The heavy stuff:
Firstly, I am going to use the phrase learning disabilities as this the English convention right now. I understand that different countries use different terms and that some people may take offence at the phrase. Language differs all over the world and changes over time but that is a discussion for another day. The amazing crippledscholar talks about it over on her blog in several posts.
By learning disability, I am using the Mencap definition:
A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.
The other disclaimer here is that I am not someone with a learning disability and I have no immediate experience of sex and learning disabilities. However, I am using reputable sources to compile this and I wanted to include it in my series about sexuality and disability because I think it’s an important part of the discussion.
If you have more experience in this area and would like to write a post, please let me know, I would love that.
Now let’s get down to business…
Relationships and sex can be great. Everyone should have the option to be part of a relationship or to have sex, as long as they have the capacity to consent. The second part of that sentence is crucial and I’m going to do an entire post around it at some point so for now, assume I’m referring to people who can consent.
Many people with a learning disability say that relationships are important to them – yet only 3% of people with a learning disability live as a couple, compared to 70% of the general adult population. – Mencap
So what’s going on? Obviously there’s a mix of factors. As we’ve seen before, there are people out there who say they wouldn’t have sex with someone with a disability so that will be one part of the issue here. Other limiting factors include difficulty meeting people and social isolation, again this is common across the wide spectrum of disabilities. Historically, living in institutions limited disabled people’s ability to engage in relationships. The same goes for a lot of supported housing where there are strict routines and rules about people staying over and a lack of privacy.
However, when it comes to learning disabilities in particular, there is a tendency for the people around the disabled person to risk manage. This comes up in mental health services and in relation to other disabilities as well but seems more prevelant in the are of learning disabilities. This idea that a person should not be allowed to take risks because of their illness. The idea that people should life a risk free life simply because of their disability. Think about it, we all take risks every day. And some choices made by adults are riskier than others but we don’t stop them from making them.
We are less concerned by intimacy and love in learning disabled people’s lives than we are about (containing) sex #sexualities #cedr16
– A tweet from the Centre for Disability Research’s 2016 conference
I appreciate that caution may be appropriate depending on the situation but there is a difference between risk management and just flat out restriction. And these attitudes then mean that sex education isn’t needed because “these people” won’t be having sex which in turn limits the persons ability to make safe choices.
When it comes to sex and disability, risk is privileged over pleasure.
This need to protect people from themselves is tied so much into the idea that anyone with a disability is child like. I think this belief is probably more ingrained when it comes to learning disabilities. Seeing someone as childlike means you don’t even think about them as a sexual being let alone think about how you can help a person safely explore their sexuality.
A report from Barnados around child sexual exploitation and learning disabilities says:
Professionals spoke at length about how young people with learning disabilities
can be overprotected and not given opportunities to learn, develop and take
risks in the same way as their non-disabled peers. Examples of this included
how young people’s experiences of the world can be confined to a door-to-door
taxi or bus service to and from a special school. In relation to the increased
potential for vulnerability to sexual exploitation, one example that interviewees
gave was how young people with learning disabilities may feel that they need to
keep relationships secret:
‘They’ve often not been allowed to have experiences that other young people
often have, so they may have to keep secrets because they do enjoy risk-
taking behaviour or flirting, for example.’
I think another key point in the discussion around sex and learning disabilities is that in most cases parents are far more involved in their child’s life that they would be for a child of the same age without a disability. This can make it difficult to bring up sex at review meetings and other spaces where the conversation about relationships and sex could be had.
As I mentioned in a previous post, there is a prevelant idea that people with learning disabilities are oversexual. This has led to people being sterilised, “for their own good”. Somehow this idea of a highly sexualised person with learning disabilities is used to prevent the person from engaging in sex and relationships completely. It is somehow seen, by some people, that because of their learning disability, the person is inevitably going to be being taken advantage of and abused. And whilst abuse is a real issue, this erases the idea that a person with a learning disability can be in a healthy, happy, consensual relationship.
