Learning disability and the right to a sex life

Submitted by Matthew on 16 February, 2011 - 10:20

I’m a social worker currently working in a learning disability service. On reading about the recent case of Alan, a man with an IQ of 48 banned from having sex, I reflected on how people with learning disabilities in our society are either over-protected and infantilised or ignored and left to fend for themselves.

State restrictions on people with learning disabilities (defined as having an IQ under 70) and other vulnerable adults are sometimes necessary but problematic — forced sterilisation of women, etc.

With an IQ of 48 Alan would be defined as having a moderate Learning Disability (LD). This tells us some things but not that much, as abilities and disabilities are very person specific.

I would imagine he has communication difficulties and probably has some support with everyday life activities. He may have specific areas of cognitive strength and weakness. Consent to sex is a complicated concept for someone with Alan’s level of disability.

The Mental Capacity Act 2005 is in my opinion generally a good piece of legislation. It covers capacity issues for people with many issues including learning disabilities.

When looking at specific “big” decisions for people like Alan, people like me have a duty to assess their capacity to make them, with the right support, and ultimately to decide whether they can or can’t make them independently.

The Act specifically excludes marriage, civil partnership and sexual relations. If a decision is made that a person lacks capacity, then a best interests decision can be made. This involves family, friends and workers like me deciding what we think would be best, e.g., where should a person live. If they have no family then a specialist advocate is there to act on their behalf (they should be there for everyone, but that would be expensive).

For a case like this to have got to court, a lot of work must have gone in to resolving it differently.

Homophobia is unlikely to be entirely absent, as is certain prudishness when it comes to adults with learning disabilities having a sex life. However, I wonder if there was some exploitation going on. Certainly I doubt a worker would have had time to look twice if it didn’t end up with a “safeguarding” label.

Reports of the legal case tell us little about Kieron, the man that Alan had been having sex with. It is typical of the system that victims get blamed if they have suffered abuse.

Usually any victim of domestic violence, for example, is expected to be the one to move. Shockingly, elderly or vulnerable residents are still often expected to move from residential homes where they have suffered abuse. Why the restriction appears to have been placed on Alan as a blanket ban as opposed to certain situations or people isn’t clear. It isn’t the case that everyone with that level of IQ is unable to consent to sexual relationships.

“Mate” crime is on the increase. People “befriend” vulnerable people like Alan, but this friendship depends on free accommodation, food, money, drugs — sex less so, but it can be a factor. Of course, it is a sad indictment of the type of society we live in.

None of this negates the right of people with learning disabilities to live as full a life as possible and to fulfil their potential in all areas of their lives. That might include the right for people to make mistakes and have relationships they might regret.

But we should note that things are complicated and that safeguards are needed.

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