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Intellectual disability and Sexuality – Part 1: How stereotypes affect the person’s with intellectual disability relationships and sexual attitudes

Intellectual disability is a term used when there are limits to a person’s ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life. Levels of intellectual disability vary greatly in children. Children with intellectual disabilities might find it difficult to let others know their wants and needs, as well as in regards to taking care of themselves. For many children, the cause of their intellectual disability is not known. Some of the most common known causes of intellectual disability – like Down syndrome, foetal alcohol syndrome, fragile X syndrome, genetic conditions, birth defects, and infections – happen before birth. Others happen as soon as a baby is born or soon after their birth. Still, other causes of intellectual disability do not occur until the child is older; these might include serious head injury, stroke, or certain infections. A century ago, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) were often institutionalised and kept apart from society. Thousands were sterilised without their consent to keep them from reproducing. Today, the picture has changed. People with I/ DD can attend school, hold down jobs, and at times even marry and have a family. However, when it comes to sex, sexuality and relationships, challenges remain, mainly due to societal stereotypes. Here are three stereotypes that may interfere with proper counselling.

1. People with intellectual disabilities are asexual

Sexuality as a source of pleasure and an expression of love is not recognised for individuals with disabilities. This is based on the prevailing societal myth that people with disabilities are asexual beings. There is an assumption that with any level of sexual dysfunction, there would be a resultant decrease in sexual fulfilment and therefore a decrease in sexual needs. Yet studies have shown that people with disabilities still have normal desires for closeness and affection, as well as a persistence of sexual desire. This kind of prejudice may make individuals living with a disability internalise such notions of asexuality, thus affecting one’s confidence, desire and ability to find a partner. It’s also worth noticing that asexuality is still seen as a “biological problem” and not as a sexual orientation. Rather, if identified as normal sexuality, such stereotypes would not occur.

2. People with intellectual disabilities are not able to have sexual intercourse

Sex is often perceived as a privilege of some people rather than a universal right. Sexuality has been based on physical performance and is phallocentric. Individuals are constantly inundated with images of what society has determined as beautiful and desirable. Compounding the issue is the common misconception that disability renders a person childlike and in need of protection. Although there is an overriding social construct of heteronormative sex, a new view of sexuality is developing within our society. It is becoming more recognised that sexuality is not simply the physical aspect, but also emotional closeness and pleasure. Adults with ID can have sexual desire and interest in intimate relationships, with the only barrier being society and the people surrounding them. Sometimes they find a limit in the lack of privacy, dependency on others, and especially control of their sexual expression by others. Living with the immediate family, they run the risk of being overprotected and unexposed to sexual experiences and sex education. To summarise, it is not the intellectual disability which is the problem, but how people around have a limited understanding of the concept of intellectual disability, which could negatively affect the perception of the capacity of these people to learn and manage their intimacy.

3. People with intellectual disabilities do not understand sexuality and relationships

One of the most common stereotypes is that they are “unintelligent”. Speaking with IQ measures it does not even acknowledge the wide variety inside this category ranging from 20 to 70 points. Not taking into account that the intelligence construct is not limited to that. Perhaps it is because persons with intellectual disabilities are considered unable to comprehend sex education leading to it being denied to them, resulting in disastrous consequences, such as being victims of sexual abuse. They don’t get the sex ed classes other kids get, rather, they are moved to another room to do other activities. Nevertheless, the best way to stop sexual assault is to give people with intellectual disabilities the ability to identify abuse and to know how to develop the healthy relationships they want. They want to have relationships, love and romance. They see examples from their parents, siblings and friends around them. They see people in relationships when they watch TV or go to the movies. They want the same things as anyone else.

Bibliography

  1. Correa, A.B., Castro, Á. & Barrada, J.R. Attitudes Towards the Sexuality of Adults with Intellectual Disabilities: A Systematic Review. Sex Disability. 40, 261–297 (2022). https:// doi.org/10.1007/s11195-021-09719-7

  2. Esmail, Shaniff; Darry, Kim; Walter, Ashlea; Knupp, Heidi (2010). Attitudes and perceptions towards disability and sexuality. Disability & Rehabilitation, 32(14), 1148– 1155. doi:10.3109/09638280903419277

  3. Muswera, Tapiwa, & Kasiram, Madhu. (2019). Understanding the Sexuality of Persons with Intellectual Disability in Residential Facilities: Perceptions of Service Providers and People with Disabilities. Social Work, 55(2), 196-204. https://dx.doi.org/ 10.15270/52-2-715

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