Sexuality and Intellectual Disabilities Part I

by, Renee wood
For a while now I’ve been threatening to write this blog about sexuality and people with intellectual disabilities (ID). People who are familiar with my writing may note I am specifically using ID rather than the inclusive developmental disabilities (DD) that I usually use in reference to anyone acquiring a disability before the age of 22. This is because when it comes to sexual relations people with normal IQs who have disabilities, although they have issues finding sexual partners, experience less manipulation and flat out forbidden from guardians, providers and society at large, of a sexual relationship with another real live human being.

One of the references used in writing this blog was a book titled; “Already Doing It; Intellectual Disability and Sexual Agency” by Michael Gill. To start this, think of this scenario in which a person with ID forms a loving relationship with another person who also has ID who lives in their supported living home and then their sexual relationship is discovered by staff. The most horrific atrocity is, because of the sexual relationship, these individuals are then placed in separate living locations, separate work environments, and either not allowed to see or communicate with one another, or only under the strictest of supervision. Plus if people with ID bear children, those children are usually taken away without cause except for the fear of someone with ID raising a child.

I get really upset when I watch on TV whales, dolphins, elephants and various primate families broken up and sent to different zoos. If I think it is just unfathomable to watch whale mamas cry and morn when their calves are taken, I am outraged we would think of people with ID in the same vain – they will get over it. But now our government system has become so desensitized to human emotions that we are deporting parents with minor traffic violations and watching their children bawl while watching their parent being hauled away. We, as society, think nothing of breaking their family up for the sake of keeping policy!

Sex Implies Risk for Anyone

Sexual relationships, love, competence, risks, etc., are difficult even for a typical cognitively able person to discern – so why does the system of care, parents and society at large, attempt to make these things so black & white for those with ID? Gill claims all wanted sexual relationships and encounters, whether one is disabled or not, involve some level of risk. Risk is almost part and parcel of sex – making oneself vulnerable to another. So when it comes to discerning a person’s competence to choose to take the risk of sex, I have a very simple definition for being competent to giving consent for sex; is it pleasurable to both, sought after by those involved, and they are happy overall with the sexual encounter. The big question to people who are non-disabled is, is the person with ID being used? So when a onetime sexual encounter happens in the bathroom, to determine consent, all three of the above would have to be present. If the encounter was consensual, no abuse occurred. However, there might need to be a frank conversation about risks, protection, their own religious beliefs, etc.

Currently, it seems the system that cares for people with ID views sex as, only within a heterosexual marriage, that is monogamous; using the prone position for vaginal intercourse, at night in a darken bedroom for the purpose of the hope of creating a child. Well then I guess one could say that, if any of these are broken, that person is being used. However, I would counter such a rigid view of sex when forced on other people, constitutes abuse. Let’s be honest though, except for the most saintliest of people, to one degree or another, there is use in sexual relations, but those involved, on some level, are aware and except it because overall it’s pleasurable and they are happy.

Want to talk about being used and abused? A system of handing an adult male a Playboy book and a jar of Vaseline, and telling him to go masturbate in his room and not to forget to wash his hands after, is systemic sexual abuse! Furthermore, as Already Doing It points out, masturbation training by the system is about behavior modification rather than pleasure. They are not providing people with ID the opportunity to create a pleasurable relationship with another human being, but in many cases actively trying to prevent it. Masturbation does not replace relationships, it’s solitary, lonely and void of any real pleasure, but a momentary release that leaves one yearning for the kind human touch of another.

Sexual Abuse

There is a very clear and concise definition of sexual abuse – “It is usually undesired sexual behavior by one person upon another”. I go by that definition, except for people under the age of 16, or those who are so mentally impaired that they don’t even understand sex at all, so therefore cannot possibly consent.

Unwanted sexual contact runs rampant in DD society – it’s like 80% of women and 30% of men with DD suffer from unwanted, unsolicited sexual advances from someone (Sobsey, Doe 1991). That’s a very serious problem that is often overlooked, brushed aside and rarely prosecuted. In his book Gill claims that sexual abuse happens frequently in group settings of people with ID, from others with ID victimizing those who are more vulnerable than they are. Gill rightly claims that sexual abuse and sexual assault is about power and control, rather than the search for sex.

There are many types of sexual abuse and assault imposed on people with I/DD by many in society including family, professionals and the occasional stranger. I like to focus on one type of sexual abuse and assault that doesn’t get its due attention and that’s the abuses which occur in congregate settings for people with I/DD, where the perpetrators are those with I/DD themselves. Parents, if you delude yourself into thinking your child is safe in these places – well these studies say something different. Staff may be superb, but they can’t be everywhere at all times and you will never hear about it because staff isn’t going to call (unless a hospital visit is necessary), and say, “Your 21 year old daughter with an IQ of 10, was sexually abused by Johnny with an IQ of 68”. Your daughter doesn’t communicate except with smiles or tears, so she can’t tell you.

Gill points out that in places where people with ID congregate, the power dynamic seems to favor professionals, family members and staff. Compound this with the fact that people with ID have so little say about roommates, and very little power over daily life, then you end up with sexual assault as their way of creating a pecking order in the society professionals and families created for them. It’s their way (especially males with ID) of gaining power that has been usurped from them by those who have power. One might say that they are just mimicking what’s been done to them – take away power from the weakest among them. What professionals, families and staff fail to effectively realize is these are real men who need to be empowered to; care for a family, protect others and decide what is best. Since they have ID, they may need some assistance with this, but totally robbing them of their masculine role, or placating them to believe that they are “the man”, when all evidence points to the opposite, isn’t working! They have ID, they are not stupid!

Inappropriate Relationship Doesn’t Always Constitute Abuse

When we speak of sexual abuse, we need to make a distinction between what might be classified as “abusive” and what might be classified as “inappropriate”, and in some situations it’s both, but there is a distinct difference between them. Remember the definition of abuse is “usually undesired sexual behavior by one person upon another”, so if a person is aware of the inappropriateness of the relationship and engages without coercion, they are responsible too. For example; if one person is married and the other person is fully cognizant of the marriage and decides (for whatever stupid reason) to enter the relationship anyway, it’s highly inappropriate, but since it is mutual, it’s not abusive. In the big D world (onset of disability after age 22), before Medicaid Waivers it wasn’t unheard of that people would enter romantic relationships with their caregivers. I don’t advocate that, but I don’t judge it as abuse either, although if certain parameters are met, it could fall under abuse.

The reason I am pointing this out is because some non-disabled professionals label every sexual encounter a person with ID enters as abuse because they deem it’s too complicated for them. Pleasure and bonding is not hard to understand or complicated, it’s us with typical cognitive ability that make it such. If every pleasurable sexual encounter is label as abuse, and the person with ID treated as a victim of something bad happening, they’re going to be confused about sex.


If every pleasurable sexual encounter or relationship a person with ID has is treated as “bad”, or ripped out from under them, and then actual sexual abuse is hushed up, brushed aside and not prosecuted, what is that telling people with ID about their sexuality? Also when the system tells men with ID that the only appropriate sex for them is solitary in their bedroom with their hand and Vaseline, and tells women with ID that her life-long partner is to be with a sex toy that is bought for her, what is this telling people with ID about their desirability to another, or their ability to be lovable by another?