Anyone with inadequate or non existent sex education is vulnerable to abuse and I will be writing a post about disability and sexual abuse. If we don’t talk openly about sex, it perpetuates the idea that it’s taboo thus meaning that if something does happen that isn’t ok, people don’t know what to do, how to explain it or who to talk to. Good sex education should cover consent, communication, safe sex and the physical and emotional aspects of sex. This is the case for everyone even if you don’t think they’re going to have sex. Empower people with information!
And if we don’t talk about sex and don’t ensure people know about consent and boundaries and what’s appropriate etc, then it can make it very hard for someone to know or understand that they’ve been sexually assaulted. In the Barnados report mentioned above, one young girl with a learning disability explains that she didn’t know it wasn’t ok for an adult to have sex with a child so she didn’t know she could say no.
Myths around oversexual people with learning disabilities can lead to further issues. I have come across cases where someone with a learning disability has been blackmailed and controlled with the threat that everyone will be told they are a paedophile. The fact this is used and has been successfully used as a blackmail technique shows how ready some people are to believe the hypersexualised trope. On the other hand, if a person with a learning disability discloses being abused, they are often not believed because of this idea that they are non sexual.
The consequence of the view of people with learning disabilities as forever
children, assumed to be asexual, has been an overemphasis on protection and a denial and repression of sexuality or sexual behaviour. The view of the sexuality of people with learning disabilities as dangerous, informed by eugenics, involved control through institutionalisation, segregation and sterilisation. These stereotypes have provided what McCarthy calls contradictory but powerful “distorted frameworks” through which the sexuality of people with learning disabilities can be viewed.
Pregnancy and parenting
There seems to be a huge fear about people with learning disabilities getting pregnant which will inevitably feed into how people feel about the issue of sex. This is despite evidence that shows a persons IQ is not an indicator of how good a parent they will be. It is because of this fear that a number of women with learning disabilities find themselves on contraception, whether that is forced, coerced or heavily suggested. There has been research done which shows that in a lot of cases the young woman isn’t told why she is taking this pill or being given this injection etc. There are also a large number of cases where contraception is given to prevent periods and the link to pregnancy is not discussed. This takes away bodily autonomy and can reduce care givers perception of the need to discuss safe sex despite not reducing the risk of rape and STIs.
Some people with learning disabilities will identify as LGBTQ or be questioning their sexual orientation. This can be difficult for anyone and support and information around sex should be inclusive of everyone. It can be hard enough to be a sexual person when they world sees you as asexual, let alone not be heterosexual on top of that. There are a number of resources out there including Secret Loves, Hidden Lives.
If you are a person with a learning disability or you’re the parent of someone with a learning disability then there is support out there to help you navigate sexuality.
From what I understand a lot of young people with learning disabilities miss out completely on sex education or it is taught in a way which is not appropriate. Because of this, services have been set up to help fill that gap although given the current political situation, I think they are few and far between. But where they exist, they can be very powerful tools.
The following quote comes from someone working on a project specifically around sex and learning disabilities in London:
Through the Westminster project we talk about safeguarding, consent, what is appropriate in private and public spaces, and what the differences are between good and bad touch.
Much of it comes back to letting people with a learning disability know that having a relationship is ok and that it can be wonderful and make you happy. And we talk about how it is ok to be attracted to people of the same sex and that not all relationships are between a man and a woman and end in marriage and children.
While we must accept that for people with a learning disability it may always be that little bit harder to embark on a first relationship, there are ways we can make it easier.
– Miguel Tudela de la Fuente
There are specific resources out their to help people with learning disabilities and those around them to navigate the world of sex and sexuality. I’ve listed a couple and would love to know if you’ve come across any that have been helpful:
Note: I haven’t discussed contraception and people with learning disabilities here. I want to but it was getting long and I recently got attacked online for being a forced sterilisation apologist (which I’m not) and I’m feeling a bit raw still.