Disabled Sex

Thursday, March 19, 2009 18:22 | Filed in Disability, Equality, Media

I was going to save this one for the Goldfish’s BADD, but as that is usually in May, and it’s only March now, I didn’t really think that I’d remember about it.

A few days ago, I noticed an article on the BBC News which was about someone with Down’s syndrome:

Otto Baxter is 21 and has Down’s syndrome. His mother Lucy thinks he should have all the experiences that other young men of his age have — including sex. [...]

Otto tried dating agencies, including a “special” one in a bid to meet girls who also had Down’s. But Lucy said the girls Otto met there had been “fairly institutionalised” and he “didn’t have anything in common” with them. When he went on a date with one girl, her carers prevented them from moving the relationship past friendship.

BBC News: Mother wants sex for Down’s son

Lucy also went a little further in talking to This Morning:

Lucy says: “Society has a learning disability when it comes to Down’s syndrome. Why should these people be kept separate and pigeon-holed when they have the same emotions, desires and feelings as so-called normal people?”

She says she is even prepared to go so far as to pay for a prostitute for her adopted son. Lucy also hopes he may one day become a father — despite the controversy this may attract.

This Morning: Lover for my son

There’s a number of questions here for us as a society. Should we prevent people with learning disabilities from leading fulfilling — even sexually fulfilling lives? Some people might find it a little odd, but rather than considering your own personal perceptions, consider how it might feel to Otto.

He’s obviously capable of having friendships with people; of understanding relationships; and of very much being aware that this is something he is missing out on. Might it not therefore be considered cruel or even inhumane to deprive him of this?

Which brings us to the questions about who he should be going out with. Apparently his ideal is Fearne Cotton (no accounting for taste, is there?), but assuming that she’s unavailable, then who? Should he be restricted to only dating — and having physical relationships with — other people with Down’s?

The problem with this was illustrated for me by two people I did an acting techniques course with about ten years ago. There was a guy and a woman with Downs on the course. During the course, we all got to find out little bits about one another and I like to think became friends to some extent. The woman with Downs at some point, when someone else was talking about their partner, said something to the extent that she would love to have a partner, but people didn’t want to go out with her.

The gentleman with Downs expressed a similar concern but later, to me and another chap, confessed that people seemed to want him to go out with the woman, only he didn’t fancy her. As he said, he didn’t see why he should only be allowed do fancy people with Downs.

Which, you have to admit, is a fair point. But it also comes with a tricky issue. It’s easy enough to consider a relationship between two people, one of whom is physically disabled, and the other who isn’t. This happens all the time. It’s basically just the story of two people falling in love.

But for someone with a learning disability, it’s a little different. Any non-disabled partner is likely to be in a position where people might accuse them of exploiting them; there’s certainly a significant risk that the relationship won’t be an an equal footing. That’s not to say that I think it’s inherently wrong for people with learning disabilities to have relationships with people without, only that I think it brings a range of issues and problems.

Cambridgeshire Council have some guidance (PDF)

They make it clear that the ‘service users’ ought to expect the same rights as anyone else:

  • to have and enjoy a fulfilling personal relationship;
  • the right to express sexual need in an appropriate way if they wish to;
  • to privacy;
  • to be sexually active;
  • to have sexual education, including counselling on personal relationships, sex and sexuality, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases;
  • to contraceptive advice and support services;
  • to marry or cohabit;
  • to make an informed choice about whether or not to have children;
  • to be free from exploitation, abuse and degrading treatment;
  • to take risks and make mistakes in personal relationships


In other words, the same rights as everyone else. And that’s fair, right? After all, we are talking about fellow human beings, aren’t we? Of course, this is assuming that the learning disability is not sufficiently severe as to prohibit them understanding what this actually entails — someone has to be capable of giving informed consent.

And that is surely the crux of the matter. Anyone who is capable of understanding what a “relationship” entails, what a physical relationship entails is able to give informed consent, and therefore they are entitled to have a sexual relationship with whomsoever they want (within certain parameters: e.g. no authority figures abusing their position etc).

