Everybody lies about sex

Tom Dooling

Winter 2010

Americans think about sex all the time but pretend they don’t. Most non-disabled people think that people with disabilities are not sexual and shouldn’t even think about sex.

People with intellectual disabilities who are in institutions have a legal right, “under appropriate supervision” to “suitable opportunity for interaction with the opposite sex” unless their teams restrict them from it.

That description, taken from the Montana Code, sounds like a good rule for a play date between four-year-olds, not like opportunities for adults to learn how to develop and maintain intimate relationships with other adults in accordance with their own sexual orientation, which includes having sex with their lover.

There is a system of enforced chastity for people with intellectual disabilities — not just developmental disabilities but patients at mental hospitals and other institutions for the care and treatment of people with disabilities, including people living with supports in their own apartments in cities.

What makes this paternalistic attitude — and the infantilization of people with disabilities — most unfair is that a sizeable percentage of people with disabilities have already had sexual experience before they become adults.

People with intellectual disabilities are anywhere from two to seven times more likely to have been sexually abused by their mid teens as people without disabilities. This means that some women with certain disabilities, especially in oral communication, are more likely to have been sexually abused as children than not.

Research shows us that the number of people with intellectual disabilities who have been or are being sexually abused is great enough to warrant examination of sexual trauma history for all disabled adults or children coming into the system, and, more important, to provide therapy to resolve the fears, self-image and sexual confusion that result from such abuse.

Staff who provide direct care to people with disabilities should know the client’s trauma history: one of the reasons that physical restraint is so terrifying to so many people with a childhood sexual abuse history is that the restraint replays the feelings of helplessness and terror of their abuse. And staff should know that having sex with clients is not only wrong and bad, it is a crime. (Yet it still happens, and often goes unpunished save by firing the offender so he or she can move on to another job with vulnerable people.)

The disability community, and the caregiver community, needs to start getting real about sex. It is a cruel and shameful thing that so many Americans with disabilities only know that sex is just one more way in which someone has hurt them.

Yet we all know people with very severe disabilities who are married, or live in committed relationships,  that bring them great joy and emotional support in their lives. It is time to squarely face the wrongs that have been done to people when they were children, the need to provide compassionate therapy to help them past traumatic memories, the need to give them accurate and compassionate information about their sexuality.

Finally, we must restore to all people their right to make the silly sexual mistakes of falling in love – and into bed – with the wrong people, getting over it and moving on. The non-disabled world takes that right for granted.

How many caregivers would like to have the “right” (under appropriate supervision) to “appropriate” (according to whom?) interaction with members of the opposite sex? Or our own: what fun is an appropriate interaction with a member of the opposite sex if you are gay?

Tom Dooling, an Episcopal priest, is a former staff attorney for Disability Rights Montana.

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