There are so many great ways to work sex and anatomy into conversations; mentioning someone you know who has become pregnant (“by the way, are you familiar with how that happens?”), addressing a relationship- or sex-related scene on TV (“wow, I hope they’ve talked about their HIV status beforehand…”), or discussing an ad for tampons or condoms (“ribbed or not, this is a great way to avoid pregnancy and STIs!”). Ask if they understand what’s going on; ask if they have any questions. Sexuality is all around us, we just need to nod to it when we see it.

    Include “Consent!”

    The birds and the bees both have to want to do what they do, or they shouldn’t do it!

    That’s the message we cannot forget to mention to our loved ones. Because the parts and processes involved in sex are important, but just as important are the respect, safety, and lawfulness of sex. 

    Therefore, we need to repeat (and repeat… and repeat!) that consent is:



    Informed (they know what it is they are agreeing to do!)

    Sustained (anyone can take away their consent at any point – before, during, or 30 times in!)

    Awake and alert (never under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or sleep)

    We must teach our kids that no one is allowed to touch their breasts, penis, vulva, or butt without consent (unless it’s by a doctor - and they can keep a trusted adult in the room with them during an exam, if they prefer). And they are not to touch anyone else’s private parts without consent. It is for their safety and the safety of those around them. Courtrooms are full of people who have committed sexual violence without understanding that what they were doing is illegal. Let’s keep our kids out of the justice system and safe.

    Call for Backup

    There’s no need to sweat this stuff on your own. Look online together or break open a book. Sit in on an age-appropriate sex ed. class or pair up with an equally-squeamish friend and tag team the topic. 

    Talking about sex does not have to be as uncomfortable as we fear it does. Practice – along with understanding its importance – makes it a whole lot easier.

    “Sex Ed. Isn’t Actually About Sex”

    Per Harvard Medical School’s Center for Primary Care, sex ed. “teaches critical life skills that are desperately needed in our society,” and is not just about the mechanics of the act. A truly comprehensive take on the subject will cover healthy relationships, self-esteem, body confidence, gender equity, communication, empathy, and respect.  (And let’s not forget that repeated lesson about consent!)

    It gives our students power over their behavior, relationships, and bodies.

    It gives our students a voice in what happens to them, and how.

    Most important, it allows our students to become the healthy, responsible, and independent people we know they can be. And we all need people like that on our team.

  • Please (Don’t) Stand By: How Not to be a Bystander When You Can Instead Be a Helper

    Please (Don’t) Stand By: How Not to be a Bystander When You Can Instead Be a Helper

    Jennifer Harrison

    In a simpler time on a simpler Earth, when dinner came from the freezer in a silver foil tray and we slogged across the room to change the television channel by hand (unless we had a little brother – then he slogged), we would often find our favorite programs cut out abruptly, and without warning. Sitcoms disappeared mid-laugh track, Walter Cronkite’s white mustache vanished instantly into the ether. Our entertainment was replaced by a shrieking sound tone and a sequence of Technicolor stripes designed to pierce the retina on impact. The corresponding caption on-screen: “We are experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by.”

    For those of you born before the dawn of cable and thus privy to this injustice: Did you stand by?

    No, you probably did not.

    None of us did.

    Instead, we stomped across the shag carpet and whined away to our rooms. Or we yelled for help (that’s “Daaaaaaaaad!” with 9 “a”s). Or we practiced our roundhouse into the faux oak paneling of the TV set, an attempt to upset the intrusion through sheer force. Whatever we did, it was not simply standing by. We knew that would mean surrender, and with surrender comes no change.

    So, how is it that we were ardently proactive against Columbo Interruptus and the intrusion on our nightly news just to grow up into people who, well, passively stand by? And especially in times of crisis?

    There is science behind it.

    Research blames a social psychology theory called the “bystander effect.” It claims, the greater the number of people nearby, the less likely they are to help someone in distress. In other words, if a bunch of bystanders witness violence, it’s likely no one will help. The theory assumes that the presence of others takes the pressure off of us as individuals to act (“meh, someone else will take care of it”) while at the same time activating the idea that it is socially appropriate to behave like those around us, a la herd mentality (so their inaction leads to our inaction… which leads to their inaction… which leads to ours…).  Whatever the reason, this concept flies in the face of “safety in numbers,” making violence out in the open easier and without interruption. According to the bystander effect, we may not be pleased to stand by, but despite ourselves, we do. 