This also reminded me of a conversation with a Doctor friend of mine who said that she knew someone who as part of their job, had to help teach people with learning disabilities how to masturbate. This probably sounds weirder than it was — but as she said, certain people with learning disabilities can become very sexually frustrated and not know how to relieve this ‘tension’, which may cause them further problems.

This is presumably something which — if you’ll excuse the phrase — needs to be handled very carefully so as not to be inappropriate, but simply to be used to help people with learning disabilities, where it is appropriate.

So I know it’s not something we’d normally consider — or if we did, we’d tend to focus solely on the pregnancy and ‘can they cope’ aspects — but if we accept that people with learning disabilities are humans, with human rights, then surely we have to accept that those with milder learning disabilities have the right to choose to embark upon a sexually fulfilling relationship?

And, in the case of Otto and his mum, if he can’t find someone with which to do that, then why should he have any less “right” to visit a prostitute than anyone else?

[Note: I'm not saying that prostitution is right, nor that people have a right to visit prostitutes, merely that I don't see why someone with Downs is any different to anyone else in this matter].

Sometimes I’m am critical of our media, sometimes I am not. In this case, I think the media — or at least what of it I have seen and read — have handled this appropriately and not with the disregard and unpleasantness that I would have expected. So well done to our media on this one. I can’t necessarily say the same about everyone leaving comments on the news articles, though…

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

28 Comments to Disabled Sex

  1. Dulce Liebe says:

    March 19th, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    Very controversial issue there. Though all of us are supposed to have the same rights, i do believe one’s emotional and mental capacity should be considered. Just like how insanity lessens the penalty of crime, anyone with a mental disorder cannot have the same rights as a normal person. The long term effects should also be considered-like how would he be a father with his situation?

  2. JackP says:

    March 19th, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    Hmm… well since something like depression can be considered a mental disorder, are you suggesting that a depressed person doesn’t have the same rights as a ‘normal’ person?

    Note that I did specify that informed consent was an important part of this. If you’re not capable of giving informed consent, that’s one thing. If you are, that’s another thing entirely.

    I can understand parenthood being a more complex issue: but what it boils down to is are the parents capable of successfully bringing up that child, with any appropriate support (hey, I’ve had support with mine from grandparents, aunties and the like). If they are, then what’s the problem?

  3. Annoy Mouse says:

    March 20th, 2009 at 2:53 am

    I found this article through a link on http://helpotto.webs.com/ . I just wanted to say that your article was intelligently written, and you’ve made some excellent points. Thanks. :)

  4. Spammer says:

    March 20th, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    Having a mentally ill person have a family and sexual life is a sure disaster! Emotional and mental maturity are vital in both cases and this is just something they don’t posses i’m afraid.

  5. JackP says:

    March 20th, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    Re: previous comment – it was from someone who didn’t actually give their name, instead choosing to go under the name “online dating” so I will treat them as a spammer. However, the comment itself is not spam, and provided we’re not talking random personal abuse, I’m always happy to have people espouse a contrary view to me, so I’ve chosen to leave the comment in.

    Now, where was I?

    Oh yes, spammer you cretinous fool, if you don’t know the difference between ‘mentally ill’ and ‘learning disabled’ I suggest that you’re not fit to be running an online dating site. I think that if you class anyone who has a learning disability as ‘mentally ill’ and unfit to have relationships, you’re being perhaps a little unfair on — for example — that proportion of the population with dyslexia, whom you have classed as ‘mentally ill’. Nice.

    I agree to some extent with your general point (if we’re talking about learning disabilities rather than ‘mental illness’): you need to ensure that someone has sufficient understanding to know what’s going on — this I rather felt was covered by the ‘informed consent’ issue. We should not treat everyone with Downs in the same way: they are different people with different capabilities and decisions need to be made on a case by case basis. People are individuals and should be treated as such.

