Sex Education for the mentally handicapped

Carrie McLaren is a guest blogger at Boing Boing and coauthor of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. She lives in Brooklyn, the former home of her now defunct Stay Free! magazine.

My friend Skip, who runs the AV Geeks sections at, has collected a ton of vintage educational films. The ABC of Sex Education for Trainables is a thoughtful, fascinating look at how social workers in the 1970s taught the mentally handicapped about sex.

Skip's DVD collections--focused on everything from venereal disease to ecology to nutrition and propaganda--are very much worth your while.


  1. Great article, my mother had to go to a seminar once that taught psychologists how to teach the mentally handicapped to use vibrators,(which is still illegal in Michigan). She has had problems finding resources on this topic, thanks for posting.

  2. It wasn’t so long ago that the mentally handicapped were routinely sterilized against their will in America. I like this approach better.

  3. Not loving the term “handicapped.” Current preferred language is “people with mental disabilities.” Although I assume the post and videos refer to people with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities, rather than people with disorders like depression or schizophrenia. In that case, “Sex Education for People with Mental Retardation and other Developmental Disabilities” would have been a much more appropriate title for this post.

  4. Does anyone know the name of the similar film, from the same era, dealing with teaching mentally handicapped young women about menstruation?

  5. “trainables” I won’t be able to think about training resistance in corporate environments the same way again, lol

  6. oh man. i got this and rock and roll parking lot on vcd on the same day in ’99. those were the days.

  7. I once met a women who worked with developmentally disabled adults, and part of the work involved teaching them about sex, and how to have safe sex. At first, they demonstrated condom use by unrolling a condom over a broom handle. A while later, they realized that every time they found a broom with a condom over the handle, some of the residents had gone off to have a good time.

  8. The bit with the woman walking in on the boy masturbating has been flashed around the web as a joke about jerking off and 50’s style sex ed talks. I hadn’t known it came from a lecture on teaching the handicapped.
    A very enlightened lesson over all-especially for the period in which it was produced. Especially like the part about avoiding teaching morality, and sticking to mechanics.

  9. I was troubled by the heterocentricity, but I thought to my self: “hey – it’s the 80/20 rule right, calm down you old homo”.

    But when they do that gay-predator routine in the Men’s public restroom my feeling changed to deep sadness.

    For all of the tolerance and non-judgment espoused by the video, there remained an ugly thread of homophobia.

  10. I work with children with developmental disabilities, and this video is surprisingly relevant and wise.

    @#11: really nothing more than that’s what most people with disabilities prefer to be called. The important thing in what #4 is talking about though, is using the noun of the person before the descriptive “disability.” So, for example, instead of saying “disabled person” or “autistic person” we say “person with a disability” or “person with autism.” It’s called people-first language, and is intended to put consideration of the person before consideration of the disability. I’m not a big fan, though I use it professionally. The whole reason we used the term “retarded” is so we wouldn’t have to call people “idiot” anymore. Of course, what has now happened to the word “retarded?” It’s the underlying assumption that people of lower intellectual capacity necessarily make dumb or unwise decisions (that was retarded) that needs to change, not our terminology (IMO).

    The new hotness for “mental retardation” is “intellectually disabled,” btw. See AAMR’s (American Association of Mental Retardation) recent name change to AAIDD (American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities).

  11. The problem with “intellectually disabled” is that it might refer to any number of mental illnesses, whereas “mentally retarded” has the advantage of specificity.

    Oh well… I’m just glad “differently-abled” never caught on. That one just sounds like a person with a hidden mutant superpower or something.

  12. #14 I agree with “differently-abled”. I’m (physically) disabled, so I get pissy at anyone saying things like that or DisAbled. Bleh, they’re trying too hard. I’d much rather they not emphasize the word, instead focusing on getting people to look beyond a disability and see us as people. (One thing that really needs to be corrected is the unconscious idea people have that the disabled are asexual. I’ve known quite a few people who have had trouble with relationships all because they have a visible ailment.)

    People tend to be insulted by the term “handicap” because it’s spread around that it means “cap-in-hand”, a term for begging. Instead (according to Snopes), it actually originates from “hand-in-cap”, which was a bartering game. This developed into the idea of making something equitable for all parties, at first in sports, then in the mainstream. However, it could still be insulting nowadays considering that it implies that a disabled person has to compensate to match the rest of society.

  13. Shh BrainSpore, don’t tell the temporarily able-bodied people about our hidden mutant superpowers!

  14. Language is such a powerful thing. It is an interesting bit of history to consider how sexuality is and has been portrayed to people who need support to understand it.

    I wonder why we always need to qualify people with an impairment by labeling them in whatever way is “correct” at the time.

    All people need support to understand something at sometime in their life, and all people need support to do some things at some time in their life. For people who have a specific support need this need for support may be of greater frequency… but then again it may not.

    I know of plenty of people who show a much better understanding of the world and what is important… people who have been labeled as “disabled”.

  15. Breasts are indeed a very good thing for women to have. I heartily endorse this sentiment.

  16. Brainspore you’ll find that “intellectually disabled” does not relate to mental illness at all, but only mental retardation. Maybe you’re thinking of learning disabilities (reading disorder, or more preferably dyslexia), which are separate again. Syndromes such as autism fall under “developmental disorders” and not intellectual disability, although most people with autism also have an intellectual disability. I suppose to see the difference you really have to work in the area and spend time pulling these terms apart for diagnostic purposes.

  17. I thought that “Disabilities” was a politically incorrect term now. I thought we were supposed to say “Mentally Challenged” now. And everybody is “Differently Abled”.

  18. I wonder why we always need to qualify people with an impairment by labeling them in whatever way is “correct” at the time.

    1. Differentiation of purpose? In this case, the video is aimed at a certain set of people, grouped through a common impairment. If the video wasn’t aimed at fulfilling the needs of this particular group, it’d just be “sex education”, rather than a “sex education for the mentally handicapped”.

    2. If you were more interested in the “‘correct’ [term] at the time” bit, it is because all terms used to describe the various mental health conditions that humans are prone to, eventually become mis-appropriated by society and used in a derogatory manner. There is a constant shift from medical-to-colloquial-to-derogatory throughout society. So, there will always be a “correct” term at any given time.

    See: moron, idiot, retard, imbecile, cretin, etc. All originally medical terms, now all (at various levels of offensiveness) derogatory words for stupidity.

  19. Yes I too didn’t like the hetero-ness of this clip; people with mental illness or disabilities are just as likely to be gay/trans etc. as other people… I too freaked at the toilet section marking that as ‘perverted’ and abusive. Hmm…I hope the teaching materials today include more sexualities than just one.

  20. Hey Carrie, do you still consider Subaru Foresters SUVs? I mean, isn’t that comment about as germaine to this article as anything else I could possibly say about it?

  21. I interpreted the toilet scene as a reference to how teaching people when and where it is socially acceptable to make advances, not a homophobic scene. I see where you’re coming from though, it’s hard to tell which person in the clip they’re implying is the “trainable” as it’s so delicately phrased.

  22. I’m not allowed to watch this video, because I’m a Hungarian.

    Why? What possible harm can I do to _any_ US citizen by watching this video?

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