Many practitioners believe that people with
learning difficulties have the same right as anyone else to behave
sexually, provided they don’t adversely affect anyone else. They
believe we should help people with learning difficulties to live
their sexual lives carefully, safely and in fulfilling ways.
In spite of the fact that training materials
about sexuality and learning difficulties are available, many UK
practitioners are diffident about working on this topic. Though
they know what they might do, they are unsure whether they ought to
do it, for both moral and legal reasons. These uncertainties may be
part of the reason why many workers in learning difficulties still
seem to want to avoid such issues.
During a trip to Poland I had expected that,
due to the influence of Catholicism, I would meet with the denial
of the sexuality of people with learning difficulties. However,
most people I met shared the view that they are sexual beings. Not
only that, but the problems they raised overlapped substantially
with those that trouble colleagues in the UK.
To deny a person’s sexuality is to treat him
or her as less fully a person. However, to accept that a person is
sexual does not necessarily imply that it is right, or in her best
interests, for her to have an active sexual life, whether on her
own, or with another.
In the UK the view that it is OK to facilitate
the sexual development of people with learning difficulties is
common. By contrast, many colleagues in Poland believe that rather
than facilitating their sexual behaviour and working to ensure that
it is, for example, safe and properly consensual, people with
learning difficulties should not be sexually active unless married.
Such colleagues are anxious to find ways of distracting people with
learning difficulties from sexual activity.
What we do about the sexuality of people with
learning difficulties is a matter of practice. But it is also a
matter of morality, because it depends upon how we think it is
right to treat people. Does the fact that we recognise and want to
respect the sexuality of people with learning difficulties
necessarily mean we should accept that they will behave sexually?
Do we have to become involved not only in facilitating their
understanding of sexual and relationship matters, but also their
What about those people for whom sexual
feelings are a source of frustration rather than joy? Is it morally
acceptable to work not to facilitate and develop their sexuality,
but to find ways to help them temper their sexual feelings, to
sublimate them and to find purposes that are more obtainable and
productive? Would their lives necessarily be less full if we
adopted this approach?
Gavin Fairbairn is professor of professional
development in nursing and midwifery, University of Glamorgan.