  6. LSW says:

    March 21st, 2009 at 12:20 am

    One should consider the results… what are the odds of the child having the same disability? It is not guaranteed just as midgets have normal sized children or the white couple who had a black child last year. Clearly my daughters mental deviants are related to me. We both are depressive, we both have Asperger Syndrome and we both appear to have a lesser known version of ADHD.

    So as far as Spammer’s misunderstanding of the term mental illness are concerned. I am average intelligence and my daughter is above average, a 10 year old who knows more about natural science than most 18 year old’s and older.

    I personally am in my 40′s, I have been an Infantryman and Team leader in the Army, worked for Army Public affairs, worked as a Bodyguard for Daimler-Benz, am specialized in web accessibility and am a programmer for the state of Alaska.

    I am technically Mentally Ill and although not official quite yet, am considered disabled by the Veteran’s Administration. I think I hardly qualify as lacking “Emotional and mental maturity”.

    I am concerned about having another child. My oldest two have no issues and my youngest got nailed. So another child may be fione or have the same issue. It is for him and maybe his mother to decide if he should have children. There are two downs syndrome actors who started as kids, I recall hearing that they met on set, married and now have a “Normal” child. They have gotten along fine as adults and should not be treated any differently.

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    I do not live with invisible ilelsns/disability. I un/exist…I have been dealing with an invisible ilelsns/disability since 2002. My masters thesis is about women invisible ilelsns/disability and I affectionately refer to it as “the most expensive suicide prevention strategy ever”! My life has been destroyed both by disability and the bludgeoning I have taken from government student loans programs who, despite all the requested medical information, refused to place my loans on interest-free disability status. I am unable to even rent an apartment now without a cosigner, which I do not have. And I cannot afford a lawyer, so I cannot fight them legally either. Two years ago a provincial MP office attempted to help me for a few months, but they were directed by the government to cease assistance to me. I learned also that revenue Canada was also directed by student loans to seize any income tax monies to which I should be entitled. I was supposed to receive over $1500 of medical refund monies from a medical trip to Seattle in 2005, and they stole every penny. I also do not receive my GST. (they seized a bank account and I was forced to close the other because they continued to steal from that one also, despite the measure taken to prevent this).My doctors asked me what exactly the government wanted from me, as we have provided them with all the information possible. At one point we figured it was my blood they wanted, but I was quite anemic and had none! lol I do have some now, so perhaps they still want it? My prescriptions are once again being held hostage by unfair pharmacare as the deductible has been raised to $10,000! So I can’t afford the cost of any prescriptions I need.It has become so embarrassing that I pray for either a windfall lottery win or death I don’t and never did use drugs, i barely drink and i was a very physically active person. i was a cowgirl and a jock. My son is now a young man, and this has devastated him also, because he watches me suffer in so many inhumane and mortifying ways. I waited over 6 years for surgery to save my life, was refused treatment out of province, and my primary health insurance through my employer refused to authorize payment for treatment back in 2005 so I was forced to wait 4 more years in BC for surgery that I finally received a year and a half ago. But the internal damage was so extensive, doctors advised me that I will never fully recover; and in fact, the symptoms have already begun to recur. Because my employer only has to pay the extended health premium, while I remain on long-term disability, there is no incentive for them to sponsor a return-to-work program for me. (They would then be responsible for a portion of my wages). I continue to meet the criteria qualifying me for this program, but I am not an invalid. But this doesn’t seem to make a difference. I am a victim of misfortunate, catch-22 politics. I need to earn my full wages to afford accommodations and living expenses (mostly toilet paper, since that is where most of my days are spent). .I am effectively homeless due to my situation as I have to pay accommodations in the 3 communities (10 hours apart) that I must travel between for my doctor, psychiatrist, and counselor appointments. (I have been unable to find a new doctor in any other community over the past 10 years of dealing with all the medical stuff, which leaves me no other choice). And I must starve myself in order to make these medical trips, which is not so unusual, as eating is a privilege that I am frequently unable to enjoy. All of this contributes to my overwhelming and increasing sadness and escalating depression; all part of my un/existence and the invisibility of my disability.jorge mai kelly

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