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Supporting people with learning disabilities to have positive sexual relationships

17 June 2019

Anna MarriottAnna Marriott

People with learning disabilities want to love and be loved.

This is simply stating the obvious, and we shouldn’t need research to tell us this. However, the National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi) has been working in partnership with My Life My Choice to explore exactly this topic. We have been researching this because self-advocates at My Life My Choice told us lack of support for sexual relationships for people with learning disabilities is an important issue that needs addressing. This research was funded by the Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning programme, which is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. This has been a co-produced piece of research, meaning that the original research idea and grant application was planned with people with learning disabilities and self-advocates who worked in partnership with NDTi researchers in terms of designing the study, collecting and analysing the data.

Good quality relationships with partners and friends are important for our health, wellbeing and happiness. They can help protect us physically and emotionally and can bring meaning to our lives. This applies to people with learning disabilities as much as anyone else.

People with learning disabilities have the right to relationships. There isn’t a debate about that. They have the right to respect for private and family life (article 8, Human Rights Act 1998) and participation in the life of the community, as guaranteed by the UN Disability Rights Convention 2006. More recent legislation such as the Care Act 2014 is explicit that local authorities have a duty to promote wellbeing when making decisions about someone or planning services. Personal relationships are one of the nine areas considered as important elements of wellbeing.

So, we don’t need new laws to give people with learning disabilities the right to have a sexual relationship. They already have this right in principle. But there seem to be challenges when it comes to putting rights into practice. When speaking with people for our research, we were repeatedly given examples of ways in which they are treated that ignore their rights. Charlene told us ‘I’ve got a boyfriend, but the staff won’t let me give him a cuddle or a kiss’. Charlene has capacity to take that decision for herself and no-one has the right to tell her otherwise. But they do.

Consent to sexual relationships is an 'exempted' decision under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. There are no ‘best interest decisions’ around sexual relationships. So, if someone does not have capacity to consent to a sexual relationship’ then no-one can take this decision on their behalf. This doesn’t seem a radical statement – who would argue that someone should be forced into a sexual relationship/marriage if they don’t have capacity to choose this? However, somehow it appears to be acceptable that someone with capacity, who is choosing to have a sexual relationship, is denied the right.

Why do we have an issue with people with learning disabilities having sexual needs and desires? In the media we are bombarded with messages about love, sex and happy families. When scrolling through the news, adverts pop up telling you how ‘you too can meet someone special’ and increasingly love is recognised in different ways. Yet still people with disabilities are almost invisible in these images of love and sexuality. Why is it so different for them? Do we as people who support them still see this as a lower priority? Why is it more important that someone gets training to teach them how to use a bus than having someone to hold hands with on their bus journey? If we think the need for love is part of being human, what does this say about how we see people with learning disabilities?

Supporting people with learning disabilities to have positive sexual relationships

We concluded in our research that people with learning disabilities need to understand their right to have relationships, but they also need the skills and confidence to be able to challenge situations where they rights are being denied. Commissioners have a role to play in ensuring services are respecting and protecting people’s rights. Providers should recognise their legal duties under the Human Rights Act 1998, which includes respecting and facilitating people’s decisions. In regard to rights around sexual relationships, services need to have clear, explicit organisational policies and to provide appropriate training for frontline social care staff.

We hope that the Research in Practice for Adults Webinar will help staff to understand why people with learning disabilities may need specific support around sexual relationships and give ideas on the best way to support people to enable them to fulfil their wishes to have relationships.


About the author

Anna Marriott is Research and Evaluation programme Lead at NDTi. Her primary area of research and recent work has been around health inequalities for people with learning disabilities. This has included a focus on the wider social determinants of health, such as social networks and housing, as well as work around access to healthcare for people.

Twitter: @NDTiResearch


Related Research in Practice for Adults resources

Supporting people with learning disabilities to have positive sexual relationships: Pre-recorded Webinar (open access until 30 June)

Working with people with learning disabilities

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