Frontline Initiative: Supporting Healthy Relationships

Supporting people to become sexual self-advocates


Katherine McLaughlin, M.Ed. CSE, is certified as a sexuality expert and founder of Elevatus Training. She can be reached at

Self-advocates are saying it loud and clear. We want and need sexuality education. We want our questions answered. We want a partner. Treat us like adults. We want to be respected as sexual beings, like everyone else. And, we want to become sexual self-advocates, not just self-advocates.

Katherine McLaughlin, caucasian, blond hair, wearing purple shirt

Most people will be in a sexual relationship at some point. There may be disagreement about when it should happen but, in general, the belief is that someday it will. However, this is not what happens for self-advocates. People may think that individuals with disabilities are not sexual. Or that they will not be in a healthy sexual relationship. This belief dictates how people respond when a self-advocate wants to talk about sex or be in a relationship. People get nervous or they "brush off or ignore" the questions that self-advocates ask, questions about sexuality education, relationships, and having a partner. People wonder if sexuality education will give people with disabilities “ideas” about having sex. Often, they respond with, “You don’t need to be in a relationship." Or, "You will be taken advantage of.”

Self-advocates are saying it loud and clear. We want and need sexuality education. We want our questions answered. We want a partner. Treat us like adults. We want to be respected as sexual beings, like everyone else. And, we want to become sexual self-advocates, not just self-advocates.

Self-advocates report that they get the support they need when they ask about getting a job or finding a place to live. When they say they want to start dating or have privacy with a partner, they get silence and awkwardness. Why such different responses? Because we don’t know how to address this topic. We are downright scared to respond.

Let's be proactive and positive by exploring these questions —

  • What is sexual self-advocacy?
  • How can you support self-advocates to become sexual self-advocates?

The meaning of sexual self-advocacy

According to Green Mountain Self Advocates sexual self-advocacy means —

  • Feeling good about yourself.
  • Feeling comfortable meeting people, flirting, and asking somebody to dance.
  • Being free about your sexuality (Gay, Straight, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Inter-sexual, Asexual).
  • Feeling free to speak up to your partner and tell them what you want and don’t want in a relationship.
  • Knowing your rights and responsibilities.
  • Not letting people use you or take advantage of you.
  • Knowing how to deal with someone pressuring you to do something sexually you don’t want to do.
  • Dealing with stalkers and harassment.
  • Getting detailed information about sex that everyone can understand.
  • Knowing about birth control and safer sex.
  • Learning new things and deciding what is right and safe for you.
  • Telling your parents about your relationship when they don’t agree.
  • Dealing with partner’s parents’ objections to the relationship.
  • Dealing with parents when they try to hitch you up with other people.
  • Asking for and getting privacy.
  • Getting married.
  • Breaking up with people by letting them down easy.
  • Learning from our mistakes.

You can see that it’s about running your own life and your relationships. It is about speaking up in relationships. It is about speaking up to parents, caregivers, and staff. It is about being in charge of your relationships and your life.

Supporting Sexual Self-Advocacy

How do we support self-advocates to become sexual self-advocates? Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) can play an important role in supporting peoples’ understanding of sexuality. We can support them to become sexual self-advocates, and to explore new relationships. Here are some ways DSPs can do this:

Give self-advocates what they want and need

When they ask a question, answer it as best you can with facts, not your values, or find out the answer and get back to them. Discussing sexuality does not give people “ideas” about sex. You are not responsible for their choices. When they ask for sexuality education, find them a class or start teaching a class. When they say they want a partner, say, “Awesome. Let’s figure out how you can meet people that would be great partners.”

Give the facts. Set your values aside and give a range of opinions

We often use our values to “teach” even though our values aren’t facts, but opinions and beliefs that belong to us. We often don’t know what else to use because we have never had any training ourselves. Ask yourself, “Is what I am about to say a fact or my belief, opinions, and values?” You can also add a range of opinions to your answer. You could say, “Some people think _________and others think ________. What do you think?”.

Communicate directly. Use medical terms that prepare people to talk about their body and experiences

Knowing the real names for body parts makes it easier to communicate about them. Keep it simple. Provide simple, direct explanations, using words they can understand. Long explanations can be unnecessary, or more confusing.

Give positive messages

These include —

  • Everyone is a sexual being from birth to death.
  • You have the right to be in a relationship.
  • You have the right to get information about sexuality and relationships.
  • It is okay to have questions about sex, bodies, and pleasure.
  • You have the right to say yes and to say no.
  • I accept you as you are.
  • I trust you can make your own choices.
  • It is your body. You get to decide what is right for you.
  • Even if you have had negative experiences, you can still have a healthy sexual life.

Be open, non-judgmental, and kind when you are answering questions or bringing up the topic

Remember, it can take a lot of courage to ask a question. Know that all people are different in how they experience their sexuality. Be inclusive of all gender identities and sexual orientations. Be approachable, make it clear that they can ask you anything, as well as seek help to find the answer together.

If you’re embarrassed, admit it

It’s okay to feel embarrassed. If you feel embarrassed say, “I feel a little embarrassed about your question. Your question is a good question.” Your embarrassment should not give the impression they did something wrong by asking a question.

If necessary, answer later

If you don’t know how to answer the question it’s okay to say, “Great questions, but I need some time to figure out how to answer that questions. I will get back to you soon.” You don’t have to know all the answers. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to know everything about sexuality. It is okay to say, “I don’t know, but will find out for you.” You don’t need to be an expert at this topic to help.


You can empower the people you support by helping them take steps to become sexual self-advocates. Keep the topic simple and fact based. I’ve trained many people on the topic of sexuality education and relationships. Many have said “Talking about sexual education and relationships is easier than I thought it would be.” You can do this, too!

To learn more, visit Elevatus Training . We offer online training, curriculum, and other resources for DSPs, staff, educators, self-advocates, and parents on the topic of sexuality.