Promoting Sexual Empowerment for Individuals with Disabilities

Diversity; Public Health; Social Work; Students

Sexual education fosters sexual liberation. That’s the ethos behind the Brown School’s specialization in Sexual Health and Education, one of six specialization options within the Master of Social Work program.

Specialization coursework prepares students to address sexual health as critical to individual, family and community wellness, preparing them for professional roles as sexuality educators, sex therapists, community organizers, advocates and more.

This fall, students in the course “Designing and Implementing Sexual Health Education” gained firsthand experience designing and implementing a sexual education curriculum.

Susan Ekberg Stiritz, associate professor of practice and specialization chair, leads the course in partnership with Paraquad, a nonprofit organization focused on empowering people with disabilities to increase their overall independence.

Through the course, Brown School students train partners from Paraquad, adults with intellectual disabilities, to become Sexuality Peer Educators (SPEs). The course curriculum operates by complementing Paraquad’s independent empowerment with comprehensive information on sexuality, a topic often withheld from this population.

The SPE curriculum is designed to empower Paraquad partners to advocate for sexual rights, to form and maintain dating relationships, to express sexual self-esteem, and to organize and participate in communities dedicated to increasing knowledge about human sexuality.

Brown School students meet for three hours each week to prepare the upcoming lesson for their Paraquad partners. The role of lead instructor rotates from week to week, so each student has the opportunity to create a lesson plan, including an agenda, objectives and class activities.

Before the lesson is taught, all Brown students come together to collaborate and collect feedback, in order to prepare a complete and robust lesson plan. Throughout the course of the semester, students have taught units on sexual self-esteem, masturbation, relationships, sexual decision making, and consent.

“This class goes way beyond sex but is about empowering folks with disabilities to demand respect, autonomy, and recognition of humanity,” said Christine Montero, MSW ’17, who is a teaching assistant for the course.

The Brown School is one of only a few social work programs in the country to offer such an emphasis on sexual health. The program is reflective of the ever-increasing need for social workers to be aware of how sexuality affects clients, organizations and communities.

“Supporting others to find their own sexual power and sexual self-efficacy can greatly increase their quality of life,” said Michael Gendernik, a second-year MSW student pursuing the Sexual Health and Education specialization. “This course is assisting me in framing how I would create a curriculum to achieve that liberation.”

For Brown School students pursuing the Sexual Health and Education specialization, this course fulfills one of the required elective credits. Other specialization courses include “Sex, Society and Social Work”; “Regulating Sex: Historical and Cultural Encounters”; “Sexual Health Across the Life Course,” and more.

This course also contributes to requirements for Brown School students who are seeking certification by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), of which Stiritz is president.

Montero, the course’s teaching assistant, is currently applying for AASECT sex educator certification. “Coming to the Brown School,” she said, “I realized that what seemed like a childhood pipe dream could actually be a successful, impactful career path — one supported by sexual health professionals and institutions all over the world.”