A recent report published by HEPI attempts to examine student behaviours around sex and relationships – and aims to clarify some of the myths that often circulate around the student lifestyle.
The introduction even argues that data should “help inform students about how their fellow students behave”.
But there’s a problem with that assertion. Because it’s a national dataset, we’re not able to “see” important diversity in the findings that would enable better understanding among students about how their fellow students behave.
The lack of intersectionality or diversity reflected in the results creates a false perception – both of student experiences around sex and relationships, but also of about what a typical student “is” or “should be”.
And most noticeably, but not surprisingly, the failure to specifically interrogate disabled students in this summary perpetuates an all-too-common stereotype – that disabled people do not have sex.
There’s lots of talk about how best to represent students in higher education. But before we talk about representing students to decision makers, we need to talk about how students are represented – both in the media, and in research and policy work that surrounds students.
Every aspect of sex within popular culture, sex education and the media is catered towards non-disabled people – with disabled people either being hyper-fetishized for their disability, or infantilised completely.
The HEPI report suggests that 27 per cent of students either strongly agree or agree that “the education [they] received at school prepared [them] for sex and relationships at university”. But who said that, who disagreed and do they know what they don’t know?
Sex education in schools is taught specifically towards able-bodied students. When we exclude the disabled voice, we reinforce the “ableist and heteronormative assumptions embedded within the ‘hidden curriculum’ of many formal sex education programmes position sex as a heterosexual act and disabled people as non-sexual”, which contributes to disabled people having lower self-esteem, and means they are more likely to seek these sexual experiences elsewhere with no support – whilst at university.
The section of the report that explores “abusive relationships” also reflects a distorted perception of the real picture because of the missing voice of disabled students.
A study showed that disabled adults aged 16 to 24 years were almost three times more likely to have experienced any form of domestic abuse (21.2%) than non-disabled adults of the same age (7.4%). This figure suggests that if we’d identified disabled students properly in the sample, the finding may have differed from the largely positive agreements to statements such as “knowing how to recognise when a friend is unsafe” or “what to do if someone they know is in an abusive or harmful relationship”.
Covid-19 has obviously had an enormous impact on sex and relationships, and it was encouraging to see that this was acknowledged in this piece of work, especially with the rise of issues such as revenge media. But many disabled people already had experiences of online dating and relationships long before the pandemic. For many people, their entire sex life may consist online. Failure to acknowledge this and suggesting that these things are “new” completely invalidates the experiences of so many people.
There is an argument that surveys about “issues” are not always big enough to capture some of the granularity I am suggesting when it comes to the diversity of the student body. There’s also a decent argument that surveys about specific groups of students are not always big enough to capture some of the granularity I am suggesting when it comes to the complexities of students’ lives and experiences.
But the point is that unless we get better at designing research in a way that can surface and highlight the issues I’ve identified, we end up basing welfare and social policy decisions on faulty “norms” amongst students, and equality and diversity based education policy decisions that only think about the academic experience – without considering the wider experience that contributes to specific students groups’ success or failure.
Either we ask about sex in surveys of disabled students, or we ask about disabled students in surveys about sex. And so on.
At the end of the day the most important point for me here is that many people do not seem to understand is that disabled people have sex. They will do so with or without support. It may not always be in the heteronormative perceptions of sex, but it will absolutely happen. This is why it would be helpful if valuable pieces of work like this once again heard and represented disabled students’ lives.