    In response to this distressing proposition, there is a framework called “bystander intervention” which helps people recognize healthy and unhealthy behaviors that might lead to violence – and sexual violence in particular – and teaches them how best to intervene before the disturbance escalates. The process consists of:

    1. Recognizing that violence may be occurring or about to occur
    2. Assessing if intervention is appropriate
    3. Deciding whether or not to take responsibility for intervention
    4. Determining the safest and most appropriate way to intervene
    5. Intervening

    In short, if you see something, do something… but safely.

    How Do We Know if a Situation is Violent or Potentially Violent?

    Think of a scale – almost like the pain charts we see at the doctor’s – to measure the level of threat. On the low end of the scale, we will see healthy, age-appropriate, safe, and respectful interaction. On the high end lies highly dangerous behaviors such as sexual abuse, rape, and other forms of violence.

    Between the two extremes exist inappropriate speech and action, coercion, and harassment. Getting involved while activity is still in this mid-range allows us, according to Joan Tabachnick’s Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Violence Prevention Booklet, to “intervene and reinforce positive behaviors BEFORE a behavior moves further along the continuum into something violent.” So the sooner we step in, the better we can influence the aggressor, affect the outcome, and protect ourselves and others from harm.

    How Can We Intervene in a Helpful and Safe Way?

    RAINN suggests a number of ways to effectively – and safely – intercede.

    • Create a distraction.
    • Do this by communicating with the individual at risk. Approach them and offer to go somewhere else with them, in a firm but calm way. “Hey, let’s take off and get some pizza” or “come take a walk with me over there” will provide the opportunity to exit a dangerous situation. Or simply break the tension by suggesting a game (if you’re at a party), getting some fresh air, or introducing food or drink to the situation. Sometimes changing just one element in the atmosphere is enough to redirect attention.
    • Discuss what’s going on.
    • Approach the person at risk and ask them directly if they need help, want you to take them away from the situation, or prefer that you stay with them. It is important not to leave the vulnerable person alone in a situation that may escalate.
    • Call for Backup.
    • If you feel at risk or don’t want to walk in on a heated situation alone, enlist the help of another person to help you intervene. They can accompany you in confronting the agitator, approach the person in place of you. Approaching people who have a relationship with the person at risk will give them added motivation to lend a hand.

    Working Against Violence, Inc. also recommends reaching out for an adult’s help (if you are a minor), educating ourselves on types of abuse and signs that they are happening, showing care and empathy, calling 911 in times of immediate danger, and calling out inappropriate behaviors and conversations that can devolve into violence. Speaking up when individuals are endangered and speaking out when others become aggressive – or if they are acting in support of the antagonist with laughter or rumor-mongering – immediately makes you an ally. 

    Too Many Options to Digest?

    When in doubt, remember the Hollaback! campaign’s 5 D’s (not to be confused with Five Alive, which is a fruit juice and has nothing to do with any of this):

    • Distract by creating a commotion (spill your water! Drop a bag of marbles!) or simply initiating small talk.
    • Delegate by asking a third party for assistance (especially an authority figure).
    • Document by taking notes or a video of the situation (in case details or verification are later required).
    • Delay by offering support or aid to the person who was victimized.
    • Direct – once everyone is safe – by “speaking firmly and clearly against the harassment/discrimination taking place.” However, this last approach should take a backseat to caring for the person who was victimized. Aiding the victim is more important than educating the offender in the heat of the moment.

    Take to the World Wide Web

    Want to encourage more youth to become active bystanders? Want to prepare your loved ones to advocate for sexual violence prevention?  Try these cyber-based programs with the young people in your life:

    Yes, there was little we could do to make Fonzie reappear after being bumped off the screen by the Broadcast System way back when, but we are much more empowered and prepared today to change the trajectory of escalating aggression. 

    There is a right time and best place to remain a bystander. In the face of sexual violence is not one